Set amongst fairytale forests along the shores of the Zambezi River, Mana Pools National Park is a sensory feast in Zimbabwe. During the rainy season, it's an emerald landscape of greens and blues and transforms into a golden cathedral during the dry months. It's an enchanting environment of pristine African wilderness that is just waiting to reconnect travellers to the natural world.
In the Shona language, the word "mana" means "four". That's why Mana Pools National Park earned its name (and status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) from the four iconic oxbow pools dotted across its wetland waterscape – formed over thousands of years by the changing course of the relentless Zambezi River.
Mana Pools is known as one of Africa's finest spots for game-viewing and bird-watching. Nile crocodile and hippo glide through its murky waters and the treetops and sky are abuzz with over 350 species of birdlife. Elephant, buffalo, zebra, warthog, impala, baboon, and more flock to the pools' lush banks for food – while lion, leopard, cheetah, and hyena skulk not too far behind.
During the rainy season, the park's floodplains swell with water, transforming it into a vast expanse of lakes. Then, during the warmer months, the lakes dry up, and the banks of the pools are a flurry of activity. This makes for the finest wildlife and game-viewing opportunities. The sparse bush Mana Pools an ideal location for walking safaris and, with 2,196km² of water, it's also great for a canoe safari.
We've taken the liberty to answer everything you may need to know about visiting Mana Pools National Park
During the rains, from January to March, the lodges are closed. Most of the big game animals also move away from the river and into the escarpment. However, they start returning to the riverine areas from around April as the pools in the bush dry up. Most lodges are generally open until the middle of November. Still, by middle of October, it is too hot for comfortable travel and is referred to by locals as "suicide month".
Mana Pools is one of the most remote reserves in Africa, attracting several large animals. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mana Pools has Zimbabwe's most significant concentration of hippo, crocodile, elephant and buffalo.
There are also plenty of antelope species, big cats, primates, and four of the Big 5, except the black rhino. Moreover, the region boasts a thriving African wild dog population, one of the healthiest on the continent.
Other animals you can look forward to seeing include the eland, impala, waterbuck, baboon, monkey, zebra and warthog. They are lured by the fallen Albida fruit, which Mana Pools is famous for.
In these parts, you’ll never be without some birdsong. There are nearly 400 recorded bird species in the park, and birders travel from all over to see the flurry of wings. Some notable species include the African skimmer, Long-toed lapwing, Pel’s fishing owl, Rufous-bellied heron, Carmine bee-eater, and Black-winged stilt, among many others.
Besides playing host to hordes of elephant, hippo and crocodile, Mana Pools National Park is unique in many other ways too...
Mana Pools is the only national park in Africa where you can walk freely without a professional guide. This makes it a firm favourite for those who love freedom but are old-hands at being in the bush. However, we advise all newbies to hire a guide – not just for safety, but to get the most out of the experience as they can. The wildlife in Mana Pools is so accustomed to humans walking that they barely seem to notice, which allows for incredible up-close encounters.
The Surreal Light
Mana Pools is a photographer's paradise and a place where the light varies dramatically throughout the day.
- The golden glow of sunrise accompanies early morning. Think rich yellows, reds, and oranges catching the mists above the Zambezi and bathing the park in an otherworldly radiance.
- Then there's the spectral afternoon light, filtered through the canopies of the large Faidherbia Albida trees, and giving off a surreal quality. It's the kind of light you’d expect to float through a stained glass window in a monumental cathedral, bathing the wildlife below in prismatic splendour.
- The blue light of late afternoon gives way to the softer tones of dusk; bright rays catch dust kicked up by herds of buffalo and other antelope. Tangerine-tinted air starts to cool, and the animals of the day begin to settle down for the night.
Elephants that defy gravity
Much of the lower, easy-to-reach vegetation has been stripped from bushes and trees all over the valley floor in the dry season. A small number of Mana's elephants have developed a solution to this problem, one that many people see as a near-impossible ability for a creature of such magnitude.
What's left of the succulent branches of the Faidherbia Albida (or winter thorn and apple-ring acacias) are far out of reach for even the largest of the park's mammals. However, gazing at the delicious treats above, Mana’s elephants have learned how to gather their weight below, and heave themselves up onto their back legs. This allows them to extend their reach and access the lush foliage at the top of the trees.
This is a behaviour unique to Mana Pools, and to witness it from a few metres away will leave you breathless and in awe that these animals can so seamlessly lift their colossal expanse. Like much else in Mana Pools, it's a truly magical experience.
Few airlines fly directly to Zimbabwe. Most fly to Johannesburg and connect to Harare, Victoria Falls or Bulawayo on the same day. Most tourists fly to Victoria Falls Airport (VFA), located 18km/11mi south of Victoria Falls, and continue from there by vehicle or charter planes.
The secluded Mana Pools National Park can be found in the northernmost tip of Zimbabwe, roughly 390km from the country's capital, Harare. The park is mainly off-limits to vehicles from November to April and, if driving, a 4WD is recommended.
However, most visitors to the park fly into Mana Pools airstrip from Kariba, although charters can be booked from other destinations in Zimbabwe.
Based on your lodge of choice, time and cost, our Travel Experts will gladly advise you on the best way to get to Mana Pools National Park or the surrounding reserves.