Expert Reviews – Bangweulu Wetlands
Emma is an award-winning travel writer for Rough Guides, National Geographic Traveller, Travel Africa magazine and The Independent.
Enchanting waterways and ugly-sister storks
The soggy terrain around Lake Bangweulu, which lies in the far southeastern section of the Congo River basin in northern Zambia, is popular with water-loving birds. The prospect of seeing shoebill storks, the region’s lugubrious-looking signature species, draws determined birdwatchers to these lovely reedbeds and waterways, where there are also to flamingos, herons, kingfishers and ibis to admire.
For me, the vast herds of black lechwe are just as compelling an attraction. But while the sight of these graceful antelopes galloping though the wetlands, water flying everywhere, may be one of Zambia’s most powerful images, you really need to be in a helicopter to experience it for yourself. Overall, accessibility is a problem in Bangweulu – the swamps may be every bit as rich in biodiversity as the Okavango Delta, but in practice very few visitors get the chance to explore them.
Sue is an award-winning writer who specializes in African travel and conservation. She writes for national newspapers, magazines, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet.
Sunrises, shoebills and striking black lechwe
Bangweulu grows on you the longer you’re here. At first, it seems pleasant enough, a flat region with waterways, plains and fishermen’s reed huts. But stay a while and you’ll feel its soul. These wetlands are characterized by lakes and water levels that shrink or swell up to 20km between seasons. The sunrises are spectacular, like sky on fire, mirrored perfectly in the water. For birders, as well as some fabulous species like wattled cranes and pelicans, the big draw is the shoebill – some 60-100 live here and the best times to see them are between April and June. I was actually greeted by one (albeit a tame, rescued one) at the manager’s house on my arrival, and then saw five in one afternoon in the Bulanda swamps. Endemic black lechwe, handsomely dark antelopes, dominate the scenery, splashing across the sodden Chimbwi plains in their thousands. There is other wildlife here too – we saw elephants, buffalo, zebra and various antelopes – but they’re not always easy to see and conservation organization African Parks is relocating several hundred animals here that will add to the wildlife experience.
Stephen is a travel writer and avid conservationist whose work appears in prestigious magazines such as Africa Geographic and Travel Africa.
Land of the Lechwe
The Bangweulu wetlands are destined to become Zambia’s answer to Botswana’s Okavango Delta in the future, but there are some substantial differences at this early stage. Although Bangweulu is home to some 75,000 endemic black lechwe along with the enigmatic shoebill, it has suffered badly at the hands of poachers during the last couple of decades. Elephant and buffalo herds have been severely depleted, while lion, cheetah and wild dog have all been eradicated. Under the direction of enterprising African Parks Network the area is definitely on the up, but with a resident community of 90,000 fishermen living within the swamp, Bangweulu still needs to overcome some serious challenges before it’s truly worthy of being spoken about in the same breath as the Okavango Delta. It is, however, an excellent destination for avid birders and Africa aficionados looking for an off-the-beaten-track safari experience. While watching lechwe dance across the mirror-calm shallow water is mesmerising, I found that the only way to really appreciate the scale of the swamp and size of the herds was by taking a scenic flight over the wetland and its surrounding grasslands. The bird’s eye perspective is unforgettable.
Nana is a travel writer and author of multiple guidebooks, including the Lonely Planet guides to Africa, Zambia & Malawi and South Africa.
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Watery wilderness with endless views
A massive wetland area of lagoons, floodplains, and reed islands adjacent to Kasanka National Park, Bangweulu is the place to come to experience exquisite birdlife, including the rare Shoebill stork, in absolute peace.
Hippos and crocodiles lurk in the waters here, and another major attraction is the semi-aquatic black lechwe – there are an estimated 100,000 in the swamps, and on my last visit I saw an enormous herd of the nimble antelopes darting across on the floodplains.
Shoebill Camp, a collection of safari tents and reed cottages, is the place to stay. It takes a huge effort to get here but I found the endless horizons and stunning walks over the reedbeds to be well worth the trip.
Brian is an award winning travel writer, author of safari books and regular contributor to magazines such as BBC Wildlife and Travel Africa.
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In the last footsteps of Livingstone
Bangweulu – “the place where the earth meets the sky” – is the deep and secret heart of Africa. It is also steeped in the history of David Livingstone, who died here in 1873 after seven years searching for the source of the Nile. Today Bangweulu’s wildlife is the magnet that lures visitors to these remote wetlands in northwest Zambia. Herds of black lechwe, an antelope you won't see anywhere else in Africa, graze in huge numbers among the termite mounds of the Chimbwi floodplains, together with reedbuck, oribi and tsessebe. Flocks of cranes, storks, pratincoles and pelicans fill the skies in numbers beyond counting. But to spot Bangweulu’s most iconic denizens you must press on into the great fen itself – 2,500 square miles of deltas, papyrus and clear water channels. Only then will you spot the rare, swamp-dwelling sitatunga antelope, and the ghostly grey shoebill stork that sits at the top of every bird-watcher’s wish list.