Trip Report: Mana Pools Photographic Safari (Part 1)

Morkel Erasmus All Authors, Morkel Leave a Comment

It is time.

Time to tell you all about our magnificent maiden Wild Eye Mana Pools Photographic Safari.

Why have I titled this “Part 1”?

Simply because the awesomeness is split in 2.

I will give my account, and a little while later Marlon will give his account. Seeing that we mostly drove around in different vehicles and often had different individual sightings, you can expect a slightly different report from Marlon in a few days’ time.

Now doesn’t that make you salivate?

Setting up the Camp

We arrived a few days earlier to start setting up the main portion of the camp (which would eventually serve as the kitchen/dining area. Upon our arrival, we were met by a big elephant bull right where we wanted to pitch the tents. A great welcome from Mana! (Most of the candid snapshots you will see were taken with my iPhone)

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You can see him reaching high for the leaves here, in the foreground is the braai/barbeque area where the majority of evening fires would be made!

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Over the course of the next week numerous elephants would make their way through the camp. This guy came the next afternoon. Sometimes even cows and calves would venture through in the dark when most of the camp was asleep. Other regular nightly visitors included some Spotted Hyenas.

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Here’s a view of the camp taking shape…

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Day 1

Now that the tone is set, let’s proceed to the actual report. Everyone arrived on the afternoon of 17 July, after lengthy travelling from all corners of the globe. Everyone was met by Will and his team in Harare that morning, and conveyed northwards in enormous Toyota Land Cruisers (which we would also use for traversing the Park).

After mutual introductions and a quick welcome drink, we set off on our first game drive. The mood and intent of this first drive was for everyone to get into the groove of being on safari, see something of the beauty of the wilderness of Mana, and also take their first pictures (get your “eye in”, as it were). We saw a couple of elephants in the woodlands, and ended up at “Mana Mouth” for sundowners.

The actual sundowners were neglected though, since there were a couple of elephants in the Zambezi riverbed which took up everyone’s attention.

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After sunset we headed back to camp, spotting a Side-striped Jackal on the way. We had a wonderful time getting to know each other better over a hearty meal. We also discussed everyone’s expectations from this trip, both photographically and experiential. Everyone had a long day, and what could be better than falling asleep to the night sounds of the Zambezi valley, with the gurgle of the mighty Zambezi river flowing right in front of the tents.

Day 2

Everyone was woken up at 05h30 so we could be ready to roll shortly after 6am. Sunrise was routinely around 06h15 during this trip. Seeing that we would travel in 4 different vehicles and I was in charge of one of the vehicles, you will typically see this report from my perspective.

Often we shared sightings where everyone was together, but at other times we were spread all over the traversing area, looking for good light and cooperative subjects. It’s great when you can find something to photograph in the precious moments that the light creates a magical mood in the forests.

It only lasts for a short while…and we tried to make the most of it every day.

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We all met up at the famous “Long Pool” for a quick sortie of photographing some wading birds and for our morning coffee break.

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As we kept exploring, a discussion around the dinner table the previous evening around the use of slow shutter speeds came in handy when we came across a flock of Red Queleas ebbing and flowing like a giant organism. Later that morning we came across an old friend of mine, one of the oldest bulls in Mana called “Boswell“.

He’s famous for two things: he sports the biggest pair of tusks in the Park, and more importantly, he likes to rear up on his hind legs to reach the juicy leaves in the highest trees. There’s normally 2-5 younger bulls following him and sponging off his efforts as he breaks off branches.

Needless to say: anyone visiting Mana Pools wants to see this behaviour. We walked into the floodplains a bit to get a clearer view. We were still some ways off but we all loved getting some great context in these shots.

Context and placing your subject in its environment was also a hot discussion the night before, especially in a beautiful place like Mana Pools.

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It goes without saying that we went back to the brunch table pretty stoked. What’s more, most of the folks in our party had seen some another elephant also attempt this feat elsewhere in the forest, so a box was ticked for all. After a splendid brunch and some free time (mostly siesta time), we went for an afternoon drive.

Despite general game and some elephants and even some Lappet-faced Vultures, the highlight for all had to have been the resident lion pride. They had killed a buffalo 2 days earlier next to a guy’s tent who was camping at one of the private campsites, and we found them lounging around not far from there next to the main road.

This pride is very approachable and used to people walking around in Mana – that being said all precautions were taken to not only keep our guests safe but also not to change the lions behaviour or causing them unnecessary stress. We had a great time sitting and watching them at ground level as they had a good rest.

You won’t be able to experience this in many places in the world…

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As we returned to the camp, there was even a brief Leopard sighting as a Spotted Hyena chased it out of hiding! Mana Pools had ignited a fire in everyone’s hearts and the talk around dinner and the campfire was alive with the experiences of the day. We were a great group of people assembled together and interesting conversation was never wanting.

Day 3

At dawn the sky was overcast and we knew the light would play out differently on this day. Everyone was rearing to get going on the third day. What would Mana reveal?

Every day I was fortunate to drive around with different photographers, so I could get to know everyone in the group and chat all things wildlife and photography in the field. We all headed out to the forest, and were fortunate to find a large congregation of elephants (multiple herds and lone bulls together, first I’ve seen like this in Mana) around the base of a massive tree that seemed to have fallen over during the night.

Food was at a free-for-all and even small elephants could reach the juicy leaves which normally are only available to those bulls who can balance on their hind legs for long enough to reach them.

Just as we started photographing them from a safe distance, the clouds opened up and the light was magnificent – golden rays hitting the forest with gloomy blue skies behind which invited the use of wider focal lengths.

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We spent the better part of the morning with this herd, and even had our “in-the-field” coffee and snack pack right there. From here, the group of vehicles split up in search of more sightings.

We opted to head west, and though we did find the lions close to where we left them the previous night (they were all lying prostate and sleeping sweetly), we had another destination in mind…Boswell the elephant. The old guy had been roaming the same stretch of floodplains all month, and sure enough we found him again.

He was with 4 younger bulls who mulled around him in the hopes of feeding with him off the big branches he would pull off the trees.

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We approached on foot and got within good photographic range. He was in good form, rising at least 6 or 7 times during the sighting, but not always in a good open spot for getting a proper image of this unique behaviour.

The overcast conditions provided some even lighting at an hour when the light would have been a bit harsh had the sun been out in full force.

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There was one quirky moment where he’d broken off a huge branch and was strutting around with it like a dog with a bone.

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After cautiously making our way to a spot where we had a better vantage point when it looked like Boswell was going to do his magic again (and having a rather close encounter with one of his cohorts who came walking by), we merely had to be ready and snap away…and let me tell you few things make us Wild Eye Ambassadors as happy as putting our guests in front of a majestic scene or a unique sighting and hearing the shutters sound off like the Gatling guns of the Old Wild West!

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We made our way back to the camp for a well-deserved late brunch, hearing that some of the other members of our group had found the lion pride on the move again (more about that in Marlon’s report). The mood was jovial as everyone munched down their hearty meal and settled down for some quiet time after an eventful morning.

For our afternoon drive, we headed out to where we left Boswell (to try and get the others to see him), but he and his whole entourage had moved off and we couldn’t spot them anywhere in the vicinity.

The others decided to head further westward in search of him or other elephants on the floodplains, while we decided we would take a leisurely drive around and set up for some sunset shots at Mana mouth (with the clouds starting to dissipate and shape up for some nice light towards sunset).

Our drive was quiet (though we did see lots of general plains game), but we did get some good light on the landscape of the plains to the south around Long Pool…

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We decided to get a different perspective here…

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Did I mention that Mana has MANY baboons?

The problem is, they are actually quite skittish. Once you stop and point a lens at them, they run away…weird!

Our path towards Mana mouth took us through the forest again…and you know by now I love the golden light in the forest.

A lone impala made for a very cooperative subject!

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We reached Mana mouth in time for sunset, and though it was a nice one, the colour that we expected to explode into a crimson and pink psychedelic dream fizzled out and faded away as is often the case for those passionate about landscape photography.

It was still nice to spend these last moments of the day watching the sun set over the iconic Zambezi river.

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Other sightings during the day included buffalo, waterbuck, zebra, eland and even kudu. Back at camp around the drinks table we heard that the others had another amazing elephant sighting on the floodplains in amazing light. More on that in Marlon’s report!

Everyone was starting to soak up the “Mana Magic” and it was actually sad that we only had one full day left to spend here. We fell asleep to the sound of lions roaring across the river, and the usual grunts of hippos all through the night.

Day 4

The cry of fish eagles rang in our ears as we got up that morning, mingled with some more distant lion roars and the incessant hippos.

There are worse places to wake up in! We set out early as usual, eager to make the most of the day. As it happens in the bush, you may have action-packed days and then also quiet days. This turned out to be a quiet day, by the standard of my experiences in Mana thus far at least. It was still nice to explore the bush, immerse ourselves in the sights and smells and sounds, and look for whatever may be around the next corner.

The morning drive didn’t deliver much photographically, and even old Boswell was still MIA. We did spend some time with a couple of zebras, an old buffalo bull and the usual baboons, impala and waterbuck.

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Towards the end of the morning drive one of our vehicles made the discovery of a freshly killed baboon carcass in a tree close to the main road…and we decided to check it out as we went out on our afternoon drive. As we got to the carcass, we actually spotted a small female leopard scuttling away hurriedly.

Obviously she was not in favour of the vehicles. Leopards in Mana Pools are not like their compatriots in the Sabi Sands and I’ve heard of people who’ve come here for over 25 years with only 4 logged leopard sightings on their trips. I’ve been lucky to have seen leopards on every trip now, and this was our 2nd sighting of this trip now.

There was no photo opportunity, but everyone was glad to have spotted her dappled coat as she hastened deeper into the forest.

Towards the end of the day, we staked out a spot in the forest in hope catching some of that magic light again…

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As we made our way out of the forest to head to the camp for the night, we found this lone elephant bull reaching as high as he can for some grub (without taking any of his feet off the ground).

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As we sat down to our last dinner for this trip, everyone began reminiscing about what Mana had done for them, not just photographically, but also in terms of their overall African experience (many of us had been to many other places on our great continent). Everyone was of one accord that Mana Pools is indeed special, a gem and an Eden in Africa.

After dinner everyone finally got to meet the folks who had been lovingly preparing all the meals, breakfast packs and snacks all week. We ended the evening around the leadwood fire (as usual), chatting away and listening to the night sounds of Mana in between.

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Day 5

I got up shortly before 4am, as Jordi and Craig wanted to try and shoot some starscapes over the Zambezi river. With it being full moon, we needed to get up an hour earlier in order for the moonlight to have the least effect on the photos. It was nice standing on the riverbank watching the day approach, while giving advice around shutter speed/ISO/aperture combinations for the scenes they were shooting.

Jordi had not brought the his tripod ballhead, so I offered him my own tripod to use. Hence, I was not physically photographing with them and have no image to add into this blog post…

Soon the camp started stirring. It’s never nice to wake up on the day that you need to leave the bush.

Everyone had their bags packed and ready since the previous afternoon (keeping out only essentials) as there really only was time for a cup of coffee, followed by a short morning drive and then we needed to hit the corrugated 77km dirt track out to the main road to Harare in time to make sure everyone caught their respective flights later that afternoon. We headed out to the junction where the leopard was spotted on the baboon carcass first up. Guess what? She was there again, feeding on the unfortunate baboon! Guess what? As soon as we stopped there, she started to descend and scuttled away again! I can only present one horrible “record shot” here.

There are 2 reasons why I didn’t get a better shot.

1. I positioned the vehicle so that the guests could get a shot (I know Wayne got a proper one sitting right next to me).

2. In what can only be called a “rookie mistake” I had not switched my Nikon D800 back from the 3 second shutter delay I had used for capturing the sunset the previous evening (see photo above). So we all keep learning, right? This shot was a fluke in any event, as I tried to get the camera settings adjusted when the shutter didn’t fire immediately. 🙂

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Given the track record of leopards at Mana Pools, I don’t think 3 leopard sightings in 5 days is that bad…LOL

After one last parting elephant bull, and some impalas running through the forest, it was time to head out. We stopped for a quick group photo on the banks of the Zambezi at Mana Mouth. David and Karen had already left bright and early for their next trip on the Kariba Lake, so they are unfortunately not part of this photo session.

I improvised and popped them in on the side though (like those school yearbook photos when you were absent!).

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The Camp

I thought I’d add a sort of “PS” to the post with some more images from the camp. We truly were blessed with an amazing camping (or is it “glamping”?) experience by Will and his team.

Items on the menu included snoek on the fire (a type of South African deep sea fish), beef curry pot, sosaties (kebabs), and even ginger dumplings and milk tart filled pancakes for dessert.

Every tent was furnished with a comfortable modern camping stretcher and bedding, a small bedside table (including a vial and glasses for “nightcaps”) and some uber-comfortable directors chairs for sitting in front of the tents and staring out over the Zambezi.

Camping is part of the allure of the bush in places like this that are so far removed from everything else.

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Next year?

We are definitely planning on returning!

There are some changes envisioned and some necessary actions to be implemented, based on the learnings from this very successful first outing. For now, you can add your name to the (already long) waiting list to be the first to be notified when the next trips go live on the Wild Eye website.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip report.

If it’s made you want to see and experience Mana Pools for yourself, whether ASAP or in the distant future, then I have succeeded in my goal. This place just gets under your skin more and more every time you come here. Remember to keep your eyes open for Marlon’s Mana trip report to follow.

If you want to join me and Marlon on safari this year, you can still hop on board our scheduled photographic safari to the Masai Mara in Kenya to witness and photograph the Great Migration in September – join us here!

Keep clicking!

Morkel Erasmus

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