Although I’ve travelled extensively around Zambia, I had never been to Kasanka National Park or the remote Bangweulu Wetlands and so given the opportunity to take the time to do so at the end of September, I jumped at it.
As part of the planning, I decided to do as much as possible of the travel by road. This is not the normal way to access these two regions (most international travellers would fly in), but I was not only travelling to see what each had to offer, but also to discover what was around and put the areas in context to that part of the country. I was rather surprised by the findings.
Setting off from Lusaka on a ‘quiet’ Sunday morning, Ruth and I drove north along the road towards Ndola before branching onto the Great North Road which continues to Lake Tanganyika and Tanzania. The ‘quiet’ Sunday did not prove as such and the traffic was far heavier than I expected, particularly in respect of the large ‘trans-Africa’ trucks moving all manner of goods at speed – during the eight hour drive, we passed 4 accidents which had happened within the last couple of hours. Fortunately, the scenery was less than inspiring so keeping the necessary eye on the road was not an issue for our exceptional driver.
After the never ending road journey, arriving into Kasanka was a blessing. We were immediately taken by the lovely woodland scenery as we continued through the park to Wasa Lodge. Kasanka, although a National Park in status, is run by the Kasanka Trust who also manage the two small lodges, Wasa and Luwombwa. Wasa is set on the edge of the treeline overlooking the expanse of Lake Wasa and is considered the main property. Luwombwa lies on the banks of a river of the same name in the western sector of the park. It is much smaller with just three chalets, and is more suitable for ‘overnight sleep outs’ rather than extended stays.
Kasanka is noted for its high population of the ‘swamp-dwelling’ sitatunga antelope, and for the annual straw-coloured fruit bat migration which visits a particular two-hectare forest within the park from late October to December each year – the bat concentrations (an estimated at 5 million) are so dense that trees collapse under the weight.
Close to Wasa Lodge is the famous Fibwe hide, a ‘tree hide’ located some 60ft up a mahogany tree and accessed by a rather precarious ladder. With my vertigo I declined the climb, but my wife told me that the views from the hide over the Kapabi swamp were superb and she did pick out three sitatunga very easily. I was content at watching a nesting fork-tailed drongo on the lower branches!
Over the days, we explored many areas of the park viewing a surprising amount of wildlife including elephant, buffalo, puku, hartebeest, warthogs, zebra, duiker, yellow baboon, reedbuck and of course sitatunga. It was a little too early for the bats, and although sable and roan also occur, we did not see any. We did a truncated but enjoyable boat cruise on the Luwombwa River and enjoyed a walk to the revered, and very impressive, Bufuma tree (Entandrophragma sp.?), which stands some 65m high within the burial grounds of the local chieftains.
We set off early from Kasanka to our next stop, the Bangweulu Wetlands. It’s was only 140 kms. or so but it still took eight hours travelling by open vehicle along real country roads, or should I say, tracks. What was surprising was the density of the population, even in the most remote of areas. Aside from the first hour, when villages were few and far between, we barely passed through open countryside. In fact, the ‘conurbation’ from the Wetlands ‘official gate’ to the start of the floodplain, some 50kms away, was staggering – one village followed immediately by another for the entire duration.
Arriving suddenly on the edge of the deserted floodplain was therefore somewhat surprising, a flat landscape of nothing but very short grass interspersed with a patchwork of what looked like low walls stretching as far as the eye could see (we subsequently learnt that these low walls were in fact fishing traps). We crossed the plain to Shoebill Camp, the only accommodation in the area and the base from which we would attempt to see the fabled ‘whale-headed stork’. The camp, close to the Lukula River, was the most rustic I’ve stayed in for years – some work required for sure!
The plains in this part of the Wetlands are an interesting place. For a large part of the year (January to August/September), they lie beneath the floodwaters of the Lukulu and Lulimala rivers creating an area which can only be accessed by local mekoro (dugouts). Any raised ground, usually the result of termite activity, houses a simple thatched hut used by the local fisherman who come in to harvest the considerable catch. The fishing technique is simple and cost effective – the low walls dividing the plains are broken every now and again to force the fish to move through specific gaps into which the fishing baskets are placed.
The plains aside, the two rivers are a myriad of channels interspersed with floating papyrus reed beds, the ideal habitat for the shoebill. When the flood is in, the birds spread out and are relatively easy to find along the edges of the rivers. In this the dry season they head into permanent water areas and are more difficult to see.
However, we had been given word that a nesting shoebill with a youngster almost ready to fledge was being observed along a relatively accessible section of the Lulimala River. We decided to set off early the following day and left just after sunrise for the four hour round trip drive to get to the locality. Having crossed the floodplain, we then went through a surreal area of immense termite activity, a ‘mini town’ of high rises built to avoid the annual flooding. Occasionally we came across oribi, a group of tsessebe, or family of zebra. Early flowering shrubs added further colour.
On reaching the Lulimala, we were met by the fishermen who had been employed to ‘look after’ the shoebill nest until the chick had fledged (an ingenious system of dry season employment for the fisher folk whilst protecting the breeding birds from human/other predation). What followed was a tough two hour stomp through the swamp, interspersed with viewings, albeit at a distance, of the now fully fledged chick and its parent and periods when we all but disappeared through the matted vegetation into the water. Not easy, but overall quite exhilarating.
Later, we returned to the floodplains and spent a pleasurable afternoon amongst the thousands of endemic black lechwe which keep the grasslands short and ‘fertile’. As the October sun struggled through the dense smog caused by the plumes of smoke from numerous bush fires, we reflected on an amazing day.
The following morning, a scorcher of a day as temperatures neared 40C, we flew off to the North Luangwa National Park and spent two days walking out from the lovely Mwaleshi Camp. The simplistic grass huts could show Shoebill just what could be achieved without having to resort to expensive building works. Exploring the riverine, we came across elephant, buffalo, hyaena, and puku and were lucky enough to see a leopard on the way back from the hippo pools.
Our final few days were spent visiting the South Luangwa where we took some time to catch up with old friends, enjoy some spectacular game-viewing, and simply enjoy being back in the bush.