Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Wonders of Northern Zambia

Livingstone, Zambia, September 1st

Terri and Stanley at Nsobe
Of all the countries we have visited so far on our southern Africa loop, Zambia is the one that most feels as though we have left the shadow of the developed world for the bright sunshine of “real Africa”, whatever that means.  And in Zambia, it is the area northeast of Lusaka that best exemplifies that feeling of falling off the map.  It was for exploring precisely this sort of area that we bought Stanley in the first place, allowing us as much freedom as possible in terms of travel and independence.  Our swing through that area was one of the biggest highlights so far of Stanley’s Travels, and reliving this trip while writing this blog post has reminded me of how wonderful some of these places are; perhaps it will inspire some of you, gentle readers, to explore northern Zambia on your own.
The Road to Muyombe:  Paved with Good Intentions?

We entered Zambia on Tuesday, July 26th, fresh from our fabulous sojourn on the picturesque Nyika Plateau.  The road to the border on the Malawian side had been miserably corrugated and potholed gravel, deteriorating sharply in quality as we approached the curiously one-sided border post where the Malawians had a presence (albeit a young woman who was filling in for the real border official, and who had to phone for assistance in how to stamp foreigners out of the country), but the Zambians had nobody.  We drove into the country along a track that left us puzzled by its frequent unsigned bifurcations; we ended up stopping and searching for locals to ask “Is this the road to Isoka?”.  We were frequently skeptical of the answers, as the jeep tracks closely resembled footpaths, but local knowledge proved to be accurate as we made our way downhill towards the town of Isoka, some 240 km from the border.
The M14 superhighway
We had no real intelligence about the quality of the track, although we suspected that it would be poor.  This, to put it mildly, was an understatement.  This “road”, graced with the title of the M14, is little more than a cartographer’s cruel practical joke.  It may well be the worst road I have ever driven a vehicle on (although I have cycled on tracks of equal misery in places like Pakistan, Tibet, China and Chile).  Since almost no motorized traffic comes this way, the paths are mostly made by pedestrians and cyclists, who need only have one narrow path for their wheels or feet, rather than the twin paths needed for a car.  The result, given the tremendous erosion and utter lack of maintenance, is a series of deep gullies separated by one, two or even three narrow tracks of compacted red laterite earth that may or may not be the right spacing apart for a vehicle’s wheels.  We crawled along at walking pace, Terri at the wheel, frequently stopping to get out and inspect a particularly hideous stretch of track, cursing the road and the engineers who didn’t maintain it and the mapmakers who pretended that it was a driveable path.  It took absolutely forever to make our way 50 km down the road to the tiny village of Muyombe, one of the few actual settlements along the road.  There were not many villages at all, and those that existed were about as poor as any place we have seen so far on this trip.
Lungu election T-shirts and maize flour--the Muyombe road
We knew that we were approaching a centre of some slightly augmented significance when we spotted the cyclists sporting new Edgar Lungu election T-shirts and carrying bags of famine-relief corn flour on their luggage racks.  Terri and I were just discussing where we would ask for permission to camp (at a village school?  A chief’s house?) when, completely unexpectedly, we came across a sign to a new lodge on the outskirts of Muyombe, Mama Wuyoyo’s.  We followed the sign and soon found ourselves in a newly-constructed compound run by Collins, an articulate Livingstonian who had moved to the sticks a few months before to help start a new hotel built by a local woman made good who wanted to share some of her good fortune with the village she had left behind years before.  The lodge was actually full of district medical staff doing a one-week course, and Collins said that it was the first time in three months that they had had more than a tiny number of guests.  We camped in the garden and had a sundown Mosi Lager before having a meal of extremely muscular chicken in the lodge restaurant and collapsing into bed, utterly spent by the rigours of driving 128 kilometres.
Collins and Terri at Mama Wuyoyo's Lodge, Muyombe
We had heard (or perhaps we had hoped we had heard) that the next day we would hit asphalt after 60 kilometres.  Terri was at the wheel again, as she usually is when the road gets tough, and was bound and determined that she was going to drive us as far as the tarmac before handing over the wheel.  We ground on, past hundreds of people in President Lungu campaign T-shirts and passing several fancy 4WD vehicles speeding the other way.  We finally asked the driver of a passing campaign truck that was grinding its way painfully along the track what was going on.  “President Lungu is coming to Muyombe for a campaign rally today!” we learned.  We asked whether he was driving along the appalling joke of a track, and were not surprised to hear that he was flying into Muyombe in a government helicopter; only his minions had to endure the perils and potholes of the road.  Maybe if he had to drive like everyone else, the road would get repaired sooner?

Sixty kilometres of bad road came and went and there were no signs of asphalt, so after 75 kilometres, I finally convinced Terri to stop, have a sandwich beside the road and change drivers.  There were signs of a new road that had been started a couple of years earlier but then abandoned when the government ran out of money for the project.  We would drive along a few kilometres of smoothish gravel, laid atop a properly drained roadbed with concrete culverts, only for it to come to a crashing halt and leave us back on the horror of the old M14.  Eventually, almost 110 kilometres from Muyombe, we hit asphalt and raced the following 80 kilometres along completely smooth, utterly empty highway at 90 km/h.  Just to remind us of how bad it could be, the final two kilometres leading to the main T2 highway were unpaved again, full of rocks and deep gullies and general unpleasantness.  Once on the road, we had to figure out where downtown Isoka was (it turned out to be about 8 km north of the main road) and search for the immigration office.  Immigration was housed in a tiny, unmarked office that was unmanned, but the police gave us the number of the immigration officer so that we could set up a passport-stamping appointment for the following morning.  Downtown Isoka offered little more than diesel and a disappointing little not-so-supermarket, so we retreated out of town to camp at a little campground just north along the main road.  We negotiated the price down to 70 kwacha (US$7) for the two of us, cooked up some supper and turned in to sleep quite early.  Just as we were about to go to bed, President Lungu’s election truck, the one we had met along the track in the morning, arrived at the campground.  It turned out that Lungu was going to attend a rally the following morning in Isoka.

We managed to get in and out of the Isoka immigration office the next morning quickly, before the Lungu roadshow closed the downtown area, but getting our car formally admitted to the country proved to be impossible.  The police told us that there was no customs office in Isoka, but that we could either process the car in Nakonde (100 km northeast, on the Tanzanian border, in the direction opposite to our route) or else in Chinsali, 100 km southwest.  We got a letter from the police saying that we had tried and failed to obtain the CIP (Customs Import Permit) in Isoka, just in case we were asked for the CIP at a police roadblock, then set off just as the police started closing roads in the downtown core. 

We roared down the highway, covering as many kilometres in an hour as it had taken almost an entire day two days previously, revelling in the ease of driving.  After 100 km we turned off into Chinsali and passed a series of new government buildings under construction.  It looked promising in terms of finding a good supermarket, refilling our LPG cooking gas cylinders and obtaining our CIP.  The promise was not fulfilled; Chinsali was one of the poorest, least well-supplied cities of our trip; we looked around hardware stores for something as simple as a washer (to help hold our battery in place) and failed utterly.  Chinsali was so poor that we didn’t spot a single Indian-owned shop, a single real supermarket or even a shop that sold beer.  LPG was out of the question, and the customs officials told us that they couldn’t help us get us a CIP, but that in Kapiri Mposhi (some 400 km towards Lusaka) we could certainly obtain one.  We got another letter for any police roadblocks, then gave up on Chinsali and drove south towards Shiwa Ngandu, our first sight to see.  As we headed out of town, we ran into President Lungu’s election caravan for the third time in two days, with huge crowds lining the road to cheer the big man.

Shiwa Ngandu and Kapishya Hot Springs:  Bathed in Loveliness

Stanley at Shiwa Ngandu
It took us another 140 km of great pavement to reach the turnoff for Shiwa, and then another 13 km of reasonable gravel to reach the utterly unexpected sight of an English country manor house transplanted to the wilds of northern Zambia.  It was the life’s work of a remarkable man, Stewart Gore-Brown, a classic upper-class Brit with a taste for remote places, very similar to Wilfred Thesiger.  He arrived at Shiwa Ngandu in the 1920s and tried to make a go of a commercial farm there.  It never really paid for itself, but Gore-Brown ended up falling in love with Zambia and feeling very attached to its people.  He ended up as one of the leading politicians in pre-independence Northern Rhodesia and favoured black rule, unlike many of his fellow white politicians.  He ended up befriending Kenneth Kaunda, the first post-independence president of Zambia, who said of Gore-Brown that “you have a white skin, but a black heart.”  We drove into the estate, now run by Charlie Harvey, Gore-Brown’s grandson, along a ceremonial driveway of towering eucalyptus trees, and wandered around discreetly, peering over the fence at the main house, an imposing brick baronial pile.  There are guided tours of the main house, but they are in the morning, so we were outside visiting hours and contented ourselves with looking from afar.  My friend and former colleague Nathalie, at whose house we stayed in Lusaka, is related to the family by marriage (Charlie’s wife is her aunt) and has visited several times.  I read most of Black Heart, Joseph Rotberg’s biography of Gore-Brown, during our stay in Lusaka in early July and was motivated to get out to see the place.
Local children at Shiwa Ngandu
We bought some fresh beef and some impala from the farm shop, then drove another 20 rutted kilometres to Kapishya Hot Springs, our home for the next three nights.  On the way we ran into yet another Lungu rally (although the president himself wasn’t at it), and finally managed to score a pair of election T-shirts for ourselves.  Kapishya was part of the original Gore-Brown estate and is now run by Charlie Harvey’s brother Mark, a well-known figure in Zambian wildlife tourism.  We fell in love with the place almost immediately because of its riverside campsite, its feeling of remoteness, its birdlife and (most importantly) the hot springs themselves.  I have visited many, many hot springs, both in Japan and in a dozen or more countries around the world, and these are the first ones outside Japan that have rivalled Japanese onsens for class, cleanliness, setting and beauty.  A big outdoor pool with a sandy bottom has been dammed in a small stream, with hot water bubbling up from below into the pool.  Terri and I spent hours lounging in the springs in the mornings, late afternoon and evening. It was a great spot for birdwatching, with lots of birds swooping across the opening in the trees above the hot pool, and for stargazing after dark.

It was hard to put our finger on what felt so good about lounging around in Kapishya.  Part of it was the old-world charm of the gardens of the lodge (next door to the campsite).  Part of it was the feeling of great remoteness, of being well and truly out in the wilderness.  Part of it was the people whom we met, both the other travellers and the staff at the lodge, including a couple of volunteers who were working there for a few weeks or months.  One of them, Zega, a 23-year-old Belgian, was a Zambia connoisseur, having explored almost every corner of the country over the course of half a dozen family trips to Zambia.  We also met a Kiwi couple with a South African friend who had lots of tips for us for our future travels. 

Ross' turaco, Kapishya
We were almost out of LPG, so we cooked almost exclusively on the open fire while we were at Kapishya.  There were some efficient cooking stoves designed by an NGO that made simmering a stew much easier than on an open fire.  We concocted an amazing impala curry one night that was one of the best meals of our trip so far, and made some great pancakes as well.  Gazing out over the river, watching birds soar overhead as food cooked on our fire, we felt like we were right where we wanted to be, deep in the heart of South-Central Africa.  We didn’t see any large game (there are probably too many villages in the area for there to be too many animals close to Kapishya) but the birdlife was excellent.  Our favourite of the birds we spotted was Ross’ Turaco, a spectacularly-coloured bird that hangs out in the gardens of the lodge, although the palm-nut vulture was another big, spectacular bird.

We went for runs both afternoons that we were in Kapishya, out through the scattered miombo woodland that covers so much of Zambia.  We didn’t see any wildlife, but it felt good to be out in the woods, and to see some of the villages in the surroundings.  Both Kapishya and Shiwa Ngandu employ quite a few local people (particularly Shiwa) and support local schools, but these villages are still pretty poor in material terms, with some not-very-fruitful subsistence agriculture and large families.  I attracted lots of kids who tried to run along with me, but luckily I was faster than them in the long run and eventually left them behind.

Kasanka:  In the Land of the Sitatunga

Terri shopping in a roadside market
All good things must come to an end, and after our third night, on the morning of Sunday, July 31st we decided to push on towards our next destination, Kasanka National Park.  We retraced our path back to the T2, where we bought prodigious quantities of fruit and vegetables from roadside vendors for about US$ 7, along with diesel, beer and a bottle of Teacher’s whisky.  We then drove down towards Lusaka, past the turnoff to Mutinondo Wilderness, a destination that sounds wonderful, but which we decided to leave for our next visit to Zambia (sometime in the new year).  We made it to the junction of the T2 with the big north-south highway (the D235), turned right and headed north a further 55 km to the gate of Kasanka National Park, where we paid for our park permits and headed into the park.

Puku, Kasanka 
Kasanka is a small park that was once, like many Zambian national parks, essentially abandoned.  In the early 1990s a private organization of Zambian wildlife enthusiasts,  the Kasanka Trust, took over its management and has since completely rehabilitated it, building up wildlife numbers and its accommodation facilities.  We drove to the Lake Wasa Lodge, where we paid for our camping (very steep at US$20 per person per night) and watched some of the waterbirds that were gathered on the lake, including some new species for us:  the spur-winged goose, the coppery-tailed coucal and the yellow-billed kite, all of them to feature again and again over the next 6 days.  We drove past the Fibwe Hide, described in our guidebook as the best place to see sitatunga antelope, but utterly bereft of them this time.  The hide is high up a large mahogany tree, necessitating a long climb up a rickety wooden ladder.  Fibwe is really used in November and December to observe the world’s largest bat migration when some 7 million large fruit bats gather for 6 weeks of feeding and mating before dispersing to parts unknown.  This bat gathering is the biggest attraction of Kasanka, and it is when visitor numbers are highest.  When we were in the park, there were two other groups of tourists other than us, so we essentially had the place to ourselves. 
Kasanka puku

Stanley camped at Pontoon Camp, Kasanka
We stayed at Pontoon Camp, the best-known of the four campsites in the park, and it was a great place to sleep, as it should have been given the price! As soon as we arrived, camp attendants appeared to kindle two roaring fires (one for cooking, and one for sitting around) while, across the water of a small pool, some sitatunga antelope, one of the shyest ungulate species, emerged from the shelter of some papyrus reeds to graze.  In most places sitatunga will flee at the first sight of people, but here at Pontoon Camp they more or less ignore humans.  They are dark animals, richly flecked with white, with impressive spiral horns on the males.  Some puku, another antelope species rather reminiscent of the impala (although stockier in build and with heavier horns), also came by to graze along with a family of cute little bushbuck, while waterbirds such as jacanas, egrets and yellow-billed ducks completed the wildlife picture.  We had a spectacular sunset over the water, and I realized that Venus, Mercury and Jupiter were all visible close to the horizon after sunset, while Mars and Saturn were directly overhead.  We have been watching the intricate dance of the planets ever since, observing how their relative positions shift, quite rapidly in the case of Venus and Mercury, night after night.  It was a warm, pleasant evening and we sat outside after a three-course meal listening to cicadas, monkeys settling in for the night, sitatunga calling to each other, hippos grunting contentedly and, in the not-so-great distance, an elephant.  It was one of our absolute favourite wilderness campsites, and felt very primeval and far from modern city life.
Sitatunga doe, Kasanka
The next day we got up at 6:15 and had a quick cold breakfast while taking photos of sitatunga in the morning mist.  I really liked the white highlights on their dark bodies:  their ears, tail and the tips of the males’ horns.  I also ran into a shy duiker who ran off as soon as he saw me.  By 7:30 we had pulled Stanley’s roof down and set off on a game drive.  Kasanka is a small park, but has quite a lot of variety of plant life, from dense miombo grassland to seasonally flooded grassland plains (dambos, in the local parlance) to dense papyrus thickets lining the rivers.  We drove off towards a dambo, Chikufwe, where we had been told a herd of sable antelope, a species I had not yet seen, lived.  We bumped along a pretty rough track through the woods until we emerged onto a flat short-grass plain lined by a profusion of short, thin termite mounds; apparently the termites build these to have a dry place to retreat to in the floods that arrive with the November rains.  We saw lots of puku grazing contentedly, but where were the sables?  We got out of the car and scanned the horizon carefully until Terri spotted them, a couple of kilometres away on the other edge of the clearing.  We counted at least 30 of them, but as we drove around the edge of the dambo, they saw us and got spooked, running into the woods and out of sight.  Search as we might, the dense bush hid them completely, and we eventually gave up the search. 
Sitatunga buck, Kasanka
We drove off to Luwomba Lodge, in the northwest of the park, hoping to do some canoeing.  Both the canoes were out being used by the Czech group who were staying next to us at Pontoon, so we sat and cooked up some tea, eggs over easy and toast to go with the avocadoes and tomatoes we had bought the day before, using up almost the very last dregs of our gas in doing so.  It was a pretty place to wait, looking out over a sizeable river frequented by herons and kingfishers.  By about 11 am, the Czechs were back and we had scored the only real bargain of Kasanka, the use of a canoe for 3 hours for a mere US$10.  We paddled up the river, deeply incised into the sandy plain, watching for kingfishers.  We were not disappointed, spotting malachite, pied, African pygmy and grey-headed, the last two new species for us.  We also saw a profusion of Bohm’s bee-eaters, a riot of primary colours in the trees.  It felt very wild, and we enjoyed the freedom of being away from the sound of car engines, the only noise the sound of our paddles slicing into the water.  The light through the trees on the water was beautiful, a dappled mix of sun and shadow, and we floated contentedly back downstream, happy with our quiet commune with nature.

Terri canoeing in Kasanka National Park
We drove back via Chikufwe again, but this time the sables were nowhere to be seen.  We headed to Kabwe, having heard that Cape clawless otters were to be seen there, but when we got to the camp, the park ranger said that we had been misinformed.  We drove back to Pontoon from there along a narrow strip of golden grassland full of puku.  We were back by 4 o’clock and Terri created a delicious lentil curry on the open fire while I showered and sat watching the rich birdlife on the river and its banks:  jacanas, glossy ibis, yellow-billed ducks, blacksmith lapwings, pied kingfishers, red-necked spurfowl, reed cormorants and African darters.  The late afternoon light was magical, as was the sunset over the reeds.  We admired the planets again and then I sat out learning how to enter GPS waypoints into our car navigation system and playing guitar under a canopy of brilliant stars. 
Water plants, Kasanka
Tuesday, August 2nd began with an early getaway, almost without breakfast, as we headed back to Chikufwe for one more try at seeing the sable antelope up close.  It was a futile effort, but we realized that in the previous 18 hours since our last visit, a rampaging elephant had torn down at least 10 large trees along the track, eventually forcing us to turn back.  Back at Wasa Lodge we talked to Harry, a young Brit from Kasanka Trust who was glad to receive intelligence of the whereabouts of an angry, injured elephant whose trunk was painfully caught in a snare; that very day a vet was flying up from Lusaka to tend to it.  We also learned that Shoebill Island Camp, the place we had planned to stay at the Bangweulu Wetlands, was in the process of closing down, but that we would be able to camp nearby at Nsobe.  We drove back out to the asphalt of the D235 a bit unsure of what we would find out there at Bangweulu.

Bangweulu Wetlands:  Livingstone’s Grave and the Land of the Shoebill

White stork at Bangweulu.
We drove 10 km north, then turned right and onto a gravel road that led 25 km through densely spaced villages full of begging children to the final resting place of David Livingstone.  The great explorer had expired here in 1873, 18 months after his famous encounter with Henry Morton Stanley at Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika.  Livingstone was trying to untangle the river systems of Central Africa and was trying to figure out whether the Luapula River which flows through the wetlands flowed out into the Zambezi, the Congo or even the Nile.  He died in this remote spot leaving the question unanswered, which was the reason that Stanley came back to Africa to settle the mystery of the Luapula.  It seems strange to me that as good a geographer as Livingstone would have thought that there was any chance that the Luapula flowed into the Nile, but Stanley solved the problem by following the Luapula downstream for months and showing that it became the Congo River.  His trip was desperately difficult and dangerous, and it led indirectly to the establishment of the Congo Free State and all the horrors that King Leopold inflicted on the region.  I wonder how history would have been different if Livingstone had survived long enough to do the Luapula trip himself.
The forbidden fruit:  Livingstone Memorial from afar

After 25 uneventful kilometres we arrived at the monument, a simple stone marker that shows where Livingstone’s heart and internal organs were buried before his faithful followers Sussi and Chuma pickled the rest of the body and carried it all the way back to the coast at Bagamoyo.  I was looking forward to a bit of quiet communion with the spirit of the great man, but it was not to be.  The grave has been declared a National Monument, meaning that the price of admission is US$15 per person, a huge price for something that takes about one minute to see.  We argued the point with the ticket lady who was not impressed when we turned on our heels and returned to the car rather than pay up; she pursued us, berating us for being cheapskates and ostentatiously taking down our license plate number.  We drove away, unimpressed with the grasping behaviour of the Zambian government and cursing the ticket lady.

The "road" to Bangweulu
We had planned to drive as far as Lake Waka Waka, a handy place to camp before the long slog to the Bangweulu Wetlands the next day.  We made our way along a deteriorating dirt track, through a series of villages in which all the children ran to the road to beg and eventually ran into a grass fire that had us beating a rapid retreat until the flames abated.  No sooner had we gotten through the fire than we encountered a boggy river crossing, just short of Lake Waka Waka.  We didn’t get out to scout the crossing, and this turned out to be a serious error, as we promptly dropped a fairly long way off the road and got ourselves completely mired in the mud with our undercarriage firmly anchored.  We tried to drive out but only succeeded in digging ourselves in deeper.  We got out the high-lift jack and the spade and set to work trying to excavate ourselves, but the more we dug and jacked, the less we got ourselves free of the bog.  Finally, after several hours of effort, we did what we should have done immediately and Terri cycled off on her bike to the camp (which we knew from the GPS was only 3 km away), while I stayed with the vehicle.  It took a long time for her to return, and in the meantime the sun set.  I kept trying to get out, but futility still reigned.
Our rescue squad at Lake Waka Waka
Finally Terri came back in the pitch black, followed by 5 locals armed with a pickaxe and a wood axe.  They set to work with alacrity and in about an hour and a half we had managed to jack Stanley’s rear wheels up high enough (using a nifty jack extension that Etienne, the former owner, had been far-sighted enough to buy) to put a lot of logs underneath; the axes came in handy in trimming the logs to fit, while the pickaxe and spade were used to excavate under the car.  Eventually Terri climbed into the driver’s seat while the rest of us pushed mightily and Stanley roared free of the mud and out the other side of the crossing.  We cheered mightily, gathered up all the bits and pieces of equipment we could find (except for a rubber mallet that disappeared mysteriously) and set off for the camp, giving lifts to a couple of our helpers on the running board and in the cramped confines of the back seat, while the other three rode bicycles.  We were bone-tired when we got into Lake Waka Waka campground, but we still managed to heat up some stew and rice over the fire, acutely aware that we had barely eaten since we had gotten up.  We paid each of our rescuers 50 kwacha (US$ 5), grateful that we weren’t spending the night in the swamp, and they seemed satisfied with the money.
Terri and Jackson at Nsobe Camp
We slept well and woke up to beautiful scenery the next morning, with nice light on the lake surface and lots of birds.  We paid 100 kwacha per person, rather excessive for the limited facilities, had a decent breakfast and set off by 9:30 after repairing the damage of the night before (we had knocked a hinge on a back compartment door loose, and had to remove the broken rivets and replace them with zip ties) and washing the horrible-smelling mud off all our rescue gear.  Terri drove us along a track that veered from wonderful to horrific and back again; there was a section in the densely settled middle which had been properly graded and engineered, while other bits more closely related the M14 to Muyombe.  By 2 pm we had traversed the last of the endless series of villages with their begging children (who also tried to jump up on the back of Stanley, much to our annoyance) and emerged from the woods into the endless flat short-grass plains.  We parked Stanley at Nsobe campsite, a bargain at 50 kwacha per person per night, then got on our bicycles and rode over towards the wetlands conservation office at Chikuni to find out what the deal was in terms of going to look for the shoebill, the rare and prehistoric-looking bird for which the wetlands are famous.
Bangweulu smoke-aided sunset

The Bangweulu wetlands are pretty dry this year, thanks to the epic drought, and it was easy riding over a flat, dry plain.  Pretty soon we spotted shapes on the horizon which soon resolved themselves into hundreds of black lechwe, another antelope species which we had never seen before.  They were magnificent creatures with big sweeping horns on the males, and they were massed in huge numbers around us; it was faintly odd cycling through such a huge herd of animals.  We also spotted ten white storks and got some good photos of them flying.  At Chikuni we met Carl, a South African biologist working for African Parks, another private organization rehabilitating wildlife areas in Africa, and found out the deal.  For 200 kwacha per group (US$ 20), we could have as many guided tours into the swamps as necessary to find the elusive shoebill.  We arranged that we would be back the next morning and cycled back across the plains, scaring up clouds of pratincoles.
Black lechwe, Bangweulu

The view from camp was magical and a little alarming, with huge grassfires raging on the horizon, filling the sky with smoke and making us wonder what would happen if the winds shifted and sent the fire in our direction.  The campsite at Nsobe is widely spaced, so that we were barely aware of our neighbours.  Each campsite is on one of the huge ancient termite mounds that rise slightly above the plain and provide a spot for big shade trees to grow.  Again we had a big open fire to cook over, while another wood fire provided hot water for showers for all the campers.  We watched an impressive fireball sunset, made more dramatic by all the smoke on the horizon, then ate and sat out under the infinite dome of the night sky, sipping whisky and listening to the nearby yelps of hyenas.  If Pontoon Camp at Kasanka was a perfect waterside campsite, Nsobe was a perfect open plain campsite.  We went to bed excited about the prospect of seeing shoebills the next morning.
People silhouetted against grassfire smoke, Nsobe

Shoebills are weird-looking, rare, hard-to-spot birds that rank high on the list of must-see species in central Africa for keen birders.  I had first heard of the bird while reading my Lonely Planet guidebook, and a subsequent conversation with our Lusaka friend Vicky heightened our desire to see this bird.  We looked up the shoebill in a YouTube clip from a David Attenborough nature special and were captivated (and slightly repelled) by what we saw.  We knew that we had to see this bird in the wild, and hence the long (160 km) slog off the main road to Nsobe. 

Terri and a reed fishermen's shelter, Bangweulu
We were excited on the morning of Thursday, August 4th as we woke up early and got on our bicycles for the 8 km pedal across the plains to Chikuni.  Once there we realized that we were sharing the trip with a South African couple, Ben and Suzanne, who had arrived at Nsobe the night before.  It took a little while for them to pay and do the paperwork for the trip, but by 7:45 we were walking away from Chikuni in the company of two guides from Nsobe campsite towards the spot where one of the two resident shoebills had been spotted the day before.  It was a long walk to get there, mostly across short-grass plains, but eventually the path led to the papyrus marshes on the banks of a small river.  As we walked along, there were dozens of other bird species to be seen, including various species of kingfisher, heron and egret and lots of Bohm’s bee-eaters.  We splashed across shallow streams and balanced on mats of floating vegetation to get across deeper water.
Poling through the reeds, Bangweulu
Yellow-billed kites beat across the marshes, searching out easy prey, as we trudged deeper into the marshes, past the simple reed shelters built by local fishermen.  It felt very timeless; we could almost have been characters in a scene carved in an Egyptian Old Kingdom tomb, out fishing and birding in the Nile marshes.  We asked directions from a group of fishermen and they gladly dropped what they were doing and splashed out to join us.  They were fishing for boba, the primitive lungfish that lives in some profusion in the Bangweulu Wetlands and both provides a valuable export for the local community (well over a million US dollars is exported from the nearest village to the DRC every year) and constitutes the staple food of the shoebill.  They claimed to know the whereabouts of the shoebill, and we followed them on an obstacle course of tiny mokoros (dugout canoes), floating vegetation rafts and tall reeds.  At one point we encountered another group of fishermen and a long animated discussion ensued, with much head-scratching and casting around in various directions.
Fishermen's family, Bangweulu
 It turned out that the second group had scared away the shoebill from its usual roost in the hopes of earning tips from tourists (ie, us) by guiding us to the new roosting spot.  We had a few false starts in various directions before the joint efforts of the two parties of fishermen brought us to the banks of a broad pond.  We stared off into the distance, trying to make out a shoebill on the other bank, and suddenly there it was!  A huge grey bird stood half-concealed in the papyrus thicket, looking like a pterodactyl, its bill huge and its eyes creepy with their opaque eyelids. He was hard to see, buried as he was in the reeds.  Two of the fishermen waded across and tossed a fish in front of the shoebill, enticing him out, and after a few minutes he walked a few steps forwards into the light. We stood there for a quarter of an hour, studying the bird through our binoculars and taking photos with our telephoto lenses.  It was exhilarating to see the bird, one of fewer than 10,000 in the world, but we were slightly too far away to take decent pictures.  Was it possible to get closer?
We put the question to our guides, and they agreed that we could wade across.  Terri and I went first, wading thigh-deep through the water and then trying, with varying success, to float our weights on the floating mats of interlocked vegetation.  I sank through a couple of times, but managed to stay upright and keep the camera dry.  Eventually we came to a halt only 20 metres from the shoebill and paused to take much better close-up photos.  When we looked back, Suzanne was following in our footsteps, wading through the reeds and making it successfully to where we were standing.  Ben, being a big man, was dissuaded from following as he was certain to sink through the reeds to the bottom.  We stood looking at the shoebill, feeling like time travellers back to the Cretaceous period, watching him blink and turn his bill in various directions, trying to capture the perfect image. 

Boba lungfish, Bangweulu
Eventually it was time to return.  It was a long wet slog back to where we had left Ben and some of the fishermen, and then a much longer walk along a different route back to Shoebill Island Camp, featuring a mokoro crossing of the river made more complicated by the fact that there was only one pole in the boat.  Eventually we made it to Shoebill, where we found a truck and lots of Kasanka Trust employees packing up everything in the camp, including the toilets and the kitchen sinks, onto a huge truck to take to another national park.  We hitched a lift back to Chikuni, where we picked up our bikes and rode back to Nsobe.
After a tasty lunch of corn fritters, we were tired by our early wake-up call and the 10-kilometre swamp walk, so we took a little siesta up in Stanley until 4 pm.  When we got up, we showered and then Terri created a tasty lentil stew on the open fire.  As we were out of beer, I created whisky sour cocktails to mark the sunset, another dramatic smoke-layered fireball, before we tucked into the lentils with gusto.  After supper we went across to Ben and Suzanne’s campsite for champagne and conversation with them and with Carl, the African Parks biologist.  We sat around the campfire, watching the southern stars dance overhead and swapping stories late into the night.  We went to bed satisfied and content after a perfect day of wildlife watching.

Campfire pancakes
The next morning we slept until 7:30, tired by our late night and long day.  We got up, made pancakes on the open fire, did laundry and then set off on bikes to pay for an extra night at Nsobe at the Chikuni office.  It was a great bike ride across the huge plain, scaring up clouds of collared pratincoles.  We bought some delicious local honey at the office, watched a massive martial eagle swoop down in pursuit of the rangers’ chickens,  then biked off towards the treeline in search of the elusive tsessebe.  We struck out on tsessebe, but ran across a group of ten wattled cranes, a species that is very rare in much of its range but thrives in the Bangweulu Wetlands.  I got great shots of the cranes in flight and then biked back to Nsobe in high spirits to try our hands at baking using an open fire.  Jackson, the boss of Nsobe campsite, had excavated a small hole in the clayey soil to act as an oven and found a couple of sheets of scrap corrugated iron,   We stoked up the campfire and then transferred the coals, along with some charcoal, to the hole to heat up our bush oven, covered with the corrugated iron and another layer of coals.  The oven worked brilliantly, and Terri was able to cook up an exquisite lasagne in it. 

Bangweulu fisherman
We sat around drinking our last beer and some leftover corn fritters while the lasagne cooked.  I downloaded the photos from my camera to my laptop and suddenly saw a strange error message.  By the time I realized what was happening (a virus was eating up my photos one by one), all the photos from the previous two days were gone:  the shoebill, the wattled cranes, the black lechwe herds, the white storks.  I was devastated, and sat there in saddened shock for a long time.  As we ate our lasagne, we talked about what to do.  We decided that we would go out in search of shoebills again the following morning before we drove out of Bangweulu.  We went to bed saddened by the technological failure, but excited to go out in search of the shoebill again.

Cormorant, Bangweulu
The following morning, Saturday August 6th, we got up early again and this time we pulled down Stanley’s roof and drove to Chikuni.  This time there were no other tourists, and with only Terri and I in the party, we moved pretty quickly out towards the shoebill.  This time the guides had a pretty good idea where the bird was going to be, and it took only an hour and twenty minutes to get to its hideout, almost exactly where it was two days previously.  We got even better photos this time, with the shoebill walking and even flying briefly, and by 9:40 we were on our way back to Stanley with two separate photo cards of images of the iconic bird.  By 11:00 we were in the mokoro across the river to Shoebill Island Camp, and by 11:30 we were in Stanley driving across the plain in search of wattled cranes and white storks.  We got great pictures of the huge black lechwe herds and of the white storks, along with a few wooly-necked storks, but we struck out on the wattled cranes.  By noon we were back in Nsobe, saying goodbye to Jackson and the other Nsobe staff, and headed back along the track, exultant at having seen the shoebill a second time.

Guide, fisherman, Terri and assistant guide (in Lungu T-shirt)
The retreat to the D235 was remarkably straightforward.  We took turns driving, and since we knew what was coming up, it was much easier driving than on the way out.  We managed to make it the 160 km back to the main road without incident, driving smoothly through the mud wallow that had swallowed us whole on the way out.  We even found the missing mallet beside the mud hole, its wooden handle blackened by a grassfire that had swept over since we had last passed.  We got to the main road before dark, even after stopping to reflate the tires that we had deflated on the way out to handle the sandy stretches.  We weren’t sure where to stop for the night, but an inspired guess saw us stop at the Kasanka National Park gate and beg for a place to sleep.  The guards let us camp for free just behind the park gate barrier, and we slept deeply, full of leftover lasagne and tired by another long, fulfilling day.

Black sparrowhawk, Bangweulu
The following day, Sunday August 7th, saw us drive a long but uneventful day along the deliciously smooth asphalt of the T2 into Lusaka, past the closed customs offices of Kapiri Mposhi, to the familiar confines of Nathalie’s house.  It felt strange to be leaving behind the wilds of northern Zambia where we had seen so many wonderful wild animals and unforgettable landscapes and sunsets, and we were acutely aware that we might never pass that way again.  It had been a wonderful 12 days in northern Zambia, and while we looked forward to the creature comforts of the big city, we already missed the wide-open spaces and perfect campsites of the north.

Terri cycling in Bangweulu