There is no doubt that Mana Pools, in the northern reaches of Zimbabwe, is one of my favourite wilderness destinations in Africa. It’s towering forests of winter-thorn acacia, mahogany, ebony and fig trees line the mighty Zambezi River and filter an unmistakeable blue light onto the wildlife below. It is a haven for those guests seeking the best of Africa’s walking experiences, photographers keen to get a new angle and those wanting true adventure. A Mana Pools experience gifts a totally new perspective, not just on safari but on life. This is a window into oldest Africa.

Walking below the fruiting sausage trees and winter thorn acacias majestically dotted along the banks of the Zambezi River. If you’re keen on visiting Mana Pools, then be ready to step out of the comfort of the vehicle and onto the earth. The experience is significantly different.

During the dry season a 12 000 strong elephant population descends on the area to drink from the river’s plentiful supply of water and to feed from the Ana tree acacia that gets pods at the end of winter. When we visited now the area was experiencing a severe drought but even in typical years this UNESCO world heritage site has some of the highest concentrations of wildlife in Africa. Some of the prolific species include eland, baboons, impala, elephant, lions, wild dogs, crocodile and hippopotamus.

An elephant bull that has shaved the bottom of his lower right tusk off from years of use.
A sable wonders in front of the forest’s blue lit backdrop so characteristic of Mana Pools. There aren’t many places left in Africa that you find these antelope.
Southern Carmine Bee-eaters, the largest of Africa’s bee-eaters. These birds are entering nests they’ve excavated about 1-2m into the riverbank wall. They do this removing sand with their bill followed by a bicycling action of their feet.

Some of the largest elephant bulls in the area have made themselves famous from developing the ability to stand up on their back legs to reach for the highest and thus tastiest branches. Once they grabbed hold of a branch with trunks extended they release their bulk downward and return to the ground with a crash of vegetation following suit. On our very first morning in Mana we headed out on a walk and came across one such individual fondly named, Boswell. He was being followed by an entourage of female elephants and their youngsters who were hoping for the scraps he leaves in his wake. We spent an hour or so trailing this group on foot, something a majority of the animals have become accustomed to in the area. At one point we moved ahead of the herd and strategically positioned ourselves on a fallen tree that the herd was moving towards. We sat patiently and they eventually browsed towards us. Boswell, showed particular interest and wondered to within a few meters of us. Take a look at the video below.

If you’ve ever felt the enormity of an elephant next to you from a vehicle, then just having your small frame unprotected next to theirs takes it to the next level. It’s an incredibly dwarfing, exhilarating and ultimately humbling experience.

One of Mana’s iconic elephants. This is not something we recommend doing unless you’re with a highly trained and experienced guide. Although Mana Pools is accessible to the public, having a guide that knows what they’re doing opens up this park to you in a myriad of ways.
Boswell, one of the large elephant bulls that has mastered the ability to stand up on his back legs to reach for seed pods from the Ana trees. The elephants surrounding him follow him around hoping for his scraps. Loud crashes of branches or the gunshot of a fallen tree often acts as a drawcard to elephants for kilometers around who come to feast off the subsequent buffet.

Captured at camp with an ice cold gin and tonic in hand.

In fact at lunch time everyday we had these welcome visitors moving through camp. We would move from our delicious meal to the lounge area and quietly sit as they came within touching distance of us.

Boswell, the infamous elephant, came for a drink in the river in front of camp on our first day there. The size of his tusks and hollowing of his temples are good indicators of his older age.

Another incredible highlight was tracking and viewing wild dogs on foot. We found the pack of twelve on a hot afternoon resting in a gully alongside the river. As it started to cool they began to rise, greet each other excitedly, play and then move. As we sat on the warm Zambezi soil the pack walked passed within meters of us at eye level, completely unfazed by our presence. Some of you may find this alarming but wild dogs have never been recorded attacking a human in the wild. The gift of Mana as well is that after a long history or people roaming this area on foot, animals have become as accustomed to us in that way as they are to humans in a vehicle in other wildlife areas.

One of the highlights of my life… To be sitting on the warm earth as a pack of southern Africa’s rarest predator walk by in the pursuit of their evening meal. The female photographed in the foreground is the alpha female, easily recognisable by her suckled teats.
After an afternoon of rest the pack emerged to scan the surroundings. With large ears held erect one of their many abilities is to locate prey by sound.

This particular pack had pups that weren’t with them at the time and thankfully they went on to make an impala kill that filled them enough to be able to head back to the den site to feed the young. Dogs can run at about 50km/hour for about 5 km and are understandably thus very difficult to keep up with when they get on the move so we were particularly lucky to even find them on their kill, even if it was only to see them finishing up the remains.

The pack after finishing up an impala; each of their faces bloodied from the recent meal. We were incredibly lucky to find them on this kill as they move fast and feed even faster meaning we could have missed it altogether.

The adrenaline-inducing experiences didn’t end there. We also had remarkable moments with lions. Some of these included finding a pride finishing up the remains of a buffalo they had killed on an island in the river and resting in the blue evening light as elephants grazed with the foothills of the Zambian mountains serving as a backdrop. We also found another pride on a waterbuck kill and the third on a young elephant that had succumbed to the drought, a sad reality in the current conditions.

A male and female lion rest on the edge of the river after finishing up a buffalo carcass. With the intense drought Mana Pools is experiencing, it is easy pickings for lions with the prey weakened by the harsh conditions.
A lioness emerges from a stand of grass called Adrenaline grass. Fairly apt for a moment like this.
A lion and lioness resting full bellied. It is quite something to get eye level with a pair of lions.

Other special experiences included canoeing on the Zambezi followed by a sunset drinks stop on the river bank, explorations into the centre of a living a baobab and an afternoon watching the stunning Southern carmine bee-eaters flying in and out of the nesting holes in the banks of the Zambezi.

An evening paddle on the Zambezi River.
Smiles amongst hippos, elephants and sunsets.
Evening drinks on the Zambezi.
Dinner and drinks on the Zambezi. As the light fades, the sky becomes drenched in a swathe of stars and the air fills with the snorts of hippos and the roars of lions. It’s ancient Africa at its best.
baobab
Paul and I exploring the inside of a baobab. Interestingly this tree is still very much alive and well. The baobab is an incredible tree, revered by the locals for many reasons, one of which is for its powerful healing properties.
Erica on top of one of the many enormous termite mounds made by the macro termes species. If the leopards and cheetah use it as a vantage point, why not us?

The African bush camps staff are the most incredible people and one of my highlights was watching them drum around a blazing fire under the thick milky way as the closest shooting star I have ever seen streaked the sky behind them. From the quality of food, guiding, hosting to all the tiny touches along the way this team went above and beyond. If you fear camping, then this version of glamping will cure you for life!

A view towards the Zambian mountains and Zambezi River from the luxurious Serengeti style tents that turn camping into glamping. One of the highlights of staying in tents like this is how close you are to your surroundings. From the comfort of your bed you can hear lions bellowing in the distance or elephants feeding closer afield.
En suite bathroom facilities and hot bucket showers. Pampering even in the heart of the wilderness and much appreciated after a day’s adventures.

I could tell you that Mana Pools is pure wilderness but ultimately it is an ineffable place; it must be experienced. I already hear it calling me back home again.

Reach out if this is an experience you’re looking for.

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