Braving leeches and watersnakes, Stephanie Debere heads into a vast Zambian swamp to see the giant shoebill, one of the most extraordinary creatures on earth

'It is not all pleasure, this exploration," wrote David Livingstone in 1873, hopelessly lost and dying in Zambia's seemingly endless Bangweulu Swamps. After several hours' wading thigh-deep through rotting reeds and mulchy water, I was inclined to agree - although Patson, our irrepressibly enthusiastic guide, was not.

We had come to see Africa's most sought-after bird, the huge, rare and prehistoric-looking shoebill stork, which is found only in a few inaccessible spots between southern Sudan and northern Zambia. Up to 1.4m tall, very like the dodo, the shoebill is so called because its massive beak resembles a wooden shoe. Older literature refers to it as a whale-headed stork but my favourite name is the Latin one: Balaeniceps rex.

B. rex sounded worth the wade. We had set out at dawn from Shoebill Island, a tented safari camp set by a river on the edge of the swamps that defeated Livingstone. Their name gives a clue to the scale of these vast, flat wetlands: Bangweulu means "where the water meets the sky". Packed with wildlife, the swamps and Lake Bangweulu, to the north-west, were declared a wetland of international importance under the 1971 Ramsar international wetlands convention and have been the focus of a project by the conservation body WWF. Fishermen live here as their ancestors have for centuries, yet the area can be accurately described as one of Africa's remaining wildernesses, of which little is known. Such places confirm Zambia's emergence as one of the continent's most exciting destinations.

Despite the discomforts of swamp-wading, I had to concede that simply being in this remote, surreal place was thrilling. Patson poled our canoe along channels flanked by tall papyrus stands before we reached an open marshy area where he thought we might find B. rex. He wedged the canoe among the reeds, and then my companion Chris and I stepped gingerly out into tepid, calf-deep water, brown and thick with vegetation, rather like onion soup. I was thankful my old trainers prevented me from feeling what was underfoot, but by the time the water deepened to thigh-level, Patson's infectious zest for finding shoebills had crushed any squeamishness.

A tiny man with a wizened face and greying temples, he spoke little English, bar the name of virtually every bird we saw (more than 400 species have been recorded here). Suddenly, frantically signalling at us to squat, he whispered urgently, "Shoebill, shoebill!", his naked eyes spotting what I struggled to see even with binoculars.

We crept ahead, gaining dry land then re-entering water, until we had a clear view of a pair of earth's most extraordinary-looking creatures.

Shoulder-height to me, shoebills are rather frightful when viewed head-on, with their massive beaks and a frowning glare. In profile, however, they are charmingly dolphin-like in that the shape of their mouth denotes a smile. Intriguing and dressed in beautiful bluish slate-grey feathers, this couple was very frustrating. No sooner were we close enough to spy on them, than they took to the air, landing some distance away. Patson marked the precise spot on his astonishing mental map and we waded back to our canoe, poled across deep water (not suitable for swimming due to resident crocodiles and hippos), then re-entered the warm squelchy marsh only to repeat the exercise.

This game of cat-and-mouse lasted five hours. Never did we get close enough for the photographic portraits that Chris so badly wanted, but we were completely captivated - which is more than I ever thought I'd say about a bird.

Herds of lechwe (semi-aquatic antelope) splashed by, eagles soared above and bee-eaters flashed past. From the knees up, it was idyllic. Until, that is, I saw the first leech slithering into my shoe. When Patson volunteered that shoebills augment their diet of lungfish with delicacies such as water snakes, it suddenly seemed time to go home.

Disappointed, Patson conceded. To our astonishment, he stripped off his T-shirt, twisted it into a turban and hoisted the heavy fibreglass canoe on to his head, setting off across the uneven terrain on a crow's-flight route to camp.

Once it was over, it became one of the best mornings I had known in 15 years of African travel. Over lunch of salads, pâté, and freshly baked rolls, we proudly displayed reed-scratched legs and told six fellow guests (who had stuck to their canoes) of the horrors we had endured. Yet I felt quite fraudulent, knowing that our discomfort was nothing compared to Livingstone's suffering in these wetlands.

After seven years' travel desperately seeking the source of the Nile, the explorer entered the Bangweulu swamps in January 1873, unaware that they extended over 100 miles. Never again did he know with certainty where he was. Dying from malaria, dysentery and internal haemorrhage, he was carried by loyal African followers until they emerged to the south in mid-April. Too ill to continue, Livingstone died in Chief Chitambo's village, aged 60.

A simple stone monument marks the spot where his heart was buried, before his followers carried his embalmed body more than 1,000 miles to the now Tanzanian coast for shipment to England. By road, it is a simple detour en route to Shoebill Island. If you are lucky, the present Chief Chitambo, great-grandson of the chief who received Livingstone, will guide you from his village to the memorial, which is moving in its austerity.

Guests can also fly to Shoebill, via an airstrip a short distance from the surrounding floodplains. The drive in, however, is a true dirt-road African adventure (4x4 essential). The only signpost we saw was a rusting piece of painted tin denoting a beguilingly misspelt "National Nonument".

The "nonument" in question was Nsalu Cave, a shallow gaping arch halfway up a 100m-high granite outcrop rearing from the flat surrounding bush. We scrambled up between boulders and spiky aloes to find a giant curved mural, perhaps 20 metres wide, of Bushman rock paintings made by late Stone Age and Iron Age settlers. Geometric lines and swirls, ladder shapes and sun images overlapped in red, white and buttermilk yellow, now interspersed with scraps of modern graffiti: "M. Mponde was here as a tourist." Turning to climb down, we were halted by the view: tree-covered bush, far-off, hazy outcrops and thunderheads processing across the horizon dragging grey veils of rain.

We stopped overnight at Lake Waka Waka nearby. Its shores are untouched save for a small rustic camp with several thatched huts containing mosquito-netted beds. The bucket shower, long-drop lavatory and cooking area were all kept scrupulously clean by immensely friendly staff. Within minutes of our dust-caked arrival, a blazing campfire had been lit and the shower supplied with hot water.

"It's safe to swim in the lake," we were assured the next morning, but our traveller's fear of crocodiles and schistosomes, the water-dwelling parasites that carry the disease bilharzia, was too deeply ingrained. Instead, we climbed a rocky wooded slope whose summit gave excellent views of the lake and surrounding countryside. It remains part of Africa's charm that places such as Waka Waka exist yet are so little known.

The four-hour drive to Bangweulu, through a stream of teased-out bush villages with remarkably well-kept compounds, was joyful. Screaming children ran to wave as if we were celebrities: vehicles rarely pass. We bought a whole branch of bananas, soon sadly puréed by the Land Rover's jolting along the rutted track.

Jehovah's Witnesses had worked hard here, erecting a seemingly disproportionate number of assembly halls. We gave lifts to a besuited old man and a teenage mother. Pedestrians darted comically out of the road with alarm as soon as they heard our approach.

The trees petered out as we reached the Bangweulu floodplains. Driving across short open grass, we suddenly realised that the dark line encircling us on the horizon was not distant forest. Breaking and surging, it was alive: we were surrounded by tens of thousands of black lechwe, a sub-species endemic to Bangweulu, with smoky flanks and elegant horns. Their lines stretched as far as we could see.

Leaving the car by the airstrip, we transferred to canoes, and were poled to Shoebill Island in time for sundowners. The camp comprises six two-bed mosquito-proofed tents under thatch, each with an en suite bucket shower and a private long-drop lavatory nearby. It's not luxurious by safari standards, but is remarkably comfortable given its remoteness, and the setting is peerless. The camp is linear: at one end overlooking the river and swamps is an open-sided reed breakfast room. At the other stands a sturdier, thatched dining room. Outside, watching a crimson sky darken, we drank South African pinot and grazed on home-made pizza bites round the fire. Our host was Edmund Farmer, a thirty-something Englishman who also manages Kasanka National Park. Beyond the customary khaki shirt and shorts, he is not what you would expect of a man of the bush, having found his way to Zambia after studying engineering and fine art at Cambridge. His dishevelled air and compelling conversation testify that he still would not be out of place in a college library. Yet his commitment to Zambian tourism and conservation in the field is unquestionable.

"Though it's not a national park, Bangweulu is protected by Zambia's Wildlife Authority as a game management area," he explained over a feast of soup, chicken stew and banana pancakes.

"Tourism to Bangweulu is designed to benefit local people, both to promote development and on the basis that the best means of conserving wildlife is to give it an economic value in the eyes of the community. The Kasanka Trust (which runs Shoebill Camp) provides anti-poaching scouts and five per cent of our tourism revenue goes to the community council."

Bangweulu's inhabitants are learning to value their B. rex population in the wild. Only 11,000 to 15,000 shoebills are estimated to exist, and as well as being sought by ornithologists, they are also sold for meat and for profit. The going rate is between £50,000 and £100,000 for sale to zoos, making them the most expensive birds in the trade.

Bangweulu is Africa's premier shoebill destination, and with eco-tourism on a sharp rise, that status is valuable. "Last year, every single visitor between April and July saw shoebills," said Edmund. "You don't always have to wade for hours. Often they're seen from camp, or, as the season progresses and the area dries out, you can reach them on foot without getting wet."

Following our swamp-walk, the rest of our stay at Shoebill Island seemed sheer indulgence. After a siesta, we took a short canoe ride back to the floodplains, passing fishermen and majestic wattled cranes, saddle-billed storks and black-crowned night herons bathed in gold by the low sun. It was a world of huge calm, glassy reflections and shimmering light.

On land, Edmund drove us to see the lechwe up close, mingled with smaller herds of zebra and tsessebe (long-faced, cocoa-coloured antelope) and parties of large Denham's bustards. At the outer edge of the floodplains, among termite mounds and islands of palms, we stopped for sundowners under magnificent skies: huge, empty and blushing, "as wide as Arizona's", said Edmund.

I didn't know which way to look: on the horizon opposite the tangerine sunset, skyscraper clouds flashed with internal lightning, highlighting themselves against the darkening blue. We drove back under the stars with the spotlight picking out jackal and lechwe, then canoed back to camp. Low on the water, an apiculturist's hat and veil wouldn't have gone amiss: at night, these channels are mosquito heaven.

Our final dawn's boat ride was utterly peaceful. The only sounds were from lechwe splashing through rising mist, and the cries of flying ducks. A hippo suddenly shunted in the reeds, reinforcing the sense that these magical swamps hide endless treasures. Buffalo grazed on grassy islands. Bangweulu's beauty was staggering.

Before we left, Edmund took us up in his Cessna 206, with the doors removed to maximise both photo opportunities and adrenalin surge. Lechwe thundered in all directions as we swooped low overhead before veering high above an endless watery labyrinth.

The brassy swamps dazzled invitingly in the sun. Unlike the hapless Dr Livingstone, we could only conclude that exploring Bangweulu was really an enormous pleasure.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Sunvil Africa (020-8232 9777; www.sunvil.co.uk) offers a selection of itineraries in Zambia. Nine-day trips cost from £1,429, including return flights, transfers, accommodation and guides. The company can also arrange tailor-made trips including Shoebill Island. British Airways (0870-850 9 850; www.ba.com) flies to Lusaka from £663 return.

Further information

The best time for seeing shoebill storks is March to July. Contact the Zambia High Commission for more information (020-7589 6655) or visit www.zambiatourism.com and www.kasanka.com).

Zambia, The Bradt Travel Guide, by Chris McIntyre, price £12.95.

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