Visiting Mana Pools is like a six year old being locked up in a candy store. It is one of the most exciting places you will ever visit, and the only danger is that you will never want to leave.
The mighty Zambezi River flows from Lake Kariba through the Lower Zambezi Valley on its way to Mozambique. Over the millennia, the Zambezi has created a tapestry of islands, channels and sandbanks in this valley. And as it meanders along, it leaves trails of mineral-rich volcanic soils in its wake, supporting the tall stands of mahogany and ebony that gather around its small oxbow lakes.
This abundance of water and luxuriant greenery accounts for the valley's wealth of big game. Mana Pools has Zimbabwe’s biggest concentration of hippopotamus and crocodile, and large dry season populations of elephant and buffalo.
The word 'Mana' means four, in reference to the four pools around the park headquarters: Main, Chine, Long and Chisambik. They are actually not in the river, but on the mainland, in an area of deep, rich alluvial soil along the southern bank of the river. They owe their existence to the scouring action of the flooded river that created a number of elongated troughs that retain their water long after the flood have subsided.
This area has a park-like appearance. Massive Acacia trees tower over what appears to be, from a distance at least, a carefully manicured lawn.
Further away, a border of Mopani trees and Combretum scrub begins and there is a visible line, like some extraordinary tidemark, a browse line that exactly demarcates the height to which browsing animals can reach.
During the rains, from January to March, the lodges in Mana Pools are closed, and most of the big game animals move away from the river and onto the escarpment. They start returning to the riverine areas from around April, as the pools in the bush dry up. As the year progresses, increasingly large herds of elephant and buffalo are seen, as well as kudu, eland, waterbuck, zebra and impala. The best time of year to visit would probably be between August and October, when the game is at its most concentrated, the weather is ideal, and the water levels are low, allowing for best access to the entire park.
There is a wide variety of birds and the game is very relaxed about people on foot, making Mana Pools one of Africa's best parks for walking safaris. But it is not only by Land Rover or on foot that the excitement of the area can be enjoyed. There are guided canoe trails down the Zambezi, all the way from Kariba in the west to Kanyemha in the east, or any portion in between. Each trip is accompanied by well-trained, experienced guides and is an incredible way to experience the river at first hand.
Every kind of wild animal and bird is viewed at close quarters as the canoes glide silently past. One can drift within metres of grazing buffalo, slide by sleeping crocodiles, watch wading elephants and enjoy a sense of openness, freedom and a feeling of being totally at one with the environment that is hard to match elsewhere.