The Wild Awaits: Liuwa Plain, Western Zambia
In a far-flung spot, just a stone’s throw from the Angolan border, we arrive in an expanse of grassy floodplain, stretched out between the Luambimba and Luanginga Rivers, north and upstream of the confluence point where their combined waters continue a flow into the mighty Zambezi.
It is a land of absurd flatness, where one can walk out alone to consider one’s smallness while observing 360° of retreating horizon. Take a moment beneath limitless, African skies and, if like me, your childhood and much of your life had been spent in urban settings, you will wonder at the overwhelming joy and simultaneous trepidation caused by watching the approaching weather.
Simple pleasures indeed.
Liuwa Plain National Park boasts one of the older conservation tales to be told of sub Saharan Africa. It was the King of Barotseland, Lubosi Lewanika, who first charged his people with the custodianship of the park and its wildlife in the 1800s. These were the sacred and abundant hunting lands of the royal dynasty and their tribe, King Lewanika saw their fragility and linked their continued vitality to that of his people. This was utterly extraordinary in its time and, though there have been plenty of wobbles on the journey, the sentiment is the very soul of this national park today.
Liuwa is a place of inclusion, 10,000 people live within the park making their living with a finely-honed mix of the traditional and the modern in their farming, cattle rearing and fishing methods. This holistic characteristic is reflected in the park’s management with Africa Parks (an amazing Non-Profit organisation, you must check them out here) taking over the leadership and rehabilitation of the protected area in partnership with Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife and the Borotse Royal establishment in 2003. The accomplishments of this accord are astonishing and testament to the vital role of local communities in preserving wilderness areas. Something the conservation world has leant all too recently.
Birds people! Let’s talk about the birding.
Now I know that even amongst the very meagre number of our readership here (tell your friends darlings, help a gentleman out), from a number of you there will be a collective groan murmuring to the surface as I embark, in scripted reverie, on an ode to our avian fellows. I want you to know that I understand the gripe, really, I do.
It’s just I don’t care – and you’re wrong.
My own father had to endure the overt grievances of my brother and I when he took us on mornings of discovery to various hides in south east England. I recall complaining that it was beyond the realms of possibility that birdwatching would ever be of interest or use to me in later life. I was spectacularly inaccurate there, was I not? Indeed, my dad pointed out this historical injustice just as I was sitting my field guide exams, needless to say I was abashed. Royston Kershaw, let the record show: you were right!
So, let me save you the same humbling moment. Read on my friends, for you have already come so far and now it’s time to give the birds the benefit of the doubt.
For starters, birdwatching on the Liuwa Plain is a far-cry from Moor Green Nature Reserve in Little Sandhurst. The former is a thrilling spectacle that even the least zealous of you trainee twitchers will acknowledge and enjoy, the latter is really more of an acquired taste.
The floodplain is freckled with flat pans and channels, brimming with lilies, that continue to hold water, fish, insects, amphibians and all sorts of other delicious goodies as the flood waters recede and emerald turns to gold on the surface. These pans become awash with avian life. On our most recent visit, in May 2018, I thought I was eying a herd of sheep at a distance due to the size of the white smudge beneath the horizon. With binoculars, the sheep defined into an unfathomable mass of great white pelicans, feeding in unison down a channel. I’d never seen anything like it before and haven’t since.
Grey Crowned and Wattled Cranes; large, ornate and endangered; can been seen in flocks of up to a hundred here, feeding in the grass. Their expansive wings get them airborne with a little fuss and they make startling silhouettes across the dusk skyline, heading in search of trees to roost.
Thousands of African Skimmers rest on the ground by the pans before taking to the skies in a swarm of excitement, like schools of fish in the air. Circling back as squadrons in line formation they demonstrate the purpose of their strange, red hot poker underbite. Submerging the lower mandible beneath the mirror flat surface, they skim the water at astonishing speed ready to snap the bill shut at the touch of an unsuspecting little fishy. The skimmers share a sky, crowded with feathers. Whiskered and White-Winged Turns, barrel and swing with beautiful unity when rebuffed by some aerial barrier not visible to us. All are joined by over 100,000 Black Winged Pratincole that migrate here from Europe and Asia in November.
How do you like your storks folks? Open-Billed, Saddle-Billed, Yellow-Billed – whatever, we have you covered here, in droves. Goliath Herrons (they are massive, it’s not just a clever name) rasp their morning call, Slaty Egrets are seen on mass which is odd for this species. Sacred Ibis give way to Great White and Pink Backed Pelicans on the channel, followed closely by African Spoonbills and Black-Smith Lapwings. The relative harmony turns to discordant chaos at the menacing shadows of Bateleur Eagles and Marsh Harriers. It is captivating in its pandemonium.
I think this is what I love most about Liuwa, the way it draws you in to all the alternative fascinations that are so often overlooked in a more archetypal safari destination. I have a wonderful image memory of our guide Innocent, from King Lewanika Camp, smiling broadly while watching Jana belly down in the mud and leopard crawling towards the edge of a channel to photograph the birds. She spent much of the morning in this position and we were more than content let her, with our binoculars, reference guides and a hot thermos of coffee to keep us out of trouble.
In keeping with the atypical vibe, Liuwa is host to what one might call the ‘other man’s wildebeest migration’, second only to the great herds of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in East Africa. Though the numbers in Liuwa are significantly fewer, we are still talking about some 35,000 wildebeest accompanied by 4000 Zebra that shift from the woodlands to gather in huge numbers on the floodplains at the beginning of the rainy season. It offers up all the spectacular visuals of the gatherings on the southern plains of the Serengeti but is almost entirely unnoticed by mainstream tourism. In essence, you can have it to yourself.
Liuwa is no slouch when it comes to predators either, but again with a distinctive, offbeat flavour. Spotted Hyaenas dominate the ecosystem with some 350 of them, forming large clans and denning within the park. You have the wonderful opportunity to observe these unusual and complex creatures in fine detail here, and to add to this many of the den sites are monitored by the Zambia Carnivore Program (again, a fantastic organisation that you should check out here). Interactions with the field researchers are welcome and truly insightful. We were lucky to have the company of a gentleman called Shadrick for lunch one afternoon and he shared his knowledge and passion for the hyenas, with which he spends his weeks in the field, with infectious charm and enthusiasm.
Cheetah populations are blooming and the Liuwa is home to some large packs of the highly endangered African Wild Dog, both species make for a rare and special sighting on any safari. But certainly, the most astonishing story of Luiwa Plain belongs to the lions, or to be more precise to one lone lioness called Lady Luiwa, the sole surviving member of a lion population devastated by poaching and habitat encroachment. She became an icon of resilience and hope for a species and a park on the very brink of survival. She was perhaps the symbol that inspired the will and provided the momentum for the rebirth of this protected area under African Parks Foundation and in doing so, by the time she died at the ripe old age of 17 years (highly unusual for a lioness) she had witnessed the return of her own kind to the plains for which she was named.
The tale of Lady Luiwa is too long (no pun intended) to add to these already rambling scribblings. But you can read a beautiful tribute to her by the former park manager Rob Reid here. You can also delve deeper into her story and the challenging reintroduction of her kind to Luiwa Plain on the Africa Parks website and in the National Geographic documentary called ‘The Last Lioness’. Please check it out, it is awesome.
Ooof, I’d better wrap this up somehow right? Are any of you still awake out there? Can you handle one last paragraph?
Luiwa encourages you travel out of the standard season and way off the beaten track. If you are brave enough to choose her then she lets you in on her secrets. Lilly pads beneath thunderous skies. The joy of solitude in the great expanse of Africa. The whooping of hyaena clans hassling the herds and the moaning song of long absent lions returned to their land, to tingle your spine at a campfire beneath nothing but the stars.
Stay safe out there friends.
With love from Nic and Jana