Lavushi Manda, Zambia.
“My teacher told me, to take time when climbing a mountain” our guide panted as he wiped his brow, coming to a stop mid-way up the Lavushi Manda Peak. These wise and meaningful words came from Denis, a 48 years old father of 6, small in stature but large in character.
We had met Denis – or rather Denis had appeared with a flash of light out of nowhere the night before just as we had lost all hope of finding our campsite, Mumbatuta Falls. It was pitch black, I had cleared three hefty fallen trees off of the road and Buck had thrown in the towel after driving 9km in dense forrest, convinced that we had missed a turning. We were dirty, hungry, very unimpressed with one another and resigned to returning to the main park road to sleep the night at Linda Staff Headquarters when through the shadows and trees we saw a flash light moving at speed towards us. The anti-poaching unit had heard via radio that a vehicle had entered the park, had seen us drive past half an hour ago and wondered why on earth we where now bolting down the track away from the campsite.
“Buck? Ah! You are Buck like a bushbuck! What a good name! No, no, no, you haven’t missed it” Denis insisted, “let me just come to show you”. Thus began our Lavushi Manda adventure with us being taken firmly under Denis’s wing.
Lavushi Manda is a National Park of heartbreaking beauty. 141km km north of the Mansa/Kasanka – Great North Road junction, with a further 60km off the tar before you reach the main gate, everything happens slowly and gradually. There are no short cuts, no landing strips, no internet access. If you want to leave, it will take you a couple of hours till you hit the tar. If you want to get a message out, you better hope the radio gets through to someone outside of the park. For us, the space and quiet was a complete luxury. We literately had the whole 1500 km2 place to ourselves (give or take 10 National Parks officers manning the area).
We had arranged with Denis the night before to meet him at at 1500 (time is strictly communicated in the 24hr clock in Zambia, say 3pm and you are in for a very early wakeup). Denis had suggested that we spend the morning swimming and relaxing at Mumbatuta Falls, giving the officers time to check for any signs of poaching before meeting at the rendezvous spot. We would then be escorted up the Lavushi Manda Peak by an officer with a weapon.
The hike up is hard work but all the more rewarding for it – the view at the top is spectacular. Once Denis had stopped his good-natured mocking of our breathlessness and we had had sufficient time to take in the magnificence of what lay all around, I asked him and the officer posted at the peak, Humble, how many people had visited the park that year? After some discussion, Humble and Denis had settled on a number of 40 visitors for 2017 and 20 for 2016. It had been at least a month between us and the previous visitors – which explained all the fallen trees along the road the night before. It is shame that so few people have experienced what this park has to offer.
The area is remote, has very little game left and sadly, receives very few visitors – which in turn only exacerbates the Park’s vulnerability to game meat and tree poaching and so, the vicious circle continues. “We fear if it doesn’t work the government will give this park to be cleared for farmers. And that will be a great pity” remarked Denis. Nearing retirement, Denis has patrolled Zambia’s Parks for his whole working career and is deeply passionate about his park, its animals and deeply concerned about their futures.
We drove out of Lavushi Manda with the beauty of the Park lingering in our thoughts and a sinking feeling that we might be witnessing a demise of a could-be great park. What will become of the towering trees in the miombo woodland or the ancient, sobering gallery forests and spirited waterways that give the park its rugged beauty? What will become of characters such as Denis who, shaped by the park have stories to tell about stone-swallowing crocodiles, the menace of chameleons and the many complexities of honey? With so much potential, it will be a loss for Zambia and indeed for Africa, if this park and its characters disappear.