The Kafue River

Rivers are often written about as being arteries of lifeblood.  For us the analogy is an apt one; the Kafue river is our lifeblood. We drink it, we live next to it and we base our whole lodge and it’s activities on it. Most of our guests arrive on it and all our freight does too.    Our guides show its character, nature, inhabitants and routes to our guests by boat and by canoe and by foot on the banks and islands.  The section here around Kaingu is a stunning stretch of river.  The Bradt guide to Zambia talks eloquently about this stretch of river;

“..the river beside the lodge is most unusual, and as lovely as any stretch of any African river I know: it’s worth coming here just to spend a few days afloat. Kaingu stands beside an area where the river broadens to accommodate a scattering of small islands, each onsisting of vegetated sandy banks and huge granite rocks interspersed with rapids. Imagine someone throwing half of Zimbabwe’s Matobo Hills into a wide, shallow river and you’ll get the picture. So to potter round here with a canoe, or a motor boat, or even just to go fishing, is a real journey of discovery – endless side-channels and islands to explore. There’s something different around every corner, plenty of vegetation everywhere – and birds all around. It’s a real gem of an area.”

Its a very good description.  Now I am no explorer but I have been on the Volta rivers, the Niger, the Tano, the Orange river, the Zambezi, the Luangwa and a good few other African rivers.  All are obviously unique, but only this stretch of the Kafue has this hard-to-describe almost surreal and cinematic feel to it.  Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, whatever your choice.  The comparisons are inevitable with the rocks, hundreds of chanels and mists and light.  There is a distinct almost tropical feel to it which we use for inspiration.  Fresh fruit salads on a lush island after canoeing?

Or it can scare and awe.  Not on a daily basis, but if you go looking for it you can find it.  I recall Kaley and myself in a tiny channel, hippos everywhere and the day getting later and later.  We knew we weren’t going to make our destination so had to admit defeat and face a long, long paddle home against the current.  Or that slightly tingly feeling when you are approaching some rapids.  It’s not shooting the Zambezi or the Colorado, but a frisson of adrenaline can still be tapped into. Not just the roaring water ahead but the remoteness, the feeling of other humans being a long, long way away and the knowledge of other inhabitants if the canoe tips over.  Tiny risks but still they are there if you insist or want to look for them.

But for most of the time it’s much, much more serene.  It’s watching birds or elephants with the engine off and drifting gently with the slow current or standing on a rock watching the spectacle of yet another glorious sunset and knowing that a dusk cruise home and dinner awaits.  Of course living on the river we monitor not just the levels but the changes from season to season.  Every year we compare dates when the skimmers arrive and when the first rock pratincoles are seen.  The changes in height of the river are almost as dramatic as the changes in vegetation of the surroundings between the dry and green seasons.  A three meter height difference is not unheard of here, this year it was 4m which sees us able to park the boats by the main area or even step off the end of the deck into the boats.  These changes give totally different feels to the river, in the peak of the dry season, just before the rains, the riverscape is all rocks and grassy islands, but come March and it is all submerged with only the biggest islands still dry.  Most of the islands are then only the tops of the dozens and dozens of waterberry trees marking where to go, if that is, you can remember them after the two month shutdown period!  When the waters are at their peak the river is quieter in fauna if not water.  Most of the waders and water birds move out to flooded dambos and lagoons where the feeding is easier.  With the cold months life picks up on the river and come the lowest levels in October/November the birdlife is teeming.

The stretch around Kaingu is hard to describe well enough.  The only thing is to emphasize that it needs to be personally experienced.  Preferably twice – once at peak water and then once at the end of the dry season.

Unsurprisingly the area around here has naturally led to many local legends.  Kebby talks endlessly about the ‘Donna fish’ (basically a mermaid) luring men into the depths of the Nzhibakamwale pool.  I plucked up courage one night to go down and take photos of the pools under the stars.  I didn’t hear or see the creature, but alone there at night I could well imagine how:

The Ila recognize the bapuka, a “wide-ranging category of insects, reptiles and fabulous animals” which inhabit the trees, pools, and forests (Smith & Dale 1920,i:224, 389). Chief among these is the great Kafue River monster called Itoshi, a 50-foot creature with a crocodile’s body, a man’s head, and the fins of a fish. Invisible to all who lack the proper medicine, it seizes people and take them into its burrow beneath the river bed (ii:128-29). An illustrated hut drawing, however, depicts it as a flat-headed snake with anterior fins (i:120). “What concerns us here is the fact that many people, especially chiefs, enter the water after death and become these monsters” (ii:129). Most of the Ila water beings, then, take reptilian forms, and are often associated with ancestors or spirits of the dead.

 

 

 

 

 

Liuwa 2016 Slideshow

Small selection of images from Kaingu’s 2016 fly-in safaris to Liuwa Plain NP

Doing Liuwa Plain Mobile Safaris!

Driving West to Liuwa Plain National Park feels like you are heading to the edge of the world. Zambia almost ends, the Zambezi appears and suddenly the world seems to expand. Horizons stretch for miles and the sky suddenly seems huge. It is difficult to describe just how different this area is, arriving in Mongu you can look out over the 25kms of floodplains towards the other side: Kalabo, Liuwa and Angola. The destination has understandably become a bit of a cult one for safari cognoscenti and self drive adventurers alike. We (as in Julia and myself) have been there five times and for 2016 we decided that we would offer a joint Kaingu/Liuwa package, with the Liuwa part being a fly-in safari and fully catered and serviced. A maximum of six guests, a Kaingu guide and open vehicle and accommodation in comfortable large dome tents with food by Wina and Benny in the front of house.  It all sounded like a plan!  To do Liuwa there are not that many options.  If you hire a (fully equipped) 4x4 and know what you are doing than that is an option.  There are a couple of operators doing driving based trips and then there is one lodge option that is priced quite highly so we felt that a fly-in mobile option had potential.  The interest (and the bookings) seemed to confirm our views.  The area is certainly getting more known and seems to feature in every second magazine article.  Visitor numbers have expanded over the last few years, but to be honest we are talking about a handful of people - the limited camping sites (and the control and running off them by African Parks) and the very limited lodging means that visitors are few. 

For us the staff, the place is now getting a lot easier to get to. A causeway of 27 bridges has tamed the Zambezi floodplains. I have heard it said (by affluent outsiders) that this has changed a part of 'old Africa' for the worse. Easy to say if you don't actually live there and just holiday there... It is a stunning piece of engineering and makes life a lot easier. What took us once three and half hours churning through mud and sand in pouring rain now is a cream cheese smooth 20 minutes. I will take the smooth option any time thanks.

But not before stopping in the new Shoprite supermarket in Mongo after overnighting in the town. 

Benny goes mad and starts taking selfies and asking to be snapped in front of the new shoprite. Oddly he is not the only one.

Once at Kalabo we go through what we have done many times before. Reducing tyre pressures to better cope with the thick sand and then checking in with the friendly, efficient Africa Parks tourism girls. Charity was always a star and Mimi seems to be cut from the same cloth. This time we are doing Liuwa with guests, so we have pre-paid everything so it is just a matter of checking in. Kaley has reached first so has left our avgas at the Kalabo airfield and sorted out the watchman. So all that remains is to get to camp. This means first the famous hand-drawn pontoon which is now even more bizarre as the ramps have been damaged by a truck so I have to reverse off with the trailer into sand. Luckily I don't mess it up as there is an audience! Kaley then crosses over with the game viewer and the real adventure begins.

Maybe it's just us but we don't seem to remember the sand being quite as thick as it is... After an hour we say that its not just us. The tracks leading to the park really are churned sand and making progress is not easy. Once into the park things smooth out and we reach Lyangu site and start the big unpack. Oh boy. We cannot get into the site that the guests will use until the next day so we set up as best we can and plan to move all the tents the following day. The offloading and packing seems to go on and on – with a quick sandwich break – but at least its not raining. We get as much done as we can and then call it a day.

Julia and myself jump in our vehicle and head off for a quick drive just up to the pools at the lone palm – one of Liuwa's landmarks.

Immediately we are struck by just how dry everything is. The pools are basically empty. Now wildebeest need to be by water, so the dry pools get us a bit alarmed. Without water the migration (or gathering) of the wildebeest is going to be later. Hmm. Ah well, this is the way of the wild. We get back and Wina cooks the five of us a fantastic kapenta and nshima meal. Early to bed and an early start for tomorrow.

 

Next day we are all up at 06:00. By safari standards this is a long lie. Kaley is off back to Kalabo to pick up the guests at the airstrip. Sadly the Islander is too heavy for the sandy strip inside the park at Matamanene. We all frantically move the guest tents and start making the beds (literally as the camping beds have to be assembled). Fridges are wired into solar panels and eventually we reckon its all about done. Just in time – a quick shower, into Kaingu clothes and Kaley is pulling in with the first group of 6 guests. Now we have to see if we can re-create the standards we st at Kaingu in an even more remote location. What have we forgotten? The nearest shops are a long, long way away. Kaley radios in (we remembered to bring radios so that we can still get the 'five minutes out' call. “Kaingu Lyangu come in”. We are in business.

The first group went really well and sightings were fantastic – a mother cheetah with cubs probably being the highlight. Our logistics and infrastructure is all working well – from the bucket showers that we brought (the campsites only have cold water showers) through to the solar panels and batteries to keep our fridge and freezer running.

All too soon the first group is gone and we are on the move again. While Kaley takes the guests to the plane sitting at Kalabo airstrip Julia, Benny and myself and Wina pack as much as we can physically fit on the trailer and our vehicle and then set off North to Katoyana camp site which is considerably further North. We get there and are about 90% setup when Kaley and Wina roll in. Another great Nshima and Kapenta meal and all too soon it's 0600 the next day and Kaley is off to get the next guests. They arrive in camp just after lunch and the second group is now under way.

Sightings again with this group are superb – more cheetah, lots and lots of hyena (and of course wildebeest).

It all worked out really, really well. The guests loved the whole experience, and several guests told us that we MUST keep doing it for 2017. Wina in particular received many compliments about the quality of the food that was prepared in our basic kitchen. While we call it a 'mobile' safari (and it is) it is extremely comfortable camping. Our tents are all roomy with stretcher beds and mattresses and the whole safaris is basically as comfortable as we can make it withought building a lodge! As I finish this we are pricing up next years packages and setting dates. We can't wait to get back there!

October News at Kaingu Lodge

October news kicks off with the fact that Kaingu was featured in the October issue of Sawubona - South African Airways inflight magazine!  Fantastic.  A really great piece (mostly about the river here) that included a description of the journalist witnessing a croc take a puku while on a canoeing trip with Kaley.  They also used all the imagery for the article from Anthony Grote.  So great news for us and Anthony. 

October is also the month when historically we get the best elephants in river/on rocks/in camp activity and this month has been no exception.  'one tusk' has been providing great viewing, leading a small group of bulls from island to island. 

The best sighting though was saved for repeat guests Audrey and Rick.  This was their third visit here and we were treated to multiple sightings of elephants crossing and standing on rocks!

Of course the activities have not been only confined to the river.  We also got raided by an elite gardening squad. 

The skimmers nested and then got raided by a harrier-hawk.  Poor old Israel was heartbroken as he witnessed the raid and even an egg being carried off.  Last year a crocodile got the one chick.  No wonder they are rare and endangered birds.  The good news was that a subsequent witnessed raid was driven off and fingers are crossed for another chick this year. 

Kaley managed to find a cheetah.  There is nothing particularly amazing about that as cheetah sights this year have been fantastic.  But what was really amazing was that we subsequently learned from researchers that the last time this cat was seen was in Busanga in the far North.  Incredible. 

October is traditionally also one of (if not the) our busiest months.  This means we have been doing uncountable rapids dinners.  And taking uncountable pictures of them...

Another thing that is supposed to happen in October is the first rains falling on Independence Day (the 24th).  Amazingly they did! 

Independence day cake - by Lizzie (cake) and Julia (flag)!

September News

So apart from our ‘back of house’ news we also wanted to share our regular pictorial news of what was happening in and around Kaingu lodge for the month of August 2016.

We had our usual annual share of firefighting, both in the GMA and in the National Park.  This (sadly) has become such an annual routine now and it is intense work.  This year (in terms of being out there) was not as bad as last year, but we still clocked up 8 days continuous firefighting.  We are lucky that this year we invested in decent beaters and more backpack firefighting pumps.  We were able to at least stop fires from the North and from the South from marching up the park between the spinal road and the river and our early burning saved most of the ‘pools loop’ area.  But the amount of late season fires is just too much.  The GMA was also bad, again we were at least able to stop our walking areas from burning.

This was day 7 of non-stop burning. The “macpoly” backpacks really mean the difference between being able to control a fire or not.  Especially late fires in winds where beaters just cannot get close enough.

Contrast the blackened landscape above with this area near the lodge where early burning was done:

But then to balance the bad with the good.  We hosted staff and Trustees from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) on a two night fact finding mission to the Kafue.  On top of the rock we had a big group discussion where fires were a hot (sorry) topic.  Some of the good news was that it looks like next year TNC will be investing massively in fire management in the Kafue.  Great news. Post discussion beers, pictures and Mpamba sunset:

A day or too later we were treated to a lunchtime visitor.  I know we keep saying it, but the regular sightings of elephants crossing from island to island and from Park to GMA is just so amazing.

Then (finally) the Wild Dog Air plane took to the skies!  Interminable delays meant that everyone was using a Proflight Islander, but now at least it’s up and running.  It does look absolutely spectacular (inside and outside) and we are all pleasantly surprised at how many people have made use of the flights this year:

Then a few pictures just wandering around camp in the early evening:

Then we had our good friend and pro photographer Anthony Grote come and stay for three nights.  He was back in the Kafue doing work for some lodges and contacted us that he would love to come and stay and while here put together a small Kaingu video.  We jumped at the opportunity!  I must say it is great to see that he has been able to add more lodges to his list in the Kafue.  We can’t wait to see the finished video.  As usual with Anthony we worked the schedule hard – Mpamba, river, poachers rock, shishamba, pools loop, parrots, river, rapid canoeing, more river, rapid dinners etc!

Of course while out working on trying to video things it also means a lot of time being ‘out there’.  One afternoon drive that then turned into a night drive was spectacular.  Including mating leopards…

Franco.  If you have noticed we have talked a lot about him recently. Why? Well it is simple.  He is a genuine success story in that he is a local guy that has used his skills and talent and hard work to (via Kaingu and our shop) make a huge difference to his family’s income.  With 9 children to support you can imagine the pressure.  We mentioned before that he is making good money from the curio shop on a weekly basis.  This month we also directly contracted him to make some large driftwood fish for the deck of each tent.  Excellent.

Then we end the month with what we might consider the perfect ending to a day!  Out on the boat enjoying some peace and tranquility after watching African Skimmers do their thing.  Looks like they are back and nesting on what we call “skimmer island”.  The bee-eaters are also busy on the same island, so the hide is reconstructed and ready for use.  Bring it on!

Back of House News

So every month we try and post news. Generally this is pictures of scenery, birds animals and sometimes guests (and sometimes ourselves pretending to be guests).  But anyone that follows our facebook page will know that we also are not shy to post what goes on behind the scenes. People are generally interested in how it all works.  For the last month or so we have been embarking on a fairly major project to upgrade the staff village.  Kaingu now employs 25 contract staff for ten months of the year.  Last year we added 3 new houses, but more facilities are required. 

We decided that another new double (flush) toilet was needed (ladies and gents) and a double shower block (four showers) was needed to supplement the existing ones.  A staff kitchen (monkey-proofed) was also added to the list, as were re-thatching of Nkutas (outside shelters) and some new ones.  So Mr Gibson (thatching grass) and Royd (contract builder) were engaged. 

Of course part and parcel of bush life is breakdowns and repairing them!  Out old Mitsubishi Canter is getting a bit tired, but it struggled vainly on moving thousands of bundles of grass, dozens of poles and all the rest...

Nkutas are found in all the village homes.  They are areas where people can cook, sit around the fire and shelter from the rains and the sun.  We have small ones and a massive communal one where all staff not on duty gather to eat and chat (and yes, sometimes party!).  This small one below is for JohnD and Jenny:

The large one for the staff is matched by another one behind the kitchen.  Eating and sitting area for the guides who cannot bear to be away from the wifi signal! 

The staff kitchen is a major step forward.  Up until now the cooking is done by the staff chef (Vincent) in the large Nkuta on an open fire.  The staff kitchen below is having a gas range, shelves, cupboards and sinks for washing up.  Our staff is what makes Kaingu, well, Kaingu. We firmly believe in trying to make their lives here as good as we really can.  Wood smoke from open fires in Africa is a huge problem for people's health. 

Royd was also asked to add to the contract a small outside seat and flower pot for each house.  Small details, but at least the houses can be a bit more like home for everyone.  Of course some of the "rugged" guys like Bo haven't actually planted anything.  The ladies seem to be in the lead on this one.  The house below is Chef Lizzie's house:

The thatching looks a bit like a bad hair moment, but after the first rains it all flattens down.  Pictured below is the new shower block which is now finished except the tiles and plumbing.  Mike is on that job as I type:

Now constructing a proper kitchen gave us another idea.  In fact the idea came from Willard (camp hand, not the guide!) who jokingly told me that now there is no smoke inside the large Nkuta we could put a TV there.  We started to think about it.  Why not?  So....   4 solar panels, an inverter, 2 deep cycle batteries, a charge regulator, a dish and decoder and a HELL of a lot of alignment and we now have DSTV with dozens of channels as well as a charging station so everyone can charge mobile phones while watching shocking Nigerian movies (that seem to always be one of only two themes - infidelity or witchcraft.  Some of the better ones combine both topics).  To be fair I did find guides Kaley and Israel watching a Nat Geo programme about the Amazon. 

  And then we finish with an improvement that benefits everyone - a new solar pump.  After our second submersible solar pump packed in (due to water ingress) we decided to install a surface pump where all moving parts are on the river bank and not submerged.  This meant a few things - firstly a chicken house for the pump to go in and secondly a large extension to the panel array.  So far so good.  The pump is quiet and vibration free.  Of course nothing is easy.  People will sell you a pump, but to get fittings to plumb it in???  Our good friend Congo came to the rescue and fabricated some special flanges for us.  Okay, I have to stop now because I can literally talk about pumps the whole day!  We are really pleased with the staff village improvements and we are proud of the fact that we are really trying to make everyone feel that Kaingu is a good place to work.

Look at it! All shiny and sleek.  Stainless steel and other bits.  Sexy. I can sit for hours and just listen to the gentle whirring noises.  Art in motion. 

 

August News Images

Just a selection of images from Kaingu Lodge taken through the month of August. 

July Newsletter

5 Egrets

It was fascinating to watch 5 egrets all try and land at the top of the same tree.  They continued wheeling around the tree for ages making for some great photo opportunities. 

David and goliath

On the way up to do a staff transfer run Julia saw the rather unusual sighting of a goliath heron and a finfoot together. 

One tusk in camp

We were visited in camp regularly over the course of the month by 'one tusk' who is the most regular elephant visitor here. 

Wild dogs

No GMA sightings this month, but no shortage of dogs in the National Park. 

One tusk in the river

"One Tusk" again providing guest entertainment.  In the river this time.  The spectacle of elephants in a river is always amazing, what makes it more special here is if they then climb on top of rocks!  We don't see it often, but when we do it is incredible!

Lions

Regular predator sightings.  As temperatures hot up and the bush dries out sightings of lions, wild dogs. leopard get far more regular. 

Lesser jacana

A massively cropped picture, but I was highly excited to see my first ever lesser Jacana (at Kaingu that is) and grab a picture of it.  All while waiting for guests to arrive for an island sundowner. 

Pied kingfishers

The Kaingu Lodge logo is the pied kingfisher.  Quite appropriate really as I don't think I have ever been on the river and not seen one.  The pied kingfisher is apparently the only African kingfisher that is capable of a true hover.  They have been clocked flying (not diving) at 50km/hr.  Rapid little things!

Chalet improvements 1

We also rolled out some chalet improvements over the month of July.  The first one is new luggage racks/wardrobe units.  All work by Julia. 

Chalet Improvements 2

We have replaced all the bedside rugs with new sisal rugs and every room now also has a Nguni cow skin rug too. 

Chalet views!

And then because we were taking pictures of chalets we couldn't help but take one of the view in the evening dusk. 

Birdlife on the river

Its not just the mammal sightings that have started to really kick in.  As the river levels continue to drop the bird numbers just keep on increasing almost daily.  From the specials to the more everyday ones... 

Green power

And once again the wonderful 'one tusk'.  This time he was checking out the solar hot water and PV panels at Chalet 2.

Wedding anniversary

American guests were celebrating a rather special event.  Cake and decorations by Julia and Lizzy. 

July mists

The most fantastic thing about July (for me anyway) is the morning mists on the river due to the cold temperatures.  It is simply amazing and wll worth frozen fingers and an early start. 

July mists 2

We can never get enough of these mists!  Actually few guests elect very early morning cruises (for some reason it is usually an afternoon choice), but as you can see it is actually the best time. 

Kill by the camp

A wild dog kill 1km from camp meant some great vulture sightings.  Kaley and I went back after the guests had seen the dogs and spent an hour just watching the action. 

River by night

Coming back after packing up an island sundowner. 

Pools loop.

I always associate our pools loop with golden evening light, golden grass and loads of hartebeest.  The pools this year are really full with water and I am betting they will hold water right through to the rains.  Should make for productive sightings the whole season.  

Gargantuan beast

We were taking guests upriver for a spot of canoeing and saw that our canoes had an admirer.  Bear in mind our canoes are almost 4m long and are dwarfed by this massive crocodile.  The biggest I have personally ever seen. 

Kaingu rock art

And our final image from July is the rather interesting rock art that is found near the lodge.  Fascinating.  Most theories are that it is an ancient 'nsolo' game and that the place was probably a meeting point (market?).

Fire in the Kafue National Park and GMAs

Introduction

We get a lot of questions about Fire in the KNP and the surrounding Game Management Areas and as we are now quite well into the dry season and a lot of early burning has been done we thought that we could talk a little bit about fires. We will see more of them before the first rains – of that I have no doubt. I have an interest in fire in general. In my previous life I spent 15 years as a forest manager and I have spent far, far too many sleepless nights and hours fighting late season fires and talking to guests (who are often a bit shocked by fires) here in the Kafue to not be interested in the topic – especially how it fits into the broader ecology/landscape here as well as it’s role in shaping the landscape as we shall discuss.

Fire in General

It is generally known that Southern Africa is the ‘cradle of mankind’ and fire has been a part of man’s influence on the African landscape for thousands and thousands of years. But despite it’s close role with man it remains a highly contentious topic. So many guests that come through here express horror or shock at fire. It is inevitable I suppose. For our modern populations ‘wild fires’ (through whatever source of ignition and whatever time of year) are associated with destruction of life and property. The terrible news images from the US, Australia, Southern Europe are on our screens every year. Of course the reality is that like so many things the real root of the problem is not the fire but us humans. We are building houses, villages and towns in areas where there were no settlements before. We have tamed the landscape, planting and protecting trees and vegetation and settlements from fires. In places the vision of fire as the enemy led to many years of fighting it like a war – extinguishing it wherever it occurred, allowing fuel loads to build up year upon year and then resulting in massive destruction when fires took hold. The United States Forest Service and attitudes that have changed over the last years is what springs to mind here.  The USFS for decades excluded fires and fought them regardless of when, where and how the fires had started.  Only over the last couple of decades has this attitude changed and the use of prescribed fires started.  Not all fires are equal. Seasonality, wind, frequency of previous fires, air temperature, dew point all play major components in how a fire will burn and what destruction or indeed benefit it will bring. It is not a case of all fire being bad and no fire being good. Like everything to do with ecosystems (and man’s place and influence in them) it is far more complex than that.  An interesting National Geographic article examining the historical USFS attitude to fire (and associated problems caused by this) can be found here: 

National Geographic Fire Article

Dry season fires here in the Kafue are almost all started by man. We do not have significant electrical storms of any significance until the onset of the rains therefore the only source of ignition is man made until generally October or so. Such fires are known as anthropogenic. The early Portuguese explorers, who rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the fifteenth century, referred to the interior of South Africa in their ships logs as “Terra dos fumos” – the land of smoke and fire. What makes Africa distinct from other areas or continents is how long man and fire have been interacting in the landscape here. Estimates mention figures like the earliest evidence of human use of fire being 1.5 million years ago. We have some history here together in Africa us humans and fire! The distinct and defined wet and dry seasons here create perfect conditions for fires. Tropical savannahs around the world have been moulded by fire and here is no different. So while a huge wilderness area like the Kafue is often perceived as ‘untouched’ by man, the reality is very different. Anthropogenic fires (i.e. started by man) have been shaping the landscape here for a couple of thousand years since the iron age. And this is a difficult concept to grasp at first. When you come around a bend in the road and are confronted by a fire the natural human first reaction is not to think “ah, fire – that has been part of the shaping of the Kafue landscape for a couple of thousand years!”. The first natural reaction is that it is out of place, dangerous and destructive. If it is in October then it possibly is. If it is mid-June then the general reality is quite different as we shall see.

Early burning a protective black line around Kaingu property

Fire and the vegetation

Here in the Kafue we are very much in the Miombo belt. Miombo is the vernacular name given to the savanna woodlands found here which are dominated by a few species of tree. It is woodland in the true sense – not fully closed canopies and interspersed with grassy areas. Miombo is said to cover about 2.7 million square kilometres of South and central Africa. Miombo woodland is dominated by trees of the genera Brachystegia, Julbernardia and Isoberlinia. Being not a closed canopy forest but rather a woodland, the landscape is also rich in other plants in the under-storey (particularly grasses). The larger mammal inhabitants of this landscape are dominated by elephants, buffalo and the larger antelope such as Lichtenstein’s hartebeest and the magnificent sable antelope. However the soils in miombo woodland are poor and this is reflected in nutrient poor grasses. The miombo woodland areas does not support the abundance of animals that richer grasslands or woodland types do. This factor together with the inevitable tsetse fly is why cattle grazing has not dominated the ecosystems here. Miombo trees have evolved deep tap roots to cope with the lack of nutrients and the long dry season. In fact a large, mature miombo inhabitant tree may have a tap root 5-6m deep. In the dry season the senescent grass provides the fuel for fire which burns through the forest floor – again all of these fires are anthropogenic in the dry season.

So why did man burn the African savanna and why still? There are many reasons, some ancient and some new. The main reasons being hunting, creating fresh growth for grazers (domestic and wild) and to clear areas around habitation to reduce wildlife threats and allow cropping. These reasons still exist of course but can be added to by factors such as protective burns around habitations, to increase visibility (tourism), more incidental causes such as honey collection (which for sure are also ‘ancient’) and of course quite modern factors such as a cigarette flicked from a vehicle. Early burning (which here can be described as from the end of the rains until mid July, depending on how long the rains persisted) for the above reasons have always been preferable; the earlier the grass can be burned to remove wildlife threats and promote grazing or to allow better hunting (for example) the better. In our case we do early burns to protect property and to stimulate fresh growth thereby encouraging grazers and open sight lines for tourist game viewing. Again, the earlier the better. We also burn areas such as the Kaingu game viewing loops in the National Park so that if late fires come through they do not cause havoc – an early burned area will stop a late season fire due to the absence of fuel load. We would rather have fresh grass (and grazers) in July through to October than absolutely nothing but scorched earth in October after a late season fire.

These early fires burn relatively quickly and cool in contrast to fires later (say October) when vegetation is at it’s driest. It is estimated that Miombo in general burns with a frequency of every 2-4 years. It is further acknowledged that this frequency is probably underestimated and is in fact more. Permanent sample plots and studies of fire and miombo interaction have been carried out for 36+ years now. Without going into very dry descriptions and tables of basal area (after all this is for general interest!) these studies can be summarised as follows:

  1. Early season fires in Miombo woodland have little or no impact at all on diversity, basal area or surface litter.

  2. Late burning however suppressed woodland development and had the opposite effect of early fires (with the exception of nine species that proved to be considered as fire resistant.  It should be noted however that these changes obviously take time.  It is very rare for a late season fire here to ‘crown’ and actually burn standing trees in number.  

  3. Complete fire protection in Miombo results in the formation of a closed canopy forest, reducing the diversity of under story species (and of course the grazers that utilise them) end eventually results in the change from miombo woodland to dry evergreen forest – something that we are not keen to promote.  

For all those reasons it has, for many years, been the policy of foresters and ecologists to promote forest development and conserve biodiversity through early burning. It could be argued that the Kafue National Park (and surrounding GMAs are perhaps burning more frequently than the above estimate of 2-4 years, but research has shown that this frequency anyway may well be a general underestimate. In the absence of enough manpower, equipment and firebreaks (as well as an integrated fire management plan and recording) this is inevitable and the key point (to repeat) is that early burning has no impact on diversity and forest development.

Early season burning in Miombo woodland.  You can see how the slow, cooler fire is basically only consuming grass.  

Of course as we have seen from point two above, late season fires can have the opposite effect. This effect is further compounded if there has been no early burning for several seasons and fuel loads have been built up. Then the late fire will be extremely destructive as well as landscape changing, and not to mention effect on other inhabitants of the ecosystem as we shall discuss later.

But of course the Kafue is not purely Miombo woodland. The woodland is interspersed with grassy dambos and larger open areas. So what effect does fire have on pure grassland environments? There has been plentiful amounts of research on this – mostly originating in South and East Africa. As we have discussed earlier, fire is an intrinsic part of maintaining savanna grassland, where burning allows grass to regenerate but shrubs and trees not to, or to be more coppiced, scrubby and not to form real woodland or forests. Again, this shows up the influence of man on what are perceived to be ‘pristine’ environments but in reality have been shaped for centuries if not millenia by the powerful tool that is fire.

Controlling early season protective burns.  The use of drip torches and backpack extinguishers allows fine control. 

Studies of grassland fires have shown that whether it is a late season or early season fire there is little effect on recovery in the next growing season. However experience and common sense dictates that obviously early season fires are better in that fresh growth will still occur after an early fire, the fire will be easier to control, less dangerous and less destructive to other living organisms. We see this year in year out in the Kafue: a destructive late season fire results in a charred ‘moonscape’, but the next season, come February it is like the fire never happened. So in effect grassland fires can be said to be like the Miombo in that early burning is better, but probably from the point of view of the inhabitants (Including man) and aesthetics rather than the actual grassland itself.  But before leaving the topic of fire and flora it is also worth pointing out that late season fires can in certain circumstances actually be of benefit and be used as a management tool.  For example in areas where fires have been excluded for many years thicket development can be checked and reversed by a controlled, hot late season fire.  Interestingly this is very visible around camps here in the Kafue that have been around for many years and where (obviously) fire has been excluded.  Eliminating this thicket development is possible with late season burning, but obviously there are serious safety implications with late fires in the direct vicinity of people and property.  A real fire management challenge.  

Fire and the fauna

But what about the inhabitants? If early season fires are not really damaging to the wider landscape and the vegetation, what about the fauna and what impact does it have there? Studies here are not as plentiful as the impact of fire on vegetation, probably as the concept of non-consumptive tourism based around wildlife (and indeed what we know as ‘conservation’) is relatively new, whereas say managing grassland for increasing grazing potential is far older. Now I cannot claim to have done degree level reading on the subject, but a cursory examination of available and pertinent literature throws up some interesting descriptions and facts. Again, it is quite clear that cooler, earlier fires are generally better. But overall, like the vegetation, it would appear that fire (especially early ones) has little effect.  Again when one considers how long fire has been part of the landscape here this should not really come as a surprise.  

The influence of fire on the animal kingdom has been broken down into two distinct areas of influence. Firstly comes “First Order” fire effects which are the obvious ones – animals physically burned and injured by fire. “Second Order” is the subsequent influence of fire affecting habitat and ecosystems and that in turn affecting the inhabitants – in other words a more downstream affect from fire.

As a broad indication of how the animal kingdom has evolved along with fire here are a few observed examples (not confined to Africa alone) of how animals respond to first order fire threats:

  • Studies showing that juvenile tree frogs when played sounds of fire moved to take cover in fire resistant sites – i.e. very wet grass that cannot burn.

  • Birds flying just ahead of the fire line and finally moving into thickets that will not burn.

  • Lizards burrowing into the soil and climbing trees to avoid fire.

  • Voles finding shelter underground or moving onto bare ground to avoid fire.

  • Snakes retreating underground.

  • Adaptations to take advantage of fire: certain beetles can sense fire up to 5km away and then move into the burned areas to lay eggs in trees weakened by fire. Indeed over 30 sepecies of beetle so far are know to do this.

  • Woodpeckers thriving in burned areas because of them preying on the above beetles and their offspring.

  • It is to be remembered that 90% of terrestrial arthropods spend a large portion of their lives burrowed in the soil or the soil litter.

Again, our subjective ‘gut feeling’ tells us that a lot of these examples ring true. Anyone that has been here when the cicadas are in the trees in the late dry season would realise that even late season fires are clearly not damaging the cicada population that have yet to emerge from the soil. 

What has been clear from research is that early patchy burning (certainly not all vegetation burns in early fires no matter how much drip torch fuel is expended!) is the primary goal. Patch burns and burning of different areas on subsequent years allows refuges where (particularly insects and lower order mammal) populations can shelter and then breed and repopulate burned areas extremely quickly. Like say grassland regrowth, the repopulation can be very rapid and by the following year the effect of the early season fire can be totally negated or even seen.

Clearly more mobile fauna are less likely to be first order casualties of fire. Birds, quick moving mammals etc are able to escape early fires. Inevitably there will be casualties, very new infants spring to mind. Without wanting to sound callous, this is clearly part of the natural order, and with early fires the potential to find areas that will not burn, already burned areas or to simply flee the fire area is high. Slower moving larger animals of course are a different case. But again, fire is not always a recipe for doom: a study indicated that 30% of large Florida Box Turtles showed carapace damage from fire. Although clearly this was not mortal damage. My own experience, on a far lesser scale, was of seeing a huge leopard tortoise that I was horrified to see in an area where we had just done some early burning. On close examination it was totally unharmed and proceeded on after the fire had passed (it did hiss in quite an annoyed fashion when examined for burn injuries!).

I feel that this write up is starting to get lengthy and possibly digress from the overall goal. The overall goal (to repeat) is to try and allow visitors an insight into why early season fires are not necessarily bad, and to why they occur and what the effect is. I am conscious that birds have not featured heavily in my descriptions so far, so in our penultimate conclussion I will cut things short and simply past the final conclusion of a paper from a student of the Percy FitzPatrick institute of African Ornithology:

Managers of savanna ecosystems can take comfort from these findings. There is clearly little reason to be concerned over the medium-term effects of fires on bird communities, even for the most severe fires. Some savanna species may be dependent on fire-created habitats for breeding. However, these species tend to be highly mobile, enabling them to locate suitable breeding habitat irrespective of the fire management strategy employed, other than complete fire suppression”

Conclusions

Once again the obvious conclusion would the that (taking all that has been said into account) the goal of total fire suppression would be a goal to be avoided at all costs. This holds true be it for the vegetation (and the grazers, and in turn predators that depend on them), the insect life and indeed the birdlife. There will be (for sure) first order casualties, but like all complex systems this has to be balanced and evaluated in the context of the greater good. It would appear that early burning (which inevitably allows un-burned areas) is an overwhelming positive force that has existed for hundreds (if not thousands) of years and is now an intrinsic part of what shapes the landscape – certainly no more and no less than the rains, the lack of rains, the global weather patterns, and ultimately (and certainly the most profound) the influence of us humans. The overall goal it would seem is that early burning must be done with a degree of science and planning. At the moment in the Kafue the lack of fire breaks, man power and equipment means that the early burning is usually quite random in nature. The goal should be that fire management becomes a far more proactive and integrated part of the management of the landscape. However in the absence of such infrastructure and management it would seem that a strategy of fairly random early burning is not a strategy to be ashamed off and is better then the alternative.  

Perhaps the most appropriate final words should go to Phillips, J.F.V, writing in 1965 who said that (fire in sub-saharan Africa is): “a bad master but a good servant”.

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