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Mana Pools - a different sort of trip report!


Whyone?

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Whyone?

As most of the regulars on this website will know by now, I have been visiting Mana Pools for a week or so each October for the last 12 years. Clearly I am besotted with the place and I am fortunate to have friends and family who live in Zim, making the preparation and resourcing of these trips far easier than would otherwise be the case.. Having said this, I have met numerous people at Mana visiting on a self-supported basis over the years who had arranged their trips independently and remotely, so it is clearly quite do-able.

 

The trips I make routinely come up in discussions with family and friends and I find it very difficult to explain what a trip to Mana entails and what it is like when you get there. Most explanations make the trip sound ridiculously dangerous and/or horrendously hard work. I know I am talking (typing!) to a much more knowledgeable, understanding and 'bush' experienced audience here, but I thought a thread detailing a week in Mana from a practical / logistical perspective may be of some interest?

 

I am rubbish at writing, so I will rely heavily on photos drawn from the last 10 years (photos prior to this were taken on 35mm film, and I haven't got around to scanning them yet). The pictures are chosen not for their technical quality or aesthetic appeal, but rather to illustrate what goes into spending a self-supported week in the bush at Mana.

 

The planning for a 7-8 day visit to Mana starts about 10 months in advance when Zimbabwe National Parks open their reservations for the period we are interested in - October, known locally as the 'suicide month'. It is unrelentingly hot in the Zambezi Valley in October, temperatures typically in the low to mid 40's during the day. The rains usually break in November, and the weather in the valley during October often hints at the changes to come - it is not at all unusual to have 24 hours of strong winds, bringing with them clouds of dust which makes camping especially uncomfortable.

 

I get ahead of myself.....there are a number of 'Exclusive Campsites' at Mana - these are mainly in beautiful river front locations, and give a high degree of privacy - it is Park etiquette (and plain good manners!) not to visit occupied campsites. We always book one of these sites, with the Mucheni sites being a particular favourite. However we have also stayed at the Ndungu’s, Gwaya, BBC and Nkupe over the years. Facilities are extremely limited - a long-drop toilet, a brai-stand, and that's your lot! It is therefore necessary to carry everything you need to spend a week in the bush with you......

 

Ele grazing next to the loo at Mucheni 3

 

So, to the start. My friends are based in Harare, and this is where our annual adventure begins.

 

As mentioned previously, the Lower Zambezi Valley in October is hot...very hot. It is therefore very important to keep essentials like beer...oh, and food.... cool. It is (quite rightly) not permitted to run generators in the Park, so we rely primarily on ice chests with a small gas freezer providing some back-up. With proper management of the ice chests (pack and label carefully, duct-tape lids shut, open in strict sequence and keep in the shade at all times) it is quite possible to still have cool beer and ice for sun-downers on the final night.

 

In Harare there are a number of businesses selling large blocks of ice:

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2R4C7299 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

There is a significant list of shopping to be bought before heading off to Mana for 8 days...thankfully most of the essentials are bought before I arrive.

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IMG_8690 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Once all packed up, it is up early and on the road by 6am. It takes about 4 -4 ½ hours to get from Harare to the National Parks office at the top of the Zambezi Escarpment at Marongroa where it is necessary to present your booking paperwork....one of 4 ‘check-points’ you are supposed to make (the others being the two gates on the dirt road to Mana, and the third is at the Parks office in Mana Pools itself).

We proceed at a leisurely pace and make a couple of important and now traditional stops along the way. The first is at Mr. Patel’s general hardware and fishing tackle shop (“The Anglers Mecca”!) in Karoi where in the past you were able to buy everything from a fishing lure, spare parts for your Swiss Army knife, a bicycle, to a plough!

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_20081003_2433 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

It was at Mr Patel’s shop in 2008, during the crazy days of hyperinflation that I took this picture which still makes me sad when I look at it. Thes are items for sale in his window...a pack of needles for Zim$120,000 and biros broken down and sold in component parts (ink refills unavailable).

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IMG_4771 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Amazingly, Mr. Patel and his business survived these brutally difficult years, however, last year the shop was closed up and empty.

Another crucial stop en-route is made to buy worms...fishing worms! The supply of fishing worms on the Harare – Kariba road has become quite an industry....signs extolling the quality of the product abound:

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6 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

And get more elaborate as each year passes:

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20091003_516 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Sadly www.wonderfulworms.com doesn’t exist!

After a little light hearted haggling, a deal is always struck:

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_20081003_2436 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

When recounting tales of our visits to Mana, people often comment on how dangerous it sounds. Whilst it would be wrong to deny that a self-drive trip to camp amongst wild animals in the African bush is without it perils, I feel they are nothing to the risks involved in driving along the main thoroughfare between South Africa and the great mines of Zambia and Congo. The vehicles which have to be negotiated are invariably large and often precarious:

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_MG_3675 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

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_MG_3678 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

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12 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

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11 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

I have no idea what this was, but getting by was especially hairy!

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IMG_1716 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

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IMG_1717 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

After a stop at Makuti for brunch, and a final call home (this is the last point before entering Mana that a cell phone signal can be reliably found) it is on to the Parks office at Marongora to have our paperwork checked.

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Mana06_1418 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

From here it is about a 45 minute drive to the right turn onto the bumpy dirt road to Mana. However, it is an ‘interesting’ 45 minutes as it includes the steep, zig-zagging descent down the Zambezi escarpment into the valley. Here the brakes of the huge trucks with their heavy loads are tested to the extreme....and frequently beyond. The roadside and steep drops are littered with the wrecks of trucks and their loads and the increasingly hot air is heavy with the acrid stench of tortured brakes. Fresh accidents – and these are disturbingly frequent - have people swarming all over them, ‘scavenging’ the loads.

 

Our descent October. 2012:

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2R4C7387 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Less fortunate vehicles

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_20081003_2446 by Whyone, on Flickr

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IMG_1530 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Checking in at ‘Gate 1’

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2R4C7390 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

From here it is a straightforward, if bumpy drive to Mana Park HQ – about 80km which takes a couple of hours.

There is, however, an alternative route into Mana Pools. This involves continuing past the ‘approved’ turn off the Churundu road, and continuing another couple of miles, there is then a barely noticeable right turn into the bush.

 

This route is much more difficult, with lots of twists, turns and junctions on poorly defined tracks. There are no bridges, so the sand rivers of Ruckomechi and Nyakassanga have to be crossed. There is plenty of opportunity to get lost and/or bogged down..we have managed both on several occasions!

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IMG_1533 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Crossing the Rukomechi River

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IMG_1545 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Unfortunate buffalo

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IMG_1539 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Stuck!!!

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13a by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Snack picked up en route – baobab pod. The inside pulp has a strange texture – almost like expanded polystyrene foam, but tastes good – citrusy – and is a wonderful source of vitamin ‘c’ so scurvy shouldn’t be a problem! It is apparently also one of the richest natural sources of antioxidants, so we are off to a healthy start!

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20091003_536 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

I should mention that I am reasonably sure that the Parks authorities don’t like you accessing the Park via this route – it means you bypass the two gate check-ins, and as it is a little-trodden path, if you do get stuck, there is a real risk you won’t be found for quite some time.

 

Rewinding a little, and entering the park via the more conventional route, as you would if you’re going to Chitake as it is a right hand turn, back up towards the escarpment, after passing through gate 2. Access to the exclusive camp sites with a trailer can be a challenge.....

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_20081003_2460 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

About 8 hours after leaving Harare, we will generally be arriving at our designated campsite. It is always a wonderful feeling to see the magnificent Zambezi , with the hazy (and frequently smokey – more of which later) hills of Zambia forming a majestic backdrop.

 

Time to kick-back and relax after a long hot drive yes?

 

Well, actually, no!

 

After a swift cold beer, time to unpack the cars and trailers. Put up the tents, set up shade-cloths for the ice chests, unpack tables and chairs, put the shower up, and persuade the temperamental gas fridge to both light and stay alight!

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IMG_2040 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

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_MG_3609 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

All sorted...by this stage I am generally thinking that an organised trip in which all of this stuff is done for you would not be such a bad idea!!!

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_MG_3553 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

One other chore is to collect water – apart from a couple of containers brought from Harare and the water from the melting ice (great for mixing with Mazoe orange cordial) our only source of water is the Zambezi. River water is used for washing, showering, and hot drinks.

 

Collecting water from the river (spot the school-boy error!) – watch out for the crocs.

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2R4C7423 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Now it is time to sit back, open a few ice-cold cans of beer and look forward to a week in the wild and beautiful African bush

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7-_mana06_1547 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

 

With the final touches being made to the camp, sunset is never far away, and always reminds me why I return to this magical place at every opportunity.

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IMG_2104 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Sundowners!

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IMG_1097_hats by Whyone, on Flickr

 

It is common for wildfires to be burning in the hills of Zambia at this time of year – the result of a combination of tinder-dry ground and sporadic electric storms, which make for a spectacular backdrop once the sun has beat its hasty retreat for the day.

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IMG_2137 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

So here we are, many words and umpteen photo’s into a description of trips to Mana Pools, renowned for its prolific wildlife, and barely a mention or a picture of animals! Time to change that, but perhaps not in the usual way, with animals going about their business in the unspoilt African bush!

 

It is inevitable that animals will wander around and through camp; we are the visitors in their territory after all. Sometimes, things get quite interesting.

 

2011 for example..... as we drew into camp (Mucheni 3) we noticed three old buffalo lying in the shade where we generally pitched our tents. Nothing particularly unusual in this and as we left our vehicle, they slowly got up, gave us a long hard stare and ambled off. However, as night fell, they returned to their previous positions under the trees, though these spaces were now largely occupied by our tents.

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IMG_2190 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Note the skilfully crafted, but largely ineffective, buffalo counter-measures!

 

This was a pattern which would repeat each night of our stay. Just after sunset, they would arrive and settle next to the tents......when I say 'next to' I mean leaning against and causing the sides to bulge inwards!! Surprisingly, after a slightly unsettled first night, we got used to sleeping in very close proximity to these huge animals. I was quite an event to wake at first light, sit up and stare into the eyes of a buffalo no more that 18" away.

 

I had begun to wonder if the buffalo had decided that there was safety to be had by sleeping with people. Given that we had seen two of their relatives being eaten by lions, it was not hard to sympathise with this strategy!

 

On our 5th night things got a little interesting. It was about 2am when lions visited camp; close enough to hear their foot-fall and most certainly close enough for their roars to make my blood run cold - you could not only hear the sound - you could feel it. Unsurprisingly, these visitors agitated the buffalo somewhat, though they stayed put. I spent a very uncomfortable hour or so pondering on just how little protection the tent would provide if the lion chose to attack 'our' buffalo! Thankfully they didn’t and the relative tranquillity of sleeping with relaxed buffalos returned for the rest of the week.

 

Even in tents with just fine-mesh between you and the great outdoors, sleeping at Mana in October is something of a mission – temperatures at night stay very high, so sometimes the only thing for it is to sleep outside. Apart from the odd inquisitive ele, and the sounds of hyena and honey badgers rummaging about the camp this works well:

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2R4C7463 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

So, after a good night’s sleep, how does a typical day at Mana pan out?

 

Well most days start before sunrise with a walk to make the most of the relative cool of the early morning. More often than not, we just head out without any real plan in mind...just get out and see what is there to be seen. To me, one of the great benefits of self-guiding is you are alone and there is absolutely no pressure to move on if you find something interesting to watch....of even if you don’t! Just finding a tree and spending an hour or three sat beneath it watching the African bush go about its business is as good as it gets in my book.

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33-IMG_4929_1 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

If this was a normal trip report, I would now post interesting photographs of beautiful animals in wonderful surroundings.

 

So I’ll move straight on to ‘camp chores’.

 

Now I know that the more normal, rational contributors here head-off on organised trips where the more mundane aspects of day to day life are taken care of for you. However ‘my’ type of African adventure involves the following activities:

 

Cooking

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Mana06_1618 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Breakfast (OK, eating it isn’t too much of a chore!) note the quality table cloth.

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IMG_2047 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Baking (bread) - note hyena counter-measures hung in tree behind. Again largely ineffective, but at least we get to hear when they are going about their business!

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IMG_4867 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Washing-up

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20091007_999_103 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

When the going gets tough, dried ele dung makes a tremendous scouring pad

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Mana06_1864 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Vehicle maintenance

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49 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Of course the local wildlife occasionally ‘help’ with these activities:

 

Vervet monkey helping with breakfast

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_20081010_2906 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

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_20081010_2907 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Baboon helping with washing up:

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2R4C8482 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

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2R4C8454 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Hyena’s, try as they might, never seem to get the hang of tidying up:

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IMG_5374 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

Or opening fridges carefully....

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IMG_5377 by Whyone, on Flickr


Lions doing what lions often do...not an awful lot! We camped at Ndungu one year and had a pride of lions sharing the area – first job each morning was to look around and about the tend before getting out to see where they were – and more often than not, they were visible.

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31-IMG_5013 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

 

And as for elephants, well.......

8466726275_81177e3cab_b.jpg

20091007_999_54 by Whyone, on Flickr

Edited by Whyone?
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Whyone?

As we returned to camp one morning it was hard not to notice this fine looking ele merrily working his way through our supplies for the week. It was the first morning of our stay, and he had smashed the rear window of the truck to get at the food – somewhat disconcertingly, ‘food’ in his book included our weeks supply of toilet rolls – yummy! However, just to prove that elephants are strict vegetarians, the brown paper bag (on the floor in the photo) was quickly discarded when he realised it contained biltong. The white powder on the floor is the fall-out from a large bag of flour – I greatly regret missing the moment with my camera when he bit into it causing a large explosion of white powder!

 

There goes the rice.

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Mana06_1530 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

I decided it was time to stop taking photos and do something to persuade him to leave (banging pots and pans together did the trick) when he hooked his tusks under the rear of the truck and lifted the rear wheels off the ground and started pushing it into the bush. Once again a reminder of how strong these wonderful animals are.

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Mana06_1532 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

He has also had a good old go at our Landcruiser....all this to get half a tube of polo’s!

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Mana06_1536 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

And sometimes they just come visiting to remind you who's home this really is....

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Mana06_1719 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

So, there you have it...self-supported camping at Mana.

 

Hard work? At time yes. Dangerous? Potentially, but with care and common sense, nothing beats the wildlife viewing experience in my book. Is it all worth it? Good grief, yes! I have stayed in a variety of organised safari camps over the years, and had a thoroughly good time. But give me the privacy and freedom self-supported trip to Mana gives you every time.

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_20081007_2329 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

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IMG_2145-2 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

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20091006_999_28 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

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20091005_906dxo by Whyone, on Flickr

 

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153 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

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2R4C7931 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

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IMG_2291 by Whyone, on Flickr

 

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DSC_0705 by Whyone, on Flickr

Edited by Whyone?
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wilddog

A great read and really captures the intimacy of Mana!

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Game Warden

Awesome. And I think there might be room for a passenger next trip! ;)

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Polo mints, rice & toilet paper. The cornerstones of all delicious meals.

 

Great read!

 

J.

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Zim Girl

Great report. Just love the pic of the elephant with the rice in his mouth!

 

Is it really still seven months before I am back there, cannot wait!!

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I wish you'd posted it in smaller sections as I don't quite know where to start! Abnormal loads indeed and the real danger of your trip, or the elephant, or the buffalo prevention measures (you brought your own buffalo to keep the other buffalos away it appears - matching caption with picture) or the helpful baboons....

 

Anyway, a classic trip report with a great and novel perspective and some very useful information, and excellent pictures to go with it. I "get it" completely after reading this.

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Game Warden

I'm hoping there's more to come... take any video?

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graynomad

Great story, it's nice to see and read about the practical issues with a self-drive.

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Loving this tale....haven't been to Mana yet but the TRs from everyone and especially your well-paced description of a self-drive makes me wanna jump on a plane and just be there!!

Thanks for sharing this - your pictures and writing are great, and that Baboon shot is something else!

Also envious of your circle of friends ;)

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Thanks for the great report. The elephant in the vehicles is priceless. We had a bear break into a cooler once to drink a six pack of beer, but that was nothing like this. I wonder what insurance thinks of it?

 

We are going to Mana the end of July and you make it hard for me to wait.

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twaffle

Priceless experiences, loved the report and the photos, especially the monkey helpers!

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Fantastic & unusual trip report. A very different perspective on safaris. Enjoyed the introductory images as much as the ones with wildlife.

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This is a great report - pretty much summed up what self drive is about.

 

In some ways, I wish that there was a way to avoid the roads, but half of the appeal is what you need to see along the roadside.

 

What is great is that you have visited the area for 12 years. I would be interested in hearing what has changed, and by how much.

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graynomad

With all those wide loads it looks just like the highways in West Aus with all the mining.

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Thank you for sharing... I loved the pic of the group of you sitting in your chairs, watching the elephants, and have a cold beer.

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I have thoroughly enjoyed so many TR's on this site but this one ranks right up there as on of my favorites. I would love to do this trip. I'm going to reread this now.

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Sangeeta

Whyone, this has to be one of the most engaging and fun TRs ever!! Love it all, but especially the story about the buffalo settling in against the tents for the night and the tent walls caving in! Cannot get better than that! Reminded me a lot of that opening scene in Cry of the Kalahari when the Owens woke up amongst the (cuddling?) lions.

 

I hope to do these types of trips in the future. Since not as brave or experienced or even as mechanically minded as so many of you here (which apparently one needs to be), when I dream of doing these kinds of trips, my dreams include a guide & a camp hand in tow :D

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Treepol

Great stories, thanks for sharing.

 

The photo of you all enjoying a beer watching the eles in the river is a classic.

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Atravelynn

Maybe you didn't capture the exploding white flour, but the shots you did manage of the ele munching the flour are one of a kind. Quite a harrowing drive to get there with the big accident. After reading aboaut Dik dik's head on collision, I'm a bundle of nerves! I need one of those many Castle beers just to calm down. You make bread out in the bush and I don't even make it at home. I am overwhelming impressed. And the eggs! Which also impressed the vervet. Those sunset shots make it all worth the while. Great report.

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Rainbirder

A superb and thoroughly entertaining trip report!!!

Reminds me of the camping trips I did as a kid .........but with buffalo and lions! ;)

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Pennyanne

Really enjoying this report. Great fun! Thanks for writing it.

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Whyone?

Gosh!

 

Thank-you all for taking the time to read my ramblings, and especially to those of you who left such kind and encouraging comments.

 

I shall dig out a few more photos and stories to go with them.....not a year goes by without something unexpected happening. Though no video I am afraid GW - I struggle enough with stills photography without taking on another quite different discipline!

 

I will also try to collect my thoughts and comment on how Mana has changed over the years.

 

it was certainly very apparent in 2012 that the park is getting increasingly popular...and busy. Potentially good for the future of the park, it clearly has to pay its way, but very bad for the viewing experience. I have spent weeks at Mana in the past and barely seen another human.

 

I have very real concerns for the Mana I know and love, especially with the imminent opening of the 24-bed 'luxury' development in the Vine area. We went for a little walk past the site last October - it is huge!!! Not only is this going to throw another 4 or 5 viewing vehicles onto Mana's roads every dawn and dusk, but keeping a camp of this size stocked in the manner which I am sure teh guests will be expecting is really going to have an impact.

 

Whilst I am feeling so cheerful(!)... I am certainly no ecologist, but it strikes me that the flood-plain regions of Mana which give the park much of its unique feel and character must surely have a limited life in their current form. With the building of the Kariba dam, natural seasonal flooding now doesn't happen. Once in a while (January 2012 for example) there may be a need to drop the lake level and they will open the dam gates and Mana will flood (indeed, it would be good manners if the dam management would mention to the poor people downstream next time they intend to do this!) However it seems to me that Mana is loosing its big trees (one of them just ~100yards behind our camp gave up the will to live with the most almighty series of bangs and crashes last October) and they are not being replaced. Whether this is due to the lack of regular flooding or increased grazer / browser activity, I just don't know, but would be most interested to hear other peoples views on this.

Edited by Whyone?
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wildernessman

A most enjoyable report !

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