The Bangweulu Floodplains

Although not a national park, the Great Bangweulu Basin is worth mentioning. The Basin, incorporating the vast Bangweulu Lake and a massive wetland area, lies in a shallow depression in the centre of an ancient cratonic platform, the North Zambian Plateau. The basin is fed by 17 principle rivers from a catchment area of 190,000 square kilomtetres, but is drained by only one river, the Luapula.

The area floods in the wet season between November in March, receiving an average annual rainfall of about 1,200mm, but 90% of the water entering the system is lost to evapo-transpiration. The resultant effect is that the water level in the centre of the basin varies between one and two meters, causing the floodline to advance and retreat by as much as 45 kilometres at the periphery. It is this seasonal rising and falling of the flood waters that dictates life in the swamps.

Man has inhabited the periphery of the swamp area for hundreds of years as it has always provided a rich source of food. But the area is so incredibly vast, it is largely left to the the multitudes of wildlife that dwell of the rich resources. The current inhabitants of the Northern Province are descendants of a series of emigrations from the Congo Basin.

One of the best reasons for coming to this unusual watery wilderness is the remarkable experience of this infinite flat expanse. The views to the horizon seem endless and one imagines one can almost see the curve of the planet. The birdlife is just magnificent and the sight of thousands upon thousands of the endemic black lechwe, unforgettable.

Vast open floodplains, several kilometres wide exist at the periphery of the permanent swamps. These may lie under a blanket of water from a few centimetres to a meter deep from 3 - 6 months a year depending on the extent of the summer rainfall. These shallow waters provide ideal feeding grounds for huge numbers of indigenous birds as well as numerous summer migrants, many who will have travelled the length of Africa to winter-over in the swamps. White and pink backed pelicans, wattled cranes, white storks, saddlebilled storks, spoonbills and ibises in flocks numbering in the hundreds, as well as many species of the smaller waders, are a common but dramatic sight when the waters are rich in small fish, shrimps and snails.

One of the most rare and elusive birds in Africa, the shoebill stork, Balaeniceps rex, which is in fact closer to the pelican family than a stork, favors the Bangweulu swamps as one of its last remaining habitats and during the early months following the rains, this strange looking bird can regularly be seen on the fringe between the permanent swamps and the floodplains.

Until the early 1980’s there were lions in the swamps that preyed on the lechwe and sitatunga. Unfortunately, with the increase in human activity around the edge of the swamps, they have been eradicated. Although rarely seen, leopards do exist, while hyenas and jackals are often heard at night and occasionally encountered on night drives.

Later in the year, when the flood waters have receded, buffalo and to a lesser extent elephant move into the area to feed on the plentiful grasses. Numerous crocodile and hippo are found in the permanent water channels or lurking in the papyrus reeds. 

The swamps are a protected wetland, having international importance under the ramsar Convention. The area is ecologically very sensitive and great care should be taken when driving around the floodplains in the dry season. Stick to existing tracks and keep driving to a minimum.