Set on the southern banks of the mighty Zambezi River, in northern Zimbabwe, Mana Pools has always been one of the most beautiful National Parks in Africa, home to an incredible array of wildlife. It has also always been one of my favourite safari destinations, and so I had a feeling of quiet excitement as I sped down the Zambezi by speedboat en route to Mana for the first time in 13 years! I couldn’t believe it had been that long.
The Zambezi River is wide and gently flowing at this stage of its long journey, and unlike some other great African rivers, rarely suffers from the ravages of rainy season floodwaters as the river’s flow is controlled by the Kariba Dam upstream. There are shallows, sand banks and islands which not only help to set the idyllic scene, but are home to hippo, crocs, elephants, buffalo and a wide variety of bird life. There is also a wide floodplain, the remnants of a previous higher river level, which is not only scenically stunning (especially with Zambian escarpment as a backdrop), but also tailor-made for wildlife viewing.
Within Mana, driving and walking is permitted and with a limited number of specialist guides who have made Mana their home, it is possible to enjoy some really exceptional wildlife encounters. Crawling up and sitting within 30 metres of a pride of lions may not be everyone’s idea of a relaxing morning on safari, but there are few if any other places in Africa where it would be possible to do this with such regularity. Approaching wild dogs on foot is almost as thrilling too, but with less of the ‘fear factor’ (wild dogs are never known to have harmed humans). Mana is also renowned for its huge and very relaxed elephant bulls, which can also be approached on foot (they are typically famous for standing on their hind legs to reach into the crown of the albida trees for those tasty pods or fresh growth). These more specialist walking experiences are of course optional additions to normal game drives and walks. During my short visit to this riverside region of the park, I especially enjoyed an experience with a pack or around 25 wild dogs. Having located their tracks heading off into the bush, we left the vehicle and continued on foot to find them relaxing at waterhole. Creeping in quietly to around 20 yards, we had the opportunity to watch them wake up, interact, stretch, drink, and regurgitate food for the pups, before heading off on an evening hunt. A very special experience!
Away from the river the habitat and landscape changes and becomes much harsher with large tracts of mopane woodland and jesse thickets. Here, two different sources of water are able to support wildlife during the dry season and provide dramatic wildlife viewing as animals from far and wide rely on them. Chitake Springs is well known as a very adventurous camping destination where the local lions are brazen and the large buffalo herds imposing. This is ‘raw Africa’ and not to be taken lightly – the stuff of wildlife documentaries and occasionally in the past, human tragedy. However my destination was the lesser known of the two, Kanga Pan. Visiting at the end of the dry season I was truly stunned by the amount of activity here. If the surrounding region was a little quiet at times (in terms of numbers compared to the riverside areas), the pan itself was a hive of activity from dawn to dusk and throughout the night. During the day you could sit and watch baboons, impala, zebra, kudu, elephants, buffalo and even wild dogs come and go (the morning before I arrived, the dogs made two impala kills in camp). But it was at night that the show really began. Dinner was routinely interrupted by elephant, buffalo, genet, civet, hyaena and leopard (five in one evening!) and later when the camp ‘quietened down’, the more shy creatures such as porcupine and honey badger emerged. Guests who remained for that ‘one for the road’ were usually joined by the local lions sauntering into camp. On one occasion they lapped up water as we looked on from our raised deck just metres away. At the right time of year, Kanga Pan is a must for anyone visiting Mana Pools and it is easy to combine a couple of ‘interior’ days at the pan with a few on the floodplain region.
From Mana Pools I headed to the very different Matusadona National Park on the southern shores of Lake Kariba. For those who don’t know, the lake is man-made, sitting behind the Kariba Dam (on the Zambezi River) which was built in late 50’s to provide hydro-electric power for both Zambia and Zimbabwe. As lake levels rose, Operation Noah took place to save as many animals as possible and re-locate them to higher ground. Evidence of the lake creation is easy to see, as the Matusadona shoreline is characterised by partially submerged forests of leadwood trees. Leadwood is such a dense wood that despite the trees dying out they still stand in the shallows to this day, creating a memorable scene that is easily recognisable.
The lakeshore is a haven for birds, especially waders, and for cormorants, African darters, cattle egrets and various herons which use the leadwood trees as safe roosting grounds. Matusadona is also a stronghold for black rhino, which can be tracked on foot through the harsh environment away from the shoreline into the hills. More general game-viewing is definitely best along the shore where nutritious grasses support good populations of impala, elephant, buffalo and waterbuck, which in turn support the healthy lion population. Boat cruises are the more comfortable mode of transport and I found it particularly relaxing to gently potter through the bays and inlets in search of game and birds. I don’t think Matusadona can be compared to Hwange or Mana Pools as a game drive destination, but it offers such a complimentary and different experience that it naturally should be included on any balanced safari itinerary through Zimbabwe, and is a ‘must’ for birders.
My overall impression of Zimbabwe was that it is very much ready for tourism to take off again. Of course the industry has suffered these past 12 years, and overall standards of comfort are still a little behind some other countries, but the game-viewing, guiding and hospitality is exceptional. If anyone is short on time, then Mana Pools and Matusadona make an excellent week long combination with access via Lusaka, Zambia. I travelled this route and found it worked very well.
If you’re interested, you may also wish to see Bill’s report from earlier this year when he visited the south and west of the country – Victoria Falls, Hwange and Matobo Hills.