Trip Report: Mana Pools Safari, October 2016

Marlon duToit All Authors, Marlon 3 Comments

It’s no secret that I love this piece of Africa.

To me, it’s as close as I will come to the Garden of Eden, Africa’s own enchanted woodland.

Walking beneath Mana’s forest canopy feels like a dream. It feels like you’ve stepped into another world. The sound of birds calling from up above, gushing water from the powerful Zambezi close by, elephants dotted about the open floodplain ahead of you – it all seems to good to be true.

But alas, it is not!

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This place I speak of really exists and I once again had the pleasure & the the privilege to host back to back Wild Eye Mana Pools Safaris in October of this year.

A large portion of the guests’s had been here with me before. They were even more excited than what I remember them to being the first time round! And that’s exactly it!

I like to call it, the “Mana Effect”.

It’s a serious condition. Once it embeds into your heart, it never lets go. It will tug at your emotions everytime you see an image of Mana, or reminisce to the days spent walking with lion, elephants and wild dogs.

This condition is a good thing, and if you allow yourself to visit only once, I can assure you you’ll be back for more.

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Mana Pools is undoubtedly one of Africa’s wildest & most unique safari destinations.

Why, you might ask?

Well, can you think of another region where you can walk freely amongst the wild animals – lion, elephant, buffalo, wild dog, hippo and more – and feel completely at ease & safe. All that within one of the most beautiful areas you’ve ever laid eyes upon!

You feel alive!

You can hear everything around you! The smells seem fresher! The sound of twigs cracking below your leather boots seem louder. The sight of an elephant close by more thrilling than ever before!

Yes, that’s the “Mana Effect” kicking in right there!

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We spend a large amount of time with Mana’s elephants.

They are abundant on the flood plain and over the year I have grown fond of a number of individual elephants. To me, they have become easily recognizable.

A notch in the bottom right ear. A bump on the back right leg. The manner in which the tusks curl. Even a kink in the tail can be a recognizable aspect.

Every year that I return I get to meet up with these elephants, and I get to introduce my guests to some of the most incredible experiences, moments that they will cherish for a lifetime.

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This safari was no different to any other that I have hosted in Mana in the past.

Mana always delivers, it always produces moments of magic for my guests.

Let me show you some of the incredible things we got to see during my October safari to Mana Pools, starting out with terrific buffalo encounters.

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Something that’s eluded me in the past, are buffalo kicking up dust in the Mana forest in golden light.

The large herds don’t venture out on to the floodplain until late into the dry season. They come in search of water from the Zambezi, and also seedpods from the Winter Thorns and flowers dropping from the many Sausage Tree’s dotted about all over the floodplain.

My guests and I spent quality time on foot with the herds. It’s a sensational feeling, being on foot and not more than 20 or 30 meters away from one of Africa’s most feared beasts.

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The safety of my guests’s is at the forefront of what I do on every on-foot encounter. I will never place them in direct danger. Buffalo herds are incredible to view on foot. They are inquisitive by nature and allow for great sightings.

The lone bulls are the ones to be most wary of. They are notoriously known for their bad attitude and tendency to react aggressively to the sight of humans on foot.

As you can see from this great video, their reaction to us walking besides them is not as bad as you’d imagine. In fact, in most cases they simply ignore us as they go on about their business.

As previously mentioned, they have a love for flowers from the Sausage Tree.

These tree’s produce incredibly striking flowers during the late dry season in Mana Pools, and they provide a valuable source of nutrition for many of Mana’s inhabitants.

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They arrive in search of the flowers during the early morning. They will at times literally run from tree to tree in an effort to get there before the rest of the herd arrives. You can imagine the amount of flowers a herd of  100 – 200 buffalo’s can consume on any given morning.

We enjoyed a particularly great afternoon with a herd of buffalo.

I spotted them moving from the river into the forest. It was around 4pm and I knew the light would only get better and better.

We approached the herd on foot, some 300 meters from the road.
They were all watching us and they were slightly nervous of our presence. They had an idea of what we were, but they had yet to confirm this by smell, a very import sense for any wild animal.

You might look like a human, but once you smell like a human, you definitely ARE a human!

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The wind shifted slightly and the herd caught wind of us. Immediately they started running away from our position. We stayed where we were and after about 100 meters they all stopped and looked back.

Guiding experience has taught me a few tricks, and with careful consideration for both buffalo & guest, we managed to get into a position behind some vegetation. The buffalo accepted that we did not represent a threat, and my guests were comfortable, something equally important.

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The images my guests and I could capture from this perspective was incredible!

The light & dust filtered through stunningly, and with the herd now far more relaxed with us around, my guests could really “work” the sighting and get the most from it.

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As the good light started fading, my experienced local professional guide Tanya, suggested we venture a little closer. I want my guests to EXPERIENCE Africa, not only photograph it.

That’s what makes Mana so special, that intimate connection with an animal.

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What a special afternoon that was, a life changing experience for all my guests.

I loved how Jared, second from right, just sits and watches. Completely in awe, he just soaked it all in!

Sometimes the most memorable moment is not taken with the camera, something you should always remember. 😉

Predators also form a big part of the Mana Pools Safari experience.

It’s one thing to see lions from the confines of a safari jeep. You feel completely at ease and very “safe” from the back of the land rover. It’s not very often that you get the opportunity to be on foot with lions, wild dogs, hyenas and more. It’s an unforgettable encounter!

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The distance between us and the lions will be determined by their mood. It varies not only from day to day, but also in different kinds of terrain.

Regardless of the distance, to be this close to lion – very wild ones – is something you’ll never forget! These are after all the animals that have inspired so many movies. They’ve become known all over the world as incredibly dangerous, even man-eaters at times.

Yes, whilst all of that could be considered as true, it’s exceptionally rare circumstances that would lead to a confrontation of that nature.

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When I am on foot with lion, or on any other occasion for that matter, I remind myself and my guests that we are on their turf, their environment. We need them to be as comfortable as possible. That’s the key to spending time with them on foot. They need to feel comfortable with you around. They need to know that when they feel cornered, that there’s an exit and a way out.

We always adhere to all of this when on foot with them and more, and because of this my guests got to see lions in new light!

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Can you even begin to imagine what it would feel like to be THIS close to lions. Wild lions!

Your heart literally thumps like never before! You can feel it pounding into your rib cage! But not scared, just alive in every possible way!

Many people may feel that being this close to lions might be reckless.
Lions communicate their feelings very clearly. If they have no intentions of having you around, they will let you know in a very obvious way.

Have a look at this video. Very often, the lions pay absolutely no attention to my guests and I, often opting for a nap with us not more than 20 meters away!


Another predator that Mana Pools is very well known for, was right at the top of the list of animals to find. They are so scarce and rare elsewhere and extremely difficult to find, if they even exist in the specific safari region you find yourself within.

In Mana Pools and most notably during this time of year, special sightings of these efficient predators are very, very possible.

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African wild dogs have turned their status around. They used to be considered vermin and were hunted & persecuted as such.

Nowadays they form part of the animal bucket-list for most safari goers! That’s a hugely beautiful conservation success story, the plight of the African wild dog.

Their numbers in most park’s are still worryingly low, but that’s as much to do with their scarcity as it is with their massive home ranges & interest in specific habitat types.

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Fortunately Mana Pools is a haven for the dogs, and one of the few regions where free-ranging packs can still be found. They are not bound by any fences and can move freely with their home range as they please.

Likely my stand out sighting of the safari came about one morning not 2 minutes from our tented camp.

We had heard via another guide that the dogs had been sighted about 15 kilometers upriver from us, and that they were headed in our direction. Judging by the report & their last location, I had this pressing feeling that they would be close to us in the morning hours. When they hunt, they love to use the edge of the river in search of impala & other prey species.

Just as we left camp I spotted the dogs about 600 meters from the road, right on the edge of the river itself. Through our binoculars we could see that they were feeding on something. We all jumped off, grabbed our cameras and went to join the dogs on foot.

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They allowed as close, perhaps 15 meters from them. They paid little attention to us as they fed on the remains of a female impala.

Two hyenas arrived on the scene, very intent on a piece of the meal!

Big mistake!

I instructed my guests to be ready as I knew from past encounters, that the dogs will give these hyenas a hard time. The hyenas were completely outnumbered and would be in for a hard time!

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As soon as the hyenas made their intentions clear, the dogs were on top of them. Running for all their worth, they were just not able to avoid the snapping jaws of the light-footed dogs behind them.

It was an amusing sight no doubt! I could not dream up a more exciting encounter for my guests! There were over 20 wild dogs right infront of us, having a fight with hyenas! All not more than 20 meters away!

Incredible!

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We then discovered that the dogs had in fact killed twice, and that the pups were off to our left feeding on the remains of another female impala.

Dogs are the most successful hunter of all Africa’s large predators. They often end up with 2 or 3 victims when hunting. Their stamina & ability to run prey down really make their extremely efficient!

The pack moved off towards where the pups were feeding, and this left the hyenas with an opportunity to steal the carcass closer to where we were.

They quickly moved in closer but the dogs were wise to this.

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It was absolutely awesome, playing witness to this amazing sighting! We were all alone on the banks of the Zambezi River, not a single other human in sight! How often can you say that?

The two hyenas eventually decided that they had enough of this abuse, and left the scene.

We then moved to the second carcass just as the sun broke out from the horizon.

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It was a beautiful scene and one so true to Mana Pools! The landscape is simply unmistakable.

We watched them feel for some time, and just to be with them in their company was more than enough. They are such incredible creatures and on a morning like we had here, we all get to know wild dogs a little better. You no doubt leave with a far better understanding of them.

Mana’s elephants are awesome! I can’t think of a better word!

To spend time with the giants of the land on foot will leave you jaw-dropped!

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Oh, did I mention that these elephants can actually stand on their hind legs? Well, not all of them, but a few individuals have adapted a behaviour so special and unique!

There are accounts of elephants in many other regions that will stand on their hind legs in order to reach for food. That said, very few places offer you the consistent opportunity to see this incredible defiance of gravity right before your very own eyes!

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By reaching this high into the tree canopy above, a few select and very talented elephant bulls allow themselves the opportunity to gain access to food that previously would be well out of reach.

The elephants that are more “earth-bound” will often tail behind the bulls that stand, and more often than not get access to the food. The bulls might nor always share, but they often move on to the next tree before finishing what they were busy feeding on.

Have a look at the image below.

As an elephant bull heaves himself up on to his back legs, a small family stand close by, completely in awe I might add, and wait their turn for a piece of the spoils.

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Have a look at the video below.

One of Mana’s famous elephant bulls will show you just how it is done! It’s amazing to see how comfortable he is at this, even moving forward whilst standing on two legs!

You gain a completely new level of respect for elephants when you see sights such as this.

The elephants of Mana can be seen all day long. They enjoy moving on to the floodplain during the warmer hours of the day. This is especially noticeable during the late morning when they move towards the river for a drink and a cool-down session, perhaps even a swim.

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They will very often visit our camp as well.

Some of the younger bulls enjoy the company we provide and will spend many hours every day just hanging around the camp itself. You have to be very careful when exiting your tent because at any time of day, there could be a giant standing right infront of your doorstep.

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It is however a real special experience and privilege to have elephants this relaxed in camp. They accept us and our human habitation as an extension of their land, and are often completely at home here.

The wildlife viewing in Mana Pools just never stops, and that’s another reason why it is much loved by so many people from all across the globe!

Many other animals will venture into the camp! Monkey’s are an ever-present feature during the daytime hours. They will always try their very best to steal a bit or two from the brunch table. They are as stealthy as a ninja and somehow or another always manage to get away with a muffin, slice of bread or a fruit or two.

At night the area surrounding camp really comes alive, and on several occasions we had lions visiting us right in camp.

In fact, on one evening as a guest decided to head back to his room, we spotted a pride of seven lions infront of his tent. It was a good idea to shine my torch in the direction of his room before he walked on his own, no doubt about that!

Twice a leopard came and rested just to the side of the camp kitchen. She lay there all through dinner and only after the guests all went to bed, did she decide to stroll through camp and off into the dark.

Two hippo’s also call the camp home. They sleep in camp every night! It’s almost hard to believe. They have come to realize that humans are a part of the experience in camp, and they really don’t seem to mind all that much! They have a special place where they almost always bed down, and in the early hours – just as we prepare to leave for safari – they move away and back into the river.

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Speaking of animals joining our company, have a look at the video below.

As we enjoyed a peaceful cup of coffee in the shade of a massive Winter Thorn, we were joined by a young and rather cheeky elephant bull.

Unknowingly we had stopped on top of some tasty seedpods from the big tree, and this elephant was set on getting at them.

I do not believe we were ever in any danger.

It was just great to see how keen this little elephant was to get to his morning breakfast. Soon after we decided it was best to move on and allow the youngster to feed in peace.

Our very last afternoon in Mana Pools produced some dramatic images!

Due to the low water levels, the hippo’s in Long Pool – one of the 4 pools from which Mana (meaning 4 in Shona) derives it’s name – find themselves in very shallow water. Personal space is also non-existent and this often leads to aggressive behaviour between members of the pod.

I knew we would would get some incredible images if we base ourselves at the right area of the pool. We were able to locate a group of hippo that would be back-lit by the setting sun and give us exactly what we were after!

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As you can see, it was well worth the effort!

When you are looking through a telephoto lens it’s not easy to capture all that’s happening in front of you. You can only see one or two hippo’s in your frame, and you need to be patient and wait for the right opportunity to fire away.

When it does work out though, the results will speak for themselves.

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Some great behaviour witnessed that afternoon was of one female hippo grooming or licking another.

I have never seen this kind of behaviour before. It continued for 10 minutes or so. The hippo getting the special treatment was very quiet. I am not sure if it was just social behaviour, or perhaps the hippo was ill or injured.

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Very few places in Africa will keep you as occupied as a mobile camping experience in Mana Pools. There’s just so many animals around at all hours of the day!

Regardless of what you get to see in Mana Pools, you will be blown away by the sheer beauty & magnificence of the place.

You can very easily enjoy an afternoon safari, without seeing anything “exciting”. It’s the kind of place where you just feel absolutely content with being out in nature.

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The Mana Forest really is storybook-like. The terrain here is unlike any other place in Africa.

Over the years I have come to know many special little sections of the forest. There’s certain places where the tree’s align just right to create a little alley, or where the afternoon sun casts it’s rays at just the right angle. I love exploring this forest and love putting my guests in the perfect positions for great photographic opportunities.

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I don’t know of many other places in Africa that allow you the freedom to approach animals on foot.

This allows you to get into positions you never really would otherwise. It allows you to frame the shot as YOU see it. You get to express YOUR creativity in the way that YOU have always wanted.

This may not seem like a big deal, but once you’ve visited Mana you’ll know exactly what I am speaking of.

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Thanks so much for taking the time to read through this trip report with me.

If you feel the urge to join Wild Eye on safari here, please do get in touch. It’s the kind of safari that will have you coming back for more, time and time again.

Till next time,

About the Author

Marlon duToit

Passion, enthusiasm and an unquenchable thirst to explore and introduce you to our natural world’s wildlife perfectly sums up my ambitions. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Through my African adventures I kept my photographic passion alive. Behind a camera aimed at a lion or a leopard is where I am most at home, my heart skipping a beat at the mere thought of it. My intention has never been solely for recognition but for the plight of what’s left of our natural recourses. Using my love and understanding of wildlife I am able to convey to the viewer more than an image or a fleeting moment. I aim to tell a story, to bring that moment alive to you and to capture your heart through it.

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Comments 3

  1. Kathryne Anne Pusch

    Wow!!! Fantastic trip report, Marlon. How cool it was to see the sights again through your lens. Thank you for bringing all of your knowledge and experience of both photography and Mana Pools to our Oct 2016 safari with you through Wild Eye. I caught some images of a lifetime and wildlife encounters I will never forget.

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