By Steve Bolnick
Across the vast continent of Africa there are a handful of places whose names evoke an almost spiritual awe and a deep desire to visit. Think of Kilimanjaro, Kgalagadi, Okavango, Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Ruwenzori . . . and Mana Pools, perhaps less known but every bit as deserving!
Strike-up a conversation with an experienced safari-lover anywhere and before long the discussion will turn to Mana Pools, accompanied by sighs and superlatives.
What is it about Mana Pools that evokes such passion and veneration?
Mana Pools is situated in the far north of Zimbabwe, on the Zambezi River. The closest settlement is the slovenly border town of Chirundu, fueled and littered by the never-ending stream of trucks careering along the “Great North Road” traversing the routes between Zimbabwe and the Zambian copper belt or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Just 70km South of desperate Chirundu lies Mana Pools, one of the most beautiful and pristine wilderness areas in Africa.
The word “mana” means “four” in the local Shona language. “Mana Pools” refers to the four permanent pools in the National Park. Contrary to popular belief, these pools are not filled by the flooding of the Zambezi River but rather by the annual summer rains; they do, however, punctuate an ancient course of the Zambezi. The largest of these pools is aptly named “Long Pool”. Despite its dull name, Long Pool is magnificent, stretching over five kilometers in length and fringed with huge Tamarind, Natal Mahogany, Sausage and Wild Mango trees.
The one feature that is definitively Mana are the Albida forests without which few of the other unique features of Mana Pools could endure. Faiderbia albida is an extraordinary tree which takes on magnificent and fantastical shapes in its old age; it appears to have leapt from a Tolkien manuscript page. One of their common names, “The Winterthorn”, best describes these trees and alludes to their ecological value. Counter-intuitively these deciduous trees lose their leaves in the rainy season and then flower before the new leaves sprout. The extremely nutritious fruits ripen late in the dry season, providing vital food when little else nutritious is available. So, the Albida forests really are the lifeblood of Mana Pools. Their leaves are the irresistible bounty which entices a handful of Mana Pools elephants, the best known of which is the giant “Boswell”, which rear-up on their hind legs to reach beyond the common browse line. They also attract baboons that scramble through the canopy noisily and carelessly collecting fruits, many of which fall to the ground below, where they attract opportunistic elephants, impala, waterbuck and kudu.
Aside from their vital ecological role, the Albidas contribute in other ways to make Mana Pools an exceptional destination. The area is famous for its mysterious blue light that lends a dreamlike quality to the already astounding backdrop, and much like the Blue Mountains of Australia, this light is believed to be caused by native trees, in this case the Albidas.
This characteristic light is marveled by wildlife and landscape photographers.
But the Albidas have another generous gift – they create beautifully textured natural but geometric frames which add an exceptional dimension to photographs of any animals. The Albidas scatter the light of the rising sun, especially late in the dry season when there is more dust in the air, and produce golden halos around the trees and animals, bathing them in translucent light. Throw all of this together in a visit to the Albida forests at sunrise when the music of the birds and hippos punctuates the silence and reality has not yet awoken, and the soft-focus compositions are plentiful, exquisite, surreal and other-worldly. This is the origin of the term “Mana Magic”.
Mana Pools is situated on the banks of The Zambezi River, which must surely be one of the most beautiful of the great rivers of the world. As it passes through Mana Pools the river is wide and meanders gently around the myriad of islands scattered along its length. Home to hippo, elephants, waterbuck and crocodiles in abundance, the opposite side of the river reveals a magnificent backdrop: the northern Zambezi Escarpment. Sunsets on this section of the Zambezi River are legendary and are best described by quoting the great contemporary African explorer and best-selling author Tim Butcher when he wrote: “Here crocodile and buffalo, waterbuck and waterbirds, impala, baboon and a backing chorus of other animals dance a dance as old as the river, a distant mercury seam below a skyline framed by the Zambian escarpment”. In other words, . . . the scenery in Mana Pools is simply jaw-droppingly beautiful!
The Albidas are not the only trees in Mana Pools that provide a botanical incentive to visitors. The Middle and Lower Zambezi is home to the astounding Zambezi Fig (Ficus bussei), majestic trees that stand up to 20m high with canopies far wider, spreading 35m and more! With their huge broad horizontal branches, they appear to have been designed as divans for lazing leopards, and while they are surely regularly used in this fashion, they are unfortunately seldom seen doing so!
However, a safari cannot comprise only of beautiful scenery and spectacular trees. Wildlife is necessary for any safari-with-boasting-rights, and Mana delivers generously in this regard too. The Mana environment is home to a small number of extraordinary elephants (Boswell and Fred among a few others) who have mastered and fine-tuned the technique of standing on their hind legs to reach the highest leaves and branches, unavailable to any of the other elephants. No matter how many times you may have heard about, or even seen, photographs of this phenomenon, nothing prepares you for witnessing a 5,000+ kg elephant effortlessly rising up on his hind legs to pull down a nutritious branch of leaves.
In addition to Boswell’s acrobatic antics, he is also celebrated for his immense tusks. Until 2020 these beautiful tusks were perfectly symmetrical, and he resembled a woolly mammoth of old. Sadly in 2020 he broke his left tusk and lost about 25 cm on that side, but he remains one of the great tuskers of Africa. He is not alone and there are several other large tusked elephant bulls and cows who call Mana Pools home.
Mana Pools was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site on account of the remarkably large numbers and diversity of animals that gather on the terraces and floodplains along the Zambezi River. The animals here seem to be at ease, relaxed and tolerant adding to the dreamlike atmosphere but also providing exceptional game and bird-viewing viewing opportunities. This is possibly the best place in Southern Africa to see Painted Dogs and in the dry season it is not unusual to see lions on more than one occasion daily.
There are also several feathered-animal specials to attract dedicated birders and twitchers. These include species endemic to the Zambezi River system or restricted to only the middle Zambezi or just spectacular birds that are found here and are difficult to locate elsewhere. A favourite is the Lillian’s Lovebird, with its outrageously bright colours and bulging teddy-bear eyes. When a large flock of these birds lifts off from feeding on the ground it appears as if the baize of a snooker table is being shaken-out and it sounds like a party. In September as the temperature rises, the carmine bee-eaters return to nest in the sand cliffs of the riverbank. Like squadrons of ripe strawberries with glider wings, they broadcast a melodious chant and delight all who are privileged to see them.
The other birding specials found here, sometimes requiring considerable effort and good-luck, include the Western Banded Snake Eagle, Böhm’s Spinetail, Bat Hawk, Three-banded Courser, Eastern Nicator, Collared Palm Thrush, Narina Trogon and the African Pitta during the rainy season. That said, the holy grail of Mana Pools birding is undoubtably the diminutive and lively Livingstone’s Flycatcher.
The scenery, flora, animal and birdlife are hard to beat. Beyond just seeing them, the action-packed days at Mana Pools offer still more. The stretch of the Zambezi River at Mana Pools has been described as the best canoeing safari destination in Africa, providing a very beautiful, different, albeit at times scary, perspective of one of Africa’s iconic wilderness areas
For many, however, Mana Pools delivers also as a famed destination for spectacular walking-safaris. Zimbabwean Professional Guides are justifiably proud of their reputation as Africa’s best and Mana Pools lends itself to exploration on foot. In fact, anyone can walk in Mana Pools, provided they have obtained a permit to do so and have the experience and nerve to match.
There is little to beat the Mana Pools themselves, the shores of the Zambezi, the multitude of animal, birds, and plant-life, the spectacular sights and sounds, and the opportunities to get up close to the wildlife in this magnificent wilderness.
If experiencing the Mana Magic is not yet on your bucket-list, it undoubtedly should be!
Photography: Mark Jacobson: @drjakeny \ Anthony Zwi: @antzsyd_wild