On my final morning in South Luangwa, I joined another group for a final drive in the park. There are relatively few people in travelling in Zambia—as compared to East Africa for example—simply as tourists, and our car-load was no exception. There were two British teachers on an exchange in Kabwe, an Australian partnered with an NGO in Chipata, and two people working with the Zambian Carnivore Programme.
The ZCP folks were based at Liuwa Plains, a vast open space dominated by wildebeest and lechwe in the far west of Zambia, an area accessible only by pontoon or plane during the wet season. I knew some of their colleagues from Liuwa, and so was able to hear more about the research that the organisation does, its members based not only in Liuwa, but also in Kafue National Park and South Luangwa itself. The researcher was based in the ecology department at Montana State, and had been joined in her research by her husband who works for the Wilderness Society. They remarked that as beautiful as Liuwa is, it feels a bit isolated at times, and so they were keen to see another of Zambia’s national parks.
We followed the tracks of the lions from the night before, but never caught up with them. In a dried-out lagoons, bisected by one of the deep, narrow trenches along which leopards hunt, we saw two young male impalas, going at it hammer-and-tongs, the crashes as their horns beat and locked together ringing out over the lagoon bed and up the banks into the trees, sending word to predators that here were two animals who had let down their normally-sharp guard, and might be particularly vulnerable.
We enjoyed some of the bird life in the park (rollers, swallows, Bateleur eagles, a lovely lizard buzzard, some storks and ibises among other things), and stopped for tea and biscuits on the bank of one of the few lagoons still filled with water, now cut off from the main river. Hippos sent short, sharp blasts of water up into the air, and impala drank warily at the far bank, keeping a weather eye out for crocodiles, of which there are many. Weaver-birds had made their nests at the near bank, and we were able to watch a Jacana pick its careful way across the lily pads below.
At such moments, the park feels deceptively peaceful, and it is hard to reconcile it as the site of not only the bursts of violence which come when a predator makes a kill or when an animal is caught in one of the snares scattered by poachers (and taken out by the South Luangwa Conservation Society if they can find them), but also of the intense moral and political debates about park management that have echoed down the years.
Perhaps understandably, no one who I spoke to in the park wanted to talk to me about culling (although once they discovered what I was doing, they were happy to sing the praises of the non-governmental conservation sector). Like many other national parks in colonial Africa, management in Luangwa pre-independence had been characterised by a fairly defensive mentality, and poachers from neighbouring communities, some of whom had formerly lived in the park, had been pursued by the under-staffed and under-funded game department.
Partially as a result of this, elephant populations rose precipitately during the 1960s, such that by the end of the decade, a report was issued which decried the hands-off management policy of the previous decade, pointing out the serious damage to habitat—and consequently to other species—that the large populations of elephants were doing. Culling did in fact take place, and combined with a poaching surge in the next decade (which people in Luangwa told me grew out of the legal cull), brought elephant populations first very low, and now to healthier levels.
Tourism was also developed most extensively in South Luangwa. Although the Kafue National Park was the first of its kind in the colony, gazetted in 1950 and opened for its first season to tourists in 1953, tourism in Luangwa came earlier, when in 1949 ranger Norman Carr worked with Chief Nsefu at the eastern edge of what is now the park to open a camp to visitors, the monies from which would accrue to the Native Treasury for the welfare of the inhabitants who gave over some of their land to wildlife.
Today, like elsewhere in Africa, poaching of rhino (totally extirpated in Zambia, but now reintroduced into North Luangwa, where they roam under 24-hour guard) and elephant is on the rise, driven by new markets in Southeast Asia and older ones in China. ZAWA, the country’s wildlife organisation, struggles to reign in poaching, which has become steadily more militarised over the years, mirroring the escalation on the part of wildlife services across Africa.
As with all good things, my musings had to draw to a close, and after a lazy afternoon on the banks of the Luangwa—a safe distance from the crocodile-patrolled waters of course—I joined a health sector consultant based in Lusaka and her parents who were visiting from D.C. in leaving Flatdogs camp—a veritable paradise—and boarding a van to the airport. On Friday, the roads had been full of school children, those from the primary schools heading home, the older kids on their lunch break. Today being Sunday, they were emptier, although Harold, at the wheel, honked at an elderly man labouring along on a bicycle, who he said was his dad (I hope he doesn’t ever give him a heart-attack). Once at Mfuwe, we checked in sans formalities (I’d lost my ticket, but nobody asked for id and the ‘boarding passes’ were laminated cards that had neither names, codes, nor seat numbers), twelve of us wandered out onto the tarmac as dusk set in and boarded the plane for the flight back.
A fire was burning at the edge of the runway, and scores of baboons and hundreds of guinea fowl scattered to the edge of the tarmac as the plane built up speed for take-off. And then moments later we were flying up over the countryside, which between the failing light, the dust, and smoke, looked largely featureless from the air. The course of the Luangwa was the only distinguishable geographical feature. As it grew darker, however, it looked like Zambia was aflame. Hundreds of fires—most of them presumably in aid of clearing fields—burnt across the now completely dark landscape. Some of them were mere specks, others formed circles, burning inwards, and others were drawn-out lines, bulging slightly at the centre as they raced across the kindling-dry countryside.
The country was otherwise completely dark, a testament to the difficult conditions in which many rural dwellers live, but also to the vastness of Zambia and its comparatively small population (around 14 million people in an area larger than Texas) which is heavily concentrated in Lusaka and the industrialised Copperbelt north of the capital. By night, the burning countryside resembled an inverse of the previous night’s constellations, as the flames licked away, in rings, lines, specks, and swathes, at the bush.
And then, quite suddenly, we were at the edge of Lusaka. I’d never flown into or out of Lusaka at night before. By day, the city feels comparatively small and quiet, but by night, even allowing for the many compounds, where the lights go out with the electricity at night for their tens of thousands of citizens, Lusaka looked enormous. And just a little bit beautiful, too. There’s something special about flying over a city—my city, or at least a city where I’ve had the fortune to spend 4-5 of the last 15 months—at night. There’s a little thrill that comes with realising that you can trace its contours, identify the main roads, place landmarks, and thinks of the memories associated with the bucolic boulevards, the busy markets, the bustling highways, the wind-blown byways, and the kindnesses of friends and strangers who populate those places. And there is some sadness, if the mind wanders to an all-too-quickly approaching departure.
But then we were touching down, climbing out of the plane, crossing the runway, bidding fellow travellers farewell, and heading into town, myself with James, Lusaka’s best cab-driver who, as we made our way into the city which seemed much darker on the ground than it had from the air, recounted some of his memories of the late-colonial era and shared some of his worries and hopes about Zambia in the twenty-first century, as development threatens to be overshadowed by neo-colonialism; as a resurgent democracy hits some rough patches, pitching and rolling but never capsizing; and as Zambians—like people everywhere—work to puzzle out what kind of a country they want to inhabit, how to render that dream real, and whether visions on offer are best met by the promises that drift over prevailing political winds.