A Wild Stork Chase

Today’s audio update

“It’s not all pleasure, this exploration.”—David Livingstone, 1873

The hot springs at Kapishya

SHOEBILL ISLAND CAMP, BANGWEULU SWAMPS, NORTHERN ZAMBIA—Herodotus in the fifth century B.C. and Ptolemy seven centuries later wrote about the “fountains of the Nile,” the waters from which the greatest river in the world issued. To locate its source— Quaerere caput Nili—was the hope of great captains and geographers from the classical age to the Victorian: Cyrus and Cambyses of Persia, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Nero, and the mid-19th-century rivals Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke. Dr. David Livingstone set out in 1866 on his final expedition to Africa to claim the prize as the discoverer of the source of the Nile, after dismissing the geographical claims of Speke and Burton (both of whom he disliked, especially Burton, translator of the Kama Sutra, a man he considered morally bankrupt). Livingstone was convinced the “four fountains” sprang from swamplands in what is today northern Zambia.

Livingstone got it wrong and instead discovered the source of the Congo, the second-longest river in Africa, and there he left his heart.

The Scottish missionary and explorer, who spent almost 30 years seeking “God’s Highway” (a water passage into the African interior that would allow colonization, the end of Arab slave trading, and Christian conversion of heathens), died of malaria, dysentery, and melancholia at the age of 59 in the Bangweulu Swamps, desperately clinging to the delusion that he was tracking the course of the Nile. His heart was cut from his body, placed in a box, and buried under an mpundu tree, while his body was carried to the coast and shipped to England. One of his last journal entries reads, “Dear God, I am oppressed that this may, after all, be the Congo. Who would risk their life for that dreadful river?”

We would.

First, some background: I’ve spent much of my career chasing great rivers and managed to organize first descents of sections of the Nile and the Zambezi (the latter picking up where David Livingstone left off in 1855, negotiating the quite wild course through the gorges below Victoria Falls in 1981). But I had never let my hand swirl the waters of the Congo. So I have been quite keen to see this source. Others in the group are enthused to see Balaeniceps rex, the shoebill, a rare swamp-dwelling dodolike stork with a wedge-shaped bill.

So, we decamp and begin the two-day drive from one of the most remote parks in Africa to a place beyond remoteness, the trackless swamps of Bangweulu (“where the water meets the sky”). We wend our way for the final time across the Luangwa valley, toward the Muchinga Escarpment, passing herds of buffalo and several hyenas, including a couple courting under a wild gardenia tree (when they loped away, I plucked a bouquet as a freshener for the Land Cruiser).

Hyena on the run

Up a rough track, we wind out of this southern branch of the Great Rift Valley to the rim, then across the plateau, flat as a griddle. No more drama; no mopane (with apologies to Mary J. Blige). With little notice, we cross the watershed between the Zambezi and the Congo, and we bask in the hot breeze of a plateau nearly 4,000 feet high (on elevation average, Zambia is among the highest countries in Africa). We camp at Kapishya Hot Springs, soak under arching raffia palms, swim in another crocodiled river, and listen to the eerie whoops of hyenas as we zip up sleeping bags for the night. Lions and other cats have been known to attack campers at night, but hyenas are the only animals that attack fairly regularly. One of our party has a friend who lost an ear to a hyena while camping in Mozambique; many years ago I was camping in Awash National Park in Ethiopia, and a French tourist had her face bitten off. So we build a witch-burner nearby and hug the bags together. I take a spot in the middle.

In the sharp morning air we begin the long final stretch to Bangweulu. Outside the town of Mpika, which specializes in brokering salt, bananas, and cassava, we pass the Clinton Night Club (“Your Pleasure Resort”) but manage to resist. The Möbius strip of wildlife protection is presented in all its emptiness as we steer west through the miombo woodlands of Lavushi Manda National Park, a barren passage that reveals only a ragged troop of baboons. There are no game scouts here, no camps, as there are no tourists. Tourists don’t come here—there aren’t enough wild animals; most have been poached. The circle of nonlife.

As we knock down the last few miles, we enter a corridor of villages and pass hundreds of children but few adults. The kids wave and yell and run to us, hoping we will stop and change their lives. Many are orphans, their parents lost to AIDS. Even though this is not a trucking route or a crossroads, where most AIDS is spread in Africa, the women here, we are told, perform dry sex, a practice in which the vagina is dried of its natural secretions, supposedly to give more pleasure to lovers. The extreme friction causes lacerations, which in turn makes infection to both sides more likely. Add to this many men’s refusal to use the free condoms dispensed by health organizations and NGOs, believing there is a white man’s conspiracy to reduce black African population with dirty tricks, and you get a region where over 50 percent of the population is under 15 years old.

Late in the day, we traverse a single-lane causeway above the floodplain, the dry-season entrance to the game management area that covers the Bangweulu Swamps, and head for a silver water tower, the only relief under the open sky. As with other places on this trip, we are the only visitors, and Gary Williams is pleasantly shocked when his old friend Chriss Wienand walks through the door. For 10 years Gary owned and operated Shoebill Island Camp, four canvas tents and a thatched dining room catering primarily for trophy hunters. But he sold it last year to the Kasanka Trust, a nonprofit that manages an eponymous park and attempts, with mixed results, to distribute proceeds directly into conservation and development in the park and nearby communities. Gary threw in the towel after the Lusaka government stopped issuing hunting licenses, removing his main clientele, and out of frustration with the increase in poachers, who are destroying the main attraction, shoebills, not for meat or resale but to keep tourists at bay so the poachers can hunt mammals without witnesses or interference. Now the camp receives birders in the prime season, November to March, and the odd eco-tourist the rest of the year. Not enough to make a business.

In the sweet liquid light of the African morning, we head out on our quest to see a shoebill, a wild stork chase. We drive for half an hour and pass two jackals and a thousand black lechwe, the ergonomically designed swamp-loving antelope found only here. We slalom through crowded cemeteries of gray termite mounds, park at a temporary fishing village, then begin to walk. Sludge is a better word. Quickly we are knee-deep in gloppy mud, and the going is agonizingly slow with the temperature hovering around 100. This is not what I had envisioned, and there is no transcendence in touching these waters. As for finding the bird, Chriss had mentioned earlier that he had once spent 16 days in the Bangweulu trying to fetch a shoebill for the San Diego Zoo, but all he got was a feather.

Three hours into the trudge, we’ve seen saddle-billed storks, Rufous-bellied herons, various egrets, marabou storks, black-breasted snake eagles, African marsh harriers, and picked up a few leeches, but no shoebill. Two of our local guides tell us to stay put on what might be called a reverse oasis, a spot of dry land in a sea of cloacal mud and water. The guides will go ahead for 15 minutes and check out the front lines. But 40 minutes later, with no sign of the guides, we decide to turn back. We’re low on potable water, and the haze of the midday heat is kicking us down. The lamination on my hiking boots has gone, and the flap of my shoe is separating. Slowly we slog back, thirsty, overheated, and tired. At one point, Sel folds into a pile on the ground, exhausted with the swamp high-stepping under a sun that seems like thunder made visible. He hydrates, rests, recovers, and we continue through the muck. It feels like we’re walking wrapped in hot towels. Paul practically steps on a hyena, which scuttles away with angry eyes. Seven hours after setting out, we arrive back at the Land Cruiser, shoebill-less. An hour later, our guides arrive back saying they saw four.

As with good eco-tourists, it is the experience of effort, not the goal, that counts, and we retire to the bar.

A few days ago, the Zambian minister of tourism, the Hon. Marina M. Nsingo M.P., made a speech to her constituency: “Countrymen and women. I am reliably informed that eco-tourism is able to raise revenues far in excess of that obtainable from wildlife revenue generation [read: hunting]. If fully utilized, therefore, it may help us make our rural areas more prosperous and help us eliminate poverty by creating wealth.”

That’s the not the story we heard on the ground throughout this journey, from outfitters, camp operators, and guides. “It would take 200 eco-tourists here to generate as much as one hunting safari,” a staff member at the Wildlife Camp in the Lupande GMA told us. In 1999, the last year data was published, communities in Lupande received $220,000 from hunting fees, which they used to build schools, wells, and clinics—and that’s after the various parties in the chain, including the central government, took their skim. Eco-tourism makes a contribution, to be sure, but very little by comparison, at least now.

I have never hunted; never will. I’m not sure I understand the psychology of trophy hunters, but I know the market exists, and it remains significant. Accepting that, it’s hard not to see the short-term benefits of managed, sustainable hunting in a country whose main asset is its considerable wildlife. Ultimately, education and population control will lift the boat, but tourism, of all stripes, may keep it from sinking.

Should you visit Zambia? If you want to see Africa the way Livingstone did, without herds of safari vehicles and bloats of khaki, then Zambia is the place: The variety and numbers of animals are among the greatest on the continent, and the land is as raw, wild, and beautiful as when the first Portuguese traders stepped over the horizon. And what about being so close to Zimbabwe? The biggest fallout from the country across the Zambezi is the cost of goods and services here. Zambian camps and lodges are offering discounts of 70 percent or more to entice visitors, and it is a better bargain now than ever. And it seems extremely unlikely that the racial politics overwhelming Zimbabwe could be repeated here. The countries have about the same population, but while there are 20,000-30,000 whites in Zimbabwe, owning a disproportionate amount of land, there are just 2,000-6,000 whites in Zambia, and all land is state-owned.

The survivors

The leap forward for Zambia, the reach to sustainability, may be with seemingly mad schemes like Chriss’ Mandevu Game and Adventure Ranch. (If you are interested in the Mandevu project, contact Chriss Wienand.) Because it is entirely private, there are no subornments in the chain. Money doesn’t line pockets but instead pays salaries and goes directly to community works, which Chriss supervises personally. Yes, this can only work on a small scale, but it may prove to be a model, and if so, it may spread. Zambia proudly promotes its national parks, but over half are derelict, with no management, no wildlife, and no tourists. Mandevu may be an alternative, a pioneer of sorts.

We wind up our two-week expedition through Zambia at Shoebill Camp with a dinner of nsima, the gritslike mash made from maize flour. On top is poured a tasty sauce of tomatoes, okra, peppers, and onions. At last we’ve reached the sauce of the Congo! I sit back and sip a warm Mosi beer, which tastes a lot like the best Guinness, only better.