I have just returned from a week-long fishing trip to Mana Pools. We were one of the first parties allowed into the park under the new boating proposals. Our group consisted of four people, two vehicles and two boats. We stayed at the National Parks self-catering Nyati Lodge.
I would classify myself as an "outdoor enthusiast" - I love outdoor pursuits, whether from a boat or land-bound, fishing or game viewing, it is of little consequence - just as long as I can be there, enjoy and share the experience with other, like-minded individuals.
It was with mixed emotions I received news of the proposal to allow boating within Mana Pools National park. On one hand, from an angler's perspective, the opportunity of having boat access to relatively untouched waters is a dream come true. However, as a regular visitor to Mana Pools, I can fully appreciate the concerns raised by the anti-boating lobby.
Even under dry weather conditions the dirt road into the Zambezi valley is not great. The road is heavily corrugated and, especially when towing a boat or trailer, due care should be taken. Whilst the sandy surface of the road is relatively immune to heavy rainfall and dries off quite quickly, once you reach the black cotton soils of the Mana Pools area, there are certain sections that require four-wheel-drive. These areas will deteriorate as the rainy season progresses.
We arrived at Nyamepi Office at10am, Sunday 15 November 2009. The trip in was uneventful, and the Park's staff were all very pleasant and helpful. We completed the necessary formalities at the office; we paid for fishing, boating, river usage and trailer permits which, for the four of us, totalled an additional US$202, over-and-above the initial US$300 we had paid for accommodation at Head Office in Harare. We unpacked, off-loaded the vehicles and set about going to launch our boats.
We launched our boats from the canoe safari operators' launch site. While the site is perfectly adequate for the canoe operators, who simply portage their canoes on to trailers, anglers need to submerse their trailers to float their boats. We had no trouble either launching or retrieving our boats, but the launch site is not designed for this kind of use. I imagine that as the rainy season sets it will become a quagmire. An alternative site needs to be found, or the existing site needs to be reinforced with concrete/stones to prevent damage. It will not stand up to continued use by boaters.
Whilst the Zambezi river is very wide at Mana Pools, it is only "safely" navigable on the Zambian side of the river. The Zimbabwe side is generally very shallow, full of sand bars, tree stumps and plenty of hippo.
BOAT SECURITY AT NIGHT
For those anglers reluctant to remove their boats from the water at night, we were assured by parks staff that they could be moored at Nyamepi Camp - security was not a problem. In spite of the fact that we were staying further upstream at our lodge, we opted to leave our boats moored at Nyamepi - obviously we removed all movable property: fishing rods, tackle boxes, cooler boxes and fuel tanks. We had no problems with theft of any kind. Having said that, though, I would imagine that it is only a question of time before theft does become a problem - once word gets out that there are easy pickings. I don't know if National Parks have any security arrangements in place, but I would suggest that if boats are to be left in the water at night, that a parks guard/scout be posted to patrol the river frontage - I am quite sure anglers would be prepared to pay extra for the added peace-of-mind.
IS HAVING A BOAT AT MANA POOLS AN ADVANTAGE FOR THE ANGLER?
This is a tough question to answer. I don't think I will be tempted to take a boat again, for the simple reason that I don't think you need one. Yes, we experienced some fantastic bream and tiger fishing from our boats, but we caught equally well from the Mana shoreline. So, in my opinion, having a boat is not a huge advantage. However, having said that, for anglers who want wet season access to the Chikwenya/Sapi river area, a boat is the ideal mode of transport - albeit an expensive one, considering the distances involved.
IMPACT ON FISH RESOURCES
As I have already outlined above, having a boat at Mana Pools does not necessarily equate to higher fish catches. There are already rules and limits in place to control the numbers of fish caught, and these rules apply equally to bank or boat anglers. Therefore, managing/controlling fish off-take is more a question of implementing and policing existing regulations. As it stands at the moment, the system is open to abuse.
IMPACT OF BOATING ON MANA'S AESTHETICS
Considering that much of Mana Pools is inaccessible during the wet season, and that most guests (non-boaters) are confined to the immediate area around the lodges and Nyamepi, and also taking into account that boaters have to use the main channel on the Zambia side, the impact that boating will have on the aesthetics and harmony of Mana Pools and surrounds is negligible. In fact, the real irony is that during the dry season, when boating by Zimbabweans is not allowed, the heavy number of Zambian registered tourist boats plying the river, as well as the endless string of aeroplanes taking off and landing at Zambian camps is, in my opinion, far more intrusive. If anything, the proliferation of safari camps on the Zambian shoreline needs to be looked into.
It is feared that the increased boat activity in Mana Pools will force the hippo onto the Zimbabwean side of the river thus posing a threat to the canoe operators. Too late, the hippo are already there because of pressure from Zambian boating.
Will boating have a negative effect on Mana Pools?
The short answer is no. The "boating season" - which will run from November 15 to February 15 - is very short, the height of the rainy season, and to be quite frank, is not a very pleasant time weather wise - it is hot and humid.
Is there any benefit for Mana Pools National Park?
Yes. Any tourist presence in Mana Pools out of peak season is a good thing. Not only does the additional revenue help in the day-to-day up-keep of the Park, but additional eyes and ears on the ground is never a bad thing.
Is there a risk to fish stocks?
Yes, with or without boating at Mana Pools. Without proper policing from National Parks, there is a real danger that fish stocks will become over-exploited.
As I have already stated, I don't think boating will have a huge impact on the overall well-being of Mana Pools. However, it is still too early to tell what the long-term effect will be. To this end, I feel that National Parks should consider limiting the number of permits available to boaters during the wet-season and that this trial period should monitored be closely
Policing Catch Limits
The rules governing catch limits need to be re-structured to fall in line with more modern conservation practices. A "Catch-And-Release" initiative for certain species, such as tiger fish and vundu, should be encouraged. Even so, the regulations already in place are of little use if they are not being enforced or policed.