Kafue river

Kafue National Park (KNP)

With an area of 22,400 square kilometres the KNP is the largest in Zambia, 35% of all the area devoted to parks in the country and the fifth in size in the whole of Africa. It started in 1920 as a Game Reserve as an effort to protect the then dwindling wild animal population.

Map of the KNP. Credit: Nanzhila Safari Camp.

In 1950 it was declared a National Park named after the river basin where most of its land is found. It was only gazetted as such in 1972, the year that the construction of the Itezhi-tezhi dam started. In 1957 Norman Carr [1] was appointed its first Wildlife Warden, post that he will keep until 1960. His appointment coincided with the finalization of most of the eleven accommodation facilities of the park namely Ngoma, Nanzhila, Kalala, Itumbi, Chunga, Mapunga, Lufupa, Moshi, Treetops, Lushimba and Ndulumina.

The KNP hosted most of the animals found in Southern Africa [2] but it was not a place where you expected, in general, to find high densities of game because of the size of the park. To make matters worse, at the time we were in Zambia, the Angolan rebels had almost exterminated the game in the mid-eighties and carried the meat, ivory and other animal parts west from Zambia. The Park was not very popular with tourists in contrast with other options such as the South Luangwa National park and others.

We visited the KNP a few times, spending sometime in the southern part of the park, closer to Lusaka, visiting the Itezhi-tezhi area where we did some boating and stayed a couple of times, mainly when we wished to get out of Lusaka to a place relatively close to it. However, the area was popular and did not offer lots of game so we did not visited it very often.

I must clarify that we still had our Kenya memories of very large numbers of game in our minds and the KNP appeared as an empty park to us despite it being recovering from the earlier heavy pouching.

We did travel to the northern part of the park as it was not too far from our project area at Lutale in Central Province. We stayed at Ngoma lodge that, at the time offered basic facilities and catering. Luckily, its staff made up for the lack of luxury as they were very friendly and particularly kind to our children. We drove many kilometres through the bush in search of game but our reward were a few elephants that were not very approachable. On a positive note, we found the rare Roan antelope (Hippotragus equinus) and I even managed to get a (bad) picture of a bull!.

Our first sighting of a Roan antelope.

We were non-plussed by the KNP for about a year and we had decided to leave it and devote ourselves to explore other areas. At that time a friend recommended as to visit the Lufupa Camp, situated in the northern sector of the park.

We decided to spend a long weekend there and we were rewarded. The camp, beautifully sighted near the confluence of the Lufupa and Kafue rivers, was an area rich in floodplains, broad-leaved woodland, abundant riverine vegetation and “dambos” [3]. Around Lufupa we saw more wildlife than we had spotted in the rest of the park. Plain game such as zebra, buffalo, greater kudu and impala were present as well as the Roan antelope as mentioned above.

We also saw a few elephants that did not reside there but moved through at times. In addition, bird life was also abundant around the camp with some rare species found there, namely Pel’s fishing owl, African finfoot and Half-collared kingfisher. Despite these plusses, we were happy to learn that Lufupa’s fame was built on its frequent leopard sightings particularly during the night drives organized by the camp.

A lone elephant at the KNP.

Once there and after spending our first day driving around in search of game, we booked a night game drive. We left our young daughter with Annie at camp and we joined “MAP” Patel [4] in search of the elusive leopards, a cat that we had rarely seen during our years and Kenya and never in Ethiopia. We noted that MAP talked little and he seemed to be on a mission: to find leopards. He stood next to the driver with his hunting gun while intensively watching the dark bush. We also noted that he had the ring finger of his right hand missing and I seem to recall that he told us that he had lost it to a leopard on a game drive a while before. No wonder he was so alert!

I remember that first night drive as a long and rather uneventful. We were not yet used to night drives so, we focussed intensively on the illuminated circle of the searchlight and we soon got our eyes tired. In addition, it became cold as time passed and leopards were not easy to spot that night. Luckily, towards the end of the drive and when -being unprepared- we were getting very cold, the other car that had gone out with us radioed to tell MAP of the location of a leopard. We joined them and saw our first “Zambian” leopard that we soon lost when it walked into thick bush.

We enjoyed that first experience at Lufupa and we kept planning to return. This took place during the visit of Mauro, my father-in-law, from Uruguay with who we shared a few trips around Zambia. With him, Flori (daughter) and Annie (nanny) we went to Lufupa for a second time, looking forward to sighting leopards again. We were not disappointed.

During the first day of game viewing we were returning to camp for lunch when one of the drivers stopped us and told us the location of a couple of cheetah. Without hesitation, lunch was postponed and we drove in the direction that we were told, hoping that the cheetah would still be there and that we would find them.

Luckily, Mabel saw them immediately and we had a great time watching them until they decided to disappear in the bush. That evening we booked a night drive. This time we were with a different guide but in radio contact with MAP’s car. As soon as we left the camp, we found two large male lions walking on the road and we stayed with them for a long while as they seemed to be hunting.

We followed the two large males for about five kilometres while they took advantge of the road and marked lots of bushes as it often happens. This was our first experience with lions at very close quarters in an open vehicle at night and I must confess that it was very exciting not only for my father in law but also for us!

When they decided to move out of the road and into the thicket I expected that we would continue our errand but MAP did not have it and he went straight into thick bush after them and we followed. After about half hour the pair entered into an area of thick bush that was too much, even for MAP! Somehow we -miraculously for me- soon were back on the road and again focussed on leopards. We drove for a while until we bumped on a lonely female that we watched until it was time to return to camp as it was getting late and, again, rather cold. That day remains in our memory as the one when we saw the three large cats!

On that trip, for the second night drive we joined MAP himself and he lived up to his reputation. We found six leopards in various spots during the drive. The last one was hunting and MAP decided to wait and see what happened. He stopped the car and switched the search lamp off. Gradually our eyes adjusted to darkness helped by the available moonlight. The leopard was about twenty metres from an impala when we first spotted it and it was completely still.

After waiting for half an hour, the predator had slowly crept forward and it was now at about four metres from the impala. The latter remained totally unaware of the danger and, unbelievably for us, continued grazing and looking the other way. We were getting excited and whispered to each other that the attack would happen any time.

We waited for the attack with bated breath but, amazingly, the leopard kept approaching until its nozzle was almost touching its prey! At that point, the impala either saw it or caught the leopard’s scent and it took off! While relaxing from the tension we were under, we made comments about the incredible sight we have just seen, and MAP explained that this is the way leopards often hunt and the event we witnessed was a rare one as the leopard missed!

The following video illustrates an accelerated but similar situation to what we witnessed that night except that “our” leopard failed to get its prey. Although it shows a kill, I believe that you will take it as a natural ocurrence in the normal predator-prey relationship in real life.

After that night Lufupa was included in our list of best places we ever visited. Regrettably, we did not return to it but plan to do it as soon as we can. The idea is to combine our return with a visit to the Busanga plains, a swampy area fed by the Lufupa river and also located in northern KNP. Busanga was and still is a great area for game viewing. In particular there are large numbers of puku (Kobus vardonii) and red lechwe (Kobus leche) together with many other ungulates. To make the place even more attractive, it is also one of the best areas to witness the epic confrontation between lions and buffalo. We cannot wait for the Covid 19 pandemic to go away!

[1] See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Carr – Consulted on 16/6/2021.

[2] See: https://www.zambiatourism.com/destinations/national-parks/kafue-national-park/ – Consulted on 16/6/2021.

[3] “A dambo is a class of complex shallow wetlands in central, southern and eastern Africa, particularly in Zambia and Zimbabwe. They are generally found in higher rainfall flat plateau areas and have river-like branching forms which in themselves are not very large, but combined add up to a large area. Dambos have been estimated to comprise 12.5% of the area of Zambia. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dambo (Consulted on 18 June 2021).

[4] Muhammed Ahmed Patel alias ‘MAP’ was an outstanding police officer and commander of the anti-theft squad of Lusaka with a reputation of being a tough and fair cop and a great human being. At the time of our visits to Lufupa Camp, he guided, and he had a reputation of being able to smell leopards. A hero for many, he died in 2012. See: https://www.facebook.com/InMemoryOfMapPatel/?ref=page_internal (Consulted on 17 June 2021).

Reinforcements arrive

I do not recall the date, but it must have been March or April 1990 when I got up very early to go to the Lusaka airport for an important mission: to meet the first of the colleagues that would join the project. He was an Associate Professional Officer (APO) [1], called Bruno, a Belgian. He was arriving from his country on a Union de Transports Aériens (UTA) flight with a morning arrival time.

The day before I had managed to borrow one of the airport’s passes from FAO to enter into the luggage handling area, before the passengers entered Zambia. I also borrowed one of the FAO arrival signs, normally used by the drivers to collect visitors. I wanted to be absolutely sure to meet him, remembering my early Kenya arrival experience [2].

I was rather anxious because I was meeting a newcomer that would be critical for the project work and I did not know how we would get on. It would also be the first time in my career that I would have someone working with me in a project. He would also be bringing news from the FAO Headquarters, always useful information to get.

I arrived at the airport about one hour before the estimated arrival time, the pass worked and I went through security and stationed myself in what I thought was the most strategic place and I was sure not to be missed and I prepared to wait. The loud noise the “Jumbo” (Boeing 747) made landing at a relatively small airport clearly announced the arrival of the flight and soon the passengers started trickling in until the place was crowded as usual with people looking tired around the conveyor belt that, after a few minutes, jolted into life.

As usual, people started to get their suitcases and bags and walking towards the customs and exit. I waited, watching the flow while trying to spot my visitor before he spotted me! I had a few candidates in mind, and I kept watching. Conveyor belts are monotonous and often frustrating. This was the situation that day until two truly fluorescent bags, one rabid pink and another lemon yellow appeared and, for a while, distracted me but soon they were collected and it was back to the usual boring suitcase parade.

After about forty minutes the crowd thinned and, a few minutes later the hall was empty, the belt stopped, and the airport luggage handlers picked up the few suitcases that remained on the belt and took them away. No Bruno!

I had a good look around before leaving and confirmed that I was alone. Rather baffled I walked out, thinking what could have happened for him not to arrive. I walked outside the terminal heading for the car when I heard a voice behind me saying “ah, FAO!” Taken by surprise, I looked and saw a tall guy with a luggage trolley with the two fluorescent bags I had seen before: Bruno had spotted my FAO arrival sign. He was there after all and I was relieved!

He was not expecting me in the luggage hall but in the arrival hall, he explained and, not finding anyone in the latter, he thought that no one was meeting him and he was looking for a taxi to get to town. I took him to his hotel while talking about the country and the work that was expected from the project and from him as he would be in charge of the tick trial in Lutale, but more about that later.

Aware of the existence of the Zambezi River (although I had not seen it) I had purchased a Zodiac rubber dinghy (a very safe boat I was told) to be able to enjoy some river exploring and fishing. Convinced already that Bruno and us would get on, I invited him to go fishing in the Kafue river, close to Lusaka, the following day that happened to be a Sunday. Although it was not a good fishing day the outing was a good way to strengthen our connection, a very useful thing.

With Mabel, testing our new rubber dinghy at the Kafue Marina.

While Bruno was overlooking the trial in Lutale and settling in, I was devoting most of my efforts to keep the immunization work going in Southern Province, working with the Government personnel. I was rather stretched and trying to “push” FAO to recruit a Protozoologist that would take care of this work so that I could supervise the whole project. A month later FAO informed me of the candidate selected for the job and I agreed. Giuseppe, an Italian I knew briefly from Ethiopia was confirmed.

I also went to the airport when he arrived. This time, as we knew each other, the welcoming was easier and my confidence on the project success was boosted! I knew that Giuseppe was hard working and practical and capable of doing the job that he would in charge of. In addition, he brought more good news: another APO was being selected to work with him on the immunization against theileriosis.

Giuseppe got himself to Monze in Southern Province after a few days and stayed at the New Monze hotel for a few days until his personal effects arrived and he was able to rent one of the few houses available there.

The last member of the project arrived about a month afterwards. It was Anders, a young Danish veterinarian that went straight to Monze to join Giuseppe. The latter hosted him until he found his own place, something easier said than done. After a few weeks, he was lucky to find a house in the outskirts of the city. There we enjoyed the rural setting and having a few domestic animals around. I recall that he missed having fresh milk in the mornings and that he would get up very early to go to the local market to get it!

Bruno started his Lutale tour of duty staying at a small Government guest house used by visiting Government officials. So, he could only stay there for a short while. It had been agreed in his FAO briefing that, with project funding, he would build his own house and, after the work was completed, the future of the building would be decided with the Government. Chief Chibuluma, our host had agreed to this rather unusual solution so he started the building work.

In record time he had built a rather comfortable thatched-roofed house close to the village’s dam. The house had two bedrooms, an office and a comfortable sitting room. Electricity was provided by a generator until 22hs and he built a “Tanganyika boiler” that supplied ample hot water. He then announced that he was ready to bring his wife Dominique.

Tanganyika, Donkey or Rhodesian boiler. Credit to Kim Hannah Pearse, downloaded from Pinterest.

Very soon with Giuseppe and Anders we negotiated with George, the Director of Veterinary Services, that the expansion of the immunization programme would take place at an area known as Hufwa. Farmers there were requesting for assistance as they almost did not have calves surviving because of the heavy mortality due to theileriosis. They welcomed our proposal with open arms and the various villages agreed to build cattle holding facilities for the project to do its work. Soon we were flooded us with cattle beyond our capacity to immunize so we needed to improve our vaccine supply to cope with the demand!

The project had two drivers, Mr. Mutale and Mr. Chewe (not their real names) from the earlier project. The former was a city driver, used to move people within Lusaka. Although not noted for his fast thinking, he was an extremely careful driver that I enjoyed being driven by. Mr. Chewe, conversely, was very sharp and a true bush driver. He would not mind sleeping in the car if necessary and was able to make common repairs naturally. Eventually he was posted to Monze to help Giuseppe and Anders while Mr. Mutale remained in Lusaka supporting the project administration with limited field work.

Unlike the drivers, the former project secretary, seeing that no one was coming to continue the work, had moved to another FAO project. We needed to recruit a Secretary and we found Euphemia. She had experience working in a sister tsetse and trypanosomiasis project as the “second” secretary and immediately got going. Apart from efficient, she was also a very kind and good-natured person that brought her cheerfulness to our activities.

To me, she became invaluable as, not being maths person, I had difficulties closing the project accounts every quarter. I always had a difference that resisted my efforts to balance them for many hours and a couple of times, fed-up of fruitlessly looking for my error, I decided to send a driver to fill the tank with (for example) Kwacha 25.45 of diesel so as to get things right, something that the accountants in FAO kindly overlooked!

Seeing me struggling with the accounts Euphemia volunteered and immediately got the hand to it and at the right time she presented me with the draft accounts that, for some miracle, matched perfectly, a great help at the time! She got herself a new line in her terms of reference!

After a while traveling to and from Lusaka to the Veterinary laboratory in Chilanga, it became clear that there was no added advantage for the project to be there as we were occupying a driver and punishing a vehicle to get to a place that was difficult to reach and to communicate with. I talked to John, the manager of our sister project working on tsetse and trypanosomiasis that were also responsible for the Lutale training camp next to our project and he kindly agreed to also share his offices in town with us. This was a great move that facilitated the work and brought us close to colleagues that were also commuting to Lutale.

In the new office we had many project meetings and usually at lunch time we would order pizzas. Although these were acceptable to us, Giuseppe refused to eat them and always chose something else. The situation became untenable for him the day Euphemia ordered a “Tropical” pizza. When it came, the chunks of pinneaple were almost offensive for Giuseppe that made a great (good humoured) fuss and even moved to a different table to have his lunch! Aware of this, we sometimes ordered such a pizza just to watch his reaction! [3]

During the more than two years the project lasted, we also held periodic meetings outside Lusaka, close to the work areas of Lutale and Monze. As we had a good relationship, sometimes we chose a place at a nearby National Park at our expense to make the work more amenable by doing a bit of game viewing. During the meetings we would review progress, discuss options to solve difficulties and plan for the future activities. Our favourite places were Kafue National Park (close to Lutale) and Lochinvar National Park (close to Monze).

With Bruno (left) and Anders (right) at Lochinvar National Park.

As a neutral participant, I tried to moderate, often with little impact, the discussions between the three Europeans on European Union policies. However, the differences of approach between the Italians, Belgium and Denmark were such that it was difficult to find an agreement!

The game of French boules (Petanque) [4], promoted by Bruno, became the highlight of the meetings.The teams were the “Old” (Giuseppe and me) and the “Young” (Anders and Bruno). The game’s popularity was not because it was very exciting but because the reward for the winners of each round was a sip of a rather good Italian grappa, courtesy of Giuseppe. Of course, this was a double-edged sword as the more you won, the more you drank and the worse you played, making the game evenly matched at the end! DEspite this, the youngsters beat us at both the game and the grappa resilience!

While in Monze, we used the Monze Hotel as our base. Although it was clean, it had no water during the day and very often, no electricity. The water shortage was such that I would leave the tap open when I left in the morning and by the end of the day there was probably 15 cm of water for my daily wash! It had a restaurant that offered a choice of grilled t-bone steak or chicken and, frankly, I do not recall what dessert there was if any!

Monze Hotel. Credit John Y. Mvula. Screenshot from Google maps.

Zambia had a lager beer called Mosi and it is interesting that the manufactureer defines it as “Named after the mighty Mosi oa Tunya (Victoria Falls) Mosi Lager is the iconic Zambian beer. Brewed for over 30 years it’s Zambia’s number one thirst quencher. Mosi is a clean, crisp and refreshing lager with a characteristic pleasant bitterness, and a delicate hop aroma”. What they do not say is that in the days we were in Zambia there was a joke going round that spoke about its poor quality control. The story went like this:

A customer asked for a beer at a bar and finds a fly inside the bottle. He calls the waiter, complains, and gets another bottle. As he keeps finding flies, eventually the fly is removed and the beer drunk to avoid time wasting. One day, a flyless beer is delivered and the customer calls the waiter and asks “where is my fly?”.

This well known joke did not deter the Zambian customers at the Monze hotel that, on weekends, would sit outside and buy a whole crate of twelve bottles that they would place under their chairs and drink away the whole night! Of, course, they could not see the flies as it was dark and they drank from the bottles!

Sometimes we would dine at the New Monze, usually grilled chicken with rice or chips. As Giuseppe with the tropical pizza, Bruno would not touch the local fries, used to the amazing double-fried Belgian chips!

One of these occasions was rather memorable.

While having a forced candle lit dinner, we decided to risk the flies and ordered four Mosi, aware that they would be rather warm as fridges did not like the electricity interruptions and mostly died of a power surge. Although we were talking away, after waiting an inordinate amount of time, one of us went to the bar to remind the waiter about our drinks order.

Eventually the waiter, who was also the barman and cashier, came and brought eight beers and not the four we had ordered. We looked at each other in surprise and asked him for the reason why he had brought double the amount we had asked. Looking rather confused he said “sorry” and took the four extra away.

While eating, we noted that the waiter was really accelerated and that other customers (that we could not see but heard) were complaining about the service. As this was not unusual, we finished our meal and asked for the bill. Again we waited a very long time and, as it did not come, rather fed-up, we all got up and walked to the small table where the waiter sat calculating the bills.

When he saw us, clearly absent-minded he started to add up our consumption when we noted that the candle fell over and a stream of burning wax spread over the table. Oblivious to this, the waiter continued writing while the tablecloth caught fire and surrounded a paraffin lamp that was also on the table.

Seeing that a conflagration that could destroy the hotel was likely, we took action while the waiter still did not seem to be aware of his surroundings! As no fire extinguishers were at hand we grabbed another table cloth and tried to suffocate the fire while removing the lamp. Water was brought up from the kitchen and poured on the table. It was only when splashed by the water that the waiter oake up from his trance and reacted to join us (and other customers) in our fire control efforts.

The smoke attracted the Manager who got furious with the waiter and strongly reprimanded him. We learnt that he had indulged in the rather common practice of smoking “uluwangula”, known to us as marijuana! [5] Luckily for him, he was not sacked although after that night he behaved like a normal waiter!

[1] The Associate Professional Officer’s programme would fund young graduates through FAO with funds from a number of European countries such as The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, etc.

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2014/09/30/africa

[3] Afterwards, after eating in Italy for a few years, I understood his views fully!

[4] The idea of French boules is to throw a metal ball close to a smaller one called “cochonnet” in French and you score by the number you get closer to it. When two vs. two play you get three balls each and one member of a team throws first, then a member of the other team throws, etc. until all twelve balls are played and the round ends. Then you count how many points you scored and add to the tally of each team. The first team reaching thirteen points after as many rounds as necessary wins the game. More details: https://frenchyourway.com.au/how-to-play-petanque-rules-of-petanque

[5] Also known as “dobo”, the local weed strain is considered of very poor quality and although illegal at the time, it was very common in the local markets. Zambians preferred to smoke marijuana imported from the Democratic Republic of Congo that they called “Congo poison”.