Written by Kenneth Coe
“Forest resounds with singing birds, intent on nidification. Francolins abound, but are wild… gay flowers blush unseen… I shall make this beautiful land better known, which is an essential part of the process by which it will become the ‘pleasant haunts of men’. It is impossible to describe its rich luxuriance…” – The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa
So exalted David Livingstone, having climbed up what is likely the Muchinga Escarpment of the Luangwa Valley of Zambia in 1866 and seeing the magnificence of the miombo woodland stretched out before his eyes.
Fast forward exactly 150 years, and miombo, despite being one of the largest biomes in Africa, despite harboring many of Africa’s iconic mammal species, despite being a refuge for plants and birds endemic only to it, and despite Livingstone’s pledge to make it better known, is not in the vernacular of even experienced travellers to Africa. This is quite a pity. But none for me, thank you. I am here in the Nanzhila Plains area of Kafue National Park in Zambia for the fourth time, with green, yellow and russet leaves of the miombo in front of me, too, finding it impossible to describe the rich luxuriance.
For the next five days, the owner of Nanzhila Plains Safari Camp, Steve Smith, who has become a good friend, would himself take the wheel; the incomparable private guide, Benson Siyawareva, would stand primary sentinel; the gentlest person in Zambia, Brighton from camp, would perform all back-up duties in the vehicle; and Steve’s wife, Cindy, would skillfully manage the camp and put up with us all.
The contrast between Benson’s and my first visit to Nanzhila back in 2009 and now is stark. The sedentary species, such as impala, reedbuck, oribi, waterbuck, kudu and warthog, have easily doubled in number and their “flight distances” have been more than halved. The spectacular but shy sable and roan also allow closer approaches now. As a result of the boom in prey numbers, predator sightings, once rare, are on a continual increase. All this is a far cry from the poached-out, left-for-dead period before the opening of the camp 10 years ago. Only the species that move around – elephant, zebra, wildebeest and buffalo – aren’t increasing. Is there a better argument for tourist presence assisting in conservation of remote areas? Nanzhila Plains Safari Camp is the only camp in this southern end of Kafue. Its presence, not to mention specific conservation measures undertaken by Steve and his staff in assisting the park rangers, is making a difference.
Speaking of sable and roan, the dambos west of camp are some of the finest places in Africa to observe these regal animals. These dambos are unique in that they are extremely well-watered (in fact, they are seasonal tributaries), and they, uncharacteristic of most Zambian dambos, harbor trees and bushes that produce nutrient-packed leaves and pods that sable and roan often switch to from grazing during the dry season. Carefully calculated approaches – all about wind direction, angles, patience and cunning – orchestrated by Benson produce close sightings of these animals.
Chilenje Pool, a few kilometers north of camp, seems to always have a surprise in store for us. One thing that is not a surprise is the presence of black-cheeked lovebirds, an extremely rare species endemic to a narrow band stretching from this Nanzhila area to Livingstone. I have always found flocks of these comical-looking birds at Chilenje, and this time is no exception. The pleasant surprise comes a moment after the photo session of the lovebirds: “hold it… one moment, Steve… back up a bit… more… some more… some more… cheetah!” Benson has done it again – an improbable, impossible, long distance spot. A mother cheetah and her two grown-up cubs are surprisingly confiding, and we are able to spend quality time observing them for three consecutive days. Signs of lions and wild dogs tease us for the three days. (Steve reports that the day after we left, he observed lions and wild dogs, as well as the three cheetahs, all in the same day near Chilenje.)
Various conservation measures undertaken both inside the park and in the surrounding communities by, among others, Game Rangers International (GRI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Zambia’s Department of National Parks & Wildlife (DNPW) are paying dividends. Wild fire management is at its best I have ever seen. The improving game numbers speak for themselves, but perhaps the story is best told by the most intelligent species here (elephant, not man). After decades of living in concealment in the area, elephants are obliging us once again. That they trust us now in what was formerly a killing field is heartening to say the least. We end up enjoying hours of watching them – and their watching us with some suspicion at first but then soon relaxing completely. What privilege…
GRI, TNC and DNPW plan to continue to ratchet up their conservation work in Kafue. Steve and Cindy also have plans to take the area from strength to strength. Some camp refurbishments are in store; there are plans to painstakingly record all the plant species in this most diverse biome; and their rainy season presence at camp and the vigilance of the area are to be heightened.
… Which is an essential part of the process by which it will become the pleasant haunt of safari connoisseurs. Miombo, I trust, will soon be in the vernacular, and, for us safaristas, Nanzhila will be a place to follow in the coming years.
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