ONE OF THE BEST bush and wildlife destinations in southern Africa, where visitors are free to walk unguided in places inhabited by lions, leopards and elephants.
Campsites on the mighty Zambezi river see frequent visits from Africa’s iconic animals. 170km from gate to camp, many regional campers set up here for weeks at a time.
Perhaps it was the 10 year absence, but I always felt the animals were closer in Zimbabwe.
Mana Pools, in the north-west, is famous for allowing visitors to walk without a guide or ranger.
Which might sounds crazy in a place with apex predators.
Deaths and injuries are rare, but not unknown, and unguided walking was banned in 2015.
The decision was reversed the same year in the face of outcry from regular visitors, 52% of whom said they'd stop coming.
Wildlife roams through the campsites anyway. We had very close encounters with elephants, hyena and monkeys, and lions and leopards passed unseen.
We took a guided walk on our first morning, to get a feel for the land and walking amongst the wildlife.
We saw cat tracks, but no cats, as well as large game like hippos and elephants, and various bucks.
The biggest reward was seeing a family of wild dogs hunting across this plain. Wild (or painted) dogs are considered a bigger "get" in Mana than lions.
Mana takes some getting to. The Chimutsi gate is over 5 hours from Harare, and from there to the camps is another two.
Some take a car ferry up the Zambezi. The direct road from Hwange is a day and a half along a variety of the worst roads you'll ever experience. Bloody interesting though.
The 75km from gate to camp is doable in a 2WD (just) but there are some patches of sand. Enough, but not all of the roads around the camps and pools are also OK, just.
No fresh fruit can be taken in, and fines are heavy. Elephants love fruit.
Monkeys patrol the camps and are incredibly quick when your back is turned. Don't keep food in tents.
Visitors need to be prepared. There is vrtually nothing to buy inside, bar a pack of biscuits and firewood. No fuel either.
Despite or perhaps because of this, it is very common for local and South African visitors to stay for weeks at a time. Some pop out to resupply for another few weeks.
With wildlife encounters as close as this being normal, it's easy to understand.
But is often the raw, isolated, authentic bush experience which brings them back.
We always felt we were flying blind in our search for animals, unable to interpret the landscape. Or we were just unlucky.
Paradoxically, the wildlife would often come to us. These elephant were daily visitors, as were others.
Huge eland, waterbucks, and hyena roamed the camps, one even sharing a tap with us. Leopard and lion were caught on our neighbour's trail cam.
We made twice daily rounds of lagoons and pools. One morniing's quest for leopard turned up two rival packs of 20+ hyena.
We never did see leopard, not on the whole trip.
We'd have missed the lions, too, had we not asked a passing guide how his morning had been!
"Go to BBC Camp. You WILL see lions.". We had no way of knowing if they'd left since he'd seen them.
Fortunately, they were doing what cats do- lazing around.
After 3-4 safari cars left, we had an hour or so watching them on our own.
Apparently they weren't as lazy as we thought. Not long after we left, they brought down an unfortunate warthog!
Leaving BBC, we stopped by a safari car at a lagoon. Just crocs, the guide said. It was good to return the favour and point him to BBC. His clients were grateful.
Sometimes the bush throw up the unexpected, like this family of funny looking birds, or a bat-eared fox.
While other game can be elusive at Mana (or anywhere) you'd have to be dead unlucky not to see elephants.
And Mana's elephants also have a unique talent, famed among game viewers.
They have learned to stand on their back legs to reach food higher up. Quite the sight.
Mana may not be the best place for a first time self-drive safari holiday.
It's a place where just being in the bush is as important as the wildlife, where a bit of experience, and lots of patience and preparation is needed.