Liuwa Plain National Park
Liuwa Plain is as wild and remote as virtually any park in Africa; at the right time of year, its game is also as good as most of the best. The cliché 'best kept secret' is applied with nauseating frequency to many places in Africa by copywriters who can't think of anything original; this is perhaps one of the few places which would deserve it.
Liuwa Plain has long been a very special place. It was declared a 'game reserve' as early as the 19th century, by the king of Barotseland, and subsequently administered by the Litunga. Traditionally, the park was the Litunga's private hunting ground, and the villagers were charged with looking after the animals for him. Then in 1972 it became a national park, and its management was taken over by central government.
The word 'Liuwa' means 'plain' in the local Lozi language. A legend relates how one Litunga (Lozi king) planted his walking stick here on the plain, where it grew into a large mutata tree
. The tree in question can still be seen from the track which leads from Minde to Luula: after leaving the first tree belt, look in the distance on your left side when you are halfway to the next tree belt. Liuwa Plain is certainly the most fascinating park in the region, but getting here currently requires an expedition. There isn't another way.
For this reason, visitor numbers are tiny: from January to October 2002 only about 121 visitors entered the park (52 South Africans, 44 Zambians, seven British, a similar number of Germans, five Japanese, three French, two Namibians and one American!) Yet even these figures dwarf those in some of the previous years: only 50 tourists visited in the whole of 2000. By 2003 there were over 200 visitors per year. Now that African Parks are starting to put it on the map, numbers are bound to increase.
Park fees for non-residents are US$10/Kw50,000 per person per day; vehicle entry (for vehicles greater than 1.5 tons) is US$30/Kw150,000 per day, and camping fees are US$10/Kw50,000 per person per night. Zambian residents pay Kw25,000 per person per day; vehicle entry (for vehicles greater than 1.5 tons) is Kw25,200 per day, and camping fees are Kw25,000 per person per night. It costs about US$10/Kw50,000 to hire a scout to escort you. The park's office accepts US dollars, UK pounds or euros, at the prevailing exchange rate; they cannot take credit cards or travellers cheques.
African Parks is a company that was founded by a group of business-people and conservationists who recognised that African governments had limited resources to pay for conservation or the social development which is needed to accompany it. Their first major venture required about US$15 million to buy the land for, and completely redevelop, Marakele National Park, in South Africa's Waterberg Mountain – in an amazingly short time.
Backed by finance and expertise from multi-millionaire Dutch businessman, Paul Fentener van Vlissingen, that first project was a huge success. Van Vlissingen's family own the multinational SHV – one of the Netherlands' largest companies. (It controls numerous companies worldwide, including the Makro chain of wholesale stores.)
African Parks is now concerned with the long-term sustainability of some of Africa's national parks by forming commercial agreements with governments to manage and finance national parks. They aim to work with the inclusion of local communities, to safeguard the flora and fauna and to relieve local poverty. Ultimately, they aim to make their parks into sustainable, self-financing business units. However, they are willing to provide substantial funds to 'kick start' failing parks and areas – and also act as a channel for grants received for this from other donors.
The lease agreement for Liuwa Plain National Park was finally signed in Lusaka, on May 31 2004. The event was attended by the Litunga, The Ngambela, The Minister of Tourism, representatives from Barotse Royal Establishment and Libonda Royal Establishment, the Ambassadors of the USA and Netherlands, and various ZAWA personnel.
African Parks have committed the sum US$2 million to Liuwa Plain over a five-year period – and there are already signs that poaching is coming under control (eg: wildebeest meat is no longer available in local markets). There are plans for 2005 to re-introduce eland, buffalo and Lichtenstein's hartebeest, and to boost the population of red lechwe.
See www.africanparks-conservation.com for more information.
Apart from the sandy track leading to Matamanene Camp, there are no roads at all in the national park. That, however, is part of the park's attraction: 3,660km2 of seriously untouched Africa. Most of this is a vast honey-coloured grass plain, stretching about 70km long and 30km wide. Within this there's just the occasional open pan, cluster of raffia palms, or small tree-island interrupting the flatness. In places you can look 360° around you and see nothing but a flat expanse. The environment is unlike any other park in Zambia – the most similar places are probably Katavi, in western Tanzania, and, possibly, the much smaller Kazuma Pan in Zimbabwe.
Large areas of this plain are totally flooded from around December to April, with the waters rising in the north and spreading southwards. It's this flooding which drives the migration, as the herds move out of the woodlands to the north, and on to the open plain for new, fresh grazing.
In the centre, and especially the southern side, of this enormous grassy plain, you'll find a scattering of open pans, many of which hold their water well into the dry season. These are well worth investigating. Although in the dry season some will appear almost lifeless, others will have great concentrations of birds or antelope.