Mana Pools National Park

Mana Pools National Park

After leaving Lake Kariba, the Zambezi River continues east through the huge rift valley, widening and slowing down as it meanders through the Lower Zambezi Valley. It’s flanked by Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park on its north bank, and Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park to the south.

Over millennia, the wide and slow Zambezi has changed its course, with the river’s old meanders leaving small oxbow lakes, surrounded by lush vegetation and tall stands of ebony and mahogany trees. Within the national park, these oxbow lakes have created four large pools (‘mana’ being the Shona word for ‘four’, giving the park its name) and these, along with the permanent Zambezi River, provide an abundance of water and greenery which in turn attract a wealth of big game and result in some stunning scenery.

Safaris to Mana Pools

Due to the rugged terrain of the Zambezi escarpment, the poor quality of the roads in the area, and the isolation of the park, all the trips arranged by Expert Africa are fly-in, taking a light aircraft from your international arrival point (such as Harare or Victoria Falls) or another national park (such as Matusadona or Hwange) into one of the park’s dirt airstrips. There you will be met by someone from your safari camp, and transferred to the camp by 4WD.

This isolation, combined with the sticky black-cotton soil that makes up most of the substrate in the area, makes access almost impossible in the rainy season. Visiting Mana Pools on safari is thus limited to the dry season, between April and November.

Activities on a Mana Pools Safari

With a large and varied habitat on land, and the Zambezi River forming the northern border of the park, Mana Pools offers a flexible choice of land- and water-based activities.

Game drives in open-topped safari vehicles are a fixture of all camps, as are canoeing trips on the river. These can be half-day, full-day or even multiple-day trips, with participants on the latter camping overnight on the riverbank. Catch-and-release fishing is also possible from most camps. However, motorboats are not permitted within the national park, so motorised activities on the water are an option only in Ruckomechi’s private concession to the west.

Walking safaris are one of the stand-out activities in Mana Pools. Unusually, these have been encouraged by the authorities since the park opened in 1963. In addition, with a low human population in the surrounding area, the human–wildlife conflict has historically been minimal, so the game is relatively relaxed when encountered on foot – and with some guides you can reliably approach elephant, lion and wild dog to within an incredibly close distance.

Flora and Fauna of Mana Pools

Mana Pools protects over 2,000km2 of Zambezi riverfront vegetation, comprised mainly of forests of mahogany, wild fig, ebony, mopane and baobab, which stretches back to the rugged escarpment at the southern end of the park. Although such forests can be thick in some areas, the undergrowth is usually sparse or absent, allowing unobstructed views of wildlife, and a safe environment for walking safaris.

During the rainy season, much of the wildlife retreats from the wet ground on the valley floor and heads for the escarpment. Then from around April, as the pools in the bush dry up, they start to return to the riverine areas. As the year progresses, increasingly large herds of elephant and buffalo are seen, as well as zebra, kudu, eland, impala, and many other antelope species. Mana Pools is particularly well-known for its large bull elephants, many of which return to the same areas in the park year on year. As a result, several guides have known individual elephants for many years, and are comfortable getting exceedingly close to them on foot – an unforgettable experience, particularly if you are lucky enough to see them standing on their hind legs, stretching for albida seedpods towards the end of the dry season.

With such healthy populations of plains game, the predators are also well represented here. There are several sizeable prides of lion, which are seen on a regular basis both from vehicles and on walks. Mana Pools is also a stronghold for wild dogs, and is notable not only for regular sightings of these endangered predators, but also for individual guides who can get you incredibly close on foot. Leopard, cheetah and spotted hyena are also present, but these tend to be shyer, and are more rarely seen by visitors.

There are two notable species that are not present in the park: giraffe and rhino. While giraffe have never been present in the area, the eastern black rhino used to have a strong population in Mana Pools. By the mid 90s, however, poachers had reduced the population to just ten individuals, which were then transferred to the intensive protection zone (IPZ) within Matusadona National Park.

With a range of habitats, from woodland to scrub, and arid to riverine, Mana Pools is a superb area for birding, with 380 species having been recorded in the park. The best time of year for birding is in April, at the end of the wet season, when many summer migrants will still be in the park, lured by plentiful food.

Along the river you can easily spot several species of kingfisher, as well as darters, cormorants, herons and storks, with African fish eagles frequently perched in the trees above the water. Between August and November, colourful colonies of carmine bee-eaters nest in the sandy riverbanks, and rare treats include Pels’ fishing owl and African skimmers.

Inland, some of the more notable species are the Nyasa lovebird, Livingstone’s flycatcher, white-collared pratincole, banded snake eagle and yellow-spotted nicator.
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