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Birth of Earth's greatest park

6 October 2009

The Chobe and Zambezi are the arteries of a gigantic peace park in the making; one that is set to alleviate the overpopulation of elephants along these banks and transform tourism in southern Africa.

The Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA) is known as Kaza (Kavango Zambezi) and incorporates vast tracts of land around these two river basins in Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Proposed as perhaps the most ambitious of Africa's "peace parks", the cornerstone of Kaza was laid with the signing of an memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the countries on December 7, 2006.

The TFCA will encompass an area of 287 132km² and include 36 national parks, game reserves, community conservancies and game management areas.

Zambia was chosen as a guinea pig to test the integration of this system. After a year of consultation with local stakeholders, an integrated development plan (IDP) was put in place which seeks to ensure sustainable and equitable management of the Zambian component. Versions of this IDP are now being replicated in the other four countries.

The Peace Parks Foundation, based in Stellenbosch, has been crucial in lubricating the process and sourcing funds. Asked about the slow pace of the project, Alan Sparrow, who represents Peace Parks in Victoria Falls, said: "The scale is enormous and there are so many different components. The period between the MOU and the signing of a treaty between all five countries next year has been designed to address the problems. For instance, negotiating a land link for elephants to move between Botswana and Zambia means dealing with national parks, forestry departments, local chiefs. Fire and water management need to be co-ordinated and a marketing plan developed."

I flew into Victoria Falls to find out how the tourist elements of Kaza were progressing. Brett McDonald, owner of Durban-based Flame of Africa and co-founder of the Save Hwange Trust, proposed a route that took in as many of the tourism elements as we could fit into a week.

We set off from Vic Falls and headed for Binga on Lake Kariba, the easternmost edge of the TFCA. There we boarded the houseboat, Lady Jacqueline, and sailed into the setting sun. Brett was keen to get us all fishing for tigers the next morning, so we set off puttering up a creek. Hippos lumbered into the water at our approach; crocs lay doggo, pretending not to notice us. Brett had one knock and a bit of a chase, but for the most part the tigers were otherwise occupied.

Evening found us on a game drive from Ivory Lodge along the eastern edge of Hwange National Park. Suddenly a male cheetah stepped into the road. Over to the right, another cheetah started growling. This was a border control issue. A fight ensured and one cat died from a fatal bite. The victor stood over his foe and let out a bloodcurdling mewl: my territory! We drove back to camp dumbstruck.

The next day, we ventured deeper into Hwange. Brett wanted to inspect some of the projects funded by Save Hwange Trust. With the money collected, pumps have been kept running to supply animals with water, and camps that had fallen into disrepair have been restored.

Heading west, we stopped at four camps - Guvulala Platform, Shumba, Masuma Pan and Sinamatela - that had seen the benefits of trust funds. Buildings and ablutions had been renovated and painted, fences erected and the places looked neat and functional... just unoccupied. Game was plentiful, despite reports of poaching in the press. At Sinamatela Camp, where we stopped for a picnic lunch, traffic around the waterhole was incessant.

From Hwange, we returned to Vic Falls and crossed into Zambia. It was clear that customs formalities and exorbitant fees (R500 for a vehicle) would need to be adjusted to encourage tourists.

The northern side of the Zambezi has benefited greatly from Zimbabwe's woes and Livingstone was bustling. Although the balance of power is likely to shift back across the river as Zimbabwe normalises, the kind of cross-border initiatives and "uni-visas" made possible by Kaza TFCA are intended to spread the tourism net far wider than these traditional nodes.

One of the finest lodges in this region is Islands of Siankaba. The lodge is a picturesque arrangement of structures and tents on platforms reached by raised wooden walkways and hanging bridges.

Victoria Falls and the various activities associated with it remains Kaza's biggest drawcard. The Falls has always prided itself on alternative wildlife experiences, such as elephant-back riding. Now, you can walk with lions.

Next, we headed west and crossed the border into Botswana. From Kasane, we were picked up by a boat and ferried across the Chobe River to King's Den Lodge in the Caprivi Strip.

Although we slept on the Namibian side of the river, our game activities were in Chobe National Park in Botswana. We explored the south bank, which crawls with wildlife, especially elephant.

Towards sunset on our last evening, we boarded a boat and cruised into a red sun, at times switching off the engines to drift. The very first casts produced tigers and soon everyone's line was singing.

I watched the swirling Chobe which, with the Zambezi and Okavango, were the great watery braids that stitched together Kaza. Kaza still has a way to go, but most of the elements are already there. In time, hopefully, the entire region will become integrated, free flow of humans will be a reality and the greatest park on Earth will be born.

This article was published with the permission of Getaway magazine

IOLTravel.co.za / Getaway Magazine October issueJustin Fox

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