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 – Short cruise down the river

When at last the fisherfolk association themselves came this same issue was one of their key concerns.  We met on the enclosed veranda of one of the fisheries buildings and learnt so much about the management of the fisheries.  In general the pressure on fisheries in the upper reaches was low, but these niggles of being taken for granted by the electricity generators, plus feeling remote from the department of Fisheries in Chilanga, were ripe topics of conversation.  As we listened to the conversation, with occasional translation by Alphart, my eyes wandered around the veranda we were on.  Half way up the wire grill covering the windows I spotted the most beautiful praying mantis, a luminous green colour, its heart shaped head alert to any activity from flies caught in the veranda.  Then I jerked back and refocused on the debate.

The meeting was useful, but we had to curtail it as we were already late for another appointment downriver.  We made our way to a covered aluminium boat on the riverbank with some of the fisheries staff and pulled away downstream.  We made rapid progress along the wide Kafue River, and once more I was aware how life and the landscape here was dominated by water.  The land was a distant green line occasionally punctuated with spreading trees.  Much more immediate was the blue ripples of the river, the reeds, the fishing tackle and aquatic species.  We spotted a couple of the fishing villages I had seen on the map – the round huts peeking up above the reeds lining the Kafue’s banks which in turn would occasionally thin to reveal a landing site filled with dugout canoes.

As we came round a large meander I saw the ferry crossing which was to be where we were to hold out next meeting.  The ferry itself was a simple flatbed boat but it had two small engine rooms on either side.  Some donor had provided this mechanical device to improve over an old hand drawn version that had served the community for many years.  Unfortunately the operation could not afford the fuel and the engine had seized up with lack of use.  This meant that any vehicles now had to travel over 70km west to the dam to find the closest crossing.  Sometime old technology works better than new.

We drifted in alongside the ferry to a small landing site.  The boat ran aground still in open water and we had to leap across the last couple of feet to dry land.  In front of us several tracks and paths converged on the ferry but the closest village was on raised ground about half a kilometre to the north of us.  The only buildings on the shore were an open shelter that was to be our meeting room, and a small grass hut that served as a store.  We bought a few peanuts and a drink and waited for our participants to arrive.  As usual it was a slow process and I took the time to sit on a small wooden stool next to the store and soak in the scenery.  It was so peaceful there; we could hear distant voices chattering away in the village.  One of the fisheries officers headed up to the village to find out what was happening.

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Waiting for the meeting to start