Bangweulu Wetlands

The Bangweulu is an otherworldly place with transient people (the Batwa, notoriously tetchy and tough) and in some ways it is Africa as it should be, teeming with game and birds – but with humans present, rather than exclusive to the landscape.

The reality is that it is facing some serious challenges and for decades the doomsdayers have been saying "there are too many people, the pressure is too great and these fabulous flocks of wildfowl are done-for" and yet year-after-year, decade-after-decade the birds and herds of lechwe return, as do the people.

The challenges can come from unexpected quarters. Bill and Melinda Gate's free mosquito bed nets for every woman and child make very effective but undiscriminating fishing nets. The advent of LED lights has made night-fishing viable for the first time, ever. Rumours abound that the Chinese (the current go-to bogeyman for any dubious shenanigans in Africa) will take it over to grow rice. It does not have the statutory protection of a National Park and African Parks do sterling work walking the tightrope between the desperately poor local community's need to make a living and the survival of the fish, fowl and beasts.

It is a contradictory place, very wild yet with the sound of rhumba pumping from the fisherman's radio. The grass plains look like an English country park but are home to, literally, tens of thousands of photogenic black lechwe and while these lechwe seem almost unbelievably numerous they only occur right here. Hippo are heard but seldom seen. Crocodiles are never sighted but fisherman get eaten by them, giving rise to stories of witchcraft, and it has its own mythical Loch Ness monster creature.

This is where Livingstone got lost, therefore sick and subsequently died and it is very easy to get lost in the Bangweulu with its endlessly repeating landmarks. After Livingstone's death his body was smuggled to Zanzibar by his servants Sussi and Chuma in the most extraordinary show of unrequited loyalty to the British people.

It is the source of the Congo and is a lake that expands 50 miles in every direction each year and then retreats. The stronghold of the Shoebill – one of the most sought-after birds in the world, and the expeditions to see them can be legendary, wading for hours through leech infested swamps. There are no lions here anymore but it is certainly a place where wild things are, most of which posses extraordinary names Tsessebe, Oribi, Sitatunga and Lechwe - somehow fitting for this extraordinary place.

In terms of logistics the only place to stay is Shoebill Island Camp, run by the Kasanka Trust and quirky but possibly improving. Depending on budget the Bangweulu is either a short charter flight or a very long drive from Lusaka, Kasanka or Mfuwe. It combines well with Kasanka and Shiwa, both of which have their own stories.

Shoebill.jpg View slideshow



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