Mana Pools – the enchanted forest

Located about 100km downstream from the Kariba dam, on the Zimbabwean bank of the Zambezi, the Mana Pools National Park is one of the finest wilderness and wildlife areas in southern Africa. Mana Pools is part of the Zambezi Valley UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was afforded this status because of its landscapes, scenery, and wildlife. Some of the biggest concentrations of animals in southern Africa can be found in Mana. Elephant and buffalo are abundant, and rare and endangered species such as wild dog and nyala can be seen. Large predators such as lion, leopard, cheetah and hyaena can also be seen and heard in Mana. Sadly, black rhino are no longer in this park. There are also no giraffe in Mana, not because of poaching but some have suggested that the miombo vegetation does not suit them and access is limited due to the steep escarpment to the south and the Zambezi river to the north. When this UNESCO World Heritage property was declared in 1984 it contained about 500 black rhino. By the end of 1994, poaching reduced this number to only ten animals, now there are none. Mana Pools is also part of the Middle Zambezi Biosphere Reserve, and one of a very few parks in which visitors may walk unaccompanied by professional guides.

Mana Pools has shown itself to be everything I remembered from my last visit, 18 years ago. This time I was travelling with my cameras and was able to see more and appreciate the nuances more intensely. With a camera in hand, you look more, see more and are acutely aware of the incredible light show that mother nature has set up for you to enjoy. The arches in trees, enchanted forest backgrounds and beams of light through the forest canopy take on a new meaning, opening up wonderful photographic opportunities.

“The trees become the orchestra and the light the music

and we, like the wildlife, are the audience.”

~Michael Haworth

The early morning light was filtering through the trees and painting a soft background for this herd of waterbuck.


When you are walking through the forest and are not trying to get too close to the wildlife, they often just stand and look at you.


There is a dazzling variety of habitats in Mana Pools National Park, from great groves of riverine mahoganies through park like Acacia Aalbida woodlands to the dense, impenetrable, biologically complex Jesse bush. While words can be colourful, I found it better to describe the  forests and unusual lighting  with photographs.

“The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.”

~ Mary Catherine Bateson


The Mana experience is unique. You are not allowed to drive off-road but being able to get out of your vehicle and walk in Mana is unique. Without being able to walk into these forest areas you would not be able to capture these more contextual and intimate  type of wildlife images.

“Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.”

~ Le Corbusier


The river itself meanders through a sandy floodplain creating many channels and islands. The ecology of the river is dominated by the regulating effect of the Kariba Dam. Adjacent to the river, the open woodland is dominated by Acacia Albida  and Natal Mahogany. Beyond this belt are found mopane forests. Some areas of mopane have been severely trimmed back by elephants. Beyond the mopane belt stretching up to the escarpment are vast areas covered with ‘Jesse bush’ which is a very thick mixed woodland dominated by various combretum species. We also drove through an extensive grassland at Zebra Vlei, which is located just south of Long Pool.


The park is only open for camping from the beginning of May to the end of October, but this is the winter and spring period when there is no rain so the wildlife congregates around the floodplain and the river. Large numbers of elephant and buffalo can be seen.

“There are two ways of spreading light… To be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it.”

~ Edith Wharton


The Acacia Albida, or commonly named ‘Ana tree’, is an indigenous tree which can grow to 30 metres in height. It drops its seed pods during winter and spring providing valuable food for the wildlife, especially browsers such as elephants, kudu, nyala, and impala. The leaves are nutritious but they are not available in winter so their seeds are especially valuable to the wildlife being high in protein, and the pods are high in starch. The Ana and Sausage trees together provide a bounty of food in late winter when there is little other food around for browsers. A few bull elephants have learnt to stand on their back legs to reach the lower branches of the Ana tree. Other elephants shake the trunk of the tree to force the tree to release its seed pods. The bigger elephants position the Ana tree trunk between their tusks shake the tree trunk with a powerful forehead push.

“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in heart forever.”

~ Native American Proverb


This adult Greater Kudu bull, part of a bigger herd, was wandering through the albidas looking for their nutritious seed pods. This chap had a particularly impressive beard.


The lower terrace of the lower Zambesi river flood plain. From the Zimbabwean side of the river, the high escarpment mountains on the Zambian side form a spectacular and dramatic backdrop to this river scene. The next image shows a pair of female Waterbuck walking in this vast vista to join the rest of the herd, with elephant in the middle distance, and a magnificent hazy blue mountainous backdrop.


Waterbuck, as their name suggests, inhabit areas that are close to water in savanna grasslands and riverine woodlands. This environment provides them with abundant food all year round. The long grasses and pools offer them a degree of refuge from predators. Waterbuck are mainly grazers and tend to eat the coarse grasses that other grazers avoid. They do, on occasions, browse leaves from certain trees and bushes. Waterbuck usually feed in the mornings and at night, and for the remainder of the day rest and ruminate.


It has always amazed me that waterbuck have such long-haired, shaggy brown-gray coats despite living in very hot climes. I have never been close enough to one in the wild but I am told they emit a smelly, greasy secretion which is thought to be for waterproofing. There are two types of waterbuck, the common Waterbuck and the Defassa Waterbuck, and they are distinguished only by the white pattern on their rump. The common Waterbuck is found in southern Africa and has a conspicuous white ring encircling a dark rump and of course this waterbuck is the “butt” of many toilet seat jokes. The Defassa Waterbuck, found in Kenya and Tanzania, has wide white patches on either side of its rump. Surprisingly there are quite a few antelope with white on their rumps such as Sable, Bontebok and Gemsbok.

“We cannot create a world we can’t imagine and stories are the engines of our imaginations.”

~ Josh Stearns


Looking across an inlet to the waterbuck herd, the foreground was punctuated by colourful Water Hyacinth flowers. Water Hyacinth is a free-floating perennial aquatic plant, native to tropical and sub-tropical South America. It has broad, thick, glossy, ovate leaves. Water Hyacinth can grow as high as a metre above the water. The leaves are 10–20 cm across, and float above the water surface. . 


I must admit I have never before taken the time to look closely at the Water Hyacinth inflorescence. It is supported on a long, spongy and bulbous stalk and comprises 8-15 attractive flowers. Each flower has six petals which are mostly lavender to pink in colour with a yellow eye in the centre of the highest petal.


Water Hyacinth is one of the fastest growing plants and when not controlled will cover lakes and ponds entirely. This has a detrimental impact by reducing the water flow, blocking sunlight from reaching native aquatic plants, and starving the water of oxygen and often killing fish. We used to call this “Kariba weed”. At one point many years ago, vast areas of Kariba dam were covered with this hyacinth. The wind would blow extensive floating islands of this weed back and forth across the lake and into inlets where it would get lodged and clog up the inlet. We left this serene beautiful scene to go have brunch it was around 11h00. We had been on the go since just after 5h00 and some were getting “peckish”.

“There are two ways to share knowledge. You can push information out. You can pull them in with a story.”

~ Unknown


Later that afternoon we went off looking for the wild dogs. We found them east of Chisasiko Pool. The pack was resting in the bowl of a dried out pan in the late afternoon.


There were always one or two dogs wandering around and basically keeping guard.


The big advantage of Mana Pools is that you can approach the animals on foot.  Our guide, Tanya, was very respectful of the animals. Most wild animals are more afraid of you than you are of them, but if you are not respectful or cannot read the signs, they will either move away or could attack if feel threatened. That is why we were told walk quietly; watch where we were walking so as not to walk on twigs and branches. The sound of a branch cracking under foot travels through the bush.  Also to try to pass downwind of the animals so that they do not catch your scent and keep your distance so there is a “fight or flight” gap. When you have just arrived from city life, all your senses are overloaded, so you need a few days to adjust and allow your senses to tune in again.  It is times like this that your guide plays an invaluable role as he or she will be finely tuned to the sights, sounds and smells of the bush. Your guide will also be able to read the animals behaviour far better than any city dweller. Unfortunately, this afternoon we were not the only ones trying to photograph these wild dogs and other visitors started to get too close and crowd in on the pack and inevitably they got unsettled and retreated into denser bush.

“If you wish to influence an individual or a group to embrace a particular value in their daily lives, tell them a compelling story.”

~ Annette Simmons


As the afternoon progressed into the evening, the light was fading when the pack wandered down to the river for a drink followed by an unwelcome rush of enthusiastic human onlookers. 


One of the many wonderful things about photography is that you are constantly surprised by the lighting and how the colour and intensity changes casting unexpected moody, beautiful backgrounds.


The wild dog pups did not go down to drink and for some reason hung back waiting for the adults.


The last of the adults had finished drinking and was returning to the waiting pups.


We followed the pack as they wandered along the road back close to where we found them earlier that afternoon. By now it was getting quite dark, so we had to lift up our camera’s light sensivity to above ISO 5000 to get enough shutter speed for a reasonable image of the dogs in last light. Cameras these days have incredible light sensitivity allowing for extended shoots. 


Time to leave the wild dogs and wander back to camp. At times, the setting sun appears much larger than it does high in the midday sky but it is an optical illusion called the Ponzo illusion. There is probably an element of refractive distortion on the horizon too. This was just such a scene with a pink and red striated sun just about to fall below the Zambian escarpment mountains. Often everyone is quiet as we drive home, just taking in what they have seen and experienced. Needless to say back at camp over a few drinks, the stories start spilling out.


“Story telling is about connecting to other people and helping people to see what you see.”

~ Michael Margolis

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,


3 thoughts on “Mana Pools – the enchanted forest

  1. Excellent post once again Mike. I missed Mana Pools on two occassions, and going out there with the Wild-Eye crew is still a dream; the forest, the light, the animals – magic

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