Our last visit to Mana Pools on the Zimbabwe/Zambian border was in 2015. We are back to this amazing spot in late September 2018 to spend a week with friends at the Goliath Safaris camp on the banks of the Zambezi. Mana Pools is special for many reasons. Beautiful landscape with mahogany, acacia and 'sausage' trees next to the river and overlooked by the Zambian mountains. Lots of wildlife - and at this time of year it is hot and the pans (small ponds) are drying up so the animals are congregating close to the river. Also fabulous birds - Vicky goes birding crazy and with our brilliant guides, Sean and Stretch, spots 145 species in a week.
The varying environments makes Mana great for birds. Waders surround the ponds and water holes while others live in the trees or on the savanah or scrub. Above you can find many different raptors - we see many varieties of eagles over the week. A real treat is the increasingly rare African Skimmer (below right) which gave us some spectacular fly pasts in the early morning - its lower beak just under the water to catch fish as it sped past. We also spot five varieties of kingfisher including the brown hooded (below left).
Another amazing feature of Mana is the freedom to walk in the park. We go on walks with our guides, tracking lion or watching some of the bull elephants. You need to be very careful however to avoid cow elephants with their calves - a German tourist failed to do this while we were there and was sadly trampled. Other hazards include hippos - never get between them and the water, and buffalo. The lions appear more interested in resting when they are not tucking into the latest baby buffalo that they have killed. One animal that we have failed to get a good sighting of on the many previous visits to Mana has been the leopard. There are quite a few in the park but they are very good at hiding and usually hunt at night. So we are very excited when another guide tells us that they had seen a young female up a tree and after a bit of searching we find her, basking on a fork in a sausage tree in the evening light.
A popular sight is the hippos, who spend most of their time during the day submerged in the pools, river and pans, coming out at night to graze. Long straight paths leading from the river into the bush show where the hippo have gone searching for grazing. A real favourite are the African Wild Dogs, or 'painted dogs' that also doze during the day but are highly effective hunters at night. The BBC have been in Mana for two years making a documentary about the dogs, with the program due to go out later in the year. Sadly the pack that we see is greatly reduced with only three adults and four pups. This makes it hard for them to hunt and watch over the pups at the same time making them vulnerable to attack from hyenas.
Our days start around 6am when we make our ways to the campfire, looking over the river, for tea and porridge or toast. Then we head off in the vehicles on the day's particular quest - animals and birds are more active around dawn and between 7 and 9 the light is also great for photographs. We stop for coffee and a sandwich by a waterhole around 9.30 and then continue to explore until about 11.30 when we make our way back to camp. Here we have a light lunch and then rest in the heat of the day - in late September it is 40+C in the shade which is too hot for us or the animals to do much.
Around 3.30 we have a cup of tea and then head out again. Late afternoon is also a great time for game spotting and photography. After more driving or perhaps a walk to track animals we often meet up with the camp crew at a scenic spot for a drink while we watch the sun go down. Dinner in camp under the stars at around 7.30 and then perhaps a nightcap by the river watching the fireflies and listening to the night sounds in the moonlight. At 9 the generator is switched off and not long after we head for bed and prepare for another exciting day tomorrow.
Mana Pools is not everyone's cup of tea. The camps are not super luxurious although Goliath Safaris is very comfortable. The animals can also be hard to find - no telltale clusters of white vans watching the local pack of lions. In September/October staying in tents in 40C heat gets pretty hot and the tsetse fly can be annoying - although thankfully they don't carry sleeping sickness. However we love the total immersion in the African bush. From sounds of the hippo on the river in the early morning to the anticipation as you quietly walk through the trees looking out for elephant.
Click on the images below for more photographs of birds, wildlife and people/landscape.