The destination that seems to be on everyone’s lips at the moment is Mana Pools, an absolute gem hidden in Northern Zimbabwe along the banks of the mighty Zambezi.
I recently returned from ten days of magical safari with my Wild Eye guests. We were hosted by a fantastic mobile operator!
If you have followed my journey as a photographer and passionate guide you will know its no secret that I have a little soft spot for Mana. Okay, perhaps it’s more like a crazed addiction for the wild corner of Africa, but it’s with good enough reason.
Ever wondered what Mana is about?
Ever wanted to see Mana stripped bare right down to its beautiful soul, its captivating essence?
Scroll down my friends…
Grasping at the words to describe a place so special, a place with such mood and character is no easy task. The fact that I capture moments in nature through the art of photography will contribute immensely in my story to you, a story of a place that takes captive the heart of every visitor.
From our camp along the banks of the Zambezi, shaded by massive Faiderbia albida trees we had an incredible view of both the river and the adjacent floodplain. Animals were always present, and elephants would enjoy a mud bath right infront of camp on a daily basis. There was nothing separating our classic safari tents from the “locals”.
By locals I am not only referring to waterbuck, impala, kudu and baboons, but also to elephant, lion, hyena and leopard!
I recall a great moment in camp. One of my guests was ready to retire to the comforts of his warm bed soon after dinner. The only lights in camp were at our dinner table. I told him that I would walk him to his tent incase any visitors were waiting along the way to his tent. As we stood and I switched on my torch, 4 lionesses filled the beam! They were out hunting and passed our camp and dinner table no further that 20 meters away. Following them was a large male lion! This was an incredible experience and left us all not only in awe, but also served as a reminder of exactly where we were. This kind of Africa is not for the feint-hearted!
So why travel all the way around the world to see a little floodplain tucked away in a little country that is often in the media with negative press (FYI, you will travel hard and far to find people more welcoming and friendly than Zimbabwe)?
The answer is simple. Mana Pools holds one of the most intimate wildlife experiences in store for you! The only way to unlock this is to completely immerse yourself and to soak in every moment out here. This is not difficult to do either as the sheer beauty of the land will overwhelm you right from the start.
A definite contributing factor to Mana Pools is the ability to view animals on foot.
From an experience viewpoint it is so different to anything else out there as you spend the majority of your time on foot. Photographically you are in a position to photograph from many different angles, bringing your subject to life in new ways! The intimate moments you have with everything from baboon to lion, all on foot, is something that will leave you breathless and changed! It’s incredible!
Can you even begin to imagine how exciting it must be to spend an entire afternoon in the company of a great elephant bull, or to watch lions resting with absolute nothing but the air you breathe separating you? This is all possible within the magical wilderness.
The landscape here is spectacular. The dry season yields no grass cover and visibility is amazing. At times you can spot an animal at over a kilometer away within the albida forest floor. Impala, waterbuck and baboons are always present. The odd buffalo bulls are also fairly common and a little further inland one can enjoy frequent sightings of zebra and eland.
When you move further into the albida forest itself you will be absolutely amazed at the the beauty surrounding you. You get a sense of Africa the way it used to be, the way our forefathers surely saw it.
My guests were completely overwhelmed by how stunning this was. It stood out prominently. It felt as if you had stepped back in time!
In order to make Mana come alive with your images, you need to merge the landscape and animals. You need to constantly think about it, you need to move to get into position. There’s so much potential here, but one cannot be without the other.
Elephant herds are not impressively large. Bulls spend time together in groups of 2 to 4, and the cows are more commonly seen in small family groups than large herds. Due to the harsh dry season in Mana large bulls are key to the survival of the smaller cows and young bulls. As they feed and forage on the high branches of the albida’s cows and young bulls benefit greatly from what they leave behind or share.
The tricky part to photographing this magical landscape lies not in numbers or impressive action-filled moments. No, there’s a side to Mana Pools that many overlook, a side that is soft, gentle and romantic. The difficult part is to SEE it, to search for it! Even putting it in words is rather challenging. As I mentioned above, the landscape is such an intrinsic part of your image, it simply cannot be overlooked.
As the sun starts to fade behind the misty haze within the Zambezi Valley so characteristic of this land, the light offers you the opportunity to capture something special, something different.
Photography is after all, to “paint with light”.
You need not a pride of 20 lions, or a herd of 50 elephants. A lonely hippo will do just fine, a mere waterbuck alert on the forest floor.
As the lights dissipates and makes way for the evening dusk, you will capture moments you only dreamed of.
See that’s exactly it! There’s something to learn from that! One is often tempted as a photographer to capture as much as possible, to not miss out on anything! You are missing the plot! Get rid of the fear of missing out and take pleasure in that what is before you!
For me, being out in the field I immerse myself in nature first and foremost. I feel the warm African sun on my skin, the sensation of the cool early evening breeze. I take it all in, every moment of it. Photography is merely my way of documenting my experience, my love for the African wilderness. If this is what you do first and foremost you will for the first time LIVE it, you will see Africa with new vivid eyes.
Africa will come alive to you.
We spent alot of time in the company of lions. In the mornings we would track them by following in the direction of the evening calls, and in the afternoons we would venture down to where we left them in the morning. For the most part the shutters were quiet as lions are not all that active. That said there were a few glorious moments I will always cherish.
Because one is on foot with Africa’s most fearsome predator, it makes the experience that much more special. Very little compares to the feeling of looking through your viewfinder, and knowing that nothing separates you from what you are viewing.
It is raw, it is real and it is life-changing!
The lions have grown relatively accustomed to people gawking at them on foot, and in the company of our experienced pro Zim guide Kevin Louw and I my guests were completely relaxed and at ease. It is so special, words can’t describe it!
Elephants are a common sight in Mana. As I mentioned before, seeing large herds together are extremely rare. This makes photographing them rather tricky.
You need to draw from the beauty of the surrounding landscape to compliment your subject. In theory, this sounds simple but it can be tough. In order to do so you really need to understand the nature of the land and the available light. Using the filtered light as it shifts through the forest canopy is a key ingredient to capturing the beauty around you.
I made sure my guests were always on the look out for this. Thanks to many visits to Mana I have an understanding of what is required for unbelievable images, images that ring true of the essence of Mana. This need not be golden light only.
Once the sun has set it makes way for some soft, moody light. There are no harsh shadows to worry about and the textures of the forest tree’s and rough bark can be seen in a new way.
As can be seen below, even photographing during broad daylight can yield amazing images filled with mood and soul!
There’s hardly ever a time when you would put your camera down here.
Searching for area’s where the golden light breaks through the forest canopy will allow you to photograph in light that one can only dream of. All you need is a single reasonably compliant elephant, and Mana’s magic will do the rest for you.
The quality of light is like nothing I have ever seen before, time and time again! The fact that we were on foot and free to move allowed my guests to get into positions quickly. As the elephant above moved we were able to move quietly alongside him, keeping the sun behind him and getting images we could not even have dreamed of! Pure magic!
As you can see it is difficult to describe Mana Pools in only words. To write about all it has to offer is impossible, it’s simply too overwhelming.
The only way is to EXPERIENCE it, to see it for yourself. I have yet to meet a single person who has not had a special experience here. This is evident is the number of people that return time and time again.
Yes, I do want you to experience Mana Pools with us.
I do want you to see this wilderness for yourself.
Is it because I do this for a living? Is it because I need to pay rent at the end of the month? Partly yes, it is my “job” and what I do for a living.
That said, I want YOU to see Mana Pools because it will likely not be around for very long. It will take a huge effort to save it from several aspects, both natural and man-made. Mining with the valley poses a massive risk and hunting concessions all around Mana pose a threat to its well-known inhabitants. The building of Lake Kariba many years ago has stopped the flooding of the floodplain and stunted the release of new minerals into Mana’s soil. As a result the land is void of crucial nourishment.
I could go on and on. Mana is undoubtedly threatened and under pressure. It is a fragile eco-system.
You need to see it, you need to experience it.
For more information on how to join Wild Eye in Mana Pools in 2015, click HERE.
This safari changed the lives of my guests, and I am completely convinced Mana will do the same for you.
Thanks so much for your time!
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Marlon du Toit