Many a seasoned traveler will have heard about the vast grasslands of Zambia’s LiuwaPlainNational Park on the upper Zambezi; a seasonally inundated region where rare birds amass around flower rimmed pans. Stories of huge skies, brooding storms, and wildebeest herds stretching from one curved horizon to the next are familiar.…but very few of us will actually have been there… And that’s because the roads leading into the park traverse the Barotse floodplain; a difficult place to cross when its dry; an impossible place to cross when its not….. Possibly one of the oldest conservation areas in Africa, the Liuwa Plain was originally declared a royal game reserve in the 19th century by the then king Lubosi Lewanika: an omnipotent ruler who appointed his people, the Lozi, to be game keepers and custodians of the land.
Sadly though, during the 80s and 90s, the king’s legacy was whittled away by illegal trophy hunters and poachers until the park stood almost empty. But then, in 2003 The Africa Parks Network (a conservation NGO) the Royal Establishment and the Zambian Government joined forces to put things back in order. Now in 2009, there are more than 46000 wildebeest, 6000 zebra, 2000 tsetsebe and 1000 lechwe present in the park as well as a growing population of lions, cheetah, buffalo, eland and wild dog. Like a pheonix risen from the ashes, The Liuwa Plain National Park is truly a conservation success story and is fast becoming one of the hottest travel destinations on the planet. But as Dale Morris found out, the journey getting there is every bit as fanatstic as the destination is itself.
It was a typically dark and somber Garden Route morning the day Frank Carlisle and I climbed aboard his Land Cruiser and buckled ourselves in for a long haul journey to Zambia. The expedition had begun in my driveway next to the Western Cape’s somewhat tamed WildernessNational Park, and would end, God willing, in the untamed wilderness of Barotseland’s LiuwaPlaneNational Park. Along the way we would pass through the Karoo’s empty starkness , Botswana’s endless woodlands, Namibia’s Caprivi strip, and Zambia’s boggy floodplains. We would cross the mighty Zambezi several times, traverse uncharted roads, witness the 2nd largest wildebeest migration on earth and then return home (hopefully in time for tea) “Should be about 6000 kilometers all in” said Frank “And some of it will be hard driving. But that’s half the fun of it right?” A rhetorical question of course. “Have you remembered your passport?” he asked “Check!” I responded “Toothpaste?” “Check” “Garmin GPS and Tracks 4 Africa maps?” “Check” “Insect repellent, bird book, binoculars, and a zip lock full of extra patience?” “Check,” “Fantastic! Lets go” And with that we headed off up the R339 over the Prince Alfred’s Pass and onto the smooth sailing monotony of the N1. Eventually that evening, after many hours driving and a particularly hideous session of rush hour traffic, we arrived in Pretoria where we were greeted by the pretty site of an ochre sun slowly sinking below the city’s smog. That night we drank cold beers on a warm stoep whilst Jacaranda flowers fell about us like indigo butterflies. Total distance for the day: 1120 kms
At 6 in the morning we left Pretoria’s purple pavements and hazy city skylines behind and headed 370km up the N1 to the Martins Drift Botswana border crossing and then continued northwards to the little town of Kasane on the fringes of ChobeNational Park. Here we witnessed elephants chewing on trees in the high street and warthogs lazing around on a golf course. At night we were treated to a nocturnal opera of kettle drum thunder, baritone hippos, and a fruit bat soprano. Total distance for the day 1150kms
Did you know that the collective noun for a group of crocodiles is a ‘float’? No, neither did I, but that morning my knowledgeable river guide enlightened me to the fact when we found one tearing apart a big bloated buffalo. The smell of it quite put me off my breakfast, but the rest of my tour down the Chobe River was a dream. I saw large assemblages of hippopotamuses (called ‘bloats’) as well as buffalo (‘obstinacies’) and waterbuck (just plane old ‘herds’) all of which were grazing upon floodplain grasses on the borders of no less than four different countries. Within half an hour one can visit Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, all from the comfort of a boat, and what’s more, you wont even need your passport. Later that day, our quiet little campground on the banks of the ChobeRiver was assailed by 11 large 4x4s and 22 very excited clients; all of whom had booked onto Frank’s ‘Self Drive Guided Safari to Zambia’s Liuwa Plain’
That morning, as we sat in a circle eating our porridge, and picking sweat bees out of our nostrils, Frank explained to us that we were going to have to navigate four border checks today. “But don’t worry” he said “ I have a fool proof system when it comes to border officials which consists of three simple phrases. Yes sir! No Sir! and Three bags full Sir!” The first leg of our journey took us in convoy style along the ChobeNational Park road (where one must dodge elephants and potholes) and then on up to the Ngoma border post with Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. Here we commenced to smiling and saying “yes sir; no sir; three bags full sir” and within no time at all, we were all on our way again. The 77km tar road journey across Namibia to Katima Mulilo near the Zambian border was a quite and pretty affair; the scenery dominated by quaint little villages and woodlands full of ghostly pale terminalia trees. The next event; the Wenela border crossing into Zambia; was a chaotic and confusing circus show, but again, Frank’s mantra worked wonders and within a few minutes we were back on the road and on our way to Liuwa. At times, the track we were on (the M10) was soft and sandy, but when it wasn’t, it was rocky and bumpy. There were more pot holes in it than on the surface of the moon and enough dust to keep an army of cleaning ladies busy for a millennium. As a result, our progress was akin to that of an elderly snail. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining Along the way, the mighty Zambezi was our constant companion, and we were afforded many magnificent views whilst we slowly drove through emerald woodlands and pretty groves of mango trees. Smiling people came out of their little thatched rondavels to wave at us and dogs snapped at our wheels. That evening, as the rest of the group gathered around a camp fire and sipped on whisky and wine, I made my excuses and went to sit alone beside the Zambezi where owls and night jars sang. A full moon rose from the river, lightning flickered, and I wanted to stay forever. Eventually though, a gentle warm rain forced me back to my tent where I slept soundly to a chorus of thunder and frogs. Total distance for the day: just 256km
That morning I arose to the sight of the Zambezi, as still and as mirror. A sky full of retreating thunderclouds was reflected in perfect symmetry on the river’s glassy surface. It was beautiful. The first half of the day’s journey was an unhurried affair, primarily due to the rugged nature of the road, and although the previous night’s rain had compacted what was earlier loose sand, we now had puddles the size of small lakes to contend with. “No telling how deep some of these might be” said Frank as we skirted around a particularly large body of water upon which ducks were swimming. Something shiny and black, broke the surface and then vanished into the murk. The biggest challenge that day however, was not from puddles or sea monsters, but rather from a stretch of low-lying land known as the Mongu Flood Plain. It was here that the road (such as it was) split into a bewildering array of junctions. “One wrong turn here” said Frank whilst eyeing his Garmin GPS with intent “And you might end up on the edge of the world” Some of us got stuck down there in the deep mud and sand; some of us got dust in our valves, but thanks to a combination of Frank’s local knowledge and the latest GPS technology, we all made it out to the other side in one piece. Our next port of call was the Kalongola pontoon where we loaded our vehicles, four at a time, onto what amounted to a floating lump of scrap metal. The Zambezi was very shallow at some points and the ferry got stuck on numerous occasions, but with much revving and heaving and frothing of water, the captain managed to land his vessel (and our vehicles) on the other side. After that, it was a further 190kms on both tar and gravel roads before we reached the bustling town of Mongu where we took up residence for the night in the Mutoya Christian mission station overlooking the Great Barotse Floodplain. Children from the next door orphanage could be heard singing into the early evening, and as the moon rose once again and our group retired to their tents, a chorus of chirping insects took over the serenade. Total distance for the day: 190kms
“There are people out here in Barotseland who have never seen a car before” said Paul Weber, long time resident of Mutoya “And that’s because every year, flooding cuts off entire regions from the rest of the world. There are no roads, no health care, no clean water, few schools and even fewer churches. Life expectancy is the lowest on the planet. And disease is rampant” Cheery way to start the morning I thought to myself, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. “It true that growing food on these seasonally flooded lands can be hard” continued Paul “But there’s never a shortage of fish” Ever since the Lozi people arrived in the region some 200 years ago, they have been deeply entwined with the ebb and flow of the great Zambezi River. They are excellent fishermen, proficient boat builders and whats more, they eat more fish than any other African tribe on record. That day, as we crossed the Barotse floodplain upon a sandy bridge like causeway, we saw many people hard at work with rods, nets, traps, mocorros and spears. The Barotse floodplain causeway is an elevated road which, when built some years back, was supposed to form a permanent link between Mongu on the west of the plain and Kalabo on the east. I say ‘supposed to’ because the project was never actually completed before the Zambezi washed most of it away. Now all that remains of this ill thought out idea are a few raised segments of crumbling road and a whole bunch of big concrete culverts. As a result, people on the floodplain and surrounding regions still rely on canals and canoes to get from A to B. It was tough work trying to get a fleet of vehicles over this ‘miracle of modern engineering’ but it was certainly interesting, and the slow going afforded us plenty of opportunities to meet and greet the locals; many of which had decided to live on the causeway itself. “Would you like to buy a fish?” asked one man who had set up a temporary home in a concrete tube next to a very large pond “It’s a very big one, see” And indeed it was. A Barbel of at least a meter in length, and although both Frank and I were sorely tempted, we declined due to the smell. Eventually, after many hours of very slow driving over the broken road, another ferry crossing and a picnic lunch under a mango tree, we pulled into the sleepy little town of Kalabo; gateway to the Liuwa Plain National Park. Total distance for day 84 kms ( 45 slow sand + 39 on good tar)
After visiting the Kalabo community well to stock up on fresh water (there is none in the park) we crossed the gently flowing LuangingaRiver (A tributary of the Zambezi) on a hand pulled pontoon. As usual, the boat itself was of a rustic nature and I was quite surprised when we made it to the other side, laden down as we were with two heavy vehicles, 40 locals and their families, two mangy dogs, two goats and one very large catfish. But as I pointed out earlier, the Lozi people are good with boats. After that, we moved into the Liuwa Plain proper, but I must admit to being somewhat surprise at the appearance of the place. I had been expecting vast open scenery with nary a tree, but we were traveling through a mosaic of dense woodland and little villages. “There are more than 20000 people living in the park” said Frank as we slowly made our way along a network of deep and sandy tracks. “But because the Lozi people were put here by their king to take care of the place, there is very little conflict between the wildlife and the humans” As such, the LiuwaPlainNational Park is quite unusual insofar as it has a population of people living within its borders who are considered custodians rather than encroachers. “They are allowed to stay here because they are as much a part of the park as the wildebeest are” Eventually, after a bit of exploration and Garmin GPS consultation (there are no signs in Liuwa) we left the villages behind and reached Nkwale camp; a lovely shaded location where Frank’s team had already set up tents. There we had lunch and a siesta before heading out beyond the trees and onto the Liuwa Plain proper which was just as I had imagined it to be. There were a few small wooded hills and the occasional sausage and palm tree here and there, but apart from those scant landmarks, the Liuwa Plain is a completely uniform landscape. Vast and enormous. Empty and bare. Off road driving is permitted in Liuwa, primarily because any tracks one makes will be washed away forever when the annual floods begin; and besides, the place is so huge and open, it wouldn’t be practical to stick to designated roads. And so with that in mind, we carefully explored the vast open spaces of the park, checking off birds from our books whilst checking out hyena dens; the latter of which were conveniently marked in our Tracks 4 Africa maps. The sense of adventure one feels from driving off road combined with the sheer beauty of the plain is what makes this park so special, and when you add to that the 2nd largest wildebeest migration on earth, the biggest hyena clans known in Africa and the largest concentrations of storks and cranes on the continent you cant help but wonder why so few people come here. And then you remember the driving conditions. Many of our group got stuck at times despite owning top end 4×4 vehicles; and without Frank’s back up plans, safety nets and organizational skills, things could so easily have gone wrong out there in the middle of nowhere. The AA do not go to the Liuwa Plain. Total distance for the day 23kms into the park + around 100kms exploring
Although mostly featureless, the Liuwa does have many faces. There were vast areas of starkness which reminded me of saltpans I had seen elsewhere and there were pretty fields packed with pink lilies. Some areas were full of golden grass, others were like a bowling green, and amongst it all there were thousands upon thousands of wildebeest- many of them with babies. Thunderclouds; ominous and dark, moved across the landscape like giant jellyfish; each of them trailing a curtain of rain, whilst clouds of a different nature; great flocks of storks and pelicans and cranes drifted overhead with elegant grace. I have never felt so small, as on this day when I stood on the vastness of this place and did a slow 360 turn. It was flat wherever I looked. Flat and dry, and then I remembered that this would all be underwater within a month. What an amazing place the Liuwa truly is. That day we saw monitor lizards, vultures and hyena nibbling on wildebeest and we saw buffalo and eland and tsetsebee too. And as for the birding…well, it was fantastic; the highlight of which was a flock of crowned cranes numbering more than a hundred. Wildebeest pranced like the clowns they are known to be whilst zebra moved elegantly across the open plains in their hundreds. And amongst it all, there were the Lozi people, fishing with spears in the lily filled pools as they have done so for centuries. I felt very much privileged to witness it all.
All good things must come to an end, and it was with much sadness that I bid farewell to the Liuwa Plain. But our journey was not yet over. Not by a long shot. After all, we still had to get back home. But alas that’s a story for another time…..
After an adventuresome trek via the Western bank of the Zambezi river, through uncharted roads where without a GPS we would have been lost, we bathed in the beautiful Sioma falls and camped beside villages where ancient ceremonies took place by night. We then left Zambia, headed back through Namibia and lingered in Botswana awhile before once more returning to South Africa, and finally to my house in Wilderness. There I sighed a sigh of sadness, for it was the end of an epic journey, and although Wilderness in the Western Cape is a lovely place indeed, it’s certainly not a true Wilderness as I am sure it once was. Now there are houses and hotels and roads and shops and lots and lots of people. True wildernesses are becoming scarcer and scarcer in the world, and we must travel ever further to reach them. But its nice to know that at the end of the road there are still places like Liuwa; relatively inaccessible, well managed and wild; which will always be wilderness forever. FURTHER INFORMATION Travel with www.bhejane.com Official web page www.africanparks-conservation.com Official park video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lEihtd6ZI0 Mutoya Christian mission (and camp ground) www.zam.co.za More about Zambia` www.zambiatourism.com Maps and GPS www.tracks4africa.com www.garmin.co.za