If you’ve been following Wild Eye for a little while now, you’ll know that we have a distinct love for Mana Pools, located in Northern Zimbabwe just to the East of Lake Kariba.
I once again got the opportunity to not only introduce 3 guests to Mana’s magic, but also to bring another 3 back for their second visit. Such is the special bond you form with Mana Pools – you’ll always want to return, it’s just too good & unique not too.
I met all of my guests at OR Tambo in Johannesburg, and set off for Harare. From here we boarded a chartered flight and set course for the banks of the Zambezi River, the incredible location of our home whilst on safari here.
We are usually met by elephant in and around camp upon arrival, and this time was no different. They are drawn not only by the river and a seperate waterhole close to camp, but also by the densely wooded Natal Mahogany trees surrounding camp. There’s few trees in Africa with the ability to provide shade as the mahoganies can.
It’s always welcoming when arriving in camp. The staff are great and meet you as if you’ve known them all their lives. It’s like family coming home, no doubt!
My guests were introduced to camp, got to know their way around and after a hearty meal were ready to explore what Mana had to offer.
The food in camp can easily be regarded as a safari highlight. It’s hard to believe that the team in camp can cook up such delicious meals in the middle of nowhere!
There’s always an opportunity to get to know the camp visitors up close & personal. Here a few of my guests accompanies by our pro Zim guide Kevin (just out of frame) view an elephant bull enjoying a muddy bath.
Mana offers guests the opportunity to discover & explore a piece of Africa in a manner unique to itself. The majority of national parks have strict policies against people straying from the vehicles, unless in well demarcated areas. Still, you are meant to stay within a few meters of your vehicle.
Mana Pools parks board allows all visitors the privilege of exploring the park on foot, as much as you want, as far as you want. This opportunity has been in place since the creation of the park, and is an incredible thing to consider. Mostly visited by locals, a great deal of respect is shown to the resident wildlife. In so doing, the animals – most notably elephant, lion and wild dogs – have grown used to the peaceful sight of humans on foot. I say peaceful because the animals are not hunted or bothered. Walkers come, view and go without disrupting the daily ritual of the animals.
At Wild Eye we have taken the opportunity to introduce wildlife photographers from the world over to this incredibly special park. To see some of Africa’s most iconic game on foot, far removed from the “safety” of a land rover, is unbelievably special, a possible once in a lifetime opportunity (unless you return, which you likely will).
It becomes so much more than just a photographic safari. It’s a true wholistic encounter with nature. You see these creatures in a brand new light. All your senses are engaged as you get close to them. You hear every branch break, every contact call between family members, the smell of fresh river water, feel the hot African sun on the back of your neck. It’s incredible and not easy to explain in writing.
All of these encounters are in the company of a professional Zimbabwe guide, as well as your experienced & well-qualified Wild Eye guide.
Finding & photographing animals throughout the park is not as easy as it may appear. If you simply drive around hoping to spot game all over the show you will no doubt be disappointed.
I always work very hard along with my local guide to find tracks & signs left from the previous night, to scan the floodplain for specific elephant bulls we have become familier with, to listen for sounds eminating from within the forest canopy & adjacent floodplain – perhaps a squirrel alerting us to the presence of lions or baboons barking at a passing leopard. Even watching the posture of other animals are important – the way impala stands when alarmed, or even the lack of general game in a particular area because of the presence of a predator.
Signs are incredible subtle yet obviously present. You just need to know what to look for.
Elephants were no doubt the stars of the show, as always. They are ever-present on the floodplain and present fantastic photographic opportunities.
Kevin (my local guide) and I are always on the look-out for bulls we have to come to know over the years. They might stretch high into the trees in a beautiful manner, or perhaps even stand on to their back legs. We recognize them by the cuts in their ears, the shape of the tusks, old injuries or even a slight kink in the tail.
A particular young bull equipped with the special ability to heave himself onto his back legs was the focus of our attention over the first couple of days.
We found him on the first morning and he did not disappoint. What a special experience spending time in his company.
He “performed” his special talent on several occasions, leaving all of my guests absolutely jaw-dropped and in awe. This behaviour is not unique to Mana Pools, but few places allow guests the opportunity to see this on a fairly regular basis.
After spending more than an hour with him he crossed the Zambezi River to feed on forbs & grasses on the sandbanks.
The fact that he can stand on his back legs gives him a massive advantage during the dry season.
Mana Pools and most notably the floodplain has a large number of Winter Thorns – Fhaiderbia albida – and these provide elephants with a nutritious food source throughout the dry season. If not for these trees many animals would surely starve or move away in search of greener pastures.
Other elephants and especially smaller cows & calves would rely on fallen Winter Thorns (as you’ll soon see), low-hanging branches, tall bulls with stretching or standing abilities and the feeding activities of baboons. Baboons are very messy when up in trees and often drops seed pods & branches to the ground below. Impala, kudu, waterbuck, bushbuck and more also benefit from this.
We got the opportunity to spend time in the company of a small group of good-looking elephant bulls the following day, and once again they provided my guests with fantastic experience & photo opportunities.
The fact that there was a little bit of haze in the air – likely from fires in the region – meant that the light was beautifully soft & complimented the scene’s were were seeing perfectly.
As the sun approached the horizon we left the group of bulls to spend time again with the young talented bull, hoping for him to raise to his hind legs with a setting sun behind.
Well it would seem that you sometimes do get what you ask for.
Photography of this nature is never an easy task. You are constantly faces with changing positions, moving subjects and the element of constant danger.
I always try my very best to position my guests in the best spots, but always keeping mind of our surroundings. It’s easy to get too focused on what’s infront of you in Mana, forgetting that you are on foot with the potential of encounters with dangerous game such as buffalo, lion & hippo.
Kevin is always on the lookout for such situations, and apart from constantly assisting my guests, I am always keeping an eye out too. Your safety, comfort and experience is our main concern.
We encountered several recently fallen trees. They were largely Winter Thorns.
The “crack” that thunders through the floodplain and forest as one of these ancient trees fall immediately draws the attention of elephants. They will literally run in the direction of the sound. The young bulls, cows & calves especially benefit from these fallen giants as all of the leaves, seedpods & soft bark can now be enjoyed en-masse.
The floodplain area in Mana Pools has a de-generating Winter Thorn population. Young seedlings are not given the opportunity to grow into flourishing large trees due to over grazing, especially during the dry-season. The large tree’s are all affected by elephant damage. The elephants use their tusks to gauge into the bark in search of the nutritious cambium layer within. This layer is the lifeblood of a tree and once removed the tree will either die or be exposed to many other dangers.
Fires, termites and wood-borer beetles are contribute to the eventual demise of a damaged tree. It’s a sad reality no doubt. Forests like this come and go and in many hundreds of years will likely be no more.
It is great though to see these elephants feeding & nourished from the fallen trees. In Africa you need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. There’s simply no place for the weak and weary.
As can be seen in this video, there’s no intense rivalry for this food source amongst the elephants. Apart from a greedy bull or two, most of the elephants feed peacefully alongside one another.
I believe that there’s likely a link between the lack of food supply and the small elephant herds during the dry season. It makes sense to feed in smaller groups when there’s not a huge amount going around.
Herds are typically small in number and mainly comprises a mother and 2 or 3 calves, and at times another small family. Older cows can also be seen within these groups but typically 3 to 6 elephants are a standard herds size during the dry season.
As can be seen by the image above, great care is taken by mothers to ensure the safety & well-being of the calves. They lack the security of a large herd and the responsibility falls solely on the mother. To see this relationship is so special. The older siblings also play a vital role in raising & teaching the young calf as they grow older.
When they are on the move the tiny calf seldom strays far from its mother. The bond is so strong.
My guests and I got to spend time with such a family close to Long Pool, a large water-filled pool in the southern area of the floodplain.
They were feeding below a large fig tree and eventually moved to the waters edge for a drink.
It was such a stunning scene. We positioned ourselves behind them and had a stunning view of the family drinking below the shade of a large Winter Thorn.
I managed to capture an image of my guests “hard” at work. It’s this special ability to position yourself in areas where you can’t with a vehicle, that adds that magical touch to moments like this.
Speaking of Fig Trees, there’s an incredible species of Fig Tree growing in Mana Pools, and provides nourishment to so many animals here.
The Zambezi Fig – Ficus bussei – is a massive tree and simply can’t be mistaken for any other species of tree. The host of animals gathered below is often a dead giveaway!
It can almost be likened to the “Tree of Life”.
Not only mammals benefit from the fruits, but also many bird species. Trumpeter hornbills, barbets, starlings and many more are a constant presence inside the dense canopy. Bats often feed on the fruits at night, and many insects species depend on the tree for survival.
When a large troop of baboons occupy the canopy they drop fruits, leaves and branches to the ground below. As in the case of Winter Thorns, the game below take the opportunity to feed as the manna from heaven descends upon them.
The trees unique growth form makes it unmistakable.
It’s also a large, dense tree and always provides shade during the heat of the day.
These trees are incredibly important to an eco-system during both dry & wet seasons. Many animals rely on the tree to survive.
There’s also a massive reference to fig trees in the Bible’s scripture, mentioned over 50 times, again emphasizing its importance throughout the centuries.
It’s obvious that the Fig is indeed a special tree!
In the video below, you’ll get a glimpse into the dependance of wildlife on the two tree species mentioned above – the Fig & the Winter Thorn.
Were were treated to several sightings of lions on this trip. The pride now occupying the floodplain is new to human movement on foot, and we always try to keep a respectful distance between us and the cats. It will take a couple of years for them to relax entirely.
We spent a morning with a large male lion on the move. We found him by his early morning calls echoing through the Mana Forest. He was in search of the rest of the pride and was headed firmly in their directions. We knew this because we could hear them calling early morning from camp.
As the male lion walked through the forest at first light, it presented a stunning picture, a view of the forest at dawn. The light was as always magnificent!
We also spent time with the wild dogs on the first morning. A small group of roaming dogs were on the hunt and chased impala, baboons and warthogs all over the floodplain. Due to their mobile nature we were unable to keep up with them and soon lost sight.
During the months of June, July & August they tend to den. The puppies will be their main concerns and the pack will hunt daily in order to feed the puppies, as well as the alpha female taking care of them. They do so by regurgitating and occasionally, carrying meat back to the den.
They take great care in choosing a well-hidden den that’s often far removed from any amount of activity. In Mana they den deep into the Mopane woodlands and makes it impossible for us to get anywhere near the den itself. This is a good thing and means that they can take care of the young without being harassed.
We also found a clan of hyenas feeding on the remains of a hippo.
The hyena pictured above caught everyones attention. What a menacing face she possessed! She likely injured her cornea at some stage and this resulted in the loss of eye-function to the right eye.
The glazed eye accompanied by her weathered features was an impressive sight – certainly not a creature you want stalking through camp at night, as they so often do.
On one of the late afternoons I enjoy spending time at Long Pool, one of Mana’s 4 iconic pools. It’s a fantastic spot to watch the sun set, and anything that may arrive on the other side of the pool will be beautifully backlit by the setting sun.
The hippo’s are often a great photographic prospect and are always around. By getting down nice and low at the water edge (and always keeping an eye out for crocs), you can get magnificent images of them.
We decided to visit the pool again on the last afternoon and could not believe what was waiting for us. I have never seen elephants in the region of Long Pool in the water itself, and certainly not drinking from it. Dave, the owner of the camp we stay at had in more than 30 years of visiting the park never seen an elephant drink there. It may have something to do with the quality of water, or perhaps even the alkalinity. Whatever it is, the sighting I speak of below was incredible special.
I was blow away by the marvelous scene that greeted us at Long Pool on that last afternoon. I immediately got everyone out of the vehicle to capture natures beauty displayed for us.
The setting sun in the back, the elephant family, the large bull stretching high into the branches of the Winter Thorn, the hippo’s and the fact that we were sitting next to the water observing & capturing all of this was simply breath-taking. It’s scenes such as this that one could only ever dream of, no doubt the right place at the right time.
That is exactly what Mana Pools is all about. It’s these special little moment of magic that not only captivates your heart & imagination, but keeps you coming back for more.
Every time that I bring guests here I too get to play witness to something new and exciting. It just never gets old! It’s one of Africa’s last true wilderness regions, a place where stepping back in time to a bygone safari era still exists.
If you’ve never been to Mana or wish to return then please consider doing so. As you can see by this safari diary, there’s always something to see. It does not matter if it’s a first or tenth visit. Mana does not differentiate between those factors, it blesses all those that take the time to visit evenly.
I have to once again thank the incredible staff in camp for looking after all of us so well!
Also, thanks to my 6 awesome guests for making the guided Mana Safari so memorable. I will be sharing their images & accounts in a separate email – keep an eye out for that.
I leave you with a last few video highlights…
Till next time,