Expert Reviews – Mana Pools NP

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Mana Pools – watery wilderness at the back of beyond
Overall rating

Ruckomechi Camp, on the edge of Mana Pools, has an outdoor bath on the banks of the Zambezi from where you can watch the sunset with a G&T while up to your neck in piping hot bubbles. My only problem was that a breeding herd of elephants chose just the wrong moment to wander into camp. As they have a habit of drinking from the bath, my bubbles and I had to make a hasty run for it…

Mana Pools is, quite simply, magnificent. Saved from joint threats of hydro-electric dams and uranium mining, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along the southern bank of the Zambezi. The National Park proper covers 2,196 sq km (848 sq miles) but is part of a far larger 10,500 sq km conservation area that runs from Lake Kariba right to the Mozambique border. It is also mirrored on the north bank by Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park. It is extremely remote. You can drive in but the road is pretty dire. Most either fly in to one of the luxury lodges or canoe in from further upstream. The area is perfect for canoeing and walking safaris, both only really feasible in the dry season (May-Sept is ideal) when the game is clustered near the river, the river is running more slowly, the grass is short, game-viewing is far better and the mosquito count is less vicious.

The park gets its name from four large shallow pools created by the meanderings of the river (Mana means ‘four’ in Shona). These have attracted huge numbers of crocodiles and hippos to bask on the banks and wallow in the shallows while giant black buffalo and elephant patrol the forested shores above. Between colonies of carmine bee eaters flit into the river banks flashing crimson as they fly, some of the 380 species of bird to be seen in this extraordinarily rich corner of creation.

River wild
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Mana Pools enjoys more than its fair share of hair-raising campfire stories and when I finally managed arrived at this remote park, after some years living in Zimbabwe with no means to get there, it didn’t disappoint. The scenery is breathtaking, with the sweeping meander loops of the Zambezi, the natural winterthorn parkland and the looming escarpment forming a perfect stage-set for wildlife. Elephant, buffalo and hippo wander through the lodges and camp sites en route to the river, and all major predators occur – including occasional cheetah and wild dog. Giraffe and wildebeest are notable by their absence, but Mana Pools is not a park for racing around on game drives and ticking off sightings: it is more about relaxing by the river and soaking up the wilderness. Visitors – uniquely – are permitted to wander unaccompanied around the river terraces. I have spent days beside the river, watching animals coming to drink, enjoying the ubiquitous elephants, hippos and crocs, and ticking off the prodigious birdlife. Nights can be noisy: I was once awoken by the din of a scavenging honey badger defending its catch from two hyenas, and – while sleeping on a sandbar during a canoe safari – by lions roaring from the bank just 50m away. Canoeing is a must, with excellent game viewing from the water’s edge and close encounters with hippos guaranteed. For the truly adventurous, the Salt Springs area below the escarpment offers reputedly some of the wildest walking trails in Africa. The park is largely closed during the rains.

Hungry hippos
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Canoeing down the Zambezi River through Mana Pools National Park would have to rate as one of my all-time favourite African wildlife experiences. Gliding along this magnificent stretch of one of the world’s wildest rivers in a small fiberglass canoe past writhing pods of grunting hippos makes you realise how insignificant you are in the world. Few other places in Africa feel as unspoilt as this section of the Zambezi River. Under the soaring purple-hazed Zambian escarpment the river languidly flows past small herds of elephants and buffalo as they graze on grassy floodplains and lush forests which line its banks. It really is a visual feast – you don’t know which way to look. It was here I spent a sleepless night as a plague of mice raided our food supplies and scurried around our tents as hippos bellowed and groaned in the distant, watched helplessly as an elephant lumbered through our campsite sideswiping a tent with its occupants still asleep inside and held my breath as territorial hippo lunged at my canoe from one direction while a pre-historic looking Nile crocodile slithered down off the bank on the other and disappeared into the murky waters beneath me. Was I terrified? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely!

Zimbabwe’s flagship wilderness delivers even in the rains
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Mana Pools lives up to its reputation as one of the richest wildlife hotspots on the planet. It had long been on my bucket list and it was only on my sixth visit to Zimbabwe that I finally made it here. I flew in on a tiny six-seater Safari Logistics Cessna and it was the perfect introduction to this diverse region. Highland mopane forests transitioned into the thorn-scrub and savannah before the Zambezi came into view against the sweeping, purple backdrop of the Zambian hills.

I arrived in Mana Pools just after the first rains with abundant water diluting wildlife-sightings. Many camps close during the rains but there’s a benefit in timing your visit for this period. Visitor numbers were at a low, enhancing the remote wilderness-feel and that irresistible sense of peaceful solitude evoked by those panoramic Zambezi landscapes. The famous waterhole at Kanga Camp had unfortunately been abandoned by the herds and predators. In the Dry season the animals make it one of Southern Africa’s premier ‘armchair safari’ locations. Nyamatusi was still surrounded by herds of zebras and pods of hippos. At night it was haunted by the roar of lions, and we successfully tracked the local pride. It makes sense that Nyamatusi was named from a local hunting phrase meaning ‘place of meat’. The famous painted dogs, icons of Mana Pools, evaded us, although their tracks and a fresh kill showed that they were still in the vicinity. One of the quirks of Mana Pools is the elephants, of which a huge male called Boswell is the major celebrity. These magnificent animals stand on their rear legs to feed on woody twigs and leaves that would normally be exclusively reserved for giraffes (absent in Mana Pools, along with rhinos and wildebeests).

The Holy Grail of Zimbabwean Wildlife Areas
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World-heritage listed Mana Pools occupies the southern section of the Lower Zambezi–Mana Pools Transfrontier Conservation Area. This is an iconic park with incredible concentrations of diverse wildlife. All the cats and wild dogs occur here in abundance. The sight of a cheetah tearing across the floodplain or a pride of lions splashing through a crocodile-infested channel to hunt buffalo and waterbuck on the park’s many islands is a sight that makes my heart pound every time. Africa’s fourth largest river, along with its massive surrounding floodplains and sprawling albida forests full of elephants during the dry season, dominates this game-rich area. The open nature of the terrain alongside the river and the high densities of wildlife during the dry season (July to October) make Mana an ideal area for experiencing a guided walking safari. If walking isn’t your cup of tea, then game drives, boat cruises and canoe safaris might whet your appetite instead.

Magical Mana
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Mana Pools is a close contender for my favorite park in Africa. I could sit by the Zambezi River all day just watching the wildlife come to me: Boswell, the bull elephant whose party trick is to stand on his hind legs to eat from the trees, is one of the local stars, as is Mitch, a very mellow hippo who lay down near our campfire over breakfast.

The scenery is gorgeous, with tree-studded floodplains and the broad Zambezi lying in the shadows of the escarpment of the same name. The four pools after which the park is named (Mana means four in Shona) also attract a wealth of wildlife and birdlife. And it offers a rare freedom in the bush, with a chance to canoe, drive and walk even without a guide. I wouldn’t recommend this, however – unless you really know what you’re doing and are confident in interpreting animal behavior, exploring with a guide is always far more interesting and relaxing.

Mana is also one of the best places to see painted wolves, also known as wild dogs or painted dogs. Three of the local packs featured in BBC’s Dynasties series, raising the profile of these endangered and elusive predators. If you’re as obsessed as I am about them, check out African Bush Camps’ three camps in the park: Zambezi Expeditions, Nyamatusi and Kanga – in the Dry season, they offer the chance to track the wolves on foot with expert guide and photographer Nicholas Dyer.

Wildlife viewing by canoe
Overall rating

With the lazy, blue Zambezi along its border and some wonderful camps and lodges from bush to luxury this park is many people’s favourite in the country. Canoeing is a great way to see wildlife and especially the birds, with close up encounters with hippos and crocs – 4 days of my honeymoon were spent this way – magical experience and we’re still together! And Mana Pools definitely has the most laid back elephants – some of them are straight out of Jungle Book. This park also has the distinction of allowing you to walk in the bush without a guide – the vegetation is relatively sparse and they credit us with a bit of intelligence! It’s a different story further ‘inland’ at the famed Chitake Springs which is home to a resident lion pride. They’re here because of the abundance of prey species who come to drink at the year-round springs. Only come here with a local expert, and only if you are completely happy with camping within pouncing distance of Africa’s apex predator. Human fatalities have occurred recently! Unfortunately this park is justifiably very popular so it can get busy during the prime months August – October. Visitor numbers are restricted though so it’s nothing like Hwange or Chobe for instance. But book early to secure your entry.

Perfect for vehicle-free wildlife-watching
Overall rating

Mana Pools is the park which sends Zimbabwe’s faithful fans really misty-eyed. What makes it remarkable are its waterways. Separated from Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park by the Zambezi, it’s a superb place for a canoe adventure. And when I say adventure, I mean adventure – the type that could, for all you know, include all-too-close encounters with hippos, crocodiles or herds of wading buffalo.

On my own gentle paddle, there were no such mishaps. My guide had a knack for instilling confidence and my early worries that my canoe was a little too light and unstable soon faded as we got into the rhythm of things. We saw hippos aplenty as we cruised along; they would stare and grumble at us before disappearing beneath the glossy water.

To make a great wilderness experience even better, you can explore Mana Pools on foot on a guided bush walk, admiring the park’s superb, mature mahogany, leadwood and baobab trees and spotting elephants and the tracks of wild dogs.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.7/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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