Mana Pools National Park: The Complete Guide

Elephants and waterbuck on the Mana Pools floodplain, Zimbabwe

jez_bennett / Getty Images

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Mana Pools National Park

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Zimbabwe

Hwange National Park may be the obvious choice for those planning a Zimbabwean safari; but for those in the know, there are many reasons to head further north to Mana Pools National Park instead. Located on the Zambian border and contiguous with Lower Zambezi National Park, this special destination is named for the Shona word meaning “four.” This is in reference to its four permanent pools carved out by former channels of the mighty Zambezi River, which together provide a critical source of water for the region’s wildlife during the long, dry winter. At this time, vast herds of elephants, buffalo, and other herbivores migrate to the park in their hundreds of thousands; drawing an equally impressive number of predators in their wake. 

This annual congregation of animals has been described by UNESCO as “one of Africa’s most outstanding wildlife spectacles,” and was one of the reasons why the 850-square-mile park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 along with the adjacent Sapi and Chewore Safari Areas.

Tricky to access and little known on the grander safari scene, Mana Pools remains one of the most remote, untamed, and rewarding national parks in Southern Africa—making it the ultimate paradise for off-the-beaten-track adventure seekers. Above all, it’s renowned for alternative game-viewing opportunities, including canoe and walking safaris. 

Things to Do

Although the Zambezi River and the four pools it once left behind are undoubtedly the centerpieces of Mana Pools National Park, the region boasts a diverse array of habitats including forests of mahogany, acacia, baobabs, and wild fig. This, as well as its status as a permanent water source in times of drought, make it a haven for many different types of wildlife. Game viewing is therefore the top activity, whether you choose to spot animals from the comfort of a safari vehicle, a river boat or canoe, or on foot. Mana Pools is likely one of the only places in Africa where unguided walking safaris are permitted—although this is not advisable for any but the most experienced. 

Birdwatching and photography are also very popular here, thanks to a large number of recorded species and sparse woodland and riverine habitats that make them easy to spot. Although Zimbabwe doesn’t have any endemic species, many of Southern Africa’s most coveted specials are present in Mana Pools, including the African skimmer and the Pel’s fishing owl. And the Zambezi River (and Mana Pools in particular) are renowned as one of the best places in the world to fish for Southern Africa’s top freshwater game fish: the tiger fish. Other commonly caught species include tilapia, bream, and barbel. 

Elephants Traveling Through the Zambezi River in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe
Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images

Wildlife Viewing

Despite the fact that the black rhino population that partly inspired Mana Pools’ UNESCO designation in 1984 has now disappeared, the park retains its Big Five status. Here, you can spot large herds of elephant and buffalo, lion, leopard, and reintroduced white rhino. Africa’s third big cat species, the cheetah, is frequently spotted, though many people place Mana Pools on their bucket list because it is one of the best places for seeing the highly endangered African wild dog. The herbivorous species upon which these predators depend also thrive, from large numbers of Burchell’s zebra to waterbuck, kudu, eland, and impala. Meanwhile, the pools provide a sanctuary for some of the continent’s highest concentrations of hippo and Nile crocodiles. 

There are several ways to encounter Mana Pools' wildlife. Despite a relatively limited road network, traditional guided Jeep safaris are a popular option offered by most camps and lodges. It’s also possible to venture out on a self-guided safari in your own vehicle. Be aware that a four-wheel-drive vehicle is essential, and some off-road experience is highly recommended. Alternatively, the Zambezi River offers opportunities for canoe and boat safaris; these are especially good for birding.

Mana Pools remains one of the only national parks in Africa to allow unguided and guided walking safaris. However, the prevalence of dangerous animals makes going with an experienced guide a very good idea.

Birdwatching 

There are over 450 recorded resident and migrant bird species in Mana Pools, which was designated as a Ramsar wetland of international importance in 2013. Among its most iconic sights are the vast colonies of southern carmine bee-eaters that nest in the banks of the Zambezi during the dry season. Along the river, specials including the rufous-bellied heron and the long-toed lapwing are often spotted, while its exposed sand bars provide valuable breeding sites for the rare African skimmer. In large trees along the water’s edge, keep an eye out for the cinnamon-colored Pel’s fishing owl; and in the woodlands, for Lillian’s lovebirds and Ayres’ hawk-eagles. From November to April, the park’s resident birds are joined by migrants from Asia and Europe. 

Dramatic Colors and Baobab Trees at Sunrise at Chitaka Springs, Mana Pools, Zimbabwe
Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images

Where to Stay 

Zimbabwe National Parks

Zimbabwe National Parks maintains a series of affordable lodges and campsites for those on a budget or self-drive adventure. 

  • Nyamepi Camp: This is the main public campsite, with 30 sites big enough for up to six people and ablution blocks with hot showers and flush toilets. 
  • Exclusive Camps: For a more remote experience, book one of the exclusive camps. These unfenced, wild sites are located along the Zambezi River and have no real facilities except for long-drop toilets. You will need to be completely self-sufficient, bringing all camping and cooking equipment with you. 
  • Parks Lodges: These basic lodges have two bedrooms each. Three have four beds, and two have eight beds. Your essential equipment, including bedding, basic cooking utensils, a gas stove, and a fridge/freezer are provided although electricity will need to be run off your car battery. 

African Bush Camps

African Bush Camps is one of the main luxury accommodation providers in Mana Pools National Park. They have four camps in three different areas. 

  • Kanga Camp: Located in a private concession next to Kanga Pan, this luxury camp is comprised of six tents on raised wooden platforms. Each one has solar power, an en-suite bathroom with hot water and a flushing toilet, and an outdoor shower. All-inclusive rates cover all meals, game drives, and walking safaris. 
  • Nyamutsi Camp: This eco-friendly camp stands on the banks of the Zambezi River and is fully solar-powered. Its six luxury tents come with air-conditioning, indoor and outdoor showers, a plunge pool, and a private viewing deck. And rates include canoe safaris and shore fishing as well as game drives and walking safaris. 
  • Nyamutsi Mahogany: Situated in the same area as Nyamutsi Camp, Nyamutsi Mahogany is a family-friendly option that welcomes children of all ages. It has two tented suites and two family suites, as well as a lounge and dining room, a fire circle, a plunge pool, and an elevated game-viewing deck. All activities are included, although walking and canoe safaris are for people 16 and older. 
  • Zambezi Expeditions: This mobile camp sits on the banks of the Zambezi and offers luxury tents with en-suite bathrooms and hot bucket showers. All meals, as well as canoeing and walking safaris, game drives, and shore fishing are included. 

For a full list of privately owned camps and lodges in Mana Pools, view this list compiled by Expert Africa. 

How to Get There 

The closest international airport to Mana Pools is in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, and approximately 240 miles away. It takes roughly 5.5 hours to reach Nyamepi Camp via the main Harare-Chirundu road. Although there are no schedule flights to Mana Pools, many people find it easier to arrive by charter plane. The most common departure airport is Kariba. If you book an all-inclusive safari with one of the operators mentioned or linked to above, you should be given options for transfers via road or air. 

Accessibility 

Unfortunately, Mana Pools National Park’s remote nature and limited infrastructure means that it is not well geared for those with mobility issues. There are no specific accessible features available. 

Tips for Your Visit

  • The best time to visit is during the dry winter months (June to September) when vast herds of migratory animals are attracted by the park’s permanent pools. 
  • From January to March, many of the accommodation options in the park are closed for the rainy season. Roads may become impassable during this time, and visiting is not recommended. 
  • A daily conservation fee is charged at $20 per international visitor. Discounts of more than 50 percent are available for Zimbabwean nationals. 
  • Malaria is a risk all year round in Mana Pools National Park. Consult your doctor about the best prophylactics to take, and be sure to wear mosquito repellent and long-sleeved clothing in the evenings to avoid getting bitten. 
  • The CDC recommends several other vaccinations for travel to Zimbabwe, including hepatitis A, hepatitis B, rabies, and typhoid. 
  • Zimbabwe National Parks campsites are unfenced, and as such it is not recommended to camp there with children under 12 years of age. 
  • Be conscious of wildlife-related safety at all times. Do not approach or attempt to feed any wild animal, be sure to securely pack food away, and carry a torch when walking around the camp at night. Watch where you walk, in case of venomous snakes, scorpions, or spiders. 
  • If you choose to self-drive, note that there are no gas stations in the park. You will need to bring all the fuel needed for your trip with you, with the nearest stations in Karoi, Makuti, or Chirundu (Zambia). 
  • Zimbabwe National Parks accommodation is much cheaper than the luxury lodges, but fills up quickly. Be prepared to book well in advance. 
  • If you plan on staying at the National Parks campsites or lodges, you will need to bring all your own food and water. Remember that for contamination reasons, fruit is not allowed into the park. All trash must be taken out with you when you leave. 
Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Zimbabwe: Vaccines and Medications." Aug. 17, 2021.

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Mana Pools National Park: The Complete Guide