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Zimbabwe Trip Report Part 5: Mana Pools
Take a poll of Southern African safari aficionados, asking about remote, authentic and memorable safari experiences and the two words ‘Mana Pools’ are sure to feature in the results. If keen wildlife enthusiasts had not been to Mana Pools already, they want to go. If they’ve been before, they want to return. It is that kind of a place. Intriguing and fascinating – the Africa of adventure books and fire-side tales. Lots of animals, not so many people, equal measures of excitement, fun and exploration all taking place along the banks of the Zambezi in one of Africa’s most atmospheric valleys.
Mana Pools is a Zimbabwean National Park and World Heritage Site in the Zambezi River Valley, opposite Zambia’s Lower Zambezi region. On this – my second – visit to the area, I found out what the ‘real’ Mana Pools experience was all about. For one thing, it is actually seeing and visiting one or more of the four natural pools (relic oxbow lagoons) referenced in the name of the park. The Mana Pools experience also includes walking. Simply driving through the park in a safari vehicle won’t cut it: you really should get out and walk. While you can do it on your own legally (due to a quirky park ordinance) we wouldn’t advise it. You’re likely to get lost or worse. Always walk with a Zimbabwe professional guide or an experienced learner guide. You’ll see more, experience more and return home safely.
Over the course of four days I checked out two different properties in the area – Vundu and Kanga – having previously visited Ruckomechi which is located on the western edge of Mana Pools.
Vundu Camp and its sister property Little Vundu – a seasonal tented camp erected on one of the best spots in all of Mana Pools -are unabashedly ‘plain and simple’ with no pretensions of luxury. Don’t go here if you absolutely want hot water 24/7 or if you equate being on safari with being pampered around the clock. Vundu is all about the Mana Pools experience: it is right on the edge of the Zambezi in one of the park’s best game-viewing areas and if you spend a few days here any time between (approximately) July through October, you will find out what Mana Pools is all about and why people who know it, like it so much.
On this visit I flew into Dandawa airstrip where I was picked up by my Vundu guide Henry – a Zimbabwe Professional Guide. Henry knows the area exceedingly well and I greatly benefited from his knowledge about Mana Pools and every facet of its natural history.
On the drive of about an hour and a half to camp, we were initially in very dense forest and thicket, only occasionally emerging into patches of floodplain adjacent to drainage lines. As we got closer to the Zambezi River, we entered the typical Mana Pools habitat which is open woodland, dominated by massive acacia albida trees, lending the area its distinctive ‘gallery’ look. Over the course of several days in the area it becomes clear that what you see around you is part of an ongoing process, kicked off many thousands of years ago when the precursor of the Zambezi scoured away massive swathes of the Zambezi Valley. Large scale erosion followed by alluvial deposits created a series of massive natural terraces descending down to the river itself.
Mana Pools is particularly well known for its large herds of elephant and buffalo, while eland, zebra, waterbuck, several antelope species and their predators including lions and African Painted Dogs are seen regularly. The Zambezi River itself holds good numbers of hippo and Nile crocodile. The birdlife is abundant with more than 400 species having been recorded.
I very much enjoyed the hospitality and friendliness of the staff and management at Vundu Camp even though the rooms are rustic. The shower ‘floor’ was a bed of round rocks which I did not care for at all, but of course other visitors may like this ‘outdoorsy’ feel. The lighting was fair and the space ample.
The elevated central area is terrific; the ideal spot for a relaxing pre-dinner drink, watching the majestic Zambezi go by. Power boat traffic is prohibited along the Mana Pools side of the Zambezi. So while an occasional motor boat does come charging by on the Zambia side of the river every now and then, the area is by all standards quiet and peaceful.
The food at Vundu Camp is good and tasty (not gourmet, no pretensions) and the managing couple Alex and Marie is young & energetic. The main reason to go there is for the true Mana Pools experience as the camp is perfectly placed inside Mana Pools National Park. In the company of an expert professional guide like Henry, this is a place to experience close-up encounters with big game and to also spend some time on the Zambezi itself. While I did not have an opportunity to do it on this trip, canoeing on the Zambezi is an adventurous and exciting pursuit, given the presence of many hippo and some huge Nile crocodiles. For this activity you definitely want an experienced local guide either in the canoe with you or close by. Canoeing as an activity can be done from and back to camp while a 3-night canoe safari – the Ruwesi Canoe Trail – is also available. This is ideally combined with a few days at Vundu Camp itself.
The seasonal Little Vundu Camp may be an even better bet; I spent a couple of hours at the site and it is spectacular. Although it was not the best time of the year for Tiger fishing, I promptly hooked and released two good-sized Tigers, casting from a small bluff on the river’s edge.
From Vundu, it is an interesting drive through mostly thick forest to Kanga Camp, a small luxury tented camp which nestles up to a large natural water hole. As safari camps go, Kanga is in the ‘sweet spot’ between luxury and functionality. It has everything you need and more in the large, well-appointed safari tents, right down to a massive outdoor bath. Even so it has regular walkways to the main area which keeps one ‘connected’ to the environment and the zippered tent ‘door’ lends an air of authenticity.
Kanga is really all about location, being on the edge of a pan which – in the dry season – attracts a large variety of animals and birds. Clearly the camp is highly seasonal and I would not recommend visiting it much earlier than July or even August. By late April this year the area was exceedingly dense, having received substantial rainfall. Under such circumstances the thick bush makes it practically impossible to find and see the wildlife, with the exception of elephants which wander into some of the more open drainage lines. Several elephants did come to the camp waterhole while I was there, and the birdlife was diverse and abundant.
Later in the season the Kanga Pan becomes a hive of activity as it attracts a growing number of mammals and birds and that is when you want to be there. Kanga lends itself perfectly to the pursuit of an ‘arm-chair’ safari. Resting up comfortably in a cushioned chair on a raised deck looking out over the edge of the pan, participants wait for the action to come to them. Anything can and does show up at the water hole including of course dozens of elephants, buffalo and a multitude of antelope. As the camp photo album vividly illustrates lions, leopard and even African painted dogs also visit the Kanga Pan, sometimes with unexpected results such as when a kudu took refuge in the camp pool, trying to escape a predator.
Even though the game was scarce on my visit to Kanga it did not matter a great deal. Over the course of a couple of nights there I was fortunate to be in the company of an English couple (yes Brexit did come up and we all got it wrong), a trio of South African visitors including a set of identical twin brothers and a couple from Germany on their first safari. As so often happens on safari, the eight of us became instant friends exchanging stories about family, jobs, other trips, previous safaris and camps we had been to on our current itineraries. We enjoyed the relaxed, away-from-it-all setting, the delicious food – the cooking at Kanga was exceptionally good – and the fine South African wines and other beverages.
A last word about Kanga: it is a delightful but highly seasonal property so best visited from about July through October, and also best combined with a few days at a camp on the Zambezi such as its sister property Zambezi Expeditions, or one of the Ruckomechi camps.
MANA POOLS GOING FORWARD
The stable of Mana Pools properties is steadily expanding with Wilderness Safaris opening a second small camp in the area in July 2016 – the 4-roomed Little Ruckomechi – having just recently totally rebuilt their flagship property here, Ruckomechi Camp. I have fond memories of visiting the previous iteration of the camp in early Nov. 2013. Here is a link to the (trip report). At that time the game-viewing in the area was superb and I recall vividly seeing the razor-like browse line on the underside of the beautiful mahogany trees, exactly at the level which can be reached by an adult eland antelope raising its massive head to its highest point. We also enjoyed some great lion sightings and a boat safari on the Zambezi.
Another well-known Southern and East African safari operator – Great Plains – has announced its intention of erecting a camp on the western boundary of the park, along the Zambezi. There is also a new safari camp already in business close to the Chitake Springs area. While nobody wants to see a huge increase in traffic in and around Mana Pools there is ample space for growth and all this is good news for the wildlife of the area, notably the elephants. The presence of tourists, camps, guides, vehicles on game drives and people out on foot safaris – plus a vigorous and well-funded anti-poaching campaign – are all essentials elements in reducing the impact of poaching. Unfortunately the illegal killing of elephants for their ivory is a growing threat in Mana Pools given the abundance of elephants in the area. This activity reaches a high point each year during the wet season when the human habitation of the area reaches a minimum. Poachers thrive under conditions where there is essentially nobody else around. A growing and stable tourism industry in Mana Pools will draw more visitors and will create more jobs, helping to prevent poverty which is often a driving force for poaching or other illegal activity.
Want to do something to help the elephants of Mana Pools? Go and see them for yourself. It is a magical area where the sense of remoteness is palpable and where adventure and even adrenaline-pumping action is as close as the nearest canoe, or as easy to find as going on a walk. It is also a place where you can find a quiet spot, sit down and look across the Zambezi to the striking Zambian escarpment to the north. With very little to disturb the eye except perhaps a few elephants moving across the floodplain adjacent to the river, it is as calming and tranquil a place as you might ever get to. Pure Africa.
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