Pulled over 300m outside of the Kasanka National Park gate, with absolutely nowhere where we were expected to be, no plan to follow and no schedule to keep we were faced with a decision: our previous plan of driving the Great North East Roast to North Luangwa and then down to South Luangwa was shelved as the road through was water logged and closed; so, turn right to Lusaka to have a few days of clean laundry, firm beds and time to actually come up with a plan and a map, or turn left to find the Shoebills which were according to a South African doctor we met in the park, ‘nearby’.
I remembered from my nerdy Google sessions that Shoebills can be found in the Bangweulu Wetlands. Without a physical map or guidebook our only source of information was our cellphone – which hadn’t picked up 3G since Mkushi. We could see on Google Maps that Lake Bangweulu was up North bordered by the Sampfya Forrest Reserve. Without the internet to prove us otherwise, we reasoned this must be were the Bangweulu Wetlands and Shoebills are found. Certain our logic was sound, we turned left.
The D235 road is long, straight and although flat, rather interesting. The Mukuku Bridge takes you over acres of flood plains, lilied branches of the Luapula River, clusters of temporary curricular shaped homes made from plastic and wood, fishermen and woman selling smoked fish and a heard of about 50 Puku, fat and relaxedly grazing. Beyond the 3.5km long bridge, the road sweeps past an anthill forest with the horizon dotted with mounds ranging in size from ankle hight to some a good couple of meters high. After an hour we began to realise that very few tourists travel this road. Few of the villages we passed were connected to the national electricity grid and not a single one could boast a fuel station. Children gawped and adults waved wildly – we were clearly something of an oddity in these parts. But, the dot on the Google Maps app kept moving (even without an sniff of signal) toward the Bangweulu Lake and so we thought, surely we were headed in the right direction – although by now I was beginning to wonder just how far “nearby” could be.
After a 5 hour drive we arrived at a T junction, a police stop announced by an oil drum and a sign for Sampfya. Sampfya! Shfew! We had arrived! Taking the right for Sampfya we found instead of wetlands teeming with game and birds, a large, glistening lake supporting not Shoebills but a thriving population of people, a bright bustling town and sandy, white beaches! The lake was absolutely breathtaking. Bangweulu means ‘where water meets the sky’ and truly, you couldn’t see where the water ended and the sky began. Still, we where here to see Shoebills so fuel, lunch, charge of phone to find directions and then onward was the plan.
After a lunch of nshima (sadza), tomato relish, rape and fish with cold beers we asked the friendly waiter where the Shoebills were. Shoebills? With the phone still charging we were resigned to using gestures to describe the big beak and squat body, pulled in neck – nothing. He had never seen a Shoebill. In desperation, Buck asked where do the tourists stay? Mmm, he wasn’t sure. Sensing we were far from where we should be, Buck asked, “have you ever seen tourists here before?” The man smiled and replied simply, “no, never”. With our phone sufficiently charged we began to google ‘Bangweulu wetlands’, ‘where to stay to see shoebills Bangweulu wetlands’, ‘how to get to Samfya shoebills’. Oh boy, “…after the Kasanka National Park gate”, a website told us, ”turn left and drive for only 7 km and then turn right.” Damn! The doctor really did mean nearby. We had missed the wetlands by about 200kms. 225 kms to be exact.
After lunch we took the road west of the Lake. Just as the tar ended a mirage appeared – a moored speed boat… smart chalets… a volley ball net… and a group of nuns having a few toots the beach! This would most certainly do! Yes we could camp here, we were told. Why not use our tent, mattresses and bedding? With nuns, crisp clean sheets, a running shower and my own bed (Buck and I are sharing a single camp mattress due to another hastily made decision), why not indeed!
We had got well and truly lost but what a gem Samfya turned out to be. Samfya’s viby bars, mirror-like waters, white beaches and the impressive nighttime electrical storm yielded a fantastic experience – albeit a very different one from what we had envisioned. The next time you are in the region, don’t just stick to the Wetlands, venture toward the Lake – it is awesome and the townspeople are so chuffed to have you!