Meaning “four” in the local Shona language, Mana refers to the park’s four large water bodies, vestiges of ancient ox-bow lakes carved out by the mighty Zambezi. As the rainy season draws to an end and the lakes begin to dry up, large herds of game enter the region in search of water and to graze the abundant grasses and trees that have flourished, making it one of Africa’s most prolific game-viewing regions.
The park is famous for its huge elephant herds, reaching almost 12,000 at times, along with its lion sightings and one of the highest densities of painted wolves left in Africa – there are currently six packs with approximately 100 adult dogs. But the appeal of the park is not just its wildlife – it’s how you get to experience the bush in immersive ways: staying in unfenced campsites in the wilderness and going on walking and canoeing safaris to see animals without the noise of a car. Mana Pools is also one of the only parks in Africa where you can walk without a guide (although this isn’t recommended for safety reasons unless you have plenty of bush experience).
I chatted to some Mana regulars to hear their stories and get their thoughts on this special corner of Southern Africa.
Nicholas Dyer, wildlife photographer and guide
“Without a doubt, Mana has become one of my favourite wildlife parks in Africa. I first visited in 2013 and have spent over 400 days camping here since. In 2016, I camped for six months straight while photographing for my book Painted Wolves: A Wild Dog’s Life, which I co-authored with Peter Blinston.
“It’s so beautiful and varied. From wide open plains with views across the Zambezi and the Zambian escarpment to spirit-lifting woods of albidas and trichilia. These places enrich your soul as if you were reborn in Eden. Further south is the thick Jesse bush, where you can walk past a big bull elephant five metres away and not know he’s there, and the tall forests of cathedral mopane with the sacred feel of Notre Dame. Then there are the pools; a haven for fishing water birds and visiting wildlife that come to quench their intense thirst from the unforgiving heat. Lurking beneath are murderous crocs, the smooth surface disguising their alarming abundance.
“It took me several years to learn how to walk alone in the park. But once I learnt how to do it with reasonable safety, it provided me with a freedom that no other park offers – both for photography and the sheer joy of being in the African bush.
“Each of the big bull elephants have their own characters. Majestic Boswell stands on his hind legs to reach the higher albida branches while Fred Astair does the same thing but proceeds each act with a sort of jaunty jig. There’s beautifully placid Spike, recognised by his long straight tusk, who’ll come and graze a meter from you while you have your lunch; or grumpy JD (short for juvenile delinquent) who will give you a mock charge or knock over your tables and chairs just to remind you who’s boss. He once ripped my Land Cruiser’s door off… but that’s another story and I forgave him almost immediately.
“I know the packs of painted wolves intimately, having photographed them on foot for the last seven years. They also have got to know me, accepting me sitting quietly by them. It’s an unbelievable privilege to have gained their trust – something I’ll never abuse by getting too close or disturbing them and always treating them with the utmost respect. They’re certainly not pets, but they feel like an extended part of my family.”
Stretch Ferreira, private guide in Mana for over 35 years at Stretch Ferreira Safaris
“Because it’s a walking park, the animals are used to people on foot. I just love it. It’s changed over the years, with the UNESCO World Heritage Site being carved up by more roads and with more operators in the area, but I suppose change is inevitable. To me it’s still very special.
“I love to walk with the ellies. They’ve known me for a long time and I love tracking the lions and going on afternoon canoe trips. I’m not saying it’s more beautiful than other parks but the animals are more relaxed. I know it sounds a bit strange but you build up relationships with the lions and elephants and dogs.
“You know, you’re not just bouncing along in a Land Cruiser. You get up close and personal, and it’s a real challenge. There’s this buildup of excitement tracking lions or looking for those elephant bulls and that’s a big part of Mana’s magic.”
Amy Attenborough, private guide at Wild Again
“It’s not just one thing, but rather an incredible mix that makes Mana what it is. There’s such a romance to the place with its towering forests of winter-thorn acacia, mahogany, ebony and fig trees that line the mighty Zambezi River and filter an unmistakable blue light onto the wildlife below. Something about the scale of the place makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. Wild is a word that’s thrown around a lot these days but for me, Mana is bursting at the seams with it in its truest essence.
“Many of my highlights at Mana have been with painted wolves. On one particularly hot afternoon, we found a pack of twelve resting in a gully alongside the Zambezi. As it started to cool they began to rise, greet each other excitedly, play and then move. I’ll never forget the feeling of our small group sitting together quietly on the warm ground as the pack walked within meters of us at eye level, completely unfazed by our presence. Shortly after they passed us they spotted a herd of impala on the ridge ahead and took off in pursuit. Their ability to run at 50km/hr makes them difficult to keep up with but we hurried after them and the lay of the land meant we could keep an eye on them for a while.
“By the time we caught up with them they had made a kill and we watched as they finished off the remains. Sprinting after painted wolves seems to be a recurring theme for me as a similar thing happened on a previous trip, except that time the dogs were chasing a leopard they had flushed from a thicket. There’s something so exhilarating about seeing these kinds of interactions from the ground without the speed, protection and so on that a vehicle gives you. Of course, these animals don’t see you as part of the pack, but you’re left with a much more distinct feeling of what it would be like to be a painted wolf. It gives you the direct experience of being a part of the ecosystem and not just a mere observer.
“The Mana elephants also always seem to be providing incredible encounters. We had to make space at our lunch table on one occasion when an elephant cow wandered through camp looking for something to feed on. She reached her trunk onto the table and sniffed inside a wooden bowl that had some dried pods in it for decoration. She flipped the bowl off the table, sending the contents crashing to the ground. When she realised there was nothing to eat she walked around the edge of the lounge space to where a guest was sitting. The elephant lifted her trunk and smelt the back of the guest’s neck and head, who sat absolutely frozen, before meandering down to the river.
“On a trip I took with another group of guides to Mana, we had a friend with us called Trevor, who could sleep like the dead. Trev was sleeping through the heat of the day on a stretcher under a Mahogany tree in our campsite. During that time, a small herd of four elephants walked into camp and didn’t give us enough time to wake Trev before they were at his feet. We considered warning him but were worried he’d get a terrible fright as he woke to five tons of elephant standing over him. We decided it was best to risk it and leave him be. Thankfully, Trev remained true to his incredible capacity to sleep through anything and was none the wiser. We had to show him a video afterwards before he believed that he’d remained oblivious to an elephant sniffing his face while he slept.’
Karen Poole, a safari industry professional for the last 30 years
“It’s very difficult to put into words the beauty of Mana. It’s a combination of the landscape, the sounds, the relaxation of the animals, the birdlife and of course the Zambezi River.
“One of my best experiences in Mana was a four-day trip on canoe and foot with John Stevens, one of the top professional guides in Africa. His passion for all living creatures showed me the beauty of them all both big and small. Mana is the perfect place to see and feel how nature really works. How each living creature services each other in one way or another. To watch, in motion, survival of the fittest.”
Nicolle Ambrose, industry professional at Bushlife Safaris
“Nick and Desiree Murray, who I work for, have been guiding and operating Bushlife Safaris in Mana Pools for nearly a quarter of a century, and what they’ve enjoyed most is following the painted wolf packs over the years and watching how the dynamics of the family groups change. Nick first saw the new and unique habit of the Mana Pools painted wolves hunting baboons in 2008. The baboon hunting started as an opportunistic behaviour. The den site was in a riverine area with high densities of baboons. The adult dogs would hunt baboons on their way back to the den after the morning hunt and bring the carcass to the den for the pups to chew on.
“Of course, one of the main highlights was filming the BBC Dynasties Painted Wolf episode over a number of years, and guiding Sir David Attenborough himself for 10 days whilst he narrated the episode. When Nick introduced Sir David to Tusker, he said, ‘What a privilege’ which pretty much sums how we all feel about Mana Pools!”
Kiernan Walsh, regular visitor over past 30 years
“The sheer volume of animals, both in numbers and different species, make Mana special. There’s also a clear browse line as far as the eye can see, which makes any picture of Mana instantly recognisable. What I also like about it is that it attracts proper bush people, not weekend Kruger Park types, so most understand animal behaviour, are respectful, and knowledgeable.
“The private camps with no fences are a real highlight as you can have really close interactions with animals in the camp. We’ve had some incredible sightings over the years, like walking on foot and seeing a painted wolf chase which ended with an impala being killed right in front of us and returning from sundowners to see a pangolin scampering across the road and into a tree stump burrow. On my first night ever, staying in Nyamepi main camp at the age of nine, we were walking to the toilet with a lantern and a leopard sauntered between my brother and I. From that moment, I knew it was a special place.
“Whenever we visited the park, as we entered the park gates, my father would get out and kiss the ground, and make us do it, too, saying we were now on sacred ground. One of the stand out stories was a hyena biting my foot when I was 15, which was sticking out the bottom of my sleeping bag. Thankfully, no real harm done, and a story to share for many years to come.”
Kyle Branch, guide and owner of Tusk and Mane safaris
“What makes Mana special is the walking safaris – not only on the floodplain but back into the park as well and all the way to Chitake Springs, an area that’s completely overlooked. It’s very very quiet compared to Mana Main Camp and you get that rush of deep wilderness there.
“I love that you can sit on the floodplain with elephants around you, the Zambezi quietly flowing in front of you and the Zambian escarpment towering above you from across the river.”
Mark Murray Winckler, guide
“The one story that stands out for me is from when we were staying at Nyamepi. That evening we had two male lions walk into our camp and disappear into the wilderness area. We decided to try to find them the next day and ended up tracking them for 6.5km along the river bed.
“We started to hear a kind of moaning or bellowing as we went along and I realised it was probably a buffalo in distress. We approached carefully but they were in thick grass and we couldn’t really make out what was happening. To be on the safe side, we decided to leave and started to walk back and came upon this clearing full of sausage trees. The trees were dropping flowers at the time and at the far side of the clearing we saw a huge herd of buffalo coming towards us.
“We thought they might eat the flowers so we decided to climb a tree and see what would happen. We found a beautiful one and climbed up about 1.5 metres. Soon, we were completely surrounded by the buffalo. We spent about 40 minutes in the tree, watching the buffalo feed. They could sense us but weren’t quite sure where we were. We had an amazing time like that sitting quietly above the buffalos as they fed on the flowers.”
Rudi Venter, private guide
“One morning, we found the Nyakasanga pack of painted wolves that made a successful hunt on two warthogs. Whilst viewing the dogs on foot sitting on the ground, two hyenas rushed in to steal the leftovers creating utter chaos. Painted wolves scattered in all directions literally jumping over us as if we were hurdles. The pack quickly regrouped and challenged the two hyenas with deafening vocals of squealing, barking and growling sounds, chasing the scavengers off. This all while sitting a mere 10m away.”
It’s essential that you book ahead for a stay in Mana Pools, whether you’re going to be staying at a luxury camp or at one of the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority’s campsites or lodges.