Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Lochinvar: A lost paradise

Sunset on the Kafue Flats in Lochinvar National Park. Picture by Brian Malama

Lochinvar: A lost paradise

JACK ZIMBA, Monze
THE vehicle did not seem to go any faster than I wanted it to, it was slowed down mostly by the bumpy gravel road we were travelling on. My eagerness was to reach Lochinvar National Park in Monze, Southern Province.

Back in the colonial days, Lochinvar was a private ranch belonging to a Scottish man, but after he left, the land was converted into State land. And in 1972, it was gazetted as a national park.
Home to about 400 bird species and the Kafue Red Lechwe, Lochinvar ought to be a paradise – a top destination for birdwatchers and other tourists.
But arriving at the park gate, something did seem amiss – defaced walls, a dilapidated guard’s house and a non-functional information centre were what greeted us.
Still, park warden Wilfred Moonga, who was leading our small party in his Land Rover, was eager to show me and other visitors what the park had to offer.
After driving through bush, we made our first stop at a hill called Sebanzi, at the edge of the vast Kafue Flats.
We hiked up the hill to the sound of hundreds cicadas and wild birds.
Before Mr Moonga came here two years ago, going up the hill was unthinkable because many local people believed that during the flood season, all the dangerous animals such as snakes found refuge there.
But now, the warden has cut a trail up the hill to allow people to go all the way to the top.
We reached the peak of the hill to find a huge baobab tree that is believed to be 2,500 years old, and we were welcomed by a lone white-backed vulture perched on the branches of the giant tree.
Around the tree on the ground, there were barrows made by aardvarks.
Sebanzi Hill is protected as a national heritage site. Back in the 1950s, an archaeological dig revealed evidence of human settlement dating back to the Iron Age.
From the hill, one can see far across the vast plains, and sometimes see a few animals such as buffalo.
A short drive from the hill took us to the Gwisho Hot Springs, where 60 degrees water flows from beneath a rock. The springs are located on the Gwisho Mound, which is also a national heritage site. Sadly, the area looks unattractive.
Mr Moonga plans to build walkways leading to the springs, and then build pools for people to enjoy hot baths.
The warden has grand plans for the park and he shared them at every stop.
Not far from the Gwisho springs are the Bwanda Hot Springs, whose water is even hotter.
And if the first baobab tree was fascinating to behold, we were in for more fascination when we drove to the second baobab.
Nature has carved a hollow into this one, big enough to accommodate eight people standing.
It is said that during the colonial days, a white district commissioner used the hollow as his office when he came to collect taxes from the local people.
Around lunchtime, we stopped over at the warden’s park house to pick up some food. Occasionally, when Mr Moonga comes here for work, he sleeps in the house. The house is easy to locate, because one can smell it from 500 metres away.
This is because one million bats (well, by Mr Moonga’s estimation) live in the house. And where there are bats, there is bat poop and urine, which produce a suffocating smell.
The bats live in the broken ceiling of the house and then stream out at dusk to go and feed. The floor in the living room was covered with heaps of bat droppings.
During one visit, Mr Moonga told us, he gathered about 70 sacks of bat droppings from the house, which he uses as fertiliser.
And of course where there is such a big number of bats in one place, there is bound to be snakes.
“There is a green mamba that usually stays in the house,” Mr Moonga told us.
One day when he came to sleep, he found a young python curled up in a corner.
Near the warden’s house is the century-old farm house that belonged to the Scotsman.
The house is still standing and Mr Moonga plans to restore it so that it can be used as a lodging house for visitors.
“When I came here, no-one used to come to this place,” he said as he showed us around. “It was abandoned and it had thick bush around it and it was just adventurous boys who would come and smoke and write unprintables on the wall.”
He said the building was in fact earmarked for demolition.
When he was allocated money for a campsite, Mr Moonga decided to renovate the building instead.
After a few touch-ups, the house is almost ready to accommodate guests.
But bringing the infrastructure in this park to acceptable standard will take more than just a creative mind – the park needs a lot of money.
“It is largely an issue of funding, because as you have seen most of the infrastructure in the park is rundown, the area is in a flood plain, so we need a road that is more resilient and we need those tourist facilities,” Mr Moonga said.
The park also lacks resources for operations.
“At the moment we have no operational boat. We haven’t had this for the past three years and this being a wetland ecosystem, we need marine operations,” he says. “That is where the poachers are hitting us hard because they are using boats to come to the other side and we can’t pursue them.”
But because of poor infrastructure, the park can only attract day-time visitors.
Mr Moonga’s dream is to restore Lochinvar as a tourists’ paradise.
“What I would want to see, really, is for Lochinvar to claim its rightful position as a tourist destination because it has the potential,” he said. “Lochinvar used to be one of the premier parks in Zambia and one of the top tourist destinations some years back.”
Lochivar’s infrastructure may be a far cry from paradise, but don’t tick it off your destination list yet.
As we drove out to the open plains, our hearts were warmed to a spectacular sight of hundreds of water birds.
It was the largest number of different types of birds I had ever seen in one place at the same time. There was the glum-looking marabou stock, the elegant wattled crane, African jakanas, crowned cranes, the secretary bird and many others.
“Just the fact that they occur in huge numbers is a spectacle in itself,” Mr Moonga said. “When they take off and then they come to land, it’s just beautiful, you just want to be there.”
Over 420 bird species gather here, some arriving from as far away places as Russia.
“Three days ago, I was in town and I heard the European bee-eaters calling, and I knew they have arrived,” said Mr Moonga with excitement.
But few locals come for birdwatching, most of the visitors are international tourists.
My visit to Lochinvar would have been incomplete if I had not laid my eyes on the Kafue Red Lechwe. And there, among the birds, wading in metre-deep water, was a small herd of the antelope.
The Kafue Red Lechwe may not be as graceful looking as the gazelle or Sable, but its rarity (it can only be found on the Kafue Flats) makes it unique. To think that the animal before us cannot be found anywhere else in the whole world was in itself fascinating.
On the open plains, the treeless landscape offers some of the most magnificent sunsets, with birds returning to their nests adding to the heavenly spectacle.
When in Lochinvar, you have to pray that dusk finds you on the plains, and, for us, it did.

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