Monday, July 29, 2013

South Luangwa National Park, Part I

On Thursday evening, I went to the cinema with the Canadian comrades, Jen and Jess, where we saw World War Z (pronounced ‘Zed’ down here, of course).  It was good, but not as good, I’ve been assured by aficionados, as the book of the same name.  The following morning, granting myself an escape from the archives after two months of toil, unmitigated by fresh air or a journey beyond Lusaka’s edges, I started my trip up to Mfuwe, the gateway town to the South Luangwa National Park, Zambia’s preeminent park and tourist destination.  My original plan had been to go by road (which involves a journey to Chipata near the Malawian border, and thence to Mfuwe), but my time in Lusaka evaporating and a fresh batch of files calling, I decided I couldn’t spare the extra days.

At Lusaka airport, there was a school group being given a tour.  I don’t know which hidden recesses of the airport they were shown around, but from their perspective, the highlight of the trip was the fountain in the middle of the waiting area.  A close second was an elderly white gentleman awaiting his flight, with whom all forty of the children solemnly shook hands as they filed by.

There were about 18 people on the flight to Mfuwe, which looked like an audition for “Out of Africa”, people laden with safari clothing, massive cameras, piles of luggage, and their best Karen Blixen or Robert Redford airs.  Flying domestically in Zambia is pretty low key.  Nobody asked for ID, people meandered in and out through the metal detector to use the toilet whilst waiting, the machine beeping away. 

The flight north took one hour—the same journey by road would require a day and a half of travelling—and passed over fairly undifferentiated terrain until we neared the Muchinga escarpment, which forms the western boundary of the Luangwa Valley.  Soon, we saw the Luangwa River itself, its considerable breadth demarcated by sandy banks as in the dry season it was reduced to a narrow, meandering course lined by hundreds of yards of sand bank. 

At Mfuwe, I was met by Geoff from Flatdogs camp, and we drove through a series of villages that comprise outer Mfuwe on our way to the park boundary.  There were small thatched huts alongside the narrow tar road, the edges of which had been eaten away by the decades since it was laid down in the ‘70s, and by the rains which every October or November begin their work of redefining Zambia’s landscape.  Now, the area looked bone dry aside from fields of cabbage, palm, and some maize.  Like everywhere in Zambia, the air here was hazy, partly from the dust, and partly from smoke from controlled burns.  The shops lining the road were eclectic in their nomenclature.  One that stood out was the Obama Pub!!! (exclamation points in the original).

Another was an eatery called “Don’t Kubeba”, which requires some explanation.  In 2011, the ruling party MMD lost the election to the underdog PF campaign.  In the absence of access to the state apparatus and deep party coffers, PF waged what many considered a clever campaign based around the “Don’t kubeba” slogan, roughly “don’t tell”.  This suggested that people should feel free to benefit from the largesse MMD tossed around, and didn’t need to profess their support for PF out in the open where state agents could see them, but that in private they should support PF, and on polling day should cast their vote for the populist party.  Eastern Province has never been kind to the new government at the polls, and recent by-elections indicate that PF might be losing some steam.

We arrived uneventfully at the camp, situated outside of the park on the boundary of the Luangwa River which forms the eastern border of massive conservation area.  After signing the “If I get killed by an elephant on the way home from dinner I had it coming” clause, I went off to my tent.  Being unfenced, and just a hundred yards from the water in the middle of the mostly-dry riverbed, the camp does see its fair share of animals.  At night, it seems to be comedy hour, as hippos chortle and guffaw through the small hours, their bellows echoing up and down the banks.  They come out to feed, and wander amongst the tents, as do giraffes, and during the daytime, monkeys and mongooses. 

The real worry, of course, were the elephants, which wander at will through the camp at all hours of the day.  I spend my days reading about all the various ways an elephant can kill you, and so don’t like encountering them up close (not helped by an uncomfortable descent through elephant-riddled bamboo forests on Mount Kenya).  I had a dozen escape routes planned for the walk back to the tent from the eating area, in case I should have stumbled upon elephants, several of which were overly optimistic for the acrobatics they would have required after months of sedentary living, slouched in front of my files in the archives. 

In the late afternoon, with a family from Baltimore and Omaha, I went out on a game drive, led by Robbie.  We passed into the park, over a bridge, and into the afternoon sun.  South Luangwa is a massive park, over 5,000 square kilometres in area.  But for some historical contingencies, it would be nearly twice the size.  Although Kafue National Park was Northern Rhodesia’s first park, South Luangwa (gazetted as a formal reserve in 1939 and as a National Park in 1971), was where both the colonial administration and Zambia’s independent government directed most of its efforts.  In terms of tourism, management, and development, the Luangwa Valley was always believed to be the “crown jewel” where wildlife in Zambia was concerned.

The North Luangwa National Park is separated from its southern counterpart which preservationists had once hoped to combine by a strip known as the Munyamadzi corridor.  Although people throughout the parks were forced from their lands to make way for their gazetting, too many people who were too grounded in their land lived in the Corridor.  Despite the efforts of the colonial and independent governments, people were able to resist efforts to force them from their lands.  In other parts of the park, people who live in the Game Management Areas—successors to the colonial-era Controlled Hunting Areas—retain some rights to fish on the rivers.  I’ve run across many a document describing game rangers trying to get convictions against poachers and fishers and the judge delving into extensive water law to determine whether the offence occurred on the near or far side of the river’s centre—and how in fact one goes about determining the centre of a river!

On our drive, we saw a great deal of wildlife, both in grassy bush, mopane woodland, and on the massive, shallow lagoons which in the wet season extend into the park from the river, but which this time of year are largely dry plains, surfaces greenish from well-cropped grass.  Herds of puku and impala, interspersed with warthogs, zebra, and waterbuck particularly like these open areas, which deny predators sufficient cover for the short dash both lions and leopards require to secure their prey.

Herds of elephant wander blithely through any terrain.  Giraffes prefer more wooded areas, as they browse from trees.  Hippos lounge in or on the banks of the Luangwa and its muddy tributaries before lumbering out to forage at night.  We were particularly fortunate to see a leopard right at the edge of the river, silhouetted against a mud flat, where it seemed to be staring into the water before slinking up the bank and into the bush. 

That evening, crickets provided the instrumentals, hippos the vocals, and elephants the percussion, their rumbling, almost purring sounds coming perilously close to the tents.

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