As the Bible story goes, Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years, sustained only by manna, a food source that miraculously appeared. In that same vein, Mana Pools National Park provides life-supporting nourishment to hundreds of species that make their home in the Upper Karoo forests of northern Zimbabwe.
In actuality, the name mana is the local Shona word for “four,” as in the four large pools that lie inland from the lower Zambezi River. Over a period of thousands of years, the river changed its course northward, leaving behind this remote chain of small oxbow lakes along the open floodplain.
The pools’ fresh water and prime location offer sustenance to a wide variety of wildlife, including more than 350 bird species and 40 types of fish. Long Pool—the largest of the four, which stretches nearly four miles across—is home to the country’s biggest populations of hippopotamus and crocodiles. During the dry season, huge herds of elephant make their way out of the mahogany forests to satiate their thirst, as do monkeys, baboons, and carnivores including leopards, lions, and the ever-elusive cheetah. As the thick vegetation gives way to Faidherbia albida woodlands, massive numbers of buffalo, impala, antelope, waterbuck, and zebra can be found along the river terraces lapping up the refreshing waters.
Mana Pools National Park covers some 850 square miles of pools, river frontage, islands, and sandbanks; yet when combined with Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park—which lies on the opposite side of the river—the area balloons to nearly 7,000 square miles, across which wildlife can freely roam.
Back in the early 1980s, Mana Pools was almost lost to a major hydroelectric scheme, which would have flooded this vital region. Fortunately, the ecological site—along with the Sapi and Chewore Safari Areas—was granted UNESCO World Heritage status; in 2013, it was designated as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.
The park offers exceptional canoeing and river fishing; visitors can trek across the open woodland unafraid of a surprise encounter with more dangerous wildlife. Yet because of its remoteness (the nearest supply stop is more than 60 miles away), Mana Pools National Park has resisted the call for development, remaining one of the world’s wildest and best-preserved conservation zones. Travelers here call it simply miraculous.