Graham's floristic observations on safari

August-September 2004

The text below describes the flora that we saw in Zambia. There is also a page with images of wild flowers: Click here to see wild flowers of Zambia.

Mary and I had previously travelled twice to southern parts of Africa. (I had also been there earlier on a business trip.) Many visitors to Africa feel compelled to return, even again and again, and so it was a natural choice for celebrating our twentieth wedding anniversary. Our earlier travels were south of the Zambezi River: Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. We had also spent just one day in Zambia, in 1996, when we took the train from Victoria Falls (in Zimbabwe) to Livingstone (in Zambia), 11 kilometers each way - across in the morning and back in the afternoon, long enough to visit the National Museum and to purchase a copy of the only book so far published about Zambia wild flowers. (Doreen Bolnick, "A guide to the common wild flowers of Zambia and neighbouring regions", Macmillan Zambia, 1995). Thus was planted the seed for our more extensive recent visit to Zambia, in August and September 2004. [Click on the thumbnail to see typical African bush, in this case a Duikerberry Tree, Pseudolachnostylis maprouneifolia, at Mwaleshi, framed by two Sausage Trees, Kigelia africana, and a termite mound in the foreground.]

Our journey took in three national parks, Kafue, to the west of Lusaka, the capital city, and South Luangwa and North Luangwa to the northeast. We stayed at five different lodges and bush camps located adjacent to or within the national parks.

The journey was nominally to see animals, which we saw in substantial quantities: elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena, buffalo, giraffe, impala, puku, kudu, hippopotamus, and many others. Mary counted a total of 39, I also saw over 50 species of birds that I'd not seen previously. Activities included not only being driven around the parks in safari vehicles, but also walking. What I had not anticipated was the opportunity to see the flora at closer quarters and in greater detail than previously. It's hard not to notice the rich variety of vegetation. [Click on the thumbnail to see an enlarged image of this elephant in South Luangwa National Park.]

Kafue National Park is mostly open woodland. Big trees follow the river courses. Lunga River Lodge gave us a cabin with a balcony overlooking the Lunga River, which carries a sizable volume of crystal-clear water. Throaty calls from the many dozens of hippos go on day and night, and elephant occasionally wade across the river, three-quarters submerged. To one side of our cabin was an African Ebony tree, also known as Jackal-berry (Diospyros mespiliformis), which continually dropped ripe fruit on to our deck. The little spherical-shaped fruit, about 0.75-inch diameter, are delightfully sweet. I took a liking to them, as do the river fish that patiently wait for them to fall. [Click on the thumbnail to see the cabin where we stayed at Lunga River Lodge.]

That is just one of many edible fruits utilized by the Zambian villagers. Another that we saw is the Mobola Plum (Parinari curatellifolia), which grows on a large tree. The egg-shaped orange-colored fruit, about 1-inch long, have a layer of orange-colored flesh surrounding a large seed, and are easy to peel and eat, a pleasant flavor although unpleasantly dry if not fully ripe. On a number of occasions we saw elephant browsing on the fallen fruit under these trees.

Another prominent edible fruit is that from the Monkey Orange trees (Strychnos madagascariensis and S. spinosa), which is spherical, about 3-4 inches diameter, with a shell hard like a cricket ball. As the name implies, the fruit contains poison at certain stages and requires special preparation. Overall, there appears to be a substantial amount and variety of edible fruit in the African bush. [Click on the thumbnail to see the Green Monkey Orange tree, Strychnos spinosa.]

Then there are the ubiquitous Sausage Trees (Kigelia africana). The huge, purple flowers, typically five-to-six inches across, appear at night and are fertilized by bats. In the morning flowers are lying on the ground providing fresh delicacies for small antelope such as impala. The fruit of these sizable trees is a hard-shelled "sausage". We've seen them up to about 2-feet long and 4-inches diameter, a formidable weight. The sausage contains only pith, with small seeds here and there, and provides food for animals. The drier parts of Zambia are the only places in Africa where fallen fruit of the sausage tree are eaten by hippos during the dry season. [Click on the thumbnail to see a sausage tree.]

Some trees are wonderfully aromatic. Of particular note in the South Luangwa National Park is the Wild Mango (Irvingia gabonensis), with its masses of orange flowers. Another that appeared more widespread is the Natal Mahogany (Trichilia emetica), the sweet smell of the creamy-colored flowers denoting the tree's presence to anyone passing underneath or nearby. Despite the suggestive name, the timber from the Natal Mahogany is too soft for wood-working. A strikingly rich aroma comes from the Woolly Caper Bush (Capparis tomentosa), which is related to the plant that produces the capers we eat. The white, spidery flowers are new every day, and have often begun to wither by mid morning on a hot day. [Click on the left thumbnail to see the Natal Mahogany tree. Click on the right thumbnail to see its sweet-perfumed flower.]

The meandering Luangwa River flows approximately north to south through a flat-bottomed valley with a steep escarpment of over 1,000 feet on the western side, and a less-steep rise to the east. Over the years, the river changes its course through the sand. In the wet season, much of the valley floor is inundated. About half of the valley of 1,000 square kilometers is Mopane woodland (Colophospermum mopane). Along the river and its main tributaries are denser populations of trees. I've already mentioned the Sausage Tree and the Mahogany, but there are many, many others, such as the Winterthorn (Faidherbia albida), the Leadwood (Combretum imberbe), the Ebony (Euclea pseudebenus), and towards the western escarpment the miombo woodland with Brachystegia spiciformis as a major, large tree. And in places there are thorny acacias, so characteristic of Africa. [Click on the thumbnail to see Ebony trees in South Luangwa National Park.]

The day of our departure began at Mwaleshi Bush Camp, where hyenas ambushed and devoured a puku (a type of antelope) in the river beside our camp during the night, and where we had been the only guests for three days. (And the person in charge of the camp is a tree enthusiast!) We boarded a Cessna aircraft just after 7 a.m. at the local bush airstrip, and followed the Luangwa River for 45 minutes, back to the main airport at Mfuwi, providing a glorious sightseeing along a stretch of country that made a big impression on us.

Africa has so much to offer the plant enthusiast, even when the main tourist facilities are geared towards game viewing, which is, of course highly rewarding in its own right. It's true that a visit to Zambia requires more careful planning than a week at Yosemite, but it is still very accessible with the help of a suitably knowledgeable travel agent. A fully independent tour of the country is at this time best left to those familiar with the local customs and conditions, and who have appropriate vehicles.

Further south it's easier to be independent. For example, in 1996 we toured Zimbabwe and Namibia by rental car. In 2000, we used a rental car to see the spring wild flowers in Namaqualand, which is the far western portion of South Africa, north of Cape Town. If you are ever in Cape Town, don't miss a day at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, with its amazing display of native flora.

We greatly enjoyed our time in Zambia. It's a part of the world not yet on the popular tourist track, except for a very small portion of the safari market. It's true that almost every fellow traveler we met there is a repeat visitor who has been there multiple times, some on an annual basis. But then it's a very special place, has facilities for relatively few people at any one time, and isn't known to most travel agents. But it's thoroughly worth the effort. From this trip, we've learned that the possibilities for the independent traveler are actually greater than we had thought although still not extensive.

Finally, a word about books. If you are travelling to Africa, you may find it challenging to find field guides about birds, trees, and flowers. Even Amazon.com was not as helpful as I expected. A good mail-order source in the U.K. is nhbs.com, the natural history, environment, and science on-line bookstore. Best of all is the Botanical Society of South Africa, who provide a mail-order service. If you are travelling to Cape Town, go to the tourist shop at Kirstenbosch Gardens, which stocks virtually everything in the Botanical Society catalog. Be aware that most flora and fauna books deal with "Southern Africa", which means south of the Zambezi; but you'll find that many of the books are useful in Zambia, too.

Click here to see some wild flowers of Zambia.

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