The Great Bangweulu Basin, incorporating the vast Bangweulu Lake and a massive wetland area lies in a shallow depression in the centre of an ancient cratonic platform, the North Zambian Plateau. The basin is fed by 17 principle rivers from a catchment area of 190 000 kms2 , but is drained by only one river, the Luapula.
The area floods in the wet season between November in March, receiving an average annual rainfall of about 1200mm, but 90% of the water entering the system is lost to evapo-transpiration. The resultant effect is that the water level in the centre of the basin varies between one and two meters, causing the floodline to advance and retreat by as much as 45 kilometres at the periphery. It is this seasonal rising and falling of the flood waters that dictates life in the swamps.
Man has inhabited the periphery of the swamp area for hundreds of years as it has always provided a rich source of food. But the area is so incredibly vast, it is largely left to the the multitudes of wildlife that dwell of the rich resources. The current inhabitants of the Northern Province are descendants of a series of emigrations from the Congo Basin.
The earliest settlers were known as the Ba-twa or Wild Men by the more recent arrivals. Formerly they occupied the islands around the confluence of the Chambesi with the Luapula Rivers and lived by fishing and hunting from temporary shelters. Today they have become assimilated into the surrounding tribes building permanent villages, cultivating and speaking the same Bemba language.
The higher ground surrounding the Bangweulu is dominated by miombo woodland intersected by numerous dambos. The floodplain itself is dominated by grasslands varying in composition according to the depth and duration of annual flooding. For the most part, the swamps consist of areas of open water surrounded by permanent dense stands of Papyrus grass and Phragmites reeds which are only accessible by shallow canoe via an intricate network of narrow channels.
In contrast, the temporarily inundated floodplains, grasslands and woodlands provide for a greater range of vegetation types and as a consequence a greater diversity in the bird an animal species who inhabit these areas at various times of the year.
Numerous termite mounds are scattered over a wide area. They are such a feature of this environment that Livingstone once described the Bangweulu floodplain as "a world of water and anthills." These raised mounds act as small islands safe for any flooding and allow the survival of various tree seedlings. Over time these trees have become well established with the result that a woodland has developed and contains good examples of water berry, Syzygium cordatum, sausage tree Kigelia africana and several figs, to name but a few.
The drive to the southern edge of the swamps where Shoebill and Nsobe camps are, takes about 12 hours from Lusaka, the last stretch of 140kms taking six hours. Take the Great North Road from Lusaka, turn right just after Kapiri Mposhi towards Mpika. Take the Samfya/Mansa turning left after Serenje. Turn right 10kms after the Kasanka turnoff, towards the Livingstone memorial and remain on this track, keeping right at the memorial fork, for 70 km, towards the village of Chiundaponde.
Another route is to go directly to the Lavushi Manda turnoff on the Great North road, just below Mpika, which leads straight to Chiundaponde. From the village, make your way to Chikuni Island and then straight ahead to Shoebill Camp or left to Nsobe Camp. You can ask for directions at the WWF camp at Chikuni, as it is very easy to get lost after you leave the village.
If driving, make sure you have adequate fuel and spares as this is an extremely remote part of the country and help is a long way off. It is advisable to let someone know when you are leaving and when you expect to arrive or return. There are radio facilities at Shoebill camp and a National Parks & Wildlife Services office at Chiundaponde.
Access is also by small charter aircraft to an airstrip just on the edge of the swamps.
When to go
During the rains (November to March) the insects are more prolific but the birdlife is phenomenal. All trips in and around the swamps are by boat. The Chimbwe floodplain will be inundated and to attempt to drive to Shoebill Island Camp will be impossible. There is a raised causeway leading from the last village before the floodplain, Muwele, to Chikuni. A small banana boat is used to reach the Camp from Chikuni, a trip of 4 kms through tall grasses and reeds.
Depending on the extent of the rain during the summer, the floodplain dries out sufficiently to allow the passage of 4x4 vehicles by mid to late April. It is then possible to observe the black lechwe at close quarters and also to reach another raised causeway that leads to Shoebill camp.
By June/July, much of the floodplain is dry and the lechwe have moved closer towards the permanent swamp and Shoebill Camp. It also becomes possible to take walks from the camp and experience the strange sensation of walking on the floating mats of vegetation which grow on the surface of the once open water. While the number of birds around at this time of year is still extensive, the number of species drops with the departure of the summer migrants.
August is very much the middle of winter in the swamps, and although the daytime temperatures are pleasant it can be extremely cold at nights with temperature dropping to freezing.
One of the best reasons for coming to this unusual watery wilderness is the remarkable experience of this infinite flat expanse. The views to the horizon seem endless and one imagines one can almost see the curve of the planet. The birdlife is just magnificent and the sight of thousands upon thousands of the endemic black lechwe, unforgettable.
Vast open floodplains, several kilometres wide exist at the periphery of the permanent swamps. These may lie under a blanket of water from a few centimetres to a meter deep from 3 - 6 months a year depending on the extent of the summer rainfall. These shallow waters provide ideal feeding grounds for huge numbers of indigenous birds as well as numerous summer migrants, many who will have travelled the length of Africa to winter-over in the swamps. White and pink backed pelicans, wattled cranes, white storks saddle billed storks, spoonbills and ibises in flocks numbering in the hundreds as well as many species of the smaller waders, are a common but dramatic sight when the waters are rich in small fish, shrimps and snails.
One of the most rare and elusive birds in Africa, the shoebill stork, Balaeniceps rex, which is in fact closer to the pelican family than a stork, favours the Bangweulu swamps as one of their last remaining habitats and during the early months following the rains, this strange looking bird can regularly be seen on the fringe between the permanent swamps and the floodplains.
Other fairly rare birds that are reasonably abundant in the area include the swamp fly-catcher, marsh tchagra, marsh whydah and the white cheeked bee-eater. The ground hornbill and Denham’s bustard are also a common sight as they patrol the grassland for large insects.
The floodplains simply teem with birds including pratincoles, ruff by the thousand, crowned cranes, Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers. The shallow waterlines abound with ducks, geese, jacanas, spoonbills, pelicans and occasionally flamingos. Other notables are the slatey egret, black egret and goliath heron. Watch out too for the swamp fly catcher, white cheeked bee-eater and the rosy breasted longclaw.
With wetlands, grasslands and woodlands in such close proximity, a great diversity of birds can be seen in a relatively small area and to date nearly 400 species have been recorded here.
Unique to the floodplains of the Bangweulu swamps is the water loving black lechwe (Kobus lechwe smithemani), which can gather in herds of up to 10 000, following the floodwaters as they recede during the year.
The shy but attractive sitatunga, Tragelaphus spekei, is associated more with denser vegetation and has hooves especially adapted for walking on the thick mats of floating vegetation. These antelope are good swimmers and can spend the greater part of the day immersed in water and when disturbed, can submerge with just their nose visible.
Course grasslands are found bordering the floodplains where the land is imperceptibly higher and not subject to such extensive flooding. The Oribi, a shy and petite antelope, enjoys the long grasses and can frequently be seen in the late afternoon when small family groups stand up to feed.
The areas surrounding the termite mounds, characteristic of the swamps is an environment much favoured by the tsessebe, the world’s fastest antelope, which can be seen in herds of over a hundred strong.
Also seen in the woodlands are common duiker and reedbuck. Less frequently roan, wild dog and vervet monkeys, as well as smaller more nocturnal mammals such as mongooses and bushpigs.
Until the early 1980’s there used to be lions in the swamps that preyed on the lechwe and sitatunga. But with the increase in human activity around the edge of the swamps, they have unfortunately been eradicated.
Although rarely seen, leopards do exist while hyenas and jackals are often heard at night and occasionally encountered on night drives.
Later in the year, when the flood waters have receded, buffalo and to a lesser extent elephant move into the area to feed on the plentiful grasses. Numerous crocodile and hippo are found in the permanent water channels or lurking in the papyrus reeds.
The swamps are a protected wetland having international importance under the ramsar Convention. The area is ecologically very sensitive and great care should be taken when driving around the floodplains in the dry season. Stick to existing tracks and keep driving to a minimum.