Discovering the enchanted (and enchanting) Mana Pools
(As always, all pictures here are with iPhone unless specified. Mana Gallery coming very soon!)
I can’t begin to say how astonishing this trip was, in so many respects. Being able to be shut away from the world makes the notion of time fade away. It felt like I’d been in Mana forever, and in the same instance, this past week went by in the blink of an eye.
I’ve been following Wild Eye for the last 2 years, amazed by the great social media interaction and the quality of the guides’ interventions, in posts, stories, podcast, videos, vlogs…I promised myself to travel with them one day, thinking about it every morning on the tube, stuck in rush hour, letting the Wild Eye podcast whisk me away to Africa.
About 10 months ago, Johan (personal website here) connected with me on IG and told me about a Mana Pools trip he was hosting the following year…at the time, the price was a little overwhelming for my bank account..but I was motivated. After testing his patience, I finally booked the trip in January, making full use of the payment schemes Wild Eye offered - paying deferred instalments every 2 months. Before I knew it, October 2018 had rolled by and it was time to travel to Zim. Having never received any form of photographic tuition before, I was beyond excited. New techniques, new perspectives, and the opportunity to travel to one of the most incredible National Parks (in my opinion) - Mana Pools. Plus, it was time for me to play around with my new beast, the 5D mIV.
So here it goes, here’s the story of the 6 photographers who joined Wild Eye guide Johan on an incredible photographic trip…from my perspective.
Mana Pools (Zimbabwe), mid October - let me tell you, it was HOT. Temperatures were between 38-42 all day everyday.
But man, it’s worth it. Mana is extremely rewarding for those who are passionate about wildlife, jaw-dropping light and beautiful landscapes. One of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever seen, when the sun sets and that magical orange light filters through the woods. It’s also properly wild. Located by the banks of the mighty Zambezi in Northern Zimbabwe, the National Park is downstream from the Victoria Falls.‘Mana’ means ‘four’ in Shona, as it has four pools of water close to the Zambezi, eat one a biodiversity hotspot at micro level. It was also one of the most challenging places to photograph - I found. Dust, strong light, lots of small dead trees and grasses obscuring shots… but so very worth it. I learnt A LOT on this trip and definitely progressed…even if it also comforted me in my current mindset as a wildlife photographer, style and creativity wise.
Day 1 - Arriving and discovering Mana - Tuesday 9th October 2018
I was up early in Harare, having spent the night at a friend’s house - very, very excited to leave for Mana. Arrived at 7:30am at the airport after the best homemade granola breakfast and ginger tea, (and having said goodbye to wifi for a week) eager to meet Johan and the people I’d be sharing sweat, grime and giggles for the next week.
As always, trips to Africa are an excellent way to learn patience (something I can’t say I have…perfect practise), as Africa time is always a little (understatement) random. Let’s just say we were lucky to take off that day. TIA, right (nb: I hope you’ve seen Blood Diamond, otherwise please watch it before you read on)?
Plane seated 8 people, comfortable but with the first 2 seats facing backwards. ‘Heaviest people in the front’ - well that was settled, I got the backseat. Remember I’ve mentioned some flying anxiety I’d made my peace with? This flight tested it quite a bit, though it was only very bumpy leaving Harare and as we passed the escarpments into the Lower Zambezi Valley. Lots of air pockets. Jaco probably felt it more than I did. But we were alive and ready to safari. ‘Welcome to paradise’ Johan declared as we stepped off the plane. Red dust, my long lost bush smells and blazing heat.
Our super-ranger Kevin (check @Kaylo_zim on IG) was waiting to pick us up…little did we know we were in for a week of non stop laughter and messing around. Apparently, Mana Pools is TEAMING with sable antelopes…but you need to know where to look. Of course, we had the best sable-and-unicorn-tracking guide out there (nb: if you don’t get the sable jokes, that’s fine. They’re a super rare antelope species that can apparently be found in Mana, according to Kevin, but not too sure we should take his word for it…anyways, it stuck from day 1, and he owes us a sable sighting) . Oh, and we did do a bit of photography, of course.
Arriving at Mwinilunga Tented Camp was la crème de la crème. Imagine being on a deserted beach: we had the camp to ourselves, right on the banks of the mighty Zambezi river. Tents were simple yet spacious, comfortable in their sobriety. Bucket shower at the back, and, ultimate comfort, flushable toilets. But especially, the beaming faces of Tess, Dave and their son Andrew, camp owners and manager, who were there to greet us.
And the food…oh man. My growingly famous appetite was satisfied by Tess’ cooking. EVERYTHING was homemade (i still don’t get how she did it - no proper kitchen and insane heat, yet we were spoilt with the most delicious meals ever. She’s officially my Bush-Mum. A healthy average of 10-15 rusks a day to start off in the morning, 2-3 muffins alongside them, and my palet was satisfied). It was lovely to meet everyone properly over lunch - I was the only girl, definitely the only one born after 1990, but I was used to it and preferred it that way. So many interesting people sat around me !
As the day grew hotter, and until 3:30 (game-drive time), some of us stayed around the lunch table to chat. Out of nowhere, Devin (unfortunately I promised not to reveal his niCkname under any cIrcumstAnce ) has a slight backwards movement - ‘um there’s a snake in my lap’. We look to the floor as we hear a little thud, and Johan’s very calm voice ‘that’s alright, stay calm, just let it pass’. A small, bright blue and grey snake glides under my chair and into the bush. ‘Only a Spotted Bush Snake, they’re harmless’ says Johan…before grinning in relief, ‘though I was already thinking Mamba or Puff Adder when you said that’.
3pm rolled by, and with it delicious homemade scones with cream and strawberry jam (homemade, of course).
Our first game drive was the perfect opportunity to dive back in, get used to the forest and dust, the game of lights and shadows Mana played, and, in my case, familiarising myself not only with my gear, but with photography (was a few months rusty).
We spent a few moments with lions but they were far and hiding behind a tree so moved on relatively quickly. Found some ellies (cows and babies) by the floodplain as the light was going down. Nothing groundbreaking, but so very sweet to be out in the bush again, smelling, tasting, sweating and observing….on foot this time.
Because yes, in Mana, you can walk. The week prior to this trip, a German woman succumbed to her injuries after an incident with a cow defending her young. Since the Park opened in the 70s, the law has stated that any visitor can discover the wilderness on foot, namely to make it fair for locals who couldn’t afford to go with guides and rangers. Regardless of the debate as to whether this should be sustained or not, only a tiny number of casualties in 40 years (6) have actually occurred. The wild has to be respected and treated with caution: awareness is key. And yes, it’s preferable to be with someone who knows what they’re doing. Either way, being able to walk with animals is a fantastic opportunity, not just from a photographic perspective, but because of the privilege that is to be fully submerged in the bush.
That night, we were all shattered, and I was looking forward to sleeping after dinner…that was until i discovered I had a lovely hairy, 8 legged visitor just above my head. I really don’t tend to mind spiders, but I can’t say I’m particularly in love with them…especially when I have no clue what their bite does. Anyways, I always travel with a mosquito net in my bag…except it’s for a single mattress, not double and was purely useless here. I literally battled with it through most of the night, getting tangled in it, until I decided I couldn’t care less if the spider crawled in my bed, and took it down. Slept so much better.
Day 2 - Ellies and….more ellies - Wednesday 10th October 2018
Up at 4:30am, gone by 5:15. Johan has a good feeling (the rest of us as well, after some coffee, and me with a few homemade rusks (nb: for those who haven’t lived and have never tried a rusk before, they’re these buttery short-bread-biscotti type biscuit that South Africans have for breakfast or snacks - these ones were pure heaven)). Reaching the floodplain, we come across one of the biggest bulls in the area. Boswell has incredible huge tusks….and he’s a ‘stander’. Basically, he gets up on his hind legs, breaks branches of sausage and fig trees, bringing them down to provide for himself, as well as smaller bulls who follow him and can’t stand. These creatures are incredible caring, and you can see why. He was accompanied by a smaller bull, literally following him everywhere.
We spent the entire morning with them, waiting for the ‘provider’ to stand or stretch (reaching out to feed on the lower branches). They moved to the banks of the Zambezi to drink - such a superb sighting. It was so cool to just sit there, maybe 20m from a Africa’s largest mammal, who was seemingly completely oblivious to our presence.
Temperatures were slowly rising, and after 3 hours, we decided it was time for a coffee break (and rusks…and muffins). From 9am onwards, the light starts to get really harsh. So we called it at morning and headed back to camp.
With the short night I had, I was also very ready for a nap, so crashed after brunch at around 12. I’d attempted to download my pictures on Lightroom to do some editing but, as with everyone else, our computers were seriously affected by the heat. They were ventilating like mad, and the simple effort of importing was tough so I let it rest a bit as I napped. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this giddy after a nap, waking up completely disoriented in a puddle of sweat after 1:30 of deep sleep. Oh and a little lizard I’d noticed on my tent flap the day before had found its way in… I was really hoping it would stay, to eat other critters that decided they liked my tent.
After delicious cakes, time to go again. We drove for an hour or so, into the Albida forest - the plan was to find an elephant we could photograph in the setting light. We found a young bull - a stander - in the perfect setting. Potential was hugeeee. Setting up our gear we followed him around, he wasn’t moving too much, just eating, breaking branches, and eating again. The light was going down but he was showing no signs of moving into the rays of golden light, and he also seemed to be a little annoyed by our presence. So we chose to give him his space and to start looking for anything else that walked in the light. And when I say ‘the light’ i mean ‘THE light’. The most beautiful, mystical, stunning light ever, it felt absolutely unreal (nb: this is an euphemism). It made baboons look good, impalas look splendid. Cascades of pinkish orange light here and there, I was dazed. Kevin often told us people got lost (emotionally) wandering in the forest. It made proper sense. You’re just attracted to the Mana light, unable to detach your gaze from it, and it was with a lot of reticence that we went back to the car… but ‘lions in the area guys’ Kevin announced.
Strangely, from that moment onwards, I caught myself daydreaming of that light as soon as I closed my eyes. It was probably the heat playing tricks on my mind, but I saw elephants in golden lights framed by the windows formed by Albida trees. Not unpleasant at all.
Day 3 - When animals change your plans….Thursday 11th October 2018
I slept like an absolute baby. Spiders in my tent (note the plural) but couldn’t care less. This morning’s plan was to go work the forest, with sunrise light this time.
Well, it was, until we drove straight into THE ultimate pack. The ones we’d all secretly been hoping to see. Wild dogs. 4 adults and 4 pups. They were literally on the road. In 2 seconds we were out, lenses ready. These dogs move fast. Soon they were trotting towards the river, and we quickly followed, at a (very) brisk walk.
Wild Dog sightings are both rewarding and special. These impressive creatures are critically endangered, and they play like proper dogs, jumping, yelping and sniffing each other’s butts, but don’t be fooled by their puppy dog eyes and round fluffy ears. They’re systematic, efficient and deadly hunters, relying on teamwork to track, trap and tear. These guys hadn’t eaten yet and it was quite hilarious to see them half heartedly attempt to take down a warthog. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a warthog run so fast, it was properly sailing through the air, probably halfway across the world by now. They then decided to run off somewhere again, but our excellent ‘bloodhound Kev’ (read on to find out how he gets the nickname) took us to them, following great decision-making by Anthony, who, after consulting the forest gods, inspired us to walk after them.
They were playing and running all over a moss covered ditch. Two pups inquisitively came up to have a sniff at us, maybe 4-5 m from the tips of Johan and I’s lenses. Adrenaline, excitement and awe were pumping through our veins, it was so clear from the look of utter delight on everyone’s faces. Dogs bouncing everywhere, moving, yelping, whining, jumping, playing, rolling….one of the most challenging photographic subjects I’ve ever encountered - the rest of the group agreed. Really made us question our abilities as photographers because quite frankly, we were at a loss. Cropped tails and feet, dogs photobombing each other… composition required speed and superhuman precision.
And then suddenly, out of nowhere, they ran out of the ditch before disappearing into the woods.
Time for a rusk. We drove to the most beautiful of locations, right by the river. Some hippos graced us with their presence and we just sat there, contemplating.
It was on our trip back that we came by a very special elephant crossing in front of us, looking for shade in blazing heat. She had very prominent orange eyes, coming very close to the car. Probably one of my favourite sightings this week
It was nice to get back for brunch, especially because our meals with Tess and Andrew are always filled with laughing and messing around. Dave was away in town to look for fuel - Zim is going through a period of complete transition, politically and socio- economically, and shortages of everything ranging from fuel to food are occurring across the country. It makes things harder when there’s no / very little cash to go by as well. But I was touched by the love between Kevin and Andrew (they’re brothers in law). Andrew has Down’s syndrome, and he’s the sweetest camp manager I’ve ever met. He always made sure we checked for lions before going to bed.
To cope with the heat we tried showering with our clothes. Dry in 15 minutes. Laptops were ventilating and literally dying. The afternoon game drives were H.O.T. I felt like Meursault in the Albert Camus’ The Stranger. So off we were when soon enough, we stumbled across the dogs again. There’s an expression - ‘flat cats’ - applied to lions passed out in the grass, and you can barely see them, let alone photograph. Well, we had flat dogs. Patience is a virtue apparently, so we waited. An hour rolled by, they were clearly having wonderful dreams, and we were sweating, picturing them playing in golden light. Around 4-5ish, they simultaneously all jumped up, wagging their tails and sniffing their butts, before descending towards the other side of the mound. But we were ready. Laying down in the dry river bed (apparently, when the river dries up, fish descend through the mud and hibernate there) we waited for the dogs to make a royal appearance in the golden light.
It’s sooo much more fun to make a bunch of dirty photographers wait for hours, playing in the shade (where their dark colours got mixed up with the shadows) instead of the beautiful golden light.
They were literally on the edge of the light, but never crossed the rim. And then boom, they ran off in the distance with the adults, messing a bit with an ellie before disappearing in the thicket. Amazing to watch, frustrating to contemplate the possibilities.
But, it’s all about the experience, right? (lol). No, in all honesty, it was great fun, I even managed to get Johan in prime Baboon position on camera.
Beautiful sunset as we were heading back, quick shower and then dinner. Tess had so many anecdotes, the ones she reserved for dinner were great - like when her pet croc (who bathed in their swimming pool in Harare and had its own luxury red heat lamps) believed he was a dog and followed him through a burrow to bathe in the neighbour’s pool. So many good times around good wine and food… big melancholic moment typing this up.
I think it’s worth paying Mwinilunga a visit just to eat and feel like you have a home in the bush.
ALSO, NO SPIDERS IN MY TENT TONIGHT.
Day 4 - Johan gets stuck in a Baobab - Friday 12th October 2018
4:30 wakeup, gone by 5:15, you know the drill. We were determined to work the Albida forest in morning light. Honestly, best decision ever. That light made hyenas look stunning (not usually a fan of them as a photographic subject. Interesting thing about Hyenas, in some parts of the country, locals avoid them at all costs because they believe a witch is riding them, sitting on their slanted backside), although again, the animals weren’t really cooperating. We stayed there the whole morning, watching ellies, elands, impalas and more ellies wander through the forest with the famous blue haze. Kevin then took us to this huge Baobab tree, that was a couple thousand years old - we could go inside, there was a small slit in the bark so I slipped through, and watched as the others attempted to follow. Filmed and giggled more like, but apparently there’s a trick to do it, Johan had done it before, of course (no comment). Minutes later no progress, so we called it a day and I came back out.
Kevin then showed us a hidden, not-so-little red metal tube sticking out of the ground. It was about a meter high. ‘A study in 2001 looked at what the water level would be like if the government goes forward with a dam project that would bring this entire area underwater - that red pole indicates the level the water would reach should they go ahead with the project’ he explains, pointing to the valley. It may seem like nothing, because of Mana’s international status (UNESCO World Heritage Site) but the fact that audits have been made means the project is serious. The Zambian side would be flooded as well, and that’s the only solid argument holding the project back. No one talks about issues like these, or the conservation problems Mana is facing - like why the tree are’t growing any more. 30 years ago, a dam was built near the border with Mozambique - the Kariba Dam. Plains that used to undergo a massive flood once in a while no longer did, and the current large concentration of impalas and elephants in the area make it hard for the young plants to grow. Little research because little amount of funds…and awareness. Stay tuned for an upcoming article feature on Conjour I’m working on :)
It’s also super cool to have game come to you, when you’re lazing around camp. These ellies zigzaged between our tents before going for a quick bath in the river. They made us VERY envious.
The afternoon game drive was quiet, dead quiet, in terms of game. We drove around the Floodplain, the Albida forest, Chisako and Long Pools and nothing. Light was starting to become golden and we hadn’t settled for a subject, Johan was breaking a sweat (so were we), and all we saw were baboons and impalas. When suddenly….Mum and two calves walk by. In the floodplains. With the Zambezi in the background. And the sun setting. What else to ask for??
We’re out in a flash, lenses ready, giving them space but praying for magic orange dust and some cool ‘ellies in the light’ scenes. So try to lightly jog, with heavy camera equipment, ducking, checking settings, shooting, recomposing, running in a squat-like position (the bush is your gym). Best experience ever, just because the scene was so breathtakingly beautiful. I wasn’t paying attention to my camera most of the time. Picture this, pinkish orange dust coming from the ellies’ movements, the Zambezi ablaze as it reflected the setting sun. Literally lasted about 20mins tops until the ellies decided to disappear into a not so photogenic area and the rays were gone. Time for a sundowner, before heading back.
That night, we had some large, tusked visitors wonder around tents. They’re SO loud, and when you can sense a big bull a few cm from your head on the flip side of the tent, noisily munching and making a ruckus with fallen leaves (aka his food), you don’t feel like sleeping. I’d also battled with a tsetse fly that had landed in my tent, but thankfully, turned out the tsetse didn’t appreciate me whacking it with my laptop towards my tent opening. Let me tell you though, the stress is real when you can’t actually get in your tent because a giant bull has decided to have his dinner just by it, and you have to let it be cause you’d rather not be trampled. In pitch darkness. Another episode this patience and virtue business. But having an elephant munching outside your tent is still really thrilling. I was nervously giggling to myself like a madwoman. Jaco and Devin confirmed this the next morning.
Day 5 - Bloodhound Kev, swimming in the Zambezi, and more doggies - Saturday 13th October
Forest was quiet allll morning. Nothing nothing nothing. So much for good feelings, but at least we had some great banter. I’ve been hearing the South Africans in the group saying ‘yoh’ (pronounced yawww) all week whenever something was shocking, good or bad, I love it. Yoh, what better place to practise than surrounded by South Africans in the bush?
We drove past a guy in a 4x4 with headphones on, listening to the frequencies emitted by the collar on one of the Wild Dogs for conservation work…basically tracks dogs for a living. Naturally, we decide to follow him. As we reach a dried up pool, we find the researcher car, alongside another game drive vehicle guided by a very famous and iconic local guide - very old school. ‘Stretch’ has been working in Mana for 40 years, and experienced the park’s golden era in the 80s, when fewer people travelled there. It seems he’s built himself a reputation, known as ‘a grumpy old guide’ but we caught him on a good day and man I’ve never seen anyone fire so many jokes per minute.
Anyways, he led his guests on foot into the bush as the researcher was coming back (‘Dr Dog’ for Stretch - they have a bit of a contention between them). Kev - who happened to be friends with him - got him to take us tracking the dogs… using the high frequency radio. Needless to say, we found them fairly quickly, disturbed by a hyena chasing them towards the floodplains. The researcher left us to it and we followed the dogs for a while, before deciding we’d find them quicker by car, and doubling back. We reached it fairly at the same time as Stretch’s team, astonished by the speed at which Kev had managed to track the dogs (our footprints were fresh next to the dogs’). Praising ‘Bloodhound Kev’s (quoting) incredible tracking skills, he applauded them non stop for a 5 good minutes. The rest of us were laughing our heads off in the car. Needless to say, had Stretch really known what had happened, he would have shredded our Bloodhound Kev to bits.
By then the light was harsh and there wasn’t much left to see, the dogs were probably not going to move, so we had coffee at Tess’ other camp, her main one, right at the edge of the river, behind the floodplain.
Torture is having a beautiful body of enticing blue water right under your nose and knowing you can’t swim - well, not unless you’re up to have crocs and hippos tickle your belly. But an entire herd of elephants bathing beneath our eyes…too tempting. So Tess and I rolled up our trousers and waded (calf deep ) in a small marshy part of the river. Sadly disgruntling - nothing but muddy (mmm we thought poo-ey but rather not think about it) warm water. The whole expedition lasted about 10 mins, but hey, we bathed with elephants (sort of).
3:30 - we’re off, tracking dogs away from the car and deep into the floodplain. Flatdogs again, the heat is intense. Ellies around us as well… so. much. potential. The wait begins. Literally surrounded by men and huge lenses (heavy as well, I’ll need to double my gymming by the time I win the lottery and buy all my dream lenses). One thing though…It’s really not about equipment, but the experience. Obviously, very excited for the day where I’ll shoot a 400mm f/2:8 but for now, soaking it in.
And then… dogs on the move. Again, they settle in a wide moss covered- ditch…we were reluctant to go with them this time because it so happened that a huge elephant bull was about 10m from us, on the other side, scratching its tusks and trunk against a dead tree. Keeping an eye out, we edge closer towards them and slowly inside the ditch. The elephant turns his butt towards us and - quite literally - slumps against the tree, seemingly fast asleep. Could not care less about a troop of humans madly clicking their shutters as the pups ran all over the place. A beautiful moment. Not much pinkish orange dust (cheeky dogs avoiding light again) but pups drinking, running up and down - I don’t think any single one of us could get bored of watching them. They are unpredictable (queue anticipating their next move to at least attempt to compose properly) so you just can'’t get bored.
Stretch (who was there as well, finally managed to catch up with the dogs), suddenly points to the setting sun - ‘guys the light is stunning, you won’t get much more out of the dogs, but there are a lot of elephants near the river’. Sun is setting faster than we can click, and the scene is absolutely breathtaking. It’s a challenge to get a correct exposure but man. The elephant silhouettes. The huge red orb (really hard to get in camera without having everything else fully black), the river reflecting the orb. An absolute dream. It was over in 10 minutes but what an evening.
Mana was showing off for our last night. Sundowners and messing around (have YOU tried squatting a heavy lens in the bush? Honestly people complain they can’t keep fit, but with all the gear, who needs a gym?) before heading back for our last dinner.
It felt a little like everyone was trying to prolong the dinner. No one wanted to pack in the dark, and especially accept that this was our last night in the wild. Tess presented me with the guest record book, so obviously I started writing a novel. Tradition stated someone had to draw in it…the crayons went around the table and back to me, so I got ready to draw stick elephants (woman of many talents here). I also ended up drawing the most memorable moment this week - see if you can recognise what I’m on about.
We stayed a bit after dinner, talking travel, camping and more travel dreams. But most of all, we looked at the stars. Shining so brightly, with a beautiful croissant moon. Hippos making a ruckus, elephants walking by, hyenas coming close. Like every night but this was a little different. Last few moments to take it all in, sitting around the fire.
Nostalgia vibes were strong.
(I’m actually quite proud of my ellie and Johan drawing, this was in semi darkness, as we only had candles and headlamps to eat, go about and well live at night).
Day 6 - Mana on show part 2 - Sunday 14th October 2018
Bidding tearful (well in my case anyways) farewells to Tess and Andrew, we set off. Wasn’t an easy goodbye…
A few minutes into game drive and chill, and boom, doggos. We spent the whole morning with the Wild Dogs - and they weren’t in flat dog mode. Finally, some golden dust around them as they played close to those special golden hour orange rays. We also happened to be laying in a pile of impala dung, and tsetses were happily buzzing around us. What’s not to love. As the light grew harsher, we decided it was time to say goodbye - lions were calling. They’d taken down an eland and were resting under the shade of a nearby fig tree, panting in the heat (flat cats all over again). It was 7:30am, and it was H.O.T. We come across another guide - a croc had taken down a baby buffalo by one of the pools. Mana reallllyy didn’t want us to leave.
Our initial flight back was scheduled at 12:40….but if it’s too hot, well, planes don’t usually make the take off, and tragically, they crash. Hence, we all agreed an earlier flight was better just for the sake of making it out alive from the park. By 9, we could really feel the 42ºC.
We got to fly a lovely big and comfortable Navajo (praying to avoid the VERY bumpy and hot small Cessna 2o6 that was also there to bring guests out - one of us had to be sacrificed to ride it though).
All to soon it was time to say goodbye to really cool group, and terrific guide. We met as guests and left as friends, and I look forward to travelling with these boys again. Yoh, Wild Eye did not disappoint, travelling with this company has been beyond great, on every single level. Asante sana for everything !