I got the opportunity to stay at Nkamba Bay Lodge a couple of weeks ago. This lodge, located in the very heart of Nsumbu National Park, proved to be a real gem with the most amazing wildlife and scenery ranging from lush tropical rainforest to red dusty African plains. As mentioned before, I did not come down here for a nice beach holiday (although it might often seem like that for some of you), and it didn’t take that long to find out why.
Together with some of our neighbours from Mpende Fisheries we decided to spend a Sunday afternoon on the Tondwa floodplains before the rains come in, leaving the area virtually inaccessible. After driving for some time on long dusty roads lined with Miombo woodland, the GPS warned us that our track was coming up on the left, in fact, we were already there. The only problem though was that there was no road, at least not to the untrained eye. We followed the GPS for a couple of hundred metres after which the bush suddenly opened and we could clearly see the small 4 by 4 track that lead all the way to the plains. Arriving at the plains is pretty much like watching an African documentary at National Geographic, but then without the great abundance of game. The savanna stretches right until the horizon with the occasional solitary tree acting as a landmark. I’m sure there must have been big herds of Elephant and Buffalo here at some stage but they seem to be long gone. Although the floodplain seems completely depleted at first glance, a closer look will tell you a different story. There are still huge herds of Puku on these plains and some of the largest herds of Roan and Sable that I have ever heard of (occasionally over 50 individuals) are often seen by the anti-poaching units. Birdlife is prolific and Tondwa is one of the few places where you can still find Shoebills and Wattled Cranes in decent numbers. After a few good hours of game viewing and watching the thunderclouds building up in the distance it seemed like these African storms were quickly catching up with us. We all agreed that it would be wise to get away from the floodplains before these dark clouds would reach us though and we quickly made our way to an abandoned fishing village on the edge of the plains in case we would need to sit it out. Luckily, the dark clouds drifted away and we were able to get back home safe and sound.
I went to our Nsumbu office early the next morning to get ready for my fieldtrip to Nkamba. Joining the manager and some staff members of the lodge on their way back from a grocery-shopping trip in Nsumbu, we made it back to the lodge early in the evening. The setting sun was bright red and the possibilities of setting out my first camera traps were getting smaller by the minute. Before I go on about the first night at this amazing place, let me explain to you what our plan with these camera traps is. Nsumbu National Park is believed to be the only area left in this remote part of the world were wildlife populations could be viable in the near future. Could be… The chances of saving the park are getting slimmer by the day though so it seems as if time is running out. Some animals, such as Lion and Leopard, seemed to have disappeared from the park altogether but our scouts are occasionally hearing Lions roaring in the far distance as well as finding their paw prints in the soft sand. In essence, the literature doesn’t really seem to match up with the facts in this place, which is exactly what we would like to proof with this very first camera trapping expedition in the park.
It was still pitch-black when I woke up because of some strange sound just outside my hut. A quick flash with my torch revealed the culprit instantly as a Hippo was grazing just a few metres from my door. It was calmly minding its own business and I decided to attend to my own business again; getting some more sleep before it was time to get out of bed again.
The first morning at Nkamba was a truly African one. While I was enjoying my early morning coffee on the viewing deck, the hippos were playing in the surf and the Puku’s and Warthogs were quietly drinking at the lake. The call of the African Fish Eagle filled the crisp morning air and as the haze was beginning to rise from the lake every organism was getting ready for another glorious African day. I was eager to check the traps and I got down to business as soon as the sun began to rise over Nangu peninsula in the far distance. Not knowing what I would find on the traps, I quickly made my way to my bush-office to find out what the infra-red camera captured that the human eye can’t see at night. As my laptop was starting up, I felt just as excited as I felt all those years ago when me and my twin-sister would be waiting for our birthday presents in the early morning. I did not expect to find all that much on the traps as they were very close to the lodge but our first night of camera trapping in the park turned out to be a huge success. The first animal to walk into the camera’s view was an African Civet, one of those illusive African mammals that I haven’t been able to see in real life yet. It probably walked past my hut as well without me noticing a thing. The other camera, which was set close to a bigger trail, showed even more than I could wish for from a first night out in the field. The first Jackal walked past the camera within an hour after I had set it up and a couple of hours later a very curious Spotted Hyena came to check out the camera, awesome!
While working in my bush-office, I heard a single gunshot coming from the other side of the bay. A little while later, one of the scouts ran up from their base camp to inform me that an illegal fisherman had been arrested. He was drying almost 10 kilos of fish on the far side of the bay, ready to head back to town the next night to sell his fish at a great price. Not this time though, he was sent off to Kaputa for his trial just a couple of hours later and although illegal fishing is not that big of crime in Zambia, he still has to pay quite some money to stay out of jail. I joined Derek, the lodge’s manager, to the far side of the bay to set up the camera traps at another major trail for two consecutive nights to see what we would find there. When we got back to the office, Derek was going to make a phone call some 200 metres from camp where there seems to be some cell phone reception most of the time. While sitting at my desk, Derek came running around the corner: “the Elephants are back, do you want to see them?” I quickly grabbed my camera and ran to the place a little while earlier. “They will cross the road up there so we just need to wait” was what he said and so the waiting game started. The darkness was setting in at this stage and just when I thought that the Elephants must have chosen a different track, there they were! In full admiration, I looked at these gentle giants crossing the road just in front of us, incredible! It was a small family herd that was obviously coming down to the lake for an early night drink and it was all the proof I had been waiting for, the Elephants area alive and well in Nsumbu National park!
I was very curious to find out whether the elephants would be there in the morning so I got up before sunrise. As I walked down to the lodge I noticed a big blur just about 50 metres from where I was standing, the Elephants were definitely still there. Quite frankly, it was the very last bull of the herd that was saying goodbye because he would be the last elephant I would see before they all disappeared into the dense Itigi-sumbu thickets again.
A group of Danish tourists had arrived at the lodge and they were very keen on going for a walk in the late afternoon and I was obviously more than happy to join them. We had been enjoying the walk for a good 500 metres when we saw some vultures in a tree. I was talking to one of the scouts and we were sure that something death must be around so we circled the area for a bit to see if we would be able to find a carcass. The lack of predators in this area means that any death animal is quite likely a poaching victim. We did indeed find the snare and the Puku that was caught in it, but it was still alive even though it was in a whole lot of pain. The snare had caught its head right at its eye and another snare made sure that he was properly destabilised. Two of the scouts escorted the tourists to a safe distance while I stayed behind with the other scouts to see if we could remove the snares and set the Puku free again. After a few attempts we managed to free the Puku which quickly ran towards the open plains and away from the vultures.
Happily, we resumed our walking safari towards the Kampasa rainforest only to hear another strange sound 500 metres further into the walk. Another snared Puku was found shortly after that and after saving this Puku I began to wonder whether continuing the walk would be a very good idea. We decided to continue and I’m very happy to say that the rest of the walk was nothing but a beautiful walk across the savanna with all the splendour that it has to offer. Back at the camp, the scouts decided that they would camp out in bush where we had removed the snares in case the poachers would come looking for their bush meat. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case and so we all had a good night of sleep.
The next morning marked the end of my stay at Nkamba and the beginning of “the day the stuff got real”, it was time to get the cameras back from the bush. One of the senior wildlife police officers escorted us into the bush (as is standard procedure) and we set out for the first trap. We recovered the first trap and were having a great walk towards the second camera trap when we saw a very nervous Puku not too far from us. Instead of running towards the escarpment though, the Puku crossed our trail just in front of us, which is not really normal behaviour for a Puku, so we were all on high alert. Out of nowhere, I heard people shouting in the bush very close to us and the first shots were being fired. The next second, I was lying in the grass with my head in the African soil while the shooting continued. The senior told me not to worry as the shots were being fired by the scouts and as soon as it had started, the shooting stopped. Apparently, the scouts had walked straight into the poachers while they were checking their snares and fired some shots at them as they were trying to escape, not knowing that we were in the area as well. Nobody got injured though and I will probably always recall to this day as “the day the stuff got real”. The poachers were apprehended and questioned about their whereabouts and although they were illegally killing the wildlife that I am trying to protect, I couldn’t help but to feel very sorry for them. These two men were death poor and clearly weren’t in this game to earn a lot of money, they were just trying to get through another harsh day. After retrieving a Warthog that they had already gutted, we went back to our boat and the suspects were taken away to Kaputa where they are probably still awaiting their trial. They are both facing some serious time behind bars now though, let alone the hard labour that seems to come with that here in Zambia.
As for the camera trapping expedition, the two nights of trapping in this particular part of the park proved very successful as well. Puku and baboon were responsible for over 1000 images in two nights but next to that we found a Spotted Genet, Bushbuck, Elephant, Warthog and even a Serval!
As you can see, my first real week in the bush seemed to be a little bit of a test for me. I know I definitely don’t need to go through all these things every week but by far most of it was very much worth it!