A 10 DAY EXPEDITION IN ONE OF AFRICA'S LAST GREAT WILDERNESSES
Having spent a large portion of my life in the bush and having had the privilege of travelling extensively throughout Africa, the Luangwa Valley always seemed to elude me. But in 2013 I finally got my way and I spent a few days in some of the many luxurious lodges in South Luangwa National Park. Here the idea was born to free myself of the lodges and the vehicles and to explore the area on foot.
Despite being well motivated the reality ultimately set in, and I realised that I would need help, and at the very least advice! Through my research and chats to friends in the know, it was not long before valuable information started to flow in. With this input an expedition began to take shape that would, amongst other things, lead us to one of the largest hot springs in the valley and give us a much better sense of the wildlife and communities that make their home in the valley.
We decided on the East West traverse of the valley, through the corridor between North and South Luangwa National Parks. The significance was that the route had probably not been traversed by foreigners in recent times – no one remembers anyone doing it in living memory – and because of the historical value: In 1866, David Livingstone crossed the Luangwa River before fording the Mupamadzi and Munyamadzi Rivers to get to the Luawata, similar to the route we would follow.
The corridor is also of great conservation significance as the Mupamadzi and Munyamadzi are two of the main feeders into the Luangwa River and are also home to a number of remote rural villages and communities. As these communities grow and expand, the corridor comes under increasing pressure and we would be able to see this first hand. The most recent aerial photos are out of date and do not show the community expansion along the Munyamadzi River.
With our route planned, dates set and a small group of hardened bush enthusiasts at the ready, we set off on the 4th of September 2014. The route planned was 111 km over 10 days unsupported, meaning we carried everything we needed and we were on our own.
The route would take us west across the Luangwa River following the Munyamadzi River to the confluence of the Mutinondo River, a major tributary of the Munyamadzi. The Mutinondo would then take us slightly south, then West again up the Muchinga Escarpment which forms the north western boundary of the Luangwa Valley, and then into the land of the Miombo.
111 km ultimately turned into 150 km. With no roads the going was tough, and we soon learnt that the game paths ran perpendicular to ours as they lead to the rivers, thus most of our walk was straight through the bush following a compass bearing over hills, swamps and mountains. It was fantastic, real boy scouts stuff – but hard. At some stages we averaged just 1km per hour through thick vegetation. In one of these particularly thick areas we were given clear instructions that the path we had chosen was in use by lions! And best we go the long way around.
Due to our course we generally made a lot of noise scratching past bushes and trees with our packs, but we were never far from wildlife. Numerous well-worn animal paths paid testament to large herds of buffalo and elephants in the area, and we bumped into them often enough to keep us on guard. On occasion we found an animal path going in our direction and it was not long before the tracks of lion, leopard and hyaena showed themselves. Puku were common on the lower floodplains near the Luangwa River where we also encountered flocks of up to 50 crowned cranes. Ground hornbills were ever present, and we had magnificent sightings of crowned eagle, western banded snake eagle and racket-tailed roller; heard but not seen was the elusive Pel’s fishing owl.
As we approached the Muchinga escarpment the wilderness opened up and we could sense just how remote we were. Over the millennia the Mutinondo River has cut down through the Muchinga Escarpment, creating a series of cascading waterfalls 2,5 km long as it descends into the valley below. This was to be our gateway up the escarpment taking us 800m above the valley floor to a noticeably cooler miombo woodland, characterised by a number of Brachystegia tree species that dominate the area.
Our final destination was Mutinondo Wilderness, a private 10 000 ha reserve which is the lifetime project and passion of Mike and Lari Merrett. This true wilderness, set back 20km from the escarpment edge, forms an important catchment for the streams and rivers that feed into the Luangwa.
Once we had ascended the escarpment we spent our last days following the meandering river, swimming in rock pools and enjoying the spectacular views from the large granite domes that are scattered throughout this area.
Historically the reserve has a low wildlife density, but as you traverse the miombo woodland it occasionally opens up into grassland marshes known as dambos that are the life blood for a number of large mammals, especially roan and sable antelope, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest and eland. Elephants are sporadic and rare visitors to the area, a vestige of an ancient elephant trail connecting the Luangwa Valley to the Bangweulu Swamps to the west. Buffalo are rare but occasional visitors, which is not surprising in the woodland. Mike also informed us that a few resident lions have stuck it out and are seen occasionally. The area is quite unique and boasts a number of rare plants, birds and the largest edible mushroom in the world!
As part of our expedition we recorded significant human activity in the corridor, the most prevalent being wood harvesting for charcoal and land clearing for crops. The villages we passed through were very remote, with only foot paths connecting ever larger paths until they reached the closest seasonal road – a 12 to 15 hour walk, we were told. Most of these communities are seasonally isolated as the rains and subsequent floodwaters rise around them. They live with wildlife everyday and we recognised a kind of timeshare agreement between the villagers and wildlife: as the sun set the villagers retreated into their huts and the herds of elephants, buffalo and other animals took their place on the banks of the river. Early one morning while walking on a narrow path connecting a few small villages, we realised we were walking on the fresh tracks of a large male lion and a female leopard.
At one point during our trip we came across a women with one leg. It turned out that 12 years ago she had been attacked by a crocodile and lost half of one leg. Her crutches where old and dysfunctional, so we committed to send her a pair from my home of Nelspruit, South Africa. With Sahara Air, the crutches arrived in Lusaka and then travelled via Pro Flight to Mfuwe where local NGO, Chimpembele, assisted us in taking them all the way to her. She reacted with shock and delight and was thrilled with the new crutches.
We also came across some snares and fish traps, and heard gunshots twice – once very close to us – but we did not hang around to investigate. Subsistence hunting is ever present. We were informed that the problem lies with the large groups of poachers traveling days from towns as far away as Mpika – 2 to 3 days on foot – in groups of 20 strong comprising one or more armed hunters, the rest being carriers who transport the bushmeat that they harvest back to the towns and markets.
Luangwa is one of the last great wildernesses left on the continent, and perhaps after Victoria Falls, one of the most important tourist destinations in Zambia – and without doubt Luangwa is Zambia’s greatest wildlife treasure, and worth protecting.
About the Author
CAMPBELL SCOTT is a tourism entrepreneur, wildlife enthusiast and adventurer based in Nelspruit, South Africa with his wife Pendrae and their two kids. This spent much of their early years in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve.
Campbell’s work focusses on new and innovative ways to enhance the tourism potential of areas. As a result he works with a broad-spectrum of people in government, communities and the private sector. He is also a trustee of the Buffelshoek Trust, which works on uplifting communities bordering the Manyeleti and Sabi Sands Game Reserves.
Having started his career in the wildlife tourism industry, and been lucky enough to have travelled extensively around the world, Campbell’s eyes have been opened to the impact of humans on the planet and the need to conserve and protect what remains.