Liuwa plains is one of the great and remote wildlife destinations but it is seasonal as the big animal movement coincides with the wet season. The game migrates from Angola down onto the plains in November/December when the first summer rains revitalize the grazing. In May /June, at the end of the wet season, there is an abundance of birds. Both of these events are widely rumored to be spectacular. We were arriving most definitely in dry season so did not really know what to expect but still felt a keen sense of anticipation and excitement.
One of the peculiarities of Liuwa plains is the unusual light. There are frequent veld fires and smoke and dust hang heavy on the horizon. We could not understand why we were always late getting up for sunrise and why we seemed never to see the sun set. Then one day we were looking across the plains and realised the sun did not set or rise, but just appeared in the sky suddenly at about 20 degrees above the horizon. It reappeared above, or sunk below, the layer of dust without trace in a matter of seconds. This meant the golden hours were considerably shorter than usual. I am sure the rains wash the dust away abruptly and that the quality of the light changes dramatically in that season.
The step off point for Liuwa is Mongu, the capital of the region. A bustling little town with a new Shoprite Centre and therefore an easy place to stock up. It is also the last fuel before the park. We were told of camping 10 km before Mongu but true to form, and no longer surprising, they were closed. We ended up in the centre of town. Greenview Lodge is run by the apostolic mission and described in glowing terms by T4A. It was reached by a precarious narrow sand road with precipitous drops on either side and they welcomed us and showed us a sparse lawn to camp on and opened a disused chalet for us to use the bathroom.
Again it was very run down. Several chalets looked ready to fall down and the gazebo roof was missing. Still it was welcome and we settled in and set the fire for spaghetti bolognese. Out of the gloom came George the night security. He homed in on us with so much enthusiasm he was hard to resist. Before we knew it he was happily established on a stool around the fire. He was certainly a chatty one. No sooner had he introduced himself than he told us how good Shoprite is and how cheap things in South Africa are and would we mind sending him a camera. We were a bit speechless at this but tried to persuade him it was not cheap in SA. He was not discouraged. Dudley then tried to explain he would need a computer for processing his pictures and his eyes lit up, clearly envisioning this being added to the package.
Taking out his cell phone he told us plaintively what a problem he had with an old phone that had no ability to act as Internet. By this time we could see the cogs turning in his head but with a depreciating little laugh he assured us it did not do to ask for too many things at once. Apparently that classified as rude in this bizarre process. We tried to find out more about him. He said he used to work for G4S, the big multinational security agency, and he liked that because he got tea and coffee and snacks. He was 53 and has 5 children which he found very expensive. Sounds familiar! Birth control is a poorly understood concept.
Anyway food was now ready and before you could blink George was firmly ensconced with his feet under the table and a plate in hand. He became lyrical when given a spork to eat with, and announced it was a gift. It took a while to persuade him to give it back. He disappeared briefly to bring us his postal address and then tucked into coffee until we shooed him away to go to bed. We locked up well that night as George could be seen patrolling the perimeter! Still, do you know what I find funny? Despite the fact the whole episode was clearly surreal and ridiculous, I can't help thinking of him waiting for the post in anticipation of our package and feeling, well, guilty at his disappointment. Perhaps we should send him a Nikon!
Mongu town proved to be vibrant and welcoming. There was a remarkable over supply of old and rusting land rovers. A good place for spares Bruce! We stepped into the market to look around. As with most markets it was ramshackle, colourful and noisy. Bob Marley playing in the background. Lots of traditional print materials.
Many people, mostly men, were working with old peddle powered singer sewing machines and were happy to pose for pictures. One guy was making all the school uniforms. Another area was mostly hair stylists and in the centre was a fish market with mainly dried fish, bream and barbel. We bought some deep fried rolls for breakfast, deep fried is a Zambian tradition! If you want to curry favour in Zambia bring cooking oil as a gift apparently. Reluctantly we left the cheerful bustle to continue the journey.
We had an option to go via the kings wet season palace, at Limulunga, or the newly completed Chinese tar road direct to Kalabo. Usually we would be up for the road less travelled but it was Saturday and visits at weekends cannot be sanctioned as the court and indunas do not sit at weekends and their permission is needed to approach the palace. The time to visit is during the festival when the king moves from his dry season home on the plains to his palace at Limalunga.
This occurs around March but it depends on the rains and some years does not happen at all so planning could be a problem. He travels on special ceremonial boats in full traditional regalia which he changes half way for a British admirals uniform complete with hat and feathers as this had been presented to him back in colonial days. It would surely be a compelling spectacle so maybe next time. The Chinese road it was then and pretty painless it was too although we hear it was a disaster when first built and had to be rebuilt. Not sure how many floods it will withstand.
Kalabo is the gateway to the park, a small collection of houses around the parks building. When we arrived it was deserted but the bush telegraph must have been working because 30 minutes later a young girl arrived on the back of a motorbike.
They only allow 25 vehicles into the park a day but we need not have worried. It seemed like we were the only ones there and sneaking a peak at the registration book I am not sure if they had 25 vehicles a year, let alone a day. We were able to book all the campsites without any problem.The cost is quite high, about $80 a day.
The entrance to the park is across a small rope powered pontoon. This is even necessary at the height of the dry season. The pontoon is powered by 2 men pulling ropes. It looked like a hard job but they made short work of pulling the beast across, as they did with a Bedford truck on the way back. We did meet some other travellers later in a modified camping unimog who had been turned back from the pontoon as they were too heavy or too big. It pays to stay small! The road out was thick sand which represented the rest of the terrain on the plains, sand and marsh.
And so began a fantastic 8 day stay where we meandered across Liuwa plains. We saw no other travellers and the only vehicles encountered were a nutrition program truck and the carnivore researchers on motorbikes. Bonus The plains are, as their name implies, a vast flat landscape with occasional stands of trees. Landmarks can be seen for miles.
One, a lone palm, is said to be visible for 40 miles. We certainly could see it from camp 12 kilometers away. It makes broad orientation easy. The camps are community run but the camp attendants are attentive and efficient and, although basic, they are clean and well positioned in shady stands of trees.
We passed through 3 or 4 villages to get to the the first camp, Kwele. Some are along the waterways and the people are swimming, washing and fishing in the scattered pools. The children come running for sweets and we dodged them with as much speed and grace as a potholed deep sand road allows before they tried to swing off the gas bottle. There are communities living throughout the park, mostly on the edges and river banks where they fish and cultivate cassava.
Kwele is about 18 km into the park. A pleasant camp under big trees with a thatched lapa, cold showers and flush toilets. The shower was occupied with many little bats hanging from the ceiling and shower head. I was disconcerted initially but then discovered they eat all the insects. Every shower and toilet should have some!
We were told buffalo are in the south section but we saw none. There were wildebeests dotted over the landscape and zebra and oribi in groups of 2-4. The wildebeest were all young males and were marking territory waiting for the females to come down in the migration. They excavated shallow hollows to lie in and it sometimes looked like someone has planted wildebeeste heads 50 -100m apart across the plain in a weird modern art statement reminiscent of Salvador Dali, worthy of the Tate Modern at least.
These are handsome wildebeest, very dark and with manes that stick up smartly, not like the rather hangdog boys at home. Periodically two would stand off, kick dust and hop around swinging their tails which is likely to be a territorial dispute but looks comical, rather like a Morris dance with tassels. I doubt any serious damage is done even when they lock horns.
Next day we moved to the next camp, Lyandu, in the west. We travelled up the eastern roads first and found some beautiful waterholes with crane and herons. Big zebra herds and more wildebeests and oribi. Even though not the main birding season the bird life is prolific. The waterholes are quite hard to find. They are shallow depressions in the vast flat landscape and so do not show up when scanning the horizon.
We learnt to read more subtle signs like a narrow strip of green in the yellow or a palm tree. Sometimes you see it only when you reach the very edge and sometimes it is a dry muddy hole and other times it is a small or larger pool surrounded by concentric rings of vibrant green and white sand and black mud. Some of the pools are crowded with birds and some empty.
Lyandu is also in a stand of trees on the edge of the plains with a spacious site and thatched lapa. No bats though and the toilets are a moz breeding ground. When you gingerly lower your bottom onto the toilet seat there is a loud and happy hum as millions of them step up to tattoo your nether regions with the word sucker.
Very much a cause for performance anxiety. Still we do what we must do. I am not sure what happens when you spray your genitals with tabard but I am tempted. At least it's not tetse fly. Yet. The hyena and night jars called and a huge hyena came into camp in the night for a mooch around. Glad we packed the plastic away.
Although Liuwa is a large area of African wilderness most of the big cats are uncommon. We suspect a large part of this is related to the killing of lions because of interaction with the local communities and stock theft. Also wildlife in the area of Angola, from which the game migrates, was adversely affected by the loss of game animals during the war with South Africa. What ever the reason, efforts to reestablish lions are still in their infancy and as a result the spotted hyena is the dominant and most numerous carnivore on the plains. And what hyena these are, some of the largest and most impressive we have ever seen.
Although we tend to view them as scavengers, spotted hyaena hunt 85% of their food and are very successful pack hunters. Here, where they have long held the top position, they appear more confident and clearly they are capable hunters. The carnivore research team told us they hunt the wildebeest as they are slower than zebra and will generally be successfully brought down after a 5-10 minute chase compared to up to 45 minutes for a zebra. They hunt mainly at night and in the day we often found them sleeping next to the waterholes in lazy exhaustion. We also found an active den and returned a few times to watch the pups playing next to a sleepy mum.
They do rightfully have a reputation for man eating but their attacks are usually opportunistic and sneaky. In the villages it is a problem in the hot weather when people may choose to sleep outside. They are readily habituated to humans and show little fear of entering camp and so when we hear them call it is time to pack up and retire to the safety of the roof top tent, especially as we were in awe of their impressive size in this area.
We were visited many times in the night by these shifty creatures but as the dry leaves were thick on the ground their approach was always heralded by crunching and appropriate warning. I would not like to be caught unaware
The bird life is fantastic. Even in low season. The cranes and herons were diverse, you couldsee whole pages from Roberts in one place. We saw big flocks of up to 50 wattled cranes and crowned cranes, many egrets, Grey heron, saddle bill sand yellow bill storks, and the pink backed pelican.
The raptors were equally impressive with fish eagle, tawny, bateleur and the red necked falcon as well as secretary birds and the mighty martial eagle. The fish eagles and bateleurs were usually just sitting at the waters edge, there are few trees to perch! The egrets caught frogs in the shallow pans. Marilou storks appeared in big flocks hoovering up the barbel stranded in the drying water holes.
There were many species of lark and pipit and distinguishing them was hard. We found the rufous naped, red capped and pink billed and, on one glorious morning, witnessed the eastern clapper lark performing his clapping dance.
Long claws, lapwings, plovers and ducks abound. Woodpeckers, flycatchers and parrots all frequent the camps. It is dizzying but suffice it to say you will improve your bird skills by leaps and bounds in just a few short days here. Imagine what it must be like in May and June. We are coming back.
This was our third camp and is roughly in the centre of the park giving access to the plains to both north and south and so quite a popular spot. Happily we were, however, still alone.The camp attendant and his buddy came to fetch us to come and look in the pump house where we found a lesser bush baby lying on the ground. Clearly sick with a swollen eye. Surprisingly they did not know what it was and were strangely afraid of him especially when he tried to jump around. These were common in the camp trees, very agile and mostly silent. We tried to give him water and an antibiotic but he was too far gone.
We tucked him in a tree but the end was inevitable and we buried him under a beautiful leadwood.
We were also helpfully told that a black mamba lived in the toilet and so in addition to spiders and mosquitos, had the additional chore of searching the nooks and crannies of the toilet with a torch every time nature called. Normally close inspection of bush toilets is a thing to be avoided but as the attendant anxiously reminded us about 3 times a day it seemed to be the prudent thing to do. I think he was worried he would loose his only guests. Happily the snake remained hidden.
We roamed far afield from Katayana although often lost on the poorly marked tracks. We returned through the villages on the river banks Finding roads can be a problem as many on the map do not exist. I think they are washed away each year in the flood and made new and slightly different each season. The people were friendly but they all wanted something. Cars are a rarity.
Around the settlements the setting is like paradise, large fields of green grass amid the golden grass and cassava, scattered pools, a few head of cattle . We parted with biscuits, water, a pen and gave an old man a lift but drew the line at chickens. If you wanted to bring something for the youth footballs would be very well received. The riverine roads had slightly different birds with wax bills and coucals and widow birds prolific.
Sikale is the northern most camp and the drive through the northern plains of pristine yellow grass was stunning. On the plains big herds of zebra and wildebeest were now passing through, up to 2000 head. Maybe the migration had started or this was the vanguard.
Whatever the reason it gave us a taste of the spectacle for which we were grateful. The herd eat, lie down and sometimes run and jumped as they move across the plains. The migration here has been described as more of an amble and maybe they are right. There was no sense of urgency.
By Miyanda pools a big herd of wildebeest gathered in some shallow swampy pools rolling and drinking and, as they pressed close together in a scramble, It looked almost like the Serengeti.As we moved north the water dried up and the game became sparse. Sikale is a small site with camping under a large Mobola-plum The camp overlooks the vast plains where drongos and bee eaters flit and fly and it is quite breathtaking.
We left the park through the north. There are no fences but the access to the north is constrained by river beds and gullies and the navigation a little tricky. In wet season it will be impassible but we negotiated the lumpy road through beautiful scenery to Lukulu and onwards to Kafue, our next destination.