I’ve been yearning to share this amazing trip with you guys…well, here it is!
This is a safari that I look forward all year long…Mana Pools is such a special piece of wilderness that it’s hard to not count down the days between leaving Mana until you set foot on her soil again. As we gathered on the 29th at OR Tambo International for our flight to Harare, the excitement was palpable among the guests as well. After checking in our luggage we sat down in the Mugg & Bean, got to know each other a bit better and chatted about our expectations for the trip. I told them upfront that Mana will rock their world – not because I am cocky or over-confident, but because Mana rocks the world of every traveler and adventurer who dares venture into her midst. I also told them upfront that the Mana Pools experience is an immersive, holistic sensory experience, and walking away with a couple of good photos really is the cherry on top of a fabulous cake.
I won’t bore you with the travel details, but suffice to say that we had a very scenic first afternoon drive through the Mana Pools wilderness (those tree-rocks!), witnessed a lovely sunset in the Rukomechi riverbed, and were glad to arrive in our camp in time for our evening meal and to soak up the sounds of the bush as we went to sleep to the lullaby of the hippos in the Zambezi river.
The next morning we all awoke with a flutter of excitement. Our camp for this trip was based at Old Ndungu 1, which is close to the area where the Nyakasanga pack of African Wild Dogs (Painted Dogs as they are called in Zimbabwe) have their den site this season, and they had been seen hunting and moving through and around camp during the week prior to our arrival. In fact, the camp host Dave had taken some photos the morning of our arrival that just made me cringe – the dogs had come chasing an impala right through the camp and killed it on the riverbank right in front of the guest tents. Thereafter they fought off a Spotted Hyaena and proceeded to play with each other in the most glorious light. This all while we were still on our way up to Mana! They also had a lioness move through the camp the previous day…
Our goal each morning was to go and search for some of these magnificent predators as they were usually on the hunt early in the morning in our general area. After a quick coffee and rusk we set off and drove along the floodplains. We didn’t find the dogs and after a while proceeded to locate some elephants. That we did, but not after a great sighting of a pair of Side-striped Jackals.
No sooner had we stopped and gotten out of the vehicles to observe them on foot, than we noticed that one of the legendary big bulls of Mana Pools, Boswell, was among the group of elephants feeding in the forest on the edge of the Zambezi river. You can see more photos of Boswell in THIS POST, but suffice to say I was excited as he is the elephant that is best known for the signature Mana Pools sighting of big elephant bulls standing on their hind legs to reach the leaves and pods of the huge trees. We kept a safe distance as there were quite a number of cows with calves in the group (and no matter where you are, you keep your distance from the ele ladies).
It was still a lovely experience in hazy morning light, being able to witness how Boswell provides for the elephants of Mana by bumping the trees with his head so the albida pods came falling down like a gentle rain. We enjoyed this sighting for well over 2 hours with nobody in sight! The highlight was certainly when Boswell was walking away from us, stopped under a tree, turned around to face us as if to say: “You’ve been waiting for this – lift your cameras!” – and then proceeded to do the thing that he is famous for. He is currently collared which detracts a bit from the images but it’s still an awe-inspiring moment of natural history to observe and capture!
The rest of the morning delivered lovely sightings of Mana regulars like Eland, Impala, Baboons, Crocodiles and various bird species. We had barely gotten back to camp for lunch when one of the staff alerted us to the lioness moving through camp again. She was clearly lactating and we were able to follow her as she attempted to stalk some impala just outside our camp perimeter – where else have you had this kind of experience in your camp?? We lost sight of her as she moved into some thick stuff and we didn’t want to spoil her hunt if she was indeed nursing cubs, so we let her be and lazed around for the rest of the early afternoon.
That afternoon was particularly hazy due to persistent bushfires along the Zambian and Zimbabwean escarpments that encompass the Zambezi Valley. We were able to find some elephants on the floodplains and tried to use the hazy light to our advantage. After a relatively quiet afternoon drive we enjoyed some sundowners and headed back to camp for another fantastic dinner. The hippos were out grazing just down the riverbank from our tents, so we needed to be vigilant when moving about! Somewhere during the night the lions also started serenading us…joining the chorus of hippos to sing a Mana Lullaby.
The next morning it was overcast and the wind was blowing. The Wild Dogs had been spotted moving through our area again shortly after we left to the East for our elephant session, so we reaffirmed our strategy of searching for them first up to the West, and we ended up finding the lions lounging about! Needless to say we stopped, and approached responsibly and safely. Photographing lions on foot from a distance of 20-30 meters is one of the Mana specialities – again, first the experience and then the photos! These cats looked like they needed a meal – and we hoped they would make a kill sometime during the day.
After the lions moved off into the thick stuff to rest, we searched for the Wild Dogs some more after another reported sighting to slightly to the East came in. We tracked them on foot for a bit, but these predators cover vast distances when in hunting mode, so we ended up heading towards Long Pool for our morning coffee stop. We did find the remains of an impala kill that the dogs obviously made much earlier – just missing them every time was a bit frustrating!
Dave and Kevin proceeded to show us a massive Baobab tree that is completely hollow on the inside (naturally) but also gnawed and mangled on the outside by visiting elephants. I loved that Dave and Kevin also took time to show us the intricacies of the ecosystem – it wasn’t just a chasing after sightings and light and close wildlife encounters…it was a love affair being woven with the whole of Mana Pools.
The giant tree was followed by us encountering a large (for Mana) herd of Cape Buffalo. We approached them on foot and it was great to see how curious they are.
A session with some elephant bulls feeding in some of the stagnant pools along the floodplain rounded off our morning nicely…
After returning to camp for a late brunch (actually more like an early lunch, we loved being in the field so much!), we would routinely take some time off or sit and discuss photographic or conservation issues around the table under the canopy of trees. The hospitality in the camp is amazing and the feeling that you are camping in a really wild place never escapes you.
Our afternoon drive took us towards the glorious floodplains again. The wind had blown away much of the haziness, which was pretty nice, and we were hopeful of some lovely photographic light on the floodplains. This little Waterbuck was a great poser!
Both Marlon and I stress on these safaris that capturing photos of animals in Mana Pools is also about capturing the landscape of Mana Pools, incorporating the trees and the termite mounds and the distinct look of the place, making the environment work its magic on your images. I’ve never encountered a location in Africa that is so photogenic but also so hard to do justice to.
As we drove along to get to a spot where we would like to get out and walk, one of our vehicles had a great sighting of a relaxed leopard, and they have the images to show for it! Granted, any leopard that gives you 10 seconds to capture a photo or two in Mana is classified as “relaxed”, haha. We were coming up just behind them and as we stopped the cat stood up from the termite mound it was resting on and slinked back into the thickets. Still, a leopard is a leopard, and half of my guests got some lovely images (I couldn’t source one to post here in time, unfortunately)!
Two young elephant bulls on the floodplains around Trichilia campsite provided our next sighting. This one young bull in particular was very cooperative and we were able to approach him with wide angle lenses and try some creative images using the starburst effect when shooting with large apertures (like f16/f22).
His buddy was less accomodating, and warned us off when we came too close for comfort. It’s important to be reading the animal behaviour closely, and having our pro Zim guide Kevin with us helped a lot in that regard – he could focus on us being safe while I could focus on helping the guests get their shots.
Back in camp the talk was lively as the “Mana Magic” was being weaved around every one of us. Dave (the camp manager) even showed us something that had happened under our noses – a leopard had made an impala kill and stashed it in a tree inside our camp perimeter! This is an iPhone pic…
It was half-eaten, and the hyaenas would stake out the tree during the remainder of the evening, probably trying to reach it and drag it down. During the night, I woke up to the sounds of lions eating some unfortunate prey (the sound of a lion feeding frenzy is unmistakeable). I also heard a male lion roar very close to our camp in the early hours of the morning.
By the way – best LOO VIEW ever! 😉
The new dawn broke on a stunningly clear day – the wind had done its thing and the haze was history. As we left for our morning drive, we first checked up on the leopard kill which was still as we left it the previous evening, no cat in sight. We found the tracks of a big male lion in the main road and after doing a quick scan for the Wild Dogs (you actually check to see if there are any antelopes running frantically from an area, as the dogs flush them out when they are on the hunt), we proceeded to follow the lion’s tracks but also could not locate him where the track veered off into the bush. We decided to rather head to the floodplains and use the sweet morning light, and luckily for us we made the right call! We came across another legendary Mana Pools elephant bull called Big Vic or Big V, along with two cohorts. We spent the better part of the morning getting really close to these guys.
At one point Vic was even feeding 5 meters in front of us while our whole group sat quietly on a fallen log taking photos of him. The photo below was taken at 29mm focal length!
“But first – lemme take a selfie!” – not really though, this photo was kindly taken by one of my guests, Christa Niederer.
We were still standing with Big Vic when we noticed one of the other bulls getting on his hind feet! It was Fred Astaire, one of the only other bulls known to imitate the behaviour of Boswell. What a surprise! I had never seen him before so could not recognise him initially when we came across them.
When we eventually left Big V and Fred (that whole time being the only people there) we ventured to Hippo Pools and met up with – you guessed it – Boswell. He was doing his thing again. The light wasn’t the best but some of my guests captured some lovely video sequences to show people how this amazing feat is accomplished.
By the time we started getting hungry, we left Boswell in peace and returned to camp. A visitor came around – the head of the Painted Dog Conservation fund, Dr Greg Rasmussen. He ended up joining us for lunch and entertained us with anecdotes from his 20+ years helping to conserve this endangered predator in Zimbabwe. Just as everyone was settling down for siesta time, the call came from the kitchen staff that the lioness was moving through the camp again! This time poor Kevin (our Zim guide) nearly bumped into her as he came out of his own tent!
Our afternoon drive saw us heading back slowly towards the Trichilia area. For one, we were hoping Big Vic or Fred Astaire would still be in the area, and for two: hoping to see the leopard again. The latter did not show itself, but in the denser woodlands of our intended target for the afternoon we did find Fred Astaire! We were able to spend the rest of the late afternoon working the scene photographically (on foot, of course, which means changing your angle or position or perspective is quite dynamic). The light is magic in these forests, and although we captured some great images of Fred going bipedal during this session, he just-just did not go up on two legs in that last sweet golden light (he was about to, then refrained from it)…I guess you can’t have it all!
We ended up having sundowners right there on the floodplains as the most amazing sunset enveloped Mana Pools!
That night around the dinner table, I asked all the guests what their highlight was and whether Mana Pools had met their expectations. Veronica’s comment was that the highlight would be the next day (our final morning in the Park)…and how right she was! After dinner I was able to show some of the guests some processing tips in Lightroom and Photoshop as well.
We would be catching a charter flight out of Mana the next afternoon, which meant that we still had a whole morning’s epicness ahead of us. And just how epic did it turn out to be? We headed out in search of the Painted Dogs again – our concensus around the dinner table was to go and look for them one last time. We lucked out again, and decided to use the last good light to explore the floodplains again. We hadn’t gone far when a vehicle from the front flagged us down and shouted “Dogs!” – the location wasn’t far ahead! We found them on two fresh kills – according to another visitor who was standing and watching them they made 4 kills in quick succession as they moved through the area. They had done a wide circling exploration around their normal hunting ground and ended up killing close to the Mucheni campsites. We spent some time really working the energy of the dogs feeding and interacting – all on foot once again – and this brought smiles to all of the guest faces! It was a magical sighting as these dogs are one of the main attractions of Mana…
It looked like they would perhaps hunt again – we counted 16+ in this hunting party and we knew the pack itself is over 25 excluding the new pups – so it was highly possible that they would kill again if the previous quarries were smallish. We decided to head down to the river to pre-empt them as they looked to be moving in this direction. We also felt that they might come down for a drink after their meals…but eventually we could see them from our new position moving back into the bushes to rest up for the afternoon’s session.
The group then decided to spend our last usable photographic time working the forests behind Nyamepi for the typical blue haze that you get late mornings there.
En route back to camp we caught a glimpse of Boswell, Big Vic and a couple of other bulls in the same area – and waved our goodbyes as time was tight to finish packing and make our flight back to Harare. A final farewell lunch in the camp brought a lump in the throat, as we knew that were about to leave a very special place…
I want to thank all my guests who trusted me to show them this piece of Eden…and for providing lots of great conversation, jokes and memories. I also want to thank the team from Mwinilunga Safaris whose camp and hospitality were top notch!
Like I said, I can’t wait to return…and next year will be bigger and better. We will spend 5 nights in Mana, as opposed to 4 nights this year, and we will be chartering flights in and out to maximise the time spent in this magical wilderness.
It’s a place that delivers magnificent wildlife encounters and magnificent photos – but in the end I feel that most photos end up not really doing the place justice.
You merely have to return time and again to BE there…to immerse yourself in the Mana experience…to soak up Africa.
Why don’t you JOIN US in this mission of discovery next year – discovering an Africa that time forgot, discovering a wilderness that still feels as wild as it seems?
* * *