Situated in the Zambezi valley, Mana Pools has a reputation for being one of Africa's wildest National Parks. It also offers an excellent opportunity to get surprisingly close to wildlife, discovers John Warburton-Lee.
It is October in the Zambezi Valley, nearing the end of the dry season and mind-numbingly hot. The earth is parched and the vegetation tinder dry, yet Mana Pools National Park is extraordinarily beautiful and rich in game. Large herds of elephant, buffalo, waterbuck, eland and impala converge on the Zambezi flood plain and the area around Mana's celebrated pools. The wildlife is drawn to the river in search of water and food. It is an annual migration from the dry, bare hinterland.
Following the onset of rains in November, when the pans inland have water and food is plentiful once again, the animals will spread out back into the mopane bush. Now, as the air crackles, the sense of anticipation of rain is tangible.
On the drive from the bush airstrip to our camp overlooking the river, I am struck, as always, by the diversity and size of Mana's mature trees. There are tamarinds and leadwoods, baobabs and Natal mahogany. Huge Zambezi figs, giants of the arboreal world, provide welcome shade with their massive dark green canopy; the grape-like flowers of rain trees give a flush of mauve to a natural canvas that is predominantly yellow and brown while on the alluvial river terraces, thorn trees (Acacia albida) are spread like oaks in an English park.
Camp is a cluster of walk-in canvas tents set under the shade of a grove of acacias, looking along the river terrace towards the Zambezi. There is nothing to beat the romance of a traditional tented camp. Blending into the surrounding environment, you feel part of the natural world.
A lone bull elephant wanders slowly in front of us as we sit eating lunch. Reaching up with its trunk, the elephant plucks pods from the acacias' high branches. Unsatisfied by those he can reach, the elephant leans his full weight against one of the trees and rocks back and forth, causing pods to rain down. As the dry season progresses and food becomes scarce, acacias provide an important source of nourishment. They have a reverse foliage cycle, which means that their leaves develop in the dry season and fall at the onset of rains. Individual trees can bear over 350kg of protein-rich pods.
Mana Pools NP encompasses 541,000 acres of unspoilt wilderness. The Zambezi River, its extensive flood plains and raised alluvial terraces provide the focal point of the park. Further inland, mopane woodland and thick "jesse bush" (low combretum scrub) cover the valley floor, extending inland for 30 miles to the foot of the Zambezi Escarpment.
No-one knows this park better than my guide, John Stevens. Most of his 16 years' service in the (then) Rhodesian National Parks Department were at Mana, including a posting as Warden of the Park. After two years as a professional hunter, he has spent the last 15 years working as a safari guide in the Zambezi Valley. To John, Mana is home. He knows its moods, its hidden trails and the rich diversity of fauna and flora, with an intimacy borne of years of study.
Mana Pools is the only park in Zimbabwe, and one of the few in Africa, where you can walk amongst the wildlife. On foot, everything feels more immediate. The air becomes heady with scent as you brush against wild basil. Without the distracting chug of an engine, you tune into the trills, chuckles, shrieks, warbles and echoing chirrups that make up the constant concert of birdsong. John guides us towards Long Pool and Chine Pool, the only two of Mana's pools still with water. As we approach, impala bark in alarm, then skitter away, their bronze two-tone hides shining in the rich evening light.
The pools themselves are depressions left by abandoned river channels, and they are captivating. Some pools are quite large, others much smaller. Long Pool has permanent water; Chine normally does, except in particularly dry years. Most other pools will be parched by the end of the dry season (which runs from May to October) and will fill up again in the rains.
We sit quietly in the shade of a Natal mahogany and watch as African jacanas trot lightly over a carpet of water hyacinth whose subtle blue flowers contrast attractively with rich cream water lilies. Squacco herons feed in the shallows whilst the plaintive cry of a Blacksmith's plover rings out from the dusty shore. A herd of female waterbuck browse along the shore, the dappled light playing on their grey, rough-coated flanks. A solitary elephant appears from the bush opposite and wades across the pool, feeding on hyacinth as it goes. It is a perfectly tranquil scene.
Back at camp, I revel in a welcome hot shower, delivered from a bucket with a watering can rose, which is suspended from the branch of a tree. We eat dinner under the stars and then sit around the campfire chatting. Later, shortly after I have blown out my candle and am lying in bed listening to the cacophony of crickets and frogs, I hear soft footsteps approaching. Peering through the gauze window of my tent, I make out the looming figure of an elephant just feet away, delicately searching for acacia pods in the moonlight.
A quiet voice calls good morning through the wall of my tent and I hear unseen hands pouring hot water into the canvas washstand outside the door. By 5.45am, as we stand round the campfire, our fingers warming around a mug of coffee, the darkness is fading to light and the sky becomes shot with deepening purple. On the far side of the river, we can make out the outline of the Zambian escarpment.
In the fresh, early morning cool we drive deeper into the park. Lying under a bare mopane bush, we spot a pack of seventeen wild dogs - a lucky sighting. There are several wild dog packs in Mana, but you are not often likely to see them. The adults remain watchful as the puppies romp and chase each other.
We leave our vehicle at the edge of the Wilderness Area, a large rarely-visited region in the east of the park, and continue on foot. With no tracks to provide easy access, the animals here are less habituated to people. We walk cautiously, skirting downwind of elephant cows with their calves, so as not to alarm them. Wherever possible, John sticks to open areas, avoiding dense patches of six-foot-high "adrenaline grass". Walking blindly through the deep grass, it would be all too easy to find yourself face-to-face with a buffalo or a lion on its kill. If an animal charged, there would be no time to react. As we walk, a flock of Harlequin quail burst from the ground at our feet, startling us.
We approach a large herd of eland. With their stout twisted horns, massive shoulders and powerful physique, they look magnificent. They are amazingly agile for such large antelope and can leap their own height into the air. They clatter away in a cloud of dust as soon as they become aware of us.
We rest through the heat of the day, lying in the shade of a thicket, overlooking a pan. There is one tiny patch of black ooze remaining, full of writhing barbell, otherwise the pan is dry, its bottom a mosaic of cracked earth. Elephants appear out of the heat haze and, finding no water, scuff away the baked earth with their forefeet until they reach wet mud below, which they throw over themselves.
Once the heat has abated we continue to our fly-camp. The light is rich, almost honeyed, and highlights the sheen on the bark of tree trunks polished by elephants rubbing against them. We sit in splendid isolation from the rest of humanity, watching a blood-red sun set over the Zambezi Valley.
Next day we decide to canoe a section of the Zambezi. Game viewing from a canoe provides a different perspective. Low and quiet, you can get very close to elephant feeding on the islands and to huge herds of buffalo on the flood plain.
Launching our canoe on a broad section of river, we drift past Nile crocodiles basking in the sun, some the length of our boat. Over 380 species of bird have been recorded in the valley. From Goliath herons to tiny Malachite kingfishers, they come in all shapes, colours and sizes. John points out a rare Night heron, peering out from the low branches of a fallen tree. Pied kingfishers hover over the water before plummeting down to snatch a fish, whilst African skimmers use their bright orange beaks to scoop up their prey as they fly along within inches of the river surface.
We negotiate our way cautiously through narrow channels between low-lying grassy islands, watchful for pods of territorial hippos. Cattle egret perch on the backs of buffalo. We glide quietly within feet of elephant feeding on the shore. Many of the birds are seasonal visitors. We drift slowly towards a colony of Carmine bee-eaters, which have just returned to Mana and are preparing their nests. The sandy, vertical riverbank is pockmarked where they have bored hundreds of holes. Many sit up on the bank or on roots protruding from it. As we approach they fly off in a great crimson cloud.
A short distance further on, we spot two lionesses making their way down to the river to drink. They shy away as they see us. We paddle over to the side, secure the canoe and climb up and over the lip of the bank. Walking slowly, making no sudden movements to alarm them, we are able to approach to within fifty metres. They are resting by the half-eaten remains of an eland which they have recently killed. To be on foot, close enough to stare into the deep amber eyes of these most powerful of predators, is more than thrilling. It is profoundly moving, a wildlife experience that touches a chord deep within me. But that is the essence of Mana Pools.
Mana pools factfile
How to get there
Self-drive from Harare to Mana is a 400km journey north-west, the last 75km along bush roads that can be rough. Use a 4WD as operators do not allow 2WD cars into the park. Carry all supplies, as the nearest source is at Makuti, 100km away. Most overseas visitors, however, take one of the fly-in multi-day canoeing safaris offered by over a dozen operators. The licensed and experienced guides will escort you on walks during the day.
The climate is subtropical. It can get very hot (35 °C plus) in summer and humidity is high during the rains (December to March). Winters are temperate. Best visiting time is July to October when it is dry and large herds of game are attracted to the alluvial flood plains.
There are no tourist buses and this World Heritage Site is remote, unspoilt and boasts a unique ecosystem. There are about 12,000 elephant and 16,000 buffalo in the 2200km2 park and surrounding safari areas. Mana is a focal point for canoeing safaris and the only park in Zimbabwe where walking is permitted.
Fauna and flora
The area abounds with large acacia, mahogany, fig, baobab, sausage and mopane trees and is covered by tawny vetivaria grass. The full range of carnivores and antelope may be seen though there are no hartebeest, wildebeest or giraffe, and very few, if any, black rhino. Over 380 water and woodland birds are to be seen. Eagles, cormorants, storks, herons, jacanas and Egyptian geese are common. The water is alive with hippo and tiger, bream, barbel and large vundu fish; and the occasional croc.
Most fly-in safari visitors stay at the private Ruckomechi and Chikwenya camps or one of the mobile or semi-permanent tented camps run by private operators. National Parks accommodation consists of a number of unfenced caravan and camping sites, 2 self-catering lodges nearby and 4 remote camp sites. Camping is not allowed during the wet season.
Published in Travel Africa Edition Fourteen: Winter 2000/2001 Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)k.