On the Zambezi River — Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

Mana Pools is part of a larger Parks and Wildlife Estate that runs from the Kariba Dam in the west of Zimbabwe to the Mozambique border in the east. With no physical boundaries, the wildlife is free to move throughout the area – even north of the Zambezi River into Zambia, where there are also large areas set aside for wildlife conservation. The Zambezi River flows through the middle.

Mana Pools extends southwards to the summit of the steep Zambezi Escarpment and the Zambezi River’s southern banks form its northern border with a view of the Zambia escarpment on the other side. Within this floodplain area, the river flows into a broad expanse of lakes, islands, channels and sandbanks. Mana means ‘four’ in the Shona language, and refers to the four large permanent pools inland that remain of the oxbow lakes the Zambezi River carved out thousands of years ago in the process of changing its course northwards.

A World Heritage Site, Mana Pools is one of the least developed National Parks, and the only one where walking is allowed. As much of it is seasonally inaccessible, it remains unspoilt. During the rainy season, most of the area’s wildlife moves up into the escarpments. But during the dry winter months Mana Pools arguably has one of the highest concentrations of large game on the continent. As the waters of the floodplain recede, great herds of elephant and buffalo return to the same places, and lion, leopard, cheetah, kudu, eland, waterbuck, zebra, impala and other antelope as well as 380 bird species move back in toward the river. Certainly one of the largest concentrations of crocodiles and hippopotami in Africa is found along the river in Mana Pools. It is unquestionably one of the most exciting places to camp, to explore on foot, and by canoe, for the varied amount of wildlife that can be seen in its true wild state.

I had no real idea what I was in for.

September 16 —

We arrived a couple of hours late at the Mana Pools airstrip in the same tiny 6-passenger Cessna that took us to and from Tiger Bay. Our guide from Kavinga Safaris expected us around 2:30, waited for us until 4 pm, and was not in the least put out. Everyone seems to understand what difficulties the small airlines (like Zimbabwe’s Solenta) have in keeping schedules coming in and out of the bush, not to mention that the travel industry in Zimbabwe had received a serious blow in the wake of the political and economic turmoil of the past ten plus years. (Only since the US dollar has become the official currency has travel in Zimbabwe begun to pick back up.)

Andrew Smith, Kavinga Safari’s professional River and Walking Guide, impressed us immediately with the extent of his knowledge of the area, its history, the geography, the trees and plants, and of course the animals. Within minutes, we were learning from Andy why the area is so special (as described above) as well as more about the animals, and its vast amount of birds — some of which we saw in Botswana but had not known the names of (the lilac-breasted roller is a favorite).

lilac-breasted roller

This drive from the airstrip toward the river camp became our afternoon game run. We were joined by Mike (also on tour with Kavinga, who we’d get to know better when we moved on to Chitake Springs).

Cape buffalo

female kudu

The trees make a shady canopy under which we saw some game — elephants, zebra, buffalo, and kudu.The sweet scent in the air came from blossoming mahogany and capparis. The African fig and the sausage trees with their huge pods and red flowers were pretty spectacular — a few trees had “creeping fire,” a bright red flowering vine covering them.

The elephants seemed to us significantly smaller than those we’d seen in Botswana or Victoria Falls, which Andy said was absolutely right. They’re about 30% smaller, and this simply has to do with the gene pool in the area.

We stopped at a thicket where a leopard with her cub had been seen around 5:30 pm for several days running. Either she had moved, having had enough attention during those days, or she simply never came out of the thicket for us. But, as Andy said, you never know what you’re going to encounter each day. In the coming days, we’d have plenty of encounters.

view near campsite

The camp was in an excellent spot looking down over the river, and everything was so nicely appointed. The shower was efficiently drawn from a bucket of hot water by a battery pump, but within the tent-like enclosure (boma) everything was arranged for such convenience, and a candle burned pleasantly inside at night. The cots were as comfortable as the actual beds we’d been in the two previous nights at Tiger Bay! As night fell, we caught glimpses of baboons around the camp. Rod Huck, (our host and a Kavinga Safaris founder), and Andy showed us around camp and urged us to sweep a flashlight while walking after dark. This is a campground in which people are permitted to walk around freely (that was not the case during our recent self-drive in Botswana). However, leaving the tent after everyone turns in for the night is absolutely not recommended. It’s all about how you handle yourself in the bush, which means remaining calm and being aware of your surroundings — looking and listening as you go. Their advice was to avoid direct eye contact if we found ourselves too close to a baboon and to simply move away slowly. (Throughout, they gave us tips on what to do and what not to do if we found ourselves confronted by different animals, and it varies — more to follow on this).

We sat by the fire chatting before and after dinner, which was excellent. (The chef made bread in a cast iron pot over a wood fire, something I’d learned about, but had not yet tasted; it was wonderful, with a hint of woodfire and a nice crisp crust.) I already had an excellent impression of the Kavinga team, (which we would be leaving the next day, but catching back up with for three nights in Chitake Springs after our canoeing trip). The immediate impression was of conscientious people who understood this spectacular park and its rare wonder and beauty; they were all in love with the place, fascinated with the geography and flora and fauna, and equally interested in its conservation — and imposing as little environmental impact as possible, hence no “en-suite” facilities, (or, as they’re locally known, ablutions).

We saw hyenas just outside the camp that night, and later heard lions roaring, some movement in the bush and barking, which I thought was mostly baboons, and we heard hippos, hippos, and more hippos. The breeze picked up into a wind and fortunately blew away the aroma of a baboon roost that was apparently nearby, but later whipped up so forcefully, flapping the tent like mad that first night we spent in Mana Pools, it made me extremely anxious about canoeing the following day.

September 17 —

There was warm water just outside the tent in our “sink” with a mirror (!) and bottled water for brushing teeth when we arose at 5:30. I thought, “How thoughtfully arranged this camp is.” It wasn’t excessive; it was still camping — but efficient camping! I’d had enough of confusion and blackened fingernails from our self-drive in previous days —  opening and collapsing our vehicle’s dusty rooftop tent, starting gas cooktops and wood fires, and handling and chopping ingredients (while trying to keep my hands as well as our dishcloths clean), cooking and washing dishes in the dark, spending ten precious minutes looking for the flashlight or insect repellent, and about eight thousand other little issues. I don’t mind the work, but being new at everything, I had no system. With such limited mobile space, it’s storage and the order of operations that makes the difference. I’d only begun to get sorted out by the end of our eight nights! I spent too much time and energy setting up and breaking down camp, and trying to figure out where to store things. (Though, I hadn’t been camping in more than 25 years; and Len was new at driving and maintaining the vehicle – so we never got fully organized. We had a great time and I look forward to our next self-drive. But, it was as much an initiation for me as canoeing would soon be.) What a luxury to have the domestic aspects of camp so nicely arranged for a while. The focus would remain on the wildlife.

At breakfast, Rod expressed concern about canoeing, and suggested perhaps waiting out the wind. It was still blowing, though it brought in a welcome and cooling blanket of clouds overhead. We started out early on a game drive and saw numerous animals.

warthog, blending in

female eland

After a while, we got out of the Land Cruiser and stretched our legs, while Andy looked for tracks and scouted around. He pointed out some lion’s pug marks. And, after driving a short distance, we pulled up to a ridge where a few lions were lounging. That the tracks were so fresh indicated these were probably the lions they belonged to.

Two older cubs disappeared below the ridge into what Andy said is locally referred to as adrenaline grass — so-called because its clumps are tall and it tends to cause a rush of adrenaline from what might be lurking within, if you venture to walk through it. An elephant cow and her 2- or 3-year-old baby were slowly walking in that grass toward where the lions lay above on the ridge.

Andy was curious when the elephants would pick up the scent; their eyesight is poor, and they were probably not downwind of the lions. But the lions had these two to think about as well as some impala and buffalo that were grazing and slowly moving in on the opposite side of the ridge. As this drama was developing, a rather dumb animal, with apparently poor eyesight, got out of his vehicle and walked directly in front of us, interrupting our view as we sat quietly, inconspicuously observing. And, this creature was wearing blinding-white shorts and a brightly striped shirt that I probably don’t need to say didn’t blend in, or that his attire was as loud as his whole gesture, which screamed, “Hey, lions! Look over here! I’m trying to take your picture!” My mouth was gaping as Andy very politely indicated that it was not unusual to see people like this, completely ignorant of the dynamics before them. In any case, despite how uncrowded the campground actually was, I’ll just say that he was a clueless specimen and disturbed the whole event as it might have played out. The buffalo and impala split, and the lions could only pay attention to the rest of his party as they pulled the vehicle up on the other side of us where they could get closer to the adrenaline grass for a better view. He had walked all the way across, and in front of us, to this better spot where the three other similarly dressed individuals got out and crouched with their cameras. What was the point of crouching? Meanwhile, the elephant tuned in and took a sharp turn with the baby up the ridge and moved the lions away.

We stopped at one of the pools, which was surrounded by trees and beautiful in that softened light.

Andy drove us to the camp office where we’d be picked up for our canoe trip with another safari outfit. On display outside the camp office were the jawbones of elephants of different ages as indicated by the sets of teeth. Inside, there were skulls of hyenas, lions and a leopard, giving an idea of the relative size of their teeth, jaw size, and bite force; and glass jars containing the fetuses of various animals were on display, including an elephant the size of my fist. Bono, the River and Walking Guide, and his apprentice, Ali, arrived to meet us, and we discovered we’d be delayed getting out in the canoes until after lunch when the two others campers on our tour were expected to arrive. That was fine with me as the wind was still strong enough to be of concern.

On the way to the canoe camp, as we were getting acquainted, we told Bono and Ali that we’d seen a leopard and even cheetah in Botswana, but we really wanted to see African wild dogs, and heard that some had been seen recently. Bono said they were indeed around and that we might see them, and after a few more minutes he said he could smell them. The scent seemed the same to me as the baboon roost we’d discovered the night before. (I couldn’t tell if he was kidding and knew of the location where they’d been seen.) But sure enough we soon came upon the wild dogs lying not too far away from the dirt road.

African wild dogs with vulture in foreground

Len and I were beside ourselves to see them. There are so few left in the wild — we’d heard only about 4 thousand. Habitat loss and human persecution are their main threat. They’re often viewed as ruthless hunters as well as pests that kill off livestock, and they’re now also endangered by distemper and rabies.

They behaved just like dogs, stretching, yawning and lying curled next to each other.  They had moved a distance away into the bush, but we were thrilled to have seen them as well as lions in the same morning.

© Susan Robinson – 2011 All Rights Reserved. Content and photographs require permission for all third-party use.

2 thoughts on “On the Zambezi River — Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

  1. Susan,
    Yoshi and I traveled from beginning to end via this blog and what a great job of communicating through words and images.

    What an adventure. Thank you!

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