Mana Pools National Park is possibly one of Zimbabwe’s most-prized gems, yet it remains the exclusive domain of the most fervent wildlife and nature lovers. It’s one of the least developed national parks in southern Africa with the lowest tourist numbers, despite the fact that the protected wilderness area teems with wildlife and is a birder’s paradise.
Located in the northern region of Zimbabwe on the southern banks of the Zambezi River, Mana Pools National Park covers an area of 2 196 square kilometres (219600 hectares). This region of the lower Zambezi River is situated where the flood plain turns into a broad expanse of lakes after each rainy season.
The wild, untouched paradise lies nestled in the Middle Zambezi Biosphere Reserve which forms part of one of the largest transfrontier conservation areas in the world. The Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) is situated in a region of southern Africa where the international borders of five countries converge.
KAZA TFCA includes a major part of the Upper Zambezi River and Okavango Delta, the Caprivi Strip of Namibia, the south-eastern part of Angola, south-western Zambia, the northern wildlands of Botswana and western Zimbabwe. At its core is the confluence of the Zambezi Chobe Rivers where the borders of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe meet.
Mana Pools is also the nucleus of the UNESCO World Heritage Site which covers the Mana-Sapi-CheworeComplex. On top to that, Mana Pools isa designated Ramsar wetland of international importance. The protected wilderness region is made up of a collection of islands, channels, sandbanks and oxbow lakes that are home to the famous Big 5, an abundance of general gameand predators as well as over 350 recorded bird species.
Don’t forget to stop over for a tour at the world famous Victoria Falls.
It’s known for its breath-taking beauty and is a paradise for guided walking, canoeing and photographic safaris. In fact, Mana Pools is regarded as the top walking safari destination in Africa with exceptional guiding standards.
You’ll find some of the best walking safari territory on the content in the lush Zambezi valley, where the floodplain hosts a profusion of big game and birdlife during the dry season between June and October.
The Zambezi Basin is dominated by a fertile floodplain with shallow pools that open up into a wide and languid river with deep channels that separate seasonal and permanent islands. These islands make perfect overnight camping spots for canoe safaris.
The river is flanked on either side by a rich canopy of tall acacias and ancient mahogany, ebony, wild fig and baobab forests. The spectacular Zambezi escarpment creates a dramatic backdrop to the deep and pristine valley. You have the choice of exploring the wild, untouched Mana Pools wilderness on foot or on water, ideally a combination of both.
How Mana Pools got its name
Mana comes from the indigenous word meaning ‘four’. It refers to the four largest pools found in the river basin that hold water throughout the year.
The large pools provide a permanent source of water for the animals and birds during the dry season and offer incredible game viewing points. Predators lie in wait for game to come down to the water in the winter months and timed right, you’re guaranteed exceptional sightings of predators in action.
The Mana Pools experience
Mana Pools is one of the least developed national parks in southern Africa with low tourist numbers and an abundance of wildlife. You can expect an idyllic safari experience that is as authentic and natural as it comes. The focus is on guided nature walks and canoe safaris, camping rough in the bushveld and only enough ‘luxuries’ provided to make your safari experience comfortable and enjoyable.
The Zambezi Basin has the largest concentration of hippos and crocodiles in the southern region of the continent and you walk and canoe in Big 5 country. There is an element of risk venturing into the wild forests and waters but that’s what makes a trip to Mana Pools so exciting.
The guides that take walking and canoeing safaris are exceptional and highly experienced; you’re in safe hands if you follow their instructions.
In the dry season, large populations of elephant, buffalo, zebra and buck congregate close to the water’s edge and migrant birds are found in great supply on the riverbanks. You should also see many of the threatened species such as lion, cheetah, wild dog, leopard and brown hyena.
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What you need for a safari trip to Mana Pools
Mana Pools is a malaria and tsetse-fly area. It’s highly recommended that you take anti-malaria tablets for a holiday in the Zambezi Basin and pack a good supply of insect repellent.
Even though the safari season in Mana Pools is the cooler winter months, the days are still hot and you risk getting sunburnt if not careful. Bring a good supply of high-factor sunscreen protection as well as a wide-brimmed hat.
If you are prone to burning, wear a lightweight long-sleeved shirt on a canoe safari to protect yourself from sun rays reflecting off the water. Pack a windbreaker and warm clothes for the evenings as the winter temperatures in the Zambezi valley drop quite dramatically after the sun goes down.
Come prepared to ‘rough it in the bush’ and bring whatever medicine, photographic supplies and toiletries you need to cover you for the few days you’re out of contact with civilisation. There are no shops in the Mana Pools wilderness area and definitely no pharmacies or clinics nearby.
It’s highly recommended that you take out comprehensive medical and travel insurance before visiting Mana Pools. There are no hospitals in the Zambezi valley; if you need urgent medical treatment, you have to be airlifted out of Mana Pools and flown to the closest city.
Favourite things to do in Mana Pools
Apart from the popular wilderness walking and canoeing safaris, Mana Pools is a heavenly destination for birdwatchingand photography. You set off as the sun is rising over the magnificent Zambezi valley and return to camp as the sun sets. Every day is different and spectacular.
Many of the operators offer guided game drives in Mana Pools but to be honest, game viewing on the banks of the river is so easy that a drive in an open safari vehicle isn’t really necessary.
Limited fishing is allowed at Mana Pools and only from the land. During the safari season between April and October, no motorboats are allowed on the river frontage. Boat cruises are only permitted during the rainy season between end-November and March.
If you’re interested in archaeology, you can visit an area near Chitake Spring in the south of the national park where the remains of dinosaur skeletons have recently been uncovered, embedded in deep layers of rock that were exposed by erosion.
Best time to visit Mana Pools
The walking and canoeing safari season in Mana Pools is limited to the dry winter months between late April to mid-November. This is because the Zambezi basin experiences summer rainfall and it’s difficult to get to the wilderness camps after or during heavy rains.
October and November are extremely hot and dry in Mana Pools. The temperatures may be too much for overseas visitors to bear but it’s the best time for fantastic wildlife sightings. The game congregates along the Zambezi floodplain as the bush gets drier and less nutritious at the end of the dry season.
To avoid the scorching hot and humid temperatures of the Zambezi Basin in the dry season, a better time to visit is between mid-April and May.
Biting tsetse flies are present in the valley throughout the year but they’re more abundant in the dry season, especially in October. Avoid wearing dark colours on a walking or canoeing safari. Colours like black and dark brown and blue tend to attract the annoying flies.
How to get to Mana Pools
Mana Pools is not easy to get to which is one of the reasons it has such low tourist numbers and is untouched by urban development. You access the remote national park either by air charter or 4WD vehicle or boat transfers on the Zambezi River from Chirundu.
Book your trip through a reputable Mana Pools safari operator and they’ll organise everything for you. Remember, the national park is very remote. There are no shops in the conservation area and mobile network coverage is limited.
Where to say in Mana Pools
Accommodation in Mana Pools is limited to a handful of permanent safari lodges and rustic, eco-friendly tented camps. You have the choice of a fully-catered or self-catering safari experience.
Many of the Mana Pool safari operators set up mobile wilderness camps at the beginning of the safari season and take them down before they leave the valley. The Mana Pool mobile camps offer the full package with guides, catering and walking or canoe safaris. They can also be hired on an exclusive-use basis.
A highlight of a Mana Pools safari tour is camping on the banks of the Zambezi River, or even better on a large island in the middle of the river. You can pick the ‘luxury’ option where you arrive at camp after a long day and everything has been set up for you, including a delicious 3-course meal. Or there is the ‘hands-on’ option where you put up your own tents and cook your own meals.
There is a large, well-maintained public camp at Nyamepi which is an ideal base if you’re on a self-guided walking or canoeing safari in Mana Pools. The camp offers self-catering lodges and camping sites with shower and ‘long drop’ toilet facilities. Entry to Nyamepi Camp is strictly controlled and its essential you book prior to arriving in Mana Pools.
For the adventure at heart – Combine your African safari experience with a Cape Winelands tour.