Mana Pools is a very special place. This 2,500-square-kilometer nature park is located right on the banks of the Zambezi River and in the middle of the valley of the same name. In addition, it has four seasonal natural pools (Main Pool, Chine Pool, Long Pool and Chisambuc Pool) which allow many animals to drink water and concentrate around it during the dry season. Mana in shona language means four, hence the name of the park.
Mana Pools is located right next to the Zambezi River, the fourth largest river on the African continent. This river forms a natural border with Zambia and is a place where many animals are concentrated. It is said that there is a crocodile for every kilometer square of the river. We navigated it from the Lower Zambezi. If you want to know more about our experience, click here.
This mixture of river, waterholes, green vegetation around, sandy islands… makes a visit to Mana Pools a must-see, just because of the landscape. The best time to visit this park is during the dry season, from June to October, where the animals tend to live by the water and it is easier to see them. However, from December to March/April, which is the rainy season, the park becomes inaccessible as much of it is flooded and the animals are scattered towards the mountains.
At Mana Pools you will find no borders or fences for animals that live completely free and can move in and out of the park. In addition, it is one of the parks where we have seen the most concentration of animals in a small space, because if you go in dry weather, in a few kilometers you will find quite a few near the river.
This park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984, is home to a large population of elephants. However, there are not as many as Hwange NP, the quintessential place for these animals. If you want to read more about our experience at Hwange, you can click here. In addition, inside the Mana Pools you can see four of the five big five as you will not find rhinos there. We were amazed at how easy it was to see lions near us and we were very lucky to find a leopard in the middle of the road when we left the park. You won’t be able to see giraffes or wildebeest due to the type of terrain.
One of the other star animals in Mana Pools is the wild dogs, an endangered animal that we were not lucky enough to see during our trip. However, some people we met had seen them. You can learn more about this special animal in this article.
How to get there?
To get to Mana Pools by road, we find only one possible access. It is located in the north of the country, just after the town of Makuti. During your route to the inside of the park, you will go through different checkpoints where you will have to register and finally, once you reach the Zambezi River, pay the corresponding entrance fees.
To get to the first checkpoint, you will have to drive along the main road from Harare to Chirundu, and stop about 17 km after the town of Makuti. There you will find some general offices of the park where you will register and you will be given a paper to be able to access the next checkpoint.
The second access point is when you are completely off the main road from Harare to Chirundu. This is about 7 kilometers from the first point, driving along the main road and crossing a small mountain pass with a road in very good condition. There, you will officially enter the park but you will not pay the entrance fees until the end.
Once inside, you will have to drive for 30 kilometers through a landscape where you can already find some animals (especially elephants) and some very photographic and beautiful baobabs in the middle of the road. This road is already dirt and you will need to adjust your speed on this type of terrain. After this first section, you will find a gate where you will have to re-register and finally drive about 43 kilometers to the central offices next to the river and the Nyamepi campsite.
Finally, there you will have arrived at the main area of Mana Pools NP where you can pay for your ticket, permits, campsites and any other activity you want to book.
Permits and prices
Entry fees to enter into the park costs 20$ per person (international tourist) and if you also want to enter with your car, you will have to pay a 10$ permit. These prices are for one-day visitors, as well as the same in case you stay overnight there. Please note, however, that permits in Zimbabwe last more than 24 hours. For example, if you come in on Monday at 9am and pay for a day, you will have until Tuesday at 6pm to be inside the park.
To sleep, you have different accommodation options that you also have to pay for once you arrive at the main reception. Private campsites must be booked in advance; and others you can book directly once you get there, such as the Nyamepi campsite. It costs 23$ per person per night, and is located right next to the Zambezi River, with a water point and shared toilets and showers.
About the payment, we paid in cash because our credit card was not accepted (N26). Zimbabwe is a very curious country when it comes to currency. In many parts of the country, they do not accept card payments and only accept dollars, not local currency, which are bonds. Therefore, we recommend that you bring in cash to pay for Mana Pools. If you want to know more about the complexity of the currency and different tricks for the traveler, you can click here.
Basic tips for visiting Mana Pools NP
– Before entering the Mana Pools, shop at the supermarket for the days you will be there. Inside the park, there are no restaurants or shops. Remember that many parks do not allow certain foods to enter. In the case of Mana Pools, it is very important that you do not include any citrus fruits as it is one of the favorite foods of elephants. These animals can break windows in order to get the prized mangoes.
– Adapt to the hen schedule. At dawn, when the sun rises and sets, it is when the animals are most active and it is easier to see them. Get up early and start your safari drive as early as possible. You may see some nocturnal animals that are still active. You can rest at noon, when it’s hotter, as that’s when it’s harder to see animals. In the evening, after a siesta, many animals are back active to go drink water for the last time and the nocturnal animals start coming out again.
– Drive slowly inside the park. Many times, going slow is easier to see animals and notice where they may be without scaring them with the noise of the car. Make sure there are many elephants in this park, and it is important to leave them a security distance to avoid any sudden accidents. In this article, you will learn more about elephants and how to react if you get too close.
– Do not get out of the car under any circumstances unless in a designated area. Close the car when you are walking inside the park with the windows closed if you are near an animal. It is also useful to ask the guides or receptionists where they have seen animals, as this will make it easier to find them. We did, and we were lucky enough to see 14 lions in one day!
– Carry garbage bags. This park works with the “Carry in – carry out” system; in other words, all the rubbish you can generate must be stored in your car and thrown in a container once you have left the park.
– Carry dollars in cash. In Zimbabwe, many parks do not accept international credit cards and the only way to pay entrance fees is in cash. They only accept dollars, so we recommend that you anticipate how many days you will be there, what activities you want to do, where you will sleep, and a rough budget for preparing your cash.
– Watch out for wildlife. Not all camps have fences, and it is common for elephants, buffaloes, hippos, or baboons to approach these areas because they know they will find food. If you are camping, do not leave anything outside the vehicle for safety. And during the day, be on the lookout because some of these animals are very fast and can sometimes be violent, especially baboons.
– Prepare your backpack well. When visiting Mana Pools it is important not to leave binoculars to see the animals from afar; a hat and sunglasses; a good map to place you in the park (we with Maps.me have done very well); a good mosquito repellent and long protective clothing for nights or evenings; sunscreen and lip balm; a good camera with the right lenses and clothes that are not very bright and bright. Preferably it should be khaki, dark green or brown. It should also be comfortable clothing that allows you to sit in the car for many hours and at the same time breathable.
– Drive a 4×4. To visit the Mana Pools, you need a 4×4 car as there is a lot of sand on some roads, and there are some river crossings. In fact, the people of the park do not recommend going on a tourism vehicle, because it will take you a long time to cover the first 70 kilometers until you reach the main reception, and from there you will not be able to reach the other paths. There is always the possibility of hiring a game drive and doing it with a safari car that is 4×4.
What to do in Mana Pools NP?
– Do a car safari through the park
Mana Pools is a park with a large concentration of animals in a small space, next to the Zambezi River. A car safari is one of the best activities to see wildlife up close.
Keep in mind that a 4×4 is needed to visit most of the paths in the park, as you will have to cross a river and also cross different sandy paths. With a tourism vehicle, they would no longer let you enter the park.
We were lucky enough to see a lot of lions in the eastern part of the park. However, very close to the reception you will also find other animals such as elephants, buffaloes, zebras, crocodiles, hippos and antelopes that will make your safari a great experience. Always try to keep a security distance from these animals to avoid any sudden problem.
– Do a walking safari
Mana Pools is one of the few parks in Africa where walking safaris are allowed. You can choose how to do them: you can do it without a guide and at your own risk; or accompanied by a park ranger. This is one of the most amazing experiences you can have in Zimbabwe, as it will allow you to see animals close to you without any physical barrier such as the car.
If you decide to go on a safari on your own, keep in mind that you need to keep an eye on the distances you approach the animals. In recent years, there have been some incidents with some tourists who were unaware of the danger that wildlife can pose. Therefore, many recommend that you go on a walking safari with a guide, unless you have experience and knowledge of the animals that are in the park. To do the safari for yourself without a guide you need a permit worth 15$ per person per day. It is important that you do not get out of the vehicle if you do not have this permit because you may be fined for an amount of 100$.
We enjoyed this safari with a ranger from the park. Guides in this country are considered one of the best prepared in all of Africa; so with them you can learn a lot from the animals and see them up close. Of course, you need to keep quiet and follow all the guidelines he tells you. We were lucky enough to see one of the largest elephants in the entire park (called Boswel) during our walking safari and get very close to him. The price for this activity is 10$ per person per hour, and you usually leave early in the morning, which is when you have more options to see more animals.
Boswel is one of the iconic elephants in Mana Pools NP. If you’re lucky, you’ll see him stand on two legs and grab the tallest branches of the tree. In general, these five-ton animals are not usually stand, but Mana Pools is one of the few places in Africa where you can see Boswel and other two-legged specimens: a spectacle! We saw him up close, eating from a tree, but he didn’t stand up.
– Do a safari with canoe
One of the other activities you can do at Mana Pools is a canoe safari on the Zambezi River. We, having done this canoe safari from the part of Zambia, decided not to do it. On the banks of the river you can see different animals that are going to cool off like elephants and zebras; apart from the many hippos and crocodiles that take their eyes off the water. You will need to book an activity with an agency, including a 4-day canoe ride from Chirundu to Mana Pools. This is sure to be an adventure!
– Sit on the banks of the Zambezi River and watch a good sunset
One of the best images that many people have when they return from Africa is their beautiful sunsets. You can see how the sun sets behind the African savannah; behind a desert dune; or behind a river such as the Zambezi, the fourth largest river in Africa.
Sitting and watching the sun set behind the mountains, overlooking the river and some animals is a unique experience at Mana Pools. Before entering the park, make sure you have a couple of beers in the car so you can enjoy this moment of peace and beauty, which many people are amazed when they visit any of the African countries.
– Fishing at the mouth of the Mana River
For those fishing enthusiasts, Mana Pools has an area where recreational fishing is allowed. This is where the Mana River flows, just a few kilometers from the Nyamepi campsite. We passed by, and saw some tourists sitting in a chair and fishing at the mouth. If you want to do this, keep in mind that you will have to pay a permit to the Zimparks, which manages the different national parks in the country.
Where to sleep in Mana Pools NP?
Mostly, if you want to sleep in the Mana Pools, you have few accommodation options with a medium and tight budget. There are also different lodges by the river, but they are luxurious and have a high budget that goes beyond our hands. Therefore, if you want to sleep in the park we would only highlight:
– Nyamepi camping: This campsite is located right next to the Zambezi River. There are several pitches from which you can enjoy great views. Each place has a water point, and shared toilets and showers; apart from an electric power point. The price of the plot $ 23$ per person, and you can go without a reservation as they always leave some plots free for visitors who do not have it. We were at number 3 with good river views, and located close to many areas where we saw many animals.
DAY 1: After a fabulous afternoon with Nervson at his farm, we got up early so we could head to Mana Pools in northern Zimbabwe. Once we registered at the first access point, we went to the first door where we started driving along a dirt road where were different baobabs which turned this landscape into a beautiful place to take pictures with the car. Plus, we were starting to see the first elephants walking along the side of the road.
Once past the second gate, we entered a more sandy road until we finally reached the Nyamepi campsite area. There we did the final check in and paid all the fees, and asked if they had seen wild dogs. This animal was one of the few we hadn’t seen during our trip, and we wanted to see it at Mana Pools, one of the best places to see it.
Unfortunately, the guide told us that they had not seen him today but that we could go east of the park where they had found lions. So, after talking for a while about our trip with an Italian family living in Harare, we headed straight to the area where they had seen lions. Luckily, the Mana Pools area next to the Zambezi River is small in size compared to other African parks, so after a few minutes, just across a small river that was almost dry we saw two lionesses resting in the shade.
While we were taking some pictures of these animals, one of them got up and went down the river to a waterhole to drink water. Our surprise was when just after we saw that two more lions were coming to drink water from the waterhole and we had them 5 meters from the car! The lions passed behind the car and stopped to rest right in front of us, which we were amazed to have so close. After being alone with these lions for a while, we opened the car engine and the lions got scared and walked to a shade of a tree where we could see our first four lions together.
Across the road, a herd of buffaloes was watching the movements of these cats; while some impalas were advancing in the opposite direction where they were. Seeing the lion is always exciting; but seeing four of them together makes your hair stand on end!
After this first great experience at Mana Pools, we went to another part of the park where we could see elephants cooling off in the water; and a family that happened right next to us. In this video you can see how close we were to them! It was important to stay calm so as not to catch the attention of these big animals. Aside from elephants, we found many antelopes and hippos in the Zambezi River within a few kilometers.
We went to lunch at the campsite and in the afternoon we decided to visit that area of the lions again. Our surprise was when in a curve we found two parked cars that could not cross the river. We didn’t see what was going on, but for sure it was important. It turns out that in the middle of the road, in the shade, was a family of lions with 5 members: a male lion, two lionesses and two puppies. They were resting on the side of the road making it impossible for cars to pass. The male lion was gorgeous, with blond hair that showed he was young.
After waiting for the cars in front to move slowly on their side, we could see them less than two meters away. There we had them staring into our eyes. Really, his gaze imposes. After a few minutes, we drove slowly past the car so as not to scare them away, and we continued to search for the lions we had seen during the morning.
Unfortunately, those lions were no longer there, but a few kilometers from where we were, at a shallow river crossing, we could see 3 lions resting in the background (2 males and one female). Since we were far away, we drove along the course of the dry river until we got close to them and saw the male lions getting angry with each other, probably for the female. It was amazing what we were seeing that day. We were already looking 12 different lions that were less than 15 minutes from our campsite!
Before returning to the campsite, we found two more lionesses that we had not yet seen. So in one day we had seen a total of 14 lions, our record throughout this trip that we believe will be very difficult to overcome. We went to sleep on our campground right next to the Zambezi River amidst the noise of hippos and some fires (which seemed out of control) on the other side of the river, in the part of Zambia. It was very hot in those days, and in many parts of Africa, various fires had broken out, endangering wildlife, people, and the landscape. It was time to close our excited eyes from the safari we had done with our car, and to be completely alone in front of many of these animals!
DAY 2: We got up early because we had hired the walking safari activity with a guide. We met at six in the morning at the reception and from there we had a two hour safari walk through the Mana Pools NP. We were really looking forward to seeing wild dogs, so we told the guide and he took us to an area where these animals are usually concentrated. Unfortunately, we were unlucky and neither we nor any other cars roaming around had seen them.
So we stopped the car somewhere else he told us and got off to start walking while we saw different antelopes and zebras speeding away when they heard our footsteps. It was very important not to make noise to be able to see the animals up close. After walking with elephants in the distance, we approached an elephant that was bigger than the others. He was Boswel, one of the iconic elephants at Mana Pools. He sometimes stands on two legs to reach the highest branches of the tree. We waited for a while behind a hill as he ate and approached another elephant, but we couldn’t see him standing up. Anyway, it was spectacular to see the animals up close!
We kept walking in search of wild dogs, but they didn’t show up. We crossed a dry river, and it was time to get back in the car after an hour of walking through the Mana Pools. Walking in the middle of a national park with all the wildlife around it makes you feel totally vulnerable but at the same time it is an exciting adventure that we recommend to everyone who goes to Mana Pools.
After this wonderful experience, we went to the west side of the park in search of wild dogs. In those days they didn’t show much because few people had found them, and they really move fast and camouflage themselves very well in the landscape. We drove on different paths that seemed ideal for families of wild dogs or some cheetahs to rest, but we were not lucky enough to see any of these animals. Going on safari is like a game: sometimes you win and you see a lot of animals; and sometimes you can lose and not find any. But totally defeated we were not because the scenery was beautiful.
Since we couldn’t find the wild dogs, we decided to go back to the east where we had seen the lions the day before. It was about the same time, so we were looking forward to seeing them. But none of them appeared that day. Yes we did see elephants, buffaloes and antelopes; but of the 14 lions we saw the day before, we saw none today. When it comes to safaris, you also need to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when these animals are moving, drinking water, or resting in the middle of a path.
Despite not finding any lions, we were very impressed with the Mana Pools. The landscape was spectacular, and the concentration of animals in a small space was very high. Besides, we were still thrilled to see 14 lions yesterday. It was time to leave, happy to leave a park we had really enjoyed. Anyway, it missed yet a last surprises…and what a surprise!
When we were a few kilometers from one of the gates, at the end of a straight line we saw an animal lying in the middle of the road. It looked like a hyena, but we were approaching it and the coat was different. Serious wild dogs? We approached slowly, and suddenly saw that they were not wild dogs. Would he be a cheetah? It was really an animal with black spots and it looked like it, but we still approached it without making much noise with the motor engine; and we finally saw what it was. There was a leopard in the middle of the road lying down!
That morning, the ranger with we did the walking safari told us that there were leopards in the Mana Pools but that they were almost impossible to see. And we now had one in front of us! Really, luck was with us. After taking a few first photos, we tried to get closer to the animal, but it got up and headed for the bushes. We had found one of the most impossible animals to see in the Mana Pools, a leopard in the middle of the road!
After a few kilometers, we found a van with some guys outside. They looked like local tourists heading to the Mana Pools. When we told them that we had seen a leopard a few kilometers away, they quickly got into the car, lest there be any more felines nearby.
Mana Pools is one of our favorite parks in Africa. For the landscape, for the river and also for the great luck we had to see many animals and up close. Now we were back on the paved road after a busy day and headed back to Nervson’s house, where we would camp again on his land, assimilating how lucky we were to be able to visit the Mana Pools and see all that wildlife.