It’s been a little over a week since I left The Netherlands to head down to Zambia. The first week was full of extremes ranging from ill-faded bus drivers to bush food that was a little fishy. Let’s just say that there’s never a dull moment in Africa.
Arriving at Lusaka International wasn’t what I had expected at all to say the least. Being used to OR Tambo international airport the sheer sight of Lusaka International, which basically looks like it was build during colonial times never to be upgraded again, quickly had me with both feed on the ground; this is the real Africa. After clearing customs and meeting my friendly taxi driver Friday we headed out to Lusaka center. This definitely seemed more like it! The streets were lined with beautiful flowering Jacaranda trees and there seemed to be quite some shopping malls with familiar shops like Game and Pick ‘n Pay. Little did I know that this was the first and the last view of my familiar luxury South African standards. The moment we hit the Great Northern Highway and left Lusaka, I left all of the luxury behind.
After an eighteen hour, hopefully not to be repeated, bus ride from Lusaka to Mpulungu there were several moments where I thought that this would be my last bus ride ever. Overtaking huge trucks in the middle of the night with oncoming trucks flashing their lights because we were driving on their lane certainly isn’t my cup of tea but hey, this is Africa you know, that’s just how thing are done. The gently man sitting next to me on the bus inquired about my destination and on stating that I was traveling to Mpulungu a huge smile appeared on his face: “you are going be hot up there” he said, “wow its hot up there”. On driving down the escarpment toward Mpulungu harbour I found out why the man had warned me about the heat as it pretty much hit me like an oncoming train.
I spent a night at a nice basic lodge in Mpulungu and after meeting Craig (Conservation Lake Tanganyika’s CEO) we quickly made our way to the harbour where the fisherman were getting ready for another day of fishing on Lake Tanganyika with its crystal clear water filled with fish. Craig’s boat was quickly gaining speed and as we were making our way over the gentle waves, Mpulungu was disappearing in the hazy distance. We drove the edge of Lake Tanganyika for a good two hours before I first laid my eyes on my actual goal of this trip; Nsumbu National Park, its pristine shores and white sandy beaches greeting me from a distance. It didn’t take long before I saw my first African Fish Eagle again and even the illusive palm-nut vulture showed itself cruising the shores of Nsumbu. At this stage, we were getting close to Ndole Bay Lodge where I will be staying during my time at Conservation Lake Tanganyika (CLT) and the sight of the lodge in the remote distant were very promising.
Ndole bay lodge is a small piece of paradise in the middle of rural northern Zambia. It has some fourteen chalets situated in lush tropical vegetation with the most prolific bird life, a resident hippo, and the occasional bush baby visits at night. Life on this part of the planet pretty much revolves around the length of day where people get up very early to start fishing on the lake or work very hard to harvest what the red African soil provides for them. There is virtually no cattle farming in this part of Zambia because of the great abundance of TseTse-flies so the people of the lake rely totally on the fish the catch and the few chickens they have.
The first few days at the lodge were used to get familiar with CLT and the work they do in Nsumbu National Park. By far the most important part of the work is taken up by anti-poaching patrols in the park to protect the little wildlife that is left in this place. Nsumbu NP practically encompasses the most remote part of Zambia and is virtually unknown to the general public. Because of the nearly impenetrable Iti-Sumbu thicket vegetation (one of the last stands of this type of vegetation on the planet), some herds of elephants survived the poaching onslaught that occurred here when the park was left abandoned when war raged the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which is only 30 kilometers away) in the early 2000’s. Nowadays, the national park, which once used to be one of the best places in Zambia to see huge herds of elephants and buffaloes roaming the plains is just a fraction of what it used to be. Nonetheless, Nsumbu National Park is not lost at all and ever since CLT and the Zambian Wildlife Authorities (ZAWA) increased their anti-poaching efforts the park is slowly recovering. The challenges up here are immense and even after being here only one week I know that conserving Nsumbu will definitely not be a ‘walk in the park’.
My first real visit to Nsumbu town was a rather harsh one. One of the locals had just been killed by a buffalo that was trapped in a snare not far from the village. It probably only took the enraged buffalo one decent strike to end the life of the poor guy, who was trying to kill it with an axe. A total lack of environmental education and government interest in the area has led to the total disconnectedness of the locals with the resources of the national park. As they do not benefit from the national park at all, they perceive the park as a threat to their livelihoods and all its animals as property of ZAWA. It didn’t take all too long for the killed guy’s family to start a good riot in front of the ZAWA office and what started out with a discussion soon went ugly when the family started threatening the only ZAWA officer on side. Cornered by an angry mob of about 14 relatives of the victim, the officer saw no other solution but to chase the people away.
Not long after that, I joined the scouts on their way to a 10 day anti-poaching patrol in the park in a vehicle funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). There’s still plenty of general game in the park and it didn’t take long before we started seeing herds of puku on the floodplains. As we traversed on the winding dusty roads a number of warthogs crossed our tracks while holding their tails up high and before long, we were nearing the ZAWA buildings close to Nkamba Bay Lodge. After the men had greeted the scouts that just finished their patrol, it was time for me to taste the local cuisine which consisted of Nishima (the local porridge) with relish (fish soup). Although the smell of it wasn’t all that promising, the taste of it was not too bad at all. It was only about six hours later when I really started regretting eating the local food as my sissy-western stomach wasn’t up for it at all. I won’t go in details here but what went down at the toilet that night sure wasn’t a pretty sight. Let’s quickly get back to what indeed was a very pretty sight; Nkamba bay lodge. This lodge, on the shore of the lake and on the edge of Nkamba plain is situated at prime elephant country. It is here where you can still find the herds coming down for a drink or enjoying the shade of the huge acacia trees that can be found close to the water. They weren’t there this time, but I’m sure I will be seeing them someday soon.
And so, the first week here in Zambia has seen ups and downs, and gave a good impression of what is yet to come. One thing is for sure, it will definitely not be a walk in the park.