Zambia – Northern Province
‘Where the Water Meets the Sky’, and true to its name, Bangweulu’s endless floodplains of grey-blue waters disappearing into the horizon, blending completely with the color of the sky, make it impossible to tell just where the horizon is.
Likened to Botswana’s great Okavango Delta, the Bangweulu Wetlands are situated in the Northern Province of Zambia. The Bangweulu ecosystem stretches northwards to include Lake Bangweulu and other adjoining smaller lakes, swamps, floodplains, islands and adjoining woodlands above flood levels. Together, the inflowing Chambeshi and outflowing Luapula Rivers form the remote headwaters of the Congo. The region is closely associated with Dr. David Livingstone, who died here at Chief Chitambo’s village.
With a long axis of 75 km and a width of up to 40 km, Lake Bangweulu’s permanent open water surface is about 3,000 km², which expands when its swamps and floodplains are in flood at the end of the rainy season in May. The combined area of the lake and wetlands reaches 15,000 km². The lake has an average depth of only 4 m.
Samfya is the largest town on the Lake, developed in the mid 1900’s as a fishing village. It is very shabby, unordered and scattered, but you can get basic supplies as well as fresh fish. There is a post office, clinic and adequate fuel supplies.
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 principal rivers from a catchment area of 190 000 km² , 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 1,200 mm, 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 km at the periphery. It is this seasonal rising and falling of the flood waters that dictates life in the swamps.
The adjacent Kasanka National Park to the immediate South is one of the most picturesque parks in Zambia and contains a rich diversity of animal, bird and plant life. Several rare species are abundant in the park, including sitatunga, wattled crane, Ross’s Lourie and Blue Monkeys. Kasanka is also host to a unique and spectacular congregation of several Million Straw-Colored Fruitbats every November and December. Despite being one of Zambia’s smallest parks at 390 km² (39,000 ha), Kasanka has a wide variety of habitats, each hosting their own associated wildlife. There are 2 permanent lodges in Kasanka, Wasa and Luwombwa.
In August 1872, David Livingstone was on his way from Tabora, where Stanley had left him in March. Near Bangweulu he got bogged down in the swamps but finally reached Chitambo’s village. On May 1, 1873, his servants found him in his tent kneeling in prayer at the bedside. He was dead. His men buried his heart but embalmed the body. Susi & Chuma then carried it to the mission of the Holy Ghost fathers at Bagamoyo. It reached England, where it was identified by the lion wound in the left shoulder. On April 18, 1874, Livingstone was buried in great honor in London’s Westminster Abbey.
The Kwanga Ceremony of the Njumbo tribe takes place in Samfya in October. If you are there at the time it’s worth finding out about for a fascinating insight into local customs and traditional dancing. Any of the locals should be able to tell you the exact date as it changes from year to year, or ask at the Tourist Board in Lusaka.
Flora and Fauna
The lake is exploited more as a fish source than for its tourist potential. This is unfortunate, as it’s beauty is breathtaking. There are rumours of developing a tourist resort and having a luxury cruise boat for hire. But for the moment this is a an interesting stopover for the intrepid vehicle traveller or backpacker.
The main catches in the Lake are Cychlids (bream, tigerfish, yellow belly) and catfish. About 57 000 metric tons of fish are harvested from the Lake each year. Although fish stocks are not in danger, catches are declining and the favoured species are becoming thinner.
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 airboat or 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 bird and 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 Bangweulu Wetlands is the last area where the black lechwe (Kobus leche smithemani) occur, with an estimated population at the present time of 100,000 animals. There is also a very high density sitatunga population, and at least 10,000 tsessebe. Remnant populations of elephant, buffalo, hippopotamus and zebra also remain. Bangweulu is an important bird area especially well known as a stronghold of the enigmatic Shoebill, and a large population of Wattled Cranes. Much of the area is lake, swamp, seasonally flooded grasslands and attractive termite-mound woodlands. The Chambeshi and Luapula Rivers, which are the main southern tributaries of the Congo River, if not the source of the Congo itself, rise in the area.
When to go
During the rains (November to March) 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 4×4 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.
Location (from 10° 52′ 12″ S, 29° 56′ 60″ E to 12° 40′ 12″ S, 30° 43′ 12″ E)
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 140 km taking six hours! Take the Great North Road from Lusaka, turn right just after Kapiri Mposhi towards Mpika. Take the Samfya/Mansa road turning left after Serenje. Turn right 10 km 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.
The Postal Services Corporation runs a transport boat from the mainland to the three main islands in Lake Bangweulu: Mbabala, Cishi and Chilubi.
View Bangweulu Wetlands in a larger map
Wasa Lodge is the main base for the Kasanka National Park team. Wasa has eight thatched rondavels, each with en-suite showers and flush toilet, as well as a few more basic chalets. Like the separate bar/dining area, these have a lovely location overlooking Lake Wasa.
Deep into Kasanka National Park, Luwombwa Lodge has three larger, en-suite chalets beside the permanent Luwombwa River, which is ideal for gentle guided canoe trips. It’s a delightful place to stay, but very simple by the standards of many more modern safari camps.
Located an hour’s drive from Kasanka National Park, the secluded Lake Waka-Waka Community Campsite is an ideal overnight stop or tranquil getaway. It is good for walking and a conveniently located on your way to the Bangweulu Wetlands. The local name of the site is ‘Chibakabaka’ which refers to the moonlight shimmering on the lake’s surface. The spring fed lake’s crystalline waters are said to be crocodile free and wonderful for a refreshing swim. The area is surrounded by mature Miombo woodland and offers scenic walks in the rocky hills behind the lake. Wildlife includes roan and sable antelope, sitatunga, warthog, but can be hard to spot. Two simple chalets are available for those not geared for camping. The campsite has long drop toilets and no other facilities. A small fee is payable to the attendant.
The Nakapalayo Tourism Project in Chiundaponde offers 6 basic, twin-bedded brick chalets, immaculately set up and run by the local community. The installation boasts outdoor bucket showers, and the village’s first flush toilet. For US$ 60 per person per night, visitors can expect an evening meal with local entertainment, breakfast, and a village tour.
Nsobe Game Camp was started in 2001 and takes its name from the Sitatunga Antelope. We are based on a privately owned 1500 hectare Miombo Woodland Game farm on the Zambian Copperbelt, 60kms south of Ndola (which has an International Airport) and 60kms north of Kapiri Mposhi on the Great North Road. Nsobe is the perfect place for game viewing, bush walks, birding, fishing and canoeing, or just relaxing as the sun goes down, the Zambian Way! Accommodation consists of En-Suite Safri Tents, Family Chalets, Mukuyu Bush Camp, Self-catering Chalets and Camping.
Shoebill Island Camp is managed by the Kasanka Trust, and tours are regularly arranged to take visitors on to Shoebill from Kasanka. This either involves an interesting but bumpy 5 hours drive through villages or a charter flight directly into Chimbwi airstrip, just 1 km from Shoebill Island. Flying in (or out) has the additional advantage of some fantastic aerial game viewing. Shoebill Island Camp offers accommodation in safari tents under thatch roofs and reed cottages. Each has 2 beds, an ensuite shower and flush toilet. Shoebill campsite nearby caters for those on a tighter budget.
There isn’t much tourist access to the Lake apart from Samfya Holiday Beach, about 1km before town. It is possible to camp there but toilet facilities are dubious. A new hotel has just been built nearby with small and basic but adequate rooms facing the lake. There is also the Lake Bangweulu Water Transport Guesthouse for cheap accommodation and corresponding standards.