mana pools floodplain

Getting to Mana Pools

Part of the reason Mana Pools remains so enchantingly beautiful is its geographical remoteness. Which makes it relatively expensive and – I won’t lie – a pain in the arse to get to. If cost was no object, you could fly directly into the park by charter aircraft from Harare, but this is by far, the most pricey option. For our group of 5, flying into Lusaka from Johannesburg (approx. 2 hours), then driving (approx. 5 hours not including customs/lunch) was the most economical route.

So where did our trip start?

We flew from Melbourne, Australia into Johannesburg, spending the night at the well-priced and conveniently located City Lodge Hotel OR Tambo Airport. We were up at 4:00am the following morning, ready to catch our 6:35AM flight to Lusaka (tip: BYO breakfast because nothing is open at this time!).

We chose to fly into Lusaka from Johannesburg for two reasons:

  1. Flights into Lusaka, Zambia from Jo’burg (on SAA’s Airlink) are much cheaper than into Harare, Zimbabwe (for us at the time of booking, it was AUD300 vs AUD600pp one-way!); and
  2. Lusaka is closer to Mana Pools than Harare by road (5.5 hours not including stops).

Lusaka feels like it’s riding a wave of rapid development, with construction projects taking place all over the city. Developments (including an elevated downtown expressway and a near-complete airport terminal) look like they are funded mostly by Chinese companies, with hoardings bearing the names of Chinese businesses. In fact, a big Bank of China billboard welcomed visitors at the airport, proudly standing next to a Pepsi and Mwaiseni bank sign.

A multi-cultural welcome at Lusaka’s Kenneth Kaunda International Airport.

At the arrivals hall, we were met by a friendly young man named Abel, from Hersov Tours, who drove us to meet our safari operator Natureways in a comfortable Zimbabwe-registered minivan. The vehicle was air-conditioned, and equipped with plenty of luggage space (for 5 large duffle bags) as well as an esky filled with cold drinks.

What were the roads like?

Throughout Zambia, the roads were paved and in good condition, without a pothole in sight! However, traffic jams are a real problem in the capital, and low speed limits (40-60kmh) apply on many stretches even outside of Lusaka.

On the winding mountain roads towards the Chirundu border post, there were many large lorries and trucks, transporting freight between South Africa and Tanzania. Some of their drivers drove erratically, and as the wait at the customs cargo checkpoint was long, they left tonnes of unsightly rubbish strewn along the roadside for the birds and baboons.

Trucks at Chirundu, heading into Zimbabwe. Apparently, this queue was short!

It was the same story across the border in Zimbabwe. Except the paved tar road was in worse condition. As soon as we made it into the country, we quickly became acquainted with the country’s notorious “official” roadblocks, where heavily armed officers would demand to inspect our vehicles. One even openly asked for some food or drink; we handed him a couple of cans of soft drink from our esky, so we could continue along on our journey.

How were the border crossings?

Funnily enough, there were very few people on our flight from South Africa and we seemed to be the only people at the airport in Lusaka who were en route to a safari. The customs officer was genuinely surprised and pleased to learn we were in Zambia “on holiday”.

It’s late June – peak safari season – so where is everyone?

At the time of writing, there is a good value visa Australian travellers can purchase on arrival – the KAZA visa for USD50 – which allows unlimited border crossings over 30 days to Zimbabwe and Zambia. This is very handy particular if you are visiting Vic Falls. Additionally, the visa lets you take day trips into Botswana. Note that you may have to prompt the immigration official at Lusaka airport about this visa, as they don’t seem to regularly see safari-going visitors!

At the Zambia-Zimbabwe border post Chirundu, we were again, the only tourists. Dusty and bustling with colourfully dressed locals, Chirundu looks like it’s mostly used by freight truck drivers, with plenty of food, drink. mobile phone card and currency exchange vendors plying their wares. Interestingly, there were also many huge billboards all over the complex discouraging corruption.

Once you get inside the plain brick building, expect to wait. Everything is hand-written; visitor names for instance, are written down in dog-eared exercise books stored inside ancient filing cabinets (with books filed by country!). Street vendors pop in to sell barbecued corn and potato chips to on-duty customs officials, and it is not uncommon for their friends to drop in for an unhurried chat. This is just the way things are, so remind yourself that you’re on holiday, and don’t forget to keep smiling!

On the way back to Lusaka, we discovered that the vehicle permit to cross takes even longer to process as it would go into a queue with all the cargo trucks. However, Abel had border crossings down to a fine art. When he met us at Mana Pools, he’d already gotten his Zambian papers from another less busy border post, so the car had already officially “crossed the border” by the time it picked us up.

What happened when you got to Mana Pools?

We were met by Mark and Manu, our guides from Natureways, at the start of the dirt road leading into Mana Pools National Park. From here, it was a 2-hour open vehicle drive to our campsite, with a stop at park office to sign in. However, this drive took a lot longer than that because we made a few impromptu stops to look at lounging lions, for lunch under a shady baobab and to see African wild dogs on foot!

Some 48 hours after we’d left home in Melbourne, Australia, we made it to Camp Zambezi, our wonderful home for 3 nights at the edge of the broad Zambezi River. Read about our experience with Natureways here.

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