Magical Mana: Exploring Zimbabwe’s Most Remote National Park

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A pair of elephant bulls are silently making their way through the Blue Forest in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, each padded footstep barely audible save for the occasional snapping of a twig. Together they weigh over 25,000 pounds and yet the only sounds are Cape Turtle Doves cooing, the buzzing of insects, and barking calls of impala letting me know they see me sitting behind a log. The elephants approach an Acacia tree and lift their trunks up into the branches to eat from above. One does a full body stretch all the way down to his toes to reach even higher, like a kind of elephant yoga. Their trunks swirl around clumps of leaves and they effortlessly tug off smaller branches and place them in their mouths. Crunching rings out through the forest like thunder – turns out elephants chew a lot louder than they walk.

Mana Pools National Park had been on my list for a long time. It’s legendary to wildlife professionals and enthusiasts, safari buffs, guides, researchers, photographers and of course Zimbabweans. Mana Pools has a hardcore reputation: it’s very remote, very wild and also happens to be the most prestigious and least visited national park in Zimbabwe. Perhaps it’s the mighty Zambezi river and its sprawling flood plains that ebb and flow each rainy season, or the healthy predator populations; in Mana lions, leopards, cheetah, hyenas and even very rare African Painted Dogs roam freely and are relatively easy to spot. It might be that Mana Pools is the only national park in Southern Africa where you can walk on foot without a guide – although that is not recommended without sufficient bush experience. And of course, let’s not forget the elephants that eat from the trees of the Blue Forest. 

The magic of Mana is not any one of these things, but how they all come together to create a unique landscape and ecosystem. This UNESCO heritage site spans 2200 square kilometers and has a buffer zone with safari lodges which circles the park. Off-roading of any kind is completely forbidden to protect the delicate ecosystem and there are no permanent human structures within the park. Mana Pools is unfenced and the wildlife here is roaming freely in the truest sense. 

As one of the least developed national parks in Southern Africa, Mana Pools boasts a pristine wilderness free from human encroachment that is far and few between in modern times. “Mana” means “four” in Shona, the most commonly spoken of Zimbabwe’s 16 official languages, and refers to the four pools which are permanent fixtures in the park. Located in the lower Zambezi region of northern Zimbabwe on the border of Zambia, Mana Pools is home to a vast flood plain which transforms into lush green pastures with scattered lakes during the rainy season. As the hot and dry season approaches, the lakes dry up and large concentrations of animals can be found at the few remaining water sources. This seasonal phenomenon makes Mana Pools one of the best ecosystems for wildlife viewing in the world.

Looking out over the Zambezi River, the escarpment on the other side in Zambia rises over 1000 meters from the valley floor. Elephants, of course, could care less about borders. Branches crack behind me and I turn around to spot five elephants ranging from adult to toddler proceed single file down the embankment and plunge themselves into the water, where they begin to make their way toward a small island full of grasses. It’s late November, end of the dry season, and the rains are late but most certainly on the way. 

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About halfway across they begin swimming, their heads almost fully submerged with only eyes and trunks peeking up through the water. They bob gently up and down as they pedal their feet, moving in a tight-knit group with the little ones protected in the middle, and it suddenly occurs to me that I had no idea elephants could swim. There’s another splash and to my right, two more elephants have seen the swimming group and want to join. I can almost hear them saying, “Hey, guys! Wait for us!” as they move quickly through the water to catch up.  They hoist their bodies out of the water when they reach the island, glistening black in the afternoon sun, and begin munching away.

There’s something that happens to me when I am in the presence of wild animals that I can’t get anywhere else. When I am in my home city of Paris I practice mindfulness consciously, which can include everything from mediation to writing in a journal to reminding myself to be present. When I am with animals, I am present. I don’t have to remind myself. I don’t need to meditate. I feel completely and utterly at peace, and fully present in the now. Every living creature from elephants and leopards to warthogs and antelope washes my being in a warm golden glow. Even the sounds of African fish eagles calling puts me instantly at ease. This effect is so profound that spending time with wildlife has become an addiction, something that has completely changed the course of my life.

Beyond the flood plain lies the magical Blue Forest, home to the Acacia Albida trees where shifting light creates a hazy blue effect in the distance. The Blue Forest is also home to Mana’s resident superstar elephants: Boswell, J.D., Fred, and Pretty Boy. This crew, led by Boswell, is known for standing on their hind legs to eat from the Acacia trees – a behavior not seen anywhere else in the world. Boswell, now in his 50’s, was the first to adapt to particularly bad drought conditions by learning to stand on his legs. Not only did four other males repeat this behavior by watching him, many other animals benefit from the fruits shaken loose when Boswell eats. A small crowd can often be seen around him, gathering to snack on the fallen pods of a Zambezi fig tree. 

We are walking through the forest around noon and my guide taps my shoulder. This is another particularity of Mana; you won’t be able to drive off-road but you can get out of your vehicle and explore on foot. I follow where his finger is pointing and glimpse through the trees just in time to see a male elephant mount a female and mate, an event which is very rare to witness on land. It also looks incredibly awkward and is over in a matter of seconds.

Elephants meander about in twos, threes, fours and fives. Some stop to greet each other, intertwining their trunks, stroking each other’s faces, pressing their foreheads close together. They make soft cooing sounds and continue twirling their trunks. This affectionate behavior is how elephants say, “Hello, friend,” and can continue for 15 minutes or longer, especially for individuals who haven’t seen each other in a while.

After a week of exploring the floodplain, the banks of the river and the forest, I make my way to a far and remote corner of the park to the Kanga Camp concession. Kanga is set on the Kanga Pan, the only water source for over 20 kilometers during the dry season. I’ve just arrived and barely had time to set my bags down when I see a group of elephants bounding down the hill towards the pan and diving into the water like kids at a swimming pool. They wade into the muddy water and drink, then spray themselves with mud to cool off.  

I take a seat on a bench close to the edge of the deck as an elephant bull comes closer. Only a piece of rope separates us. He is inches away from me. I could reach out and touch him if I lifted my arm, but I know better. He may be used to being close to people but he’s still a wild animal, and actually touching him would be incredibly reckless, dangerous and unethical. So I sit and watch him, marveling at our closeness. He lifts his head and looks right into my eyes, his irises are red, he has wiry eyelashes and I can hear him breathing. He has crusted mud drying on his forehead and he bats his ears gently back and forth to cool himself off. His tusks are small. Maybe he’s a teenager. I have never been so close to a wild elephant in my entire life, and I should probably be scared but instead I just feel incredibly overcome with joy. He lowers his head and reaches his trunk down to the water, and I manage to move just in time as he sprays himself, sending mud all over the deck.

On the morning of my last full day, my guide Steve and I head out for a walk early in the morning. It rained most of the night before and trees, bushes, grass and flowers were springing to life before my eyes. Mornings post rain are quiet and calm, there’s not a lot of game viewing but the chirping of birds and insects is like a tranquil sound bath. 

Out of nowhere my guide says, “Buffalo. You must run.” He is abnormally calm as he said these words considering more people are killed by buffalo and hippos than any other animal in Africa, but that doesn’t stop me from taking off at lighting speed. The golden rule in the bush is: do not run – unless it’s a buffalo. A cloud of dust followed the shape of my body as I sprint towards a thorn bush and attempt to tuck myself inside. 

“It’s okay you can come out now, they went the other way.” He casually walks toward me and points. “You know that’s a thorn bush right?” 

“I figure thorns are better than buffalo” I shrug.

“True. If you can find a curved dead tree or log on the ground, that also works because the buffalo horns go up not down, so they cannot reach you.”

“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind,” I reply while thinking to myself that I will most definitely not be trying that technique. 

My frightening buffalo incident aside, my solo stay in Mana Pools has been restorative. Between the pandemic and impending rainy season, I did not see one other tourist my entire time in the park. I’ve spent my days alone with my guide and my animal friends, listening to lions roaring with the setting sun. I watch the landscape change as we drive three hours out of the park, from sand to bush to forest to grasslands, knowing I’ll be back sooner rather than later.

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