A Tale of Two Swamps – Back at the landing site

Undeterred, the following day we had another meeting scheduled not far from Lochinvar.  We headed back down the same route, swiftly collected the local fisheries officers and went on to the same wooded island.  The guys were there, but so were about 100 other people.  The hard gravelly area next to the lake that had been so deserted on the Sunday was now thronging with activity.  As we approached from the road side, we saw many women in their multicoloured wraps dealing with bags tightly packed and sealed.  Four trucks were fully loaded, and there was also a small minibus waiting at the site.  While we were there more trucks arrived.  They came filled with items such as washing up bowls, clothes, utensils, gear for fishing.  These were offloaded and transported to a wide array of boats, small dugout canoes, larger pirogues and other craft to be sold and carried off to the villages in the middle of the swamp inaccessible by road.  In turn those boats had carried a wide array of fish, some already packed up in the huge bags we had seen the women haggling over, others still in open bags and some just grouped together and held with wire or string.

The fish bags came in two sorts, one was filled to the brim with sundried fish, but tightly packed to prevent flies getting in and some of the smell getting out!  The others were crates that were even more substantial.  Ice had been carried down from the towns on the trucks and fresh fish were packed in to the ice crates.  They were often surrounded by insulating cardboard and pressed between wooden grills lashed together by ropes.  It gave the impression more of cotton bales than fish, but the quantities were immense.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Where is the boat?

We were met with a scene from the Marie Celeste.  The tents were there and we saw the guys’ personal belongings strewn around; we saw fisheries and boat gear everywhere; upturned pirogues and a small metal boat in the swollen waters of the lagoon below us.  And on almost every surface were fish; some big but the majority juveniles.  They were being sundried on mats, across canvas tents, even on the bottoms  of upturned boats.  Ian took a good look round to get a feel for the different species; nothing really surprised him except the sizes – there were so few larger fish, and some looked as if they might have been caught with below-regulation mesh size nets.

With all the fish and old wooden boats; two things were missing, the modern aluminium boat and the captain to drive it.  We waited round for about twenty minutes but with no mobile masts or radio sets, we had no way of getting in contact with them.  We deduced that our delays at the hotel first thing and the lengthy meeting at the park compound had meant the captain had decided to go off without us, or else there was some emergency that had taken them away.  There was nothing much else to be done.  I took a wander out to the edge of the lagoon and watched some ducks waddling to the water’s edge.  I say edge, but like many of the lakes here, the water flowed up over the vegetation so it was difficult to say exactly where the border between land and lake occurred.  I watched a flock of storks fly over the lagoon and peered off into the glassy lake just in case a speedboat was heading towards us.  It wasn’t.

We returned a little down to the national park centre compound; and to make use of the time we had I the day,  Ian asked if he had any data on stock and catch, a so called Frame Survey.  We were driven round the compound to a row of offices and were given a tour.  Considering the remote location with only generators for sustainable electricity, there was a lot going on here; large ledgers containing sample fish sizes – length and width – just as I remembered from my days at the Fisheries Department in the British Virgin Islands.  There were a couple of laptops from which Ian was able to glean lots of data – none of it analyzed to any extent but carefully collected, and we saw some laboratory equipment where testing of fish was going on , and several specimen species and posters showed at least a reasonable level of knowledge of the local fish stocks was being cleared.  At least we got some useful information even if we did not meet the villagers that day.

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Plenty of birds – but no sign of a boat

It seemed like one of our precious days in the field was going to miss a major element – the community meeting with the villagers on the river.  We wandered a little way along the lakeshore and found a hard gravelly area with one or two boats moored up – the clearing of the weeds showed that this was a fish landing site – where catches from the flats were brought by boat to be transhipped to lorries that carried catch to market in Lusaka or further afield.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Lechwe

The scenery changed gradually over the next few miles from the usual scrubby African bush, still green but already starting to senesce, to wider grassy plains.  Dotted over the whole landscape were thousands of termite hills – whether the termites were attracted to these tree-rare landscapes or were actually causing the low number of trees is debatable.  Those few trees were also smaller than in the forested areas we had seen earlier and it was not too long before we were wildlife spotting.  Various herons, coloured smaller songbirds and waders were flying or stalking or perching and then a herd of the special antelope that have made the wet grasslands their natural home; the lechwe.  This is an endemic species – the Kafue Lechwe; others are spread throughout other wetlands in the region, but this one is particularly attractive deep orange top coat on a whiter underbelly and their ornamental horns make them look like upturned pitchforks.

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Spot the lechwe

The ratio of waterlogged ground to dry increased and the vehicles splashed through puddles more frequently until we reached the Chunga Lagoon, the largest of a myriad of small lakes that lined the Kafue River right across the flats.  The river itself was a good 10km away from where we rested – a small heavily wooded island in amongst the swamp.  The Fisheries Department kept a boat here and the captain and his small crew would lodge in a few tents strung up amongst the trees.  We parked up at the rear of this woodland, the midday heat now searing down on us, and we cautiously stepped into the deep shade.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Lochinvar

So with the delays Ian was already thinking we were well behind schedule – but there was much worse to come.  The road to the west comes off at Monze very near to the  hotel.  One of those wide gravelly untarred roads that ploughs remorselessly through the countryside.  Like other vehicles, ours threw up a cloud of dust and chippings as we flew down long straight stretches, cutting through farms and splitting up villages.  Sporadically, we had to negotiate a single track concrete bridge, timing our speed right to avoid any traffic coming in the opposite direction.

After about half an hour, we had to look out for a rather obscure turning – barely signposted to Lochinvar- that was a narrow track passing through several more villages.  The last of these was substantial, the local chief’s seat, and had several concrete buildings including a store as well as the more ubiquitous clay brick and mud houses.  At the end of the village the road turned through a gate marking the border of Lochinvar Park, but there was no gatehouse or ranger at the entrance.  Instead we drove down a straight track through a much more forested landscape.  Here and there we dropped down to a ford where the swollen water was still flooding off the land, despite the wet seasons having drawn to a halt and the weather having turned hot and sunny for more than the past couple of weeks.

Eventually we caught a glimpse of the park centre.  A rather glorious title for what was a bunch of run down chalets, ranger houses and some offices.  We drove past the tourist accommodation where a small crowd of young travellers were staying; being Sunday they seemed to be taking the day easy and hanging their washing on a line that extended out to one of the larger ranger houses.  This house was occupied by a member of the Fisheries Department – an extension officer who reaches out to the villagers in the swamps.  A long meeting ensued with Ian finding out about this extension officer’s perceptions of the state of the fishery.  The meeting again took longer than expected and we were due down by a lagoon to pick up our boat to the village.  The convoy getting longer – the local fisheries guy and a park warden came in a third vehicle stationed at some nearby houses and offices, we headed from the national park compound north towards the river itself.