Mana Pools Zimbabwe and the Battle Against Black Cotton Soil

If there is one place that has been talked up more than any other on our destination list it is Mana Pools. Everyone gushes about this being their favorite location for camping in Africa. We have heard all sorts of epic stories and descriptions of the park – mystical pools so clear that you can see hippos legs as they walk, elephants that climb trees and lions you can walk right up to. We’ve been told the camping is “so wild” that lion kills happen right next to your tent. We even heard of a lady that was woken up in her tent by a hyena chewing at her face! We just didn’t know what to expect and were incredibly excited to see and experience it for ourselves!

My mind imagined a series of interconnected pools surrounded by lush trees making beautiful reflections on the crystal blue water. The reality was a bit different. Mana Pools sits on the banks of the Zambezi river at the northern border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. Mana means “four” in the local language and the area was named Mana Pools because there are 4 permanent lagoons in the area. The Zambezi river floods over regularly to create pools in the wet season, however eventually dry up. However, one year there was such a huge flood that 4 of the pools created never dried up. The area then became known as the “Mana Pools.” Naturally the pools were thought to have some spiritual significant because they have been perpetual. But contrary to my imagination – they were not crystal clear and there was no reflections….they were covered over with lilipads and hippos.

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We drove into Mana Pools National Park from the west gate which takes you over a mountain pass down to the gate. It was quite peculiar that there is a hidden office on top of the pass that you have to stop at to pay your fees before you get to the gate. We didn’t know this ahead of time so ended up having to back track. After you pass the first gate there is a long gravel road then you get to a second gate and this is essentially where the real park begins.

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As with most of the parks in southern africa, the rainy season wreaks havoc and leaves only small sectors that are passable. The only public campsite in Mana Pools that is open in April is Nyaempi Camp. It is an incredibly beautiful location – the campsites are lined up along the Zambezi river. It is completely open so that animals can roam through freely. Unfortunately the ablutions are not well kept and there is no electricity but there is a braai stand and water spicket. We had elephants roaming through camp, hyenas, hippos, impala, and of course monkeys. We have gotten used to the hippos roaming at night but at this campsite it was a bit more disconcerting because they concentrated so close to our car/tent! You just never know when they might be in a bad mood and charge so you always have to be on edge. At night they really blend into the darkness and I always worry about bumping into them on the way to the bathroom!

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One night I was cooking dinner after dusk and looked over to see a spotted hyena lurking a few feet away. My first instinct was to scream and scramble up the tent ladder …and Garrett wasn’t far behind. The hyena was, of course, more scared than we were and scurried off. I was embarrassed at how scared we got… but I blame the Lion King for implanting a sense of dread at the mere sight of a hyena into my subconscious! We sat quietly in our tent waiting for him to come back. We watched him roam around for a bit and then we had a bit of fun by buzzing our taser from the tent. The hyena lept up with such a fright and took off. We never saw him back again!

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We split up our time in Mana Pools between the public Nyaempi camp site and Wilderness Safari’s Ruchomecki Camp. We picked a few Wilderness camps to sprinkle throughout our long road trip to give us a break from the endless camping. There are very few Wilderness Lodges that you can drive to (most are fly in, fly out) so we didn’t have many to pick from. When we made the booking there was some mention that driving into Mana Pools can be difficult in April so they would let us know a few days in advance if we would actually be able to drive. We got a confirmation that the road was passable a few days before and were asked what time we wanted to meet outside the camp for pick up (they don’t allow you to drive all the way to the camp). We requested 10 am but never heard back with a confirmation. We tried calling the Wilderness Safari’s offices but could not get anyone to answer. We could find no number for the actual camp. We then called the after hours emergency number but they had no way to actually contact the camp.

The night before we were supposed to drive across the park to Ruchomecki Camp, it rained hard all night. At baseline, it was going to be difficult to drive across the park….but after this rain it seemed like this was going to be impossible! We tried to have the Zim Park rangers contact Ruchomecki camp but they also did not have a telephone number. However, they agreed to email the camp to ask about the road. The next morning the Zim Park rangers said they had gotten an email back from Ruchomecki which said that the road is okay and we should proceed. It felt like a bad idea, but what were we to do? The only information we had was that the camp said we should drive. If we didn’t drive there, we would miss our reservation.

So we decided to try our odds and set off across the park. This was our first real introduction to “black cotton soil.” I had heard the term but had no clue what it meant because it sounds so silly. This specific type of soil swells significantly with water and coats tires so that they lose all ability for friction. I think of it kind of like “black ice” since it is similarly deceptive. The ground may not look that bad but once you drive on it the car sinks in you are just totally stuck. When black cotton soil is wet – it becomes pretty impossible to drive on.

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you can see the black cotton soil completely coating the tires and obliterating any chance for traction

A few staff cars from other camps passed us as we started our drive. The information they gave us was mixed, some said “you will never make it.” Others said “its fine just keep going and if you get stuck someone will get you out….eventually”. One guide said that if we don’t show up at our pick up time, Wilderness will start driving in our direction to come get us. This was very reassuring information because we were most worried about getting stranded and not being able to communicate with the camp.

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We started off strong and were feeling quite confident…. for a total of about 10 minutes. Then we veered slightly off road to let an oncoming truck pass…big mistake! We got sucked into the boggy black cotton soil that had looked perfectly fine to drive on. This stuff is no joke! The truck pulled us out and we slogged onward, making it another 45 minutes before we got stuck again. The total distance we needed to travel was only 39 km so you can imagine how incredibly slow we were going. Garrett was able to dig us out by shoveling mud and using sand tracks. We proceeded to get stuck 7 more times… one after another….after another.

I pretty quickly called the Wilderness emergency line on our satellite phone to tell them we were not going to make our pick up at 10 am. The calls were a disaster. I don’t know who was on the other end but they just did not seem to have any idea about what/where Mana pools even was….let alone how to communicate with Ruckomecki Camp. It took about 3 calls until they actually seemed to comprehend the situation we were in. But of course their solution was ridiculous. They wanted us to drive to a town that was 7 hours away to be picked up by boat. It was not getting through anyone’s head that we were stuck inside the park. I kept calling back and asking for someone to notify the camp to come pick us up. Nothing I was saying was getting through to the people on the emergency line. I was really losing my temper. I know it must have been a hilarious sight – me barefoot with mud up to mid calf standing in boggy mess in the middle of total wilderness talking on a massive sat phone with my hat tilted to one side because I can’t keep it on straight with the antenna. I had to start pretty much screaming at this lady “ We are stranded. We need help. We cannot go anywhere. You must help us! Please tell the camp to help us!……NOO we cannot meet them on the Zambezi river!!”

It took until 11:00am to get the lady on the other end to confirm that someone from the camp was coming to get us out. Which is crazy because I had been calling since 8:30am. I didn’t trust that someone was actually coming so we kept on trying to make our way driving through the mud.

Garrett was growing exhausted and the final straw was when the road turned into what looked like a river. Garrett could have dug us out but we felt like getting stuck again was inevitable. When we looked around and saw fish eagles and kingfishers hunting in the road…we had to give up. At that point we had to just accept that the road had turned into a river! So we just gave up and waited for the rescue truck that was supposed to be coming. It took until 12:50 for them to arrive. Totally insane that it took over 4 hours for someone to come rescue us.

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The camp manager and one of the workers rolled up on a tractor. Boomie got hooked up and only had to be towed about 5km. We had made it so close! But the last bit was the hardest so it would not have been a good idea to keep going. The camp staff were totally amazed we had even made it that far on our own.

I was pretty pissed at the camp’s poor coordination of our arrival.  The camp staff only started to consider our situation at around 9 am – that’s when they decided to inform us not to enter the main gate of the park and instead drive around to be picked up by boat. They were trying to call our US cell phones which is hilarious. There is no way we would be in an area of cell phone reception at 9am if our planned pick up near the camp was at 10am. I gave them an earful when we arrived. The manager didn’t have much to say besides shrugging and saying he was sorry.  It was frustrating but I was just glad the ordeal was over – I was ready to start enjoying some luxury!

The camp was breathtakingly beautiful. It sits right at the edge of the Zambezi river which gives you a panoramic view of the mountains that line the opposite side of the river. There is nothing but nature in sight and we didn’t see any outside cars or people the whole time there. The camp has 10 rooms and we had the best one in the camp – number 10 which is the farthest out on the right side allowing us unobstructed views.  The decorations were understated but chic – you don’t need to add much when the scenery is the main attraction.

The game viewing in Ruchomecki was tough. The heavy rains had dispersed all the animals. We did a morning walking safari and really didn’t see any animals. I don’t ever have much luck with walking safaris, and thus they are not my favorite. It just seems like you walk and walk with little payoff. I think a much better system would be to drive until you find some animals and then get out to walk with them. Amazingly, in Mana you can actually do this! It is one of the only parks where unguided walking safaris are allowed. We decided to bravely test this out on our first day in the park when we saw a pride of lions and got out of the car to walk their way. Thankfully they walked away and we did not have to confront them up close.

On the next drive we found some wild dogs and our guide allowed us to get out and walk towards them. I was so excited! But just as we started walking, they popped up and started to hunt so hopped back in the vehicle to follow. We found the dogs on two game drives but lost them both times while they were hunting. It is tough to follow fast moving packs because you aren’t allowed to drive off road and the muddy road conditions makes several areas impassible.

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We found a small pride of lions relaxing in a riverbed. We also found a leopard hunting at dusk near the camp. That was our first proper leopard sighting of the trip so that was exciting!

Actually one of the coolest things we saw was right on the deck of the lodge. A spotted bush snake caught a frog and we got to watch it fight for its life…and eventually lose.

I loved being fully enmeshed in wilderness at Ruchomecki, with animals free to roam about. At night an elephant circled our tent and then he used our tent poles as a scratching post. I was quite started because I had been sitting outside listening to the sounds of the bush and watching the stars. We also had wildebeests grazing outside. And of course hippos! We even had two male hippos fighting right outside of our tent. It was incredible to watch. You would not believe the sounds coming out of them!! We were a little fearful that they might migrate onto our porch but thankfully they kept their distance!

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Elephants regularly walked around and through camp. One morning, we heard screaming. One of the younger males charged some guests walking out of their room. All the staff went running toward the elephant clapping and screaming at him like he was a bad dog. He backed down and walked off. The guests got quite a fright! Secretly I wished it had been Garrett and I. Those are the experiences we want!

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DSC02387The food at the camp was okay. I was seriously disappointed on the first day, after our horrible ordeal of driving, when we got served hamburgers for lunch. I was looking for something different than what I had been eating out of the back of our Landrover! Lunches were plated but breakfast and dinner were served buffet style. They set the tables so that only one couple was allowed to sit alone and everyone else had to sit in groups. I found this really annoying.  One group dinner is fine but having to eat every meal together when there is plenty of space/staff for individual tables was frustrating. We liked our car mates but didn’t feel like eating every meal together.

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At most Wilderness Camps there is usually one day where they do something special – like a more elaborate sundowner, breakfast or dinner in a surprise location. But nothing out of the ordinary at Ruchomecki…. which again was disappointing. We liked our guide but he was fairly novice in his driving skills. Some of the other staff seemed pretty beginner as well. Overall it is a beautiful camp. You can’t beat the setting and how secluded it is. But you definitely need to go during the dry season for the best game viewing.

DSC02374It also worked out perfect for us to celebrate our 3 year wedding anniversary on our last day at Ruchomechi camp! After our wedding in Thailand, we celebrated our 1 year in the Seychelles and our second year in Zanzibar. We are trying to keep up the tradition of visiting an awesome new place each year to celebrate our anniversary. So far so good!

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Thankfully it did not rain during our time at Ruckomechi which allowed the roads to dry up for our drive out of the park. Our guide was kind enough to follow us through the worst bit with a 4×4 to make sure we made it out of the Ruchomecki concession. Driving back was much easier. We could see all the areas we got stuck in earlier in the week which were now deep crazy rivets in the road.  We still didn’t see any game on our way out. Most of the park was still very quiet.

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We spent one more night at Nyamepi camp. This campsite honestly puts you in just as beautiful of a spot as Ruckomechi. Its just not as secluded. We enjoyed some more elephants, hippo, monkeys, impala, hyena come through our camp. My favorite thing was the carmine bee eaters that swarmed through the trees by our campsite at sunset.

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DSC02479On our last morning we booked a walking safari with the local park ranger. We were supposed to meet him at 6:30am but when we got to the office he was not there….I guess he slept in. We were pretty pissed because we had bypassed some lions on the way from our campsite so that we wouldn’t be late….then we never found the lions again. We walked for about 2 hours and saw some hippos but not much else. It was nice to see some of the pools but overall – I’d much rather be on a game drive!

DSC02466Overall we loved the unique environment and stunning views of Mana Pools. It is at the top of the list of places to return to next year in the dry season!

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