The road dropped onto a long straight concrete bridge which traversed the myriad of channels and grasses below us. After a couple of miles we reached the main channel of the Luapula River itself and stopped to take a look. The day was still. A hot sun was beating down and only the faintest of breezes was cooling us. There was barely a cloud in the sky and below us this vast body of water was flowing fast but unfussily below us. At first sight it looked as still as a lake, but on closer inspection you could see rapid movements – the swaying of the grasses almost tugged from their roots, small items of debris twisting and turning in eddies but still heading remorselessly downstream. The water itself was reflecting blue but when you looked straight down it was a deep brown; not from sediment but just so deep and rich that light had trouble penetrating more than a few centimetres. A glimpse of a large fish or a shoal of smaller ones was occasionally retrieved. At one stage I looked into the water and watched a crocodile ; its head still but its body gently swaying back and forth to one side of the main channel. I almost shrieked out to the others. They started over to where I was standing and I looked back to check it was still above water. As I looked harder I realised it was not a crocodile at all, but a formation of weeds tangled around the long grass reaching for the river’s surface that all but gave the impression of a resting croc. But by now it was too late; Ian, Mainza and Chris had all gathered on the parapet and were wondering where I was looking. Red faced I confessed, but I did force them to look and admit it could be mistaken for a reptile.
What we did see were hundreds of birds – smaller ones flying in amongst the reeds, a few treading carefully across the hummocks of grass floating on the river, a few herons motionless close to the smaller pools. But overall there was a sense of quiet gravity. Apart from the mass of water moving through the bridge, around was mostly stillness. Even on the road we saw but two cars in ten minutes. And they passed as unspectacularly as they could muster so as not to disturb the solemnity of the scene.
I marvelled one last time at the long grass, its roots thrusting up from the deeps into sunlight to the floating mass of whips and blades. How does such a plant manage in this environment; more than manage, thrive. It must grow at an astonishing rate to stop from being lost in the dark as the river floods every year.
Reluctantly we got back in our vehicle, which turned around and headed back to Mansa.