Mana Pools National Park, Sapi and Chewore Safari Areas are renowned for their wildlife gatherings during the dry season.
The three conservation areas are situated in the Zambezi Valley, along the Middle and Lower Zambezi Rivers. Mana Pools is centered around four large permanent pools. The river and the sandbanks that are formed by erosion and deposition form a refuge for species such as elephants, buffalo, lions, wild dogs, Nile crocodiles and hippos.
Community Perspective: uncrowded (although that is rapidly changing), “an utterly wild place, sleeping outside with the sound of roaring lions, whooping hyenas and grunting hippos”. Els went camping and has provided practical info on how to visit this remote park, while Svein described the experience from Vundu Camp which has a private concession.
Map of Mana PoolsLoad map
Zimbabwe has been on our radar since we started visiting sub-Sahara Africa some years ago. Late September '23 we realized the trip.
Our trip was a road trip starting in Lusaka Zambia southbound and our first goal was (except secondary goal of Chirundu twhs in Zambia) Mana Pools National Park. It’s the site that really drives the cost on this trip. The park is a valley hosting the Zambezi River on the northern border to Zambia and is famous for its dry season wildlife gatherings. The WHS consists of three areas (Mana Pools, Sapi and Chewore), but we were told that Mana is by far the best area - for wildlife encounters.
Having spent the night just across the border from Zambia west of the park we entered the park fairly early one morning. Although it’s possible to see wildlife from the first gate we didn’t really have any encounters until we were way in the park. Camp headquarters (where we had to register a third time) are on the bank of Zambezi and from that point it was wildlife for three days. We experienced the famous “blue haze” although without Boswell (see Els’ review), but it was lots of other elephants and other animals.
The first afternoon/evening we spent mostly at the riverbank photographing lions, hippos, elephants, the pretty carmine bee-eaters, and other animals. The mandatory sundowner (which seams way over the top colonial I must admit, but it) makes the African sunset even more special.
We stayed two nights in Vundu Camp (https://www.bushlifesafaris.com/vunducamp/), which was a great place to stay. It is on the riverside and has its own concession. The price was within the total package of the trip, so we don’t know the exact price pr night.
The following day - peak day - we had two encounters with a pack of wild dogs (or painted dogs). The first was early morning on our first ever walking safari. The good local guide was quite confident he would find the pack, and he did. Resting on the riverbed they were probably relaxing after a successful hunt. The pack leader was uneasy by our presence so after some 10-20 minutes he wandered off and the pack reluctantly followed him. We leave them now the guide says, and we will find them again in the afternoon. They will probably still rest.
This time of year, it’s round 40 degrees Celsius here, but it’s an inland dry heat. It’s hot, but not very bad really. At the end of October, it might be around 50!
In the afternoon our guide found the dogs again still at the riverbank but a bit further east. After crossing a larger open area, the guide ordered us down some 30-40 meters from the pack. The pack of 17 was mostly looking at the river. This time the leader didn’t seem to care about us so ten minutes later we crawled closer to the dogs ending up 5-10 meters from them. They were mostly resting even though one or two were “on patrol” round us. Suddenly they all woke up and started running around, probably playing. This was a magic moment, and a good camera is essential to catch the essence of it. The memory is just fantastic!
It was close to sunset, but as it gets closer to dark, we had to withdraw. On foot in the dark is not for tourists, but this experience was certainly special.
The final morning, before breakfast, we were out at sunrise and again and went for the riverbank. This time we got some good pictures of the gazelles jumping across small tributary rivers and waterholes. It’s just amazing how they “fly”!
After a late breakfast we headed for the exit, but there was still wildlife to encounter. A striped hyena passed our way, and then there were elephants enjoying themselves on one of the Mana Pools.
In retrospect we should have had one more day. A canoe trip on the river is a must - that we missed. But then again – we should have lots of more days, for instance seeing the area totally flooded.
### Randi & Svein Elias
Mana Pools National Park was the main goal of my 2023 Zimbabwe trip – rarely visited by our community, lacking a full review, but ranked among the best parks in Africa by safari nuts due to its large gatherings of wildlife in a ‘wild’ setting. Lately, Mana Pools is considered to have become ‘busy’ due to the ever-increasing number of camps and the accompanying vehicular traffic and what the IUCN Outlook 2020 describes as "crowding of iconic elephants and predator kills". The connoisseurs now prefer the even wilder Gonarezhou in the east of the country. As far as I have seen, the park shows no indication whatsoever of being a World Heritage Site (no plaque, no logos).
I spent 6 nights camping in the park as part of a 13-day safari tour: 3 nights at Chitake Springs and 3 nights at Mana Riverside. I will remember it mostly for its scenic landscapes. The rough area around Chitake Springs is covered with picturesque baobabs and even has its own ‘Baobab Avenue’. It also best shows the eroded 'sand-bank' environment – created by a large seasonal river - that is part of the site’s OUV. There are only a handful of (often sold-out) wild camping spots here and there are no roads.
The more developed Mana Riverside has a fine setting along the Zambezi River (a bit similar to Botswana’s Chobe NP), plus the ‘blue forests’ that it is famous for among serious photographers. The blue haze is created by smoke from fires some distance away. There are also some savannah areas, even with palm trees. The four pools that give the park its name are in this area too, but are nothing to get excited about. Mana Riverside indeed feels a bit crowded (but far from East African or Asian levels!); we encountered 10+ vehicles daily (at Hwange there were 3 at most). All seemed to be chasing after the "iconic elephant" Boswell who can stand on its hind legs.
There’s a good variety of wildlife: best at Mana Riverside, but we saw an impressive pride of 15 lions moving around at Chitake. At Chitake, the roaring lions will keep you awake, and the munching hippos do so at Riverside. All mammal species common to Southern Africa live here except the rhino. Among the slightly less common species, side-striped jackal and eland can be seen easily. Unfortunately, we did not encounter any Painted dogs (we had seen one earlier in Hwange though). The black rhinos that were once even part of the OUV had to be relocated due to heavy poaching pressure. You can still see their pens at Chitake where they were kept before their transfer. Birdlife is good as well (I've seen 380-450 species mentioned), notably Lilian’s lovebird, carmine bee-eater, and red-billed quelea who land and take off in large flocks.
Before it became a national park in 1963, Mana Pools was inhabited by a fairly large number of people. Some had seasonal camps there, and potsherds can still be found in a number of places. They were all relocated to an even more inhospitable place and have lived there since.
As this is not an easy site to access, here is some practical info:
- The park is nominally open all year round, but seasonal flooding limits access from about mid-December til the end of March.
- Getting in requires either a charter flight or a 4x4 drive on the unpaved road network. Be aware that it takes almost 2 hours to get from the first park gate to the actual reception area, with a long straight access road in between of no interest.
- Many areas of the park are inaccessible to the general public due to having been leased as private concessions to the luxury lodges.
After having been there now and having studied ways of access for years, I still haven’t found an affordable way to do a 'good' visit. Your options are:
- The ‘cheapest’ way is to self-drive (4WD necessary) and camp, bringing everything with you. Note the daily conservation fees you have to pay (20 USD per person) and the campsites aren’t exactly free either. Don’t consider bringing one of these small, flimsy dome tents, as the baboons will rip it apart (we heard of a guy wanting to get a lift out of the park as soon as possible after that happened to him). There’s a circuit of loop roads you can drive around Mana Riverside, but you have to stay inside your car. There are no hides or picnic areas like they have in Hwange, it's bare bones.
- A full-inclusive camping tour, accompanied by a licensed guide. This has the advantage of being catered to and being able to do walks (only armed, licensed guides may offer those). You can find operators and indications of costs here.
- Staying in one of the permanent ‘camps’ or lodges – all are luxurious and cost between 500-1500 USD per person per night. They usually do game drives in their own concessions and may send scouts out ahead to find the more interesting animals.
If you desperately need this ‘tick’ and don’t have the money for any of the above, you could consider doing a day visit and staying at the basic Makuti Travel Lodge which is the closest hotel to the park gate. Arrive at the gate opening hour at 6 with a 4WD and spend a full day in the park. Due to the timings, you will probably miss the blue haze in the forest and most of the animals who avoid the midday heat.
Read more from Els Slots here.
I am a zimbabwean living overseas now, we as a family used to go to mana alot, it is the most amazing place i have ever been and i have travelled the world extensively,There is such a spirit about mana ancient in time i feel so primal when i am there i recomend mana pools to anyone who loves nature, wildlife and fishing . i hope mana stays free of poaching and it is managed honestly. i would love to organise events here in newzealand to raise money for the preservation of the park
I went to Mana Pools in December with my brother, who lives in Zimbabwe. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, and the experience was enhanced by seeing the rare & elusive painted hunting dogs, and also lions, elephants, hippos, crocodiles, hyenas and other species of animals and birds too numerous to mention. The experience of living for five days in such an utterly wild place, sleeping outside with the sound of roaring lions, whooping hyenas and grunting hippos to lull me to sleep, and spending the days surrounded by such stunning scenery, is one I will never forget.
Difficult to get a place in a lodge unless you know a Zimbabwe resident (& even then not easy), but there are campsites open in the dry season, and it's well worth visiting if you can find a way.
The site has 1 locations
The site has 16 connections
WHS on Other Lists
World Heritage Process
28 Community Members have visited.