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.