Monday, June 11, 2012

Kafue National Park

Zambia is an enormous country, sparsely populated compared with the likes of Malawi and Uganda, and even Kenya and Tanzania, and the vast distances are rendered more formidable still by patchy road networks.  For those who don’t drive, the relative paucity of public transport to more out-of-the-way places makes getting around even more daunting. 

But not far from Lusaka, only three hours on the bus route out to Mongu, is the Kafue National Park.  The park, one of the continent’s largest (roughly the size of Massachusetts), sprawls over an enormous area, including the Kafue, Lunga and Lufupa rivers.  It takes approximately three hours to reach its edge by one of the big coaches that rattles its way out of Lusaka’s surprisingly organised (if not exactly pristine) bus stations, out past the industrial outskirts of the city, and into the bush.  Because there’s not much else out there.  There are a mere 13 million people living in Zambia, which is larger than Texas, and quite a few of them are in Lusaka.  Put another way, it’s over three times the size of Uganda, with barely over a third the number of people.

Other heavily settled areas are some distance apart.  One major population centre is in the copperbelt, to the north.  In the ‘20s, the same decade in which the British South African Company gave up the administration of the territory to the British government, copper was discovered, and ever since, most development in the colony that was Northern Rhodesia and the country that is Zambia has been geared towards the needs of the copperbelt.  The area was heavily settled, labour came in from all corners of Northern Rhodesia, and from beyond the colony’s borders.  In the late-1950s, an enormous dam was constructed on the Zambezi River which forms the southern border of Zambia, and the result was Lake Kariba, which flooded the Gwembe Valley, forcing 60,000 of its inhabitants to move.  Elsewhere, an illegal bush meat trade developed to provide food for those working in the mines, and this fuelled the poaching that early game departments sought to combat.

There are little more than a few villages (and a few more police checkpoints) on the way out to the Kafue National Park.  The dwellings in these are largely constructed of mud bricks, or occasionally cement.  The tin roofs are weighed down by large stones, to keep them from taking off in the strong winds that occasionally sweep across the fairly flat landscape.  I slept most of the way, and so missed out on the scenery. 

Even before entering the national park proper, there are signs that you’re in the proper bush.  A gangly hartebeest emerged from the two meter high dry grass and stood at the edge of the road, watching the massive coach come barrelling past.  A herd of zebra, nose to tail, paraded off the road and into the woodland beyond.  A troop of baboons was gambolling on the tarmac, and only fled into the undergrowth before the onrush of the coach at the last second. 

The park, like others in Zambia, is surrounded by a Game Management Area, which is still inhabited by people, and in which various tourist organisations have concessions.  Most offer fishing, game drives, bush walks, or hunting, or some combination of these activities. 

It is currently winter in Zambia.  It bears no resemblance to winters as they exist in California.  It is neither snowy as it would be in a Northern California winter, nor rainy as it would be in the Bay Area.  In fact, there has been no rain for well over a month, and there will likely be none until the end of October.  And there are no grey skies here.  Instead, they are brilliantly blue, scarcely a white cloud in sight.  The temperatures do not drop below freezing, but in the early mornings, when we set out into the park, they were only a couple of degrees above the freezing point.  The other seasonal indicators are the vegetation and light.  The grass is a golden brown, and many trees are losing their leaves.  Many remaining leaves are turning brown, orange or reddish.  All of this allows you to see deeper into the bush, through the Mopane forests, and across the banks of the Kafue River, which winds down one side off the park.  The light has an unmistakably wintry quality, particularly in the mornings and evenings, and animals, air, and vegetation alike assume a soft, golden hue.

The park is a place of extraordinary symmetry.  The millions of stalks of long grass swaying synchronously in the light breeze.  The slim heads of a herd of impala raised just above the grass, looking like a shoal of fish suspended above a golden sea, each pointing in the same direction, ears back, marble black eyes wide.  The young elephants, which mimic their mother’s warning, raising their tiny trunks at the same angle, telling us not to come a meter nearer.  The trees lining the Kafue River, all with what looks like the exact same lean over the water, providing shade for the hippos, crocodiles, monitor lizards and vervet monkeys which rest at its edge. 

But there is disjuncture as well.  The bodies of the impala are improbably perpendicular to the grass as they rocket away from danger—real or imagined.  The flat, smooth surface of the Kafue is broken by the rotund bulk of a hippopotamus or the leathery head of a crocodile.  And the controlled burns that are taking place in the park and the GMA send plumes of smoke into the blue sky, and ash spinning downwards, tracing irregular paths through the air.  These fires were more in evidence on the way back to Lusaka, where some of them were burning fiercely just beside the road, in the grass that grew right up to the tarmac, walling in the already-narrow motorway. 

Elephants are generally my favourite animals to watch, but in Kafue, the cats stole the show.  One morning, three young male cheetahs perched on an outcrop below a lonely tree.  At first they were motionless in the cold morning, but then they moved our way, and even playfully chased one another across the dirt track, one of them stalking a bird and bouncing after it, long limbs, lithe body and lolloping tail only suggesting at the speed it would turn on in serious pursuit of prey.  A nearby puku (an ubiquitous antelope species) barked in the cold air, its breath a white blast against the grass.

The next morning, following a spectacular sunset over the Kafue, was even colder, but in a tree-edged field, we caught a glimpse of a massive shape raising itself beneath one of the low trees, stunted by browsing elephant herds.  It was an enormous male lion, its already impossibly-large head framed by a glorious mane, which looked by turns dark and gold, depending on the light.  The lion eyed our vehicle for a moment and then, with an utterly contemptuous and equally unhurried movement, it rose to its feet and stalked heavily—for there was nothing sinuous about the movement—into taller grass, the early morning light flowing across its mane and coat, the mist hovering around its departing form.

It was hard to leave the serenity of the park, but even on the way back to Lusaka, we saw a large group of elephants by the road, several big ground hornbills hopping along the side of the road, and herds of puku and impala eyeing us nervously.  A couple of hours later we were negotiating some light Sunday traffic in the capital and making our way through the industrial suburbs into the quieter by-ways that lead back to Mulombwa Close...

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