Two years later than planned, I landed into a bush airstrip in Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, via a fairly lengthy journey through the slightly improved Addis Ababa Airport and Harare. It felt wonderful to be back on African soil, after a tumultuous few years, and not just any African soil: Mana Pools, one of the most picturesque parks in Africa, on the banks of the Zambezi River.
I began my trip with four nights here – I couldn’t believe my luck. It had long been a destination in which I had wanted to spend some time. My first night was actually spent in Sapi Reserve, a former hunting area to the east of the National Park which was been taken over by Great Plains Conservation in 2016. The wildlife is, unsurprisingly, a little more nervous than in the National Park, but Great Plains are working hard to transform the reserve by habituating the wildlife and protecting the land. During my one night stay we saw elephant, lion, beautiful birdlife, hippos in the Zambezi River and some relaxed plains game. Apart from the beautiful luxury accommodation, one of the best parts of a safari in the Sapi Reserve is the exclusivity and the flexibility of activities. You won’t see any other vehicles while driving in the reserve and as well as the daily game drives and walking safaris, you can also enjoy wonderful boat cruises on the Zambezi River. The boat cruises take place opposite Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park, with every chance of spotting an elephant swimming between islands.
Over the next couple of nights, I stayed at a couple of seasonal bush camps offering much simpler accommodation, but a much more in depth and adventurous experience of this wilderness. I spent a night with Stretch Ferreira, one of the biggest characters you could meet in the park. Certainly not for everyone, but a stay at Goliath will always be a very memorable one. The focus is on walking, particularly up to big game, including bull elephants and lion as well.
Stretch has a relationship and familiarity with a number of bull elephants in the park, which means you can approach these beautiful creatures on foot and get closer than you might imagine. I briefly forgot to breathe for a few moments as the trunk of an elephant was within touching distance of me as I crouched down, with Stretch right next to me, talking gently to the elephant. The next morning, our mission (or rather, Stretch’s mission) was lions. A breeding pair had been spotted, and we set off on foot to see if we could find them – not an experience for the faint hearted. I have to say I was slightly relieved that we didn’t!
The next day was another walking experience – walking really is the magic of Mana. The ability to get out on foot at any moment, along with passionate guiding, makes it an exceptionally exciting place to be. Today I was with Steve Bolnick from Camp Mana – a very simple camp, with one of the most beautiful locations in the park. It truly has a breath-taking outlook, and I didn’t want to leave! Steve is a very different character to Stretch and would cater for a different client. He’s extremely knowledgeable, with an encyclopaedically detailed mind. We did a beautiful walk on the floodplains, setting out from camp and walking back to camp as the sun set.
That’s another thing about Mana Pools – the sunsets. When the light is right, the colours are so rich and ethereal. A sun setting over the Zambezi River is one of the most magical places to see it.
After my four nights in Mana Pools, I was sad to say goodbye, but very excited to explore Hwange National Park. I spent five nights here in five different camps, and I was struck by how much the landscape varied as I travelled around the park. The habitat changes from Kalahari scrub through to savannah woodland in the north, so combining more than one camp here makes a lot of sense. The Wilderness concession in the southeast definitely stood out in terms of the game viewing. We saw a male lion roaring across a big pan, a large pride moving over the vast Ngomo Plains, and two adorable cubs cautiously navigating around a waterhole. On the way back to camp one evening, we met a leopard heading out into the dark night; and from Bomani, located just to the east of the Wilderness concession, we followed three cheetah as they stalked a very worried waterbuck! The cheetah looked hungry and determined and began to gather pace, but unfortunately I had a site inspection calling me away!
As we moved through Hwange, the elephant herds were particularly exciting. We were there at the end of May – right at the beginning of the dry season but after some late rain, so not the ideal conditions. But even then, the elephant herds were amazing. On one occasion when we were meeting up with a guide at a waterhole, there were quite literally hundreds of elephants pouring down the hillside to drink. Big bulls, lots of breeding herds with tiny calves, teenage males being a nuisance – it was truly mesmerising. The guides hadn’t seen a gathering of this size for some time, and you could sense their excitement for the start of the season.
My final two nights in Hwange were spent at Camp Hwange and Hwange Bush Camp in the north of the pack. The camps are comfortable yet fairly simple, and the landscape completely different to the south of the park, but the true highlight of these two camps was the guiding. We went on a very quiet game drive from Camp Hwange, yet kept stopping to learn about the termites, or the different types of tree, or the bird calls, and it was one of the most interesting drives we did. From Hwange Bush Camp, we set off on a beautiful walk and spotted some elephant in the distance and got closer and closer, without them knowing we were nearby. Hwange Bush Camp is definitely a special camp – it strikes the perfect balance between being authentic and simple, with a very light footprint, but having all the comforts you need, with good guides, hosting and food. It is primarily a walking camp, and you’ll get the most out of the experience by exploring on foot, but it is possible to drive as well.
The trip ended in Victoria Falls, where I managed to squeeze in nine site inspections in less than 24 hours, visiting some old favourites for updates, and a couple of new hotels. We stayed at the new Palm River Hotel, sister property to Ilala Lodge. It has a lovely location, five minutes out of town – close enough for convenience, but far enough away for some peace. On our final night, we enjoyed the Pure Africa sunset dinner cruise, floating along the Zambezi River, as we watched the colours of the sky transform to rich oranges and reds, before the night sky appeared. A superb way to finish a truly wonderful trip to Zimbabwe
During Fran’s time in Zimbabwe, she stayed at: Tembo Plains, Goliath Camp, Camp Mana, Ruckomechi, Davison’s Camp, Bomani, Verney’s, Camp Hwange, Hwange Bush Camp and Palm River Hotel.
Fran site inspected: Chikwenya, Nyamatusi, John’s Camp, Ingwe Pan, Mana River Camp, Zambezi Expeditions, Vundu, Little Ruckomechi, Little Makololo, Linkwasha, Camelthorn, the Hide, Somalisa, Somalisa Expeditions, Nehimba, Deteema Springs, Chundu Island, Mpala Jena, Old Drift Lodge, Victoria Falls Hotel, Ilala Lodge, Mbano Manor, Batonka and Pioneers.