There’s just something about Mana Pools…
It’s safe to say that Mana Pools has engraved itself at the top of my personal list of favourite safari destinations.
Sure, each person has their favourite and their reasons for it.
Don’t get me wrong: I love me some Mara Triangle, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Etosha and others.
There’s just something about Mana Pools…
This trip started with me joining up with Vikram Ghanekar for 2 days of private safari on 17 July, before being joined by my other guests, Ian Lander and Antonio Orfao, on the 19th. Instead of going for a blow-by-blow account of what we saw, I will rather share some images and some reflections on the experience we had and the photographs we chased.
Mana is a sensory indulgence, a holistic African experience that invites you in, and often invites you to put down your camera and just be, just take it all in and enjoy a moment suspended in time.
In discussions with my guests prior to departure we talked about lens choices, and photographic goals – and everyone had pretty much the same goal: to capture photos in that unique, singularly epic Mana light. My goal (along with Kevin Louw, our pro Zimbabwean guide for these safaris) was to put them into the right spots at the right times for those images to be realised (considering that the animals also needed to play their part).
From the moment we embarked from Harare in a small Cessna airplane and headed into the Zambezi valley, I knew my guests would be in for a treat. Stepping into Mwinilunga Safaris’ camp and meeting Dave and Tess and their crew is more like going back home after being away for a while, than it is arriving in a strange camp on the banks of the Zambezi. Many camps and lodges claim to have a homely touch, but those who’ve been hosted by Dave & Tess know what true hospitality is. Your eyes and tastebuds will not believe what they are able to whip up here in the middle of the bush!
At the start of our days on safari, invariably we’d head out first thing in the morning, to get to a pre-determined spot we scoped out the previous day, in the hopes of the light breaking through the forest canopy in a spectacular way, and in the double hope that there would be some kind of interesting wildlife to capture in that light.
As the morning light faded, we usually went in search of elephant bulls to spend time with on foot, or tracking predators (we heard lions roaring most nights, as well as leopard grunting). The full moon made for a challenge in that regard, with predators focusing their energies to hunt in the additional light available at night. We did find the lions once (flat down as they often are), to prove that they are around.
After our routine hearty “beerunch” (a hearty brunch and a cold beer) around noon, we’d relax in camp or spend some time working through processing tutorials in Lightroom and Photoshop. There were usually elephants moving through the camp around this time, playing in the mud pool behind our camp, and hippos, crocodiles and a plethora of bird life visible from the dining table looking over the Zambezi river.
By 3pm we’d gulp down a quick coffee and head out again in search of a suitable subject to sit with until the light got just right for what we had in mind (this would usually be some of Mana’s tolerant elephant bulls!). We also took one afternoon to work with the hippos who reside in Long Pool.
Shooting into the light has it’s unique challenges, and unique opportunities. One of the techniques we discussed and utilised is the use of a smaller aperture like f16-f22 to induce a starburst when the sun is coming through the leaves. It takes some practice and you need to properly check your exposure settings and manage how high you are willing to push your ISO to get these shots.
As the golden hour (more like the golden 5 minutes, eh?) faded, we worked on shooting in the dim soft light of the afterglow in the forests – pushing the ISOs even higher and challenging ourselves on how far we are prepared to push the gear. Working the light often means rather having your sundowner drink when you are on the way back to camp in the game viewing vehicle, because you used every last vestige of dusk light to squeeze onto your camera sensor.
Getting back into our camp to a cold G&T and a cosy fire by the edge of the river made us realise that there surely can’t be many places more special than this! Dinner time was always filled with excellent fare, hearty conversations and many laughs.
It wasn’t all just brilliant sunlight for our photos. We had some days where a bit of cloud rolled in (mid-morning, which then works as a great diffuser of the harsher light), and we also had the opportunity to photograph elephants under the setting full moon, shortly before nautical sunrise early on in the week.
One particular afternoon we had the privilege of having 4 big elephant bulls directly behind our camp, one of which was a bull nicknamed “Fred Astaire” (see THIS previous post of mine) who is one of very few elephants in the Zambezi valley with the knack of getting up on his hind legs to reach the sweetest leaves. Being able to have my guests see him to this multiple times and photograph it was a huge privilege. Furthermore, he was being quite selfish with his spoils and kept giving the other elephants stick for trying to spunge off his hard work. That’s the thing about elephants – you can watch them ALL day and see amazing interaction and display of intelligence and personality. I can hardly think of a better place to view and photograph elephants than on foot in Mana Pools!
There’s also more to the biodiversity of Mana Pools than merely finding animals on foot in great light. Once the full moon subsided a bit we experimented with some nocturnal landscapes around the camp to photograph the vivid starry expanse, watched closely by a couple of hyenas who hung around the perimeter of our tripods. I am a keen landscape photographer so I tend to try and encourage those who travel with me to build their skills with wider angle lenses, even when working with wildlife!
Few guests dare to venture into the magnificent cathedral mopani forests to the west of the main tourist area – with good reason: you could get lost in there pretty quickly. On our last morning – as part of a final push to get to see the large pack of painted dogs in this area, we headed there and explored the forest with ultra-wide angle lenses…a surreal experience.
I asked my guests to kindly showcase 2 or 3 of their photos taken on the trip for this blog post. I think it would by no means be fair to say that these were their absolute favourites, as I know most of them have had to dive headlong into a mountain of work since getting home and would by now not have delved deep enough into image the review process to be able to pick out their “3 best”. Without further a due, here they are:
(see more of his work on Facebook)
(see more of his work on Facebook)
(see more of his work on Instagram)
All in all, it was a great trip with a great group. Lots of joking, lots of serious light-chasing and working the opportunities we were given to the max, lots of time spent soaking up the wonder of Mana Pools. It’s safe to say that all of the guys are now fully fascinated with Mana as I am! I firmly believe our Wild Eye Mana Pools photo safaris combine the best of the holistic Mana experience, arguably the best local camp and hosts, and the best experience in terms of knowing how to get the most out of that magical light (we’ve been doing it longer and been there more often than any other photographic travel operator).
One last fun group photo – those using real cameras versus those using white lenses 😉
The dates for the 2017 season of our Mana Pools safaris are already LIVE and bookable (2016 is full up).
There is also an exciting new offering in the Mana Pools Adventure Trail which will see Marlon and Jono take 6 guests from Chitake Springs to the Mana floodplains on a fly-camping photographic hiking safari – you can see more details HERE.
Until I write again…
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