A tale of two swamps – The Luapula

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.

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Well there could have been a croc there?

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.

A tale of two swamps – An exclusive service

Eventually the flight to Mansa was called forward and myself and two others were the only passengers to stir.  We were led to a very small plane, about 16 seats and invited to board from the back.  We plopped our hand baggage in a wide open space at the back of the cabin, next to a small picnic basket full of biscuits, crisps and drink cartons.  I went up to the front passenger seat, immediately behind the captain.  He and his first officer sat themselves upfront and proceeded to run through their checklists, then they turned and briefly introduced themselves and gave us a safety talk.  Ndola airport can take jets so our take off was leisurely – there was plenty of room on the runway for a small aircraft like this, and we flew over a few estates, past a copper smelting factory and out into the bush.  Although  a little hazy, the view below was rich with the tapestry of rural African life.  Straight red tracks disappearing off to the horizon, clusters of settlements surrounded by fruit trees, a tapestry of fields leading to bush.  And in Zambia there were a plethora of dambos – shallow valleys that flood in the wet season leaving a green carpet of lush grass for grazing.

It was mid afternoon and the clouds built up over the hot bushland; although it was not bumpy it obscured most of the view for a while.  The cloud gradually cleared and as we followed a long straight tarmacced road and a sinuous river I saw a town picked out in sunlight over to my right. A water tower stood out amongst the tin roofed houses.  We started to descend but overshot the town and turned right over a lush wetland and some more fields.  In the distance now I could see an open space of grassland and a thin strip of tarmac in the centre that marked the runway of Mansa Airport.  Even from the air it was obvious this was a neglected strip – the tarmac had no straight edges; the grass had sprawled across in several places.  I saw the flashing lights of a fire engine just to the right of the airfield; someone was expecting us at least.  Our landing was smooth and the pilots taxied the aircraft to a small cluster of buildings.  My ride had not yet arrived so I watched as the other two passengers were collected and their luggage offloaded onto pickup trucks.  I was ushered into the “Departures Lounge” which in effect was  a small waiting room next to the airport chief’s office.