It’s all about the beauty. And the beast …

The Kuomboka water trek – the magical ceremony of Barotseland, Western Zambia

The king of the Lozi (the people from Barotseland) resides during the summer in his island palace, but after the summer rains, when the water table in the Zambezi rises too high and encroaches the island, he retreats to his winter palace on the mainland. This ceremony, or Kuomboka (“getting out of the the water”), has been happening for centuries and is one of Africa’s most majestic events. Nobody but the king knows the exact date when it will happen, but Gerry Rautenbach happened to be in the right place at the right time. With a little bid of help from some friends.

 “Chum Two, Chum Two, Chum Two, this is Chum One, come in …” the two-way radio suddenly squeaked from the panel of the Cruiser. The tinny voice pounced on me in the midnight dark while I’m sweating and concentrating on deciphering the wasted pot-holed road, wandering goats and dodging pedestrians.

Next to me travel buddy Johan Bakkes was snoring away and didn’t even hear the crackling call. It’s best so, because the road was long and not user friendly. Let him rest, his turn to take control was imminent. Without looking, I grabbed the hand piece and press the red button.

“Chum One, this is Chum Two, standing by …”

“Chum Two, just checking if you’re awake. I’ve been asleep for the last 10 kilometres.”

Chum One was Piet du Toit and he’s earned that number. His well-worn Land-Rover spearheaded the convoy. With him was Kennister Maziezi Chibeya, manager of Kabula Lodge and one of the proud Lozi’s of Barotseland. Sprawled out in the back was Chief Bradson Mabuku Mubilikautema, the leader of the district where you’ll find Kabula. Protocol stipulated that he’s a notch above even Chum One. Behind Johan and I was Chum Three, consisting of Willie Booysen senior, Willie Booysen junior, Basie Steenkamp and Thys van der Merwe. We were in Zambia, somewhere between Livingstone and Lusaka, on our way to experience the Kuomboka in Barotseland. Hopefully.

Somewhere between Lusaka and Monga in the Kafue

Where did it all begin?
Some years ago Piet and his wife, Leonie, were cruising on the M10 route from Katima Mulilo, the border town between Namibia and Zambia, to Liuwa National Park when, at a whim, he took the turn-off to Kabula Lodge, 58 kilometres from Katima Mulilo in Zambia. In Western Zambia or Barotseland to be exact.

They found a rather dilapidated lodge with incredible potential. Today, by the grace of Chief Mubilikautema (and a lot of hard, hard work) Piet has resurrected this lodge offering a piece of African magic, superb tiger fishing and a perfect base into Barotseland as well as awesome expeditions into the rest of Zambia. And Africa.

Included in the deal was Kennister. Kennister with his polio-damaged bandy-leg. And his grit. Before Piet, Kennister was a hobbling go-for. Today he is the manager of Kabula Lodge. With responsibilities, a salary, uniform, cell phone and quad bike. Not to mention dignity and the respect of his community.

In addition to reviving Kabula, Piet started uplifting the community. He didn’t give them food, but taught them to farm. He also created a football league with the pitch being on the airstrip and the Kabula team playing their hearts out and mostly winning. For Piet.

I met Piet at a travel fair in Johannesburg and over a frosty he told me about Kabula, Barotseland and Zambia. Inevitably the conversation ended up at the magical Kuomboka.  My ears pricked up. I wanted this story. Especially since virtually nothing has been written about it at that stage. The reason for that is because nobody except the litunga (the king) and a very few very closely related people know when it will happen.

The first time the people of Barotseland know the Kuomboka is about to happen is when Litunga Lubosi Imwiko II order the maoma (the royal drums) to announce it, literally the night before the event, getting the 120 royal oarsmen ready to row the Nalikwanda – a gigantic boat in the shape of a makolo. Imagine an overgrown canoe fit for Gulliver in Lilliput.

This specific year rumours at first had it that it would be late February. However, the litunga decided the water was still too low and moved it to mid March. We all got ready to roll, but the king changed the date yet again. Fortunately Piet was well connected and mukwae (princess) Monde Mubita, the granddaughter of the litunga’s aunt confirmed it was to happen on 12 April. Cast in stone.

The road to the Kuomboka
So we mobilised as quick as we could and on  9 April Johan and I were hard on the Cruiser’s gas to make the border post between Namibia and Zambia at Katima Mulilo before six o’ clock. We needed to be at Kabula Lodge that night. There were plans to be made. Routes to choose. Decisions to be made.

With five minutes to spare we cruised into Zambia. What is this craziness coming over one after crossing an African border? It’s like being set free. A bit of a “school’s out” feeling. Elated we tackled the M10, Barotseland’s main route south to north. We’re running out of daylight, but not lightness of being. I popped Steppenwolf’s “Born to be wild” into the player …

Like a true nature’s child
We were born, born to be wild
We can climb so high
I never wanna die

Born to be wild
Born to be wild …

Somewhere ahead was Kabula Lodge. Five years earlier Johan tried to attend the Kuomboka but failed. His attempt was also from Kabula, but that was before Piet took over. Will we succeed this time?

“I wonder if Kennister is still there?” Johan asked to no one in particular.

The night engulfed all of Africa in front of us in a huge black blanket. Two spears of light from the Cruiser fought the darkness, searching for a sign. We felt kind of lost but also bubbling with anticipation. Our souls were soaring, knowing something big is close. The essence of travelling in Africa.

Then the headlights bounced back from the signpost indicating Kabula Lodge to the right in the direction of the Zambezi River. We glided in 4×4 down a thick sand road until it spat us out into the circle of wooden chalets making up a magic lodge. In anticipation Johan was leaning ahead. Suddenly the lights casted a grotesque hobbling shadow against a wild olive tree looking like something out of a Tarantino movie. Johan grinned with a happy lump in his throat.

“He’s still here …”

Travel buddy Johan and Kennister

“Hallo, Mister Johan,” Kennister remembered him with white teeth glistening in a welcome smile. The world is too big to travel to the same place more than once, some intrepid travellers reckon. This reunion proved the opposite.

“Welcome chums,” Piet greeted us. “Let the adventure begin.”

Yes.

Rerouting the route
The next evening, we were joined by Willie senior and his son, Willie junior. With the map spread open in front of us, you could feel the excitement in the air. The anticipation. Mongu, the town central to the Kuomboka is situated a mere 250 kilometres north of Kabula. Although the road north might require 4×4, we’ll get there in no time. So we thought until Piet gave us the news.

Mongu is on the eastern side of the mighty Zambezi, which meant we had to cross the river to get there. The only way over is with the ferry at Sioma. And the ferry was out of sorts. Well, actually completely out of order.

Sioma falls overflowing

So near, yet so far … Then Piet, remembered a conversation he had a while ago. A conversation with one of the local Lozis who originally came from Luampa, a village between Mongo and Lusaka. Apparently there is a “road” linking Luampa with the M10 close to Sesheke, rather close to Kabula. And there is a bridge over the river near Sesheke.

The next morning Piet sent word to find the man from Luampa. By ten o’ clock we were sitting in a semi circle, having an indaba with Fred from Luampa. He assured us there is a road. And in good nick. Piet tried to find it on his GPS. Nada.

“But the road, it is,” said Fred.

“Right Fred,” said Piet, “when last have you been on this road?”

“Uhm … let me think,” said Fred, scratching his head. “It was for my father’s funeral. So it … was February …”

“Great, that’s just about six weeks ago!” Piet exulted.

“ … of 1975.” Fred completes his sentence. And Africa is changing all the time.

It wasn’t worth taking the gamble. There was only one sensible (well, workable) option left. The long way round via Livingstone, Lusaka and then through the Kafue Game Reserve and eventually to Mongu. A detour of more than 1 000 kilometres (that eventually took 27 hours) leaving us a mere 250 kilometres from Kabula. Yes, Africa is not for sissies and we were going to take her on. As long as King Litunga Lubosi Imwiko II didn’t change the dates yet again. The biggest horror was getting through Lusaka. Even after midnight, the potholed roads are packed with eighteen-wheelers and hobbling taxi’s. And people, people, people. It was about halfway through the Kafue where Piet let us know he’s been sleeping for the last 10 kilometres …

What exactly is the Kuomboka?
During the latter half of every year the water level of the Zambezi steadily drops and the Lozi move into the dried out Barotse flood plain to be close to the diminishing water source – for themselves and their livestock. However, when the summer rains come, this dried out plain becomes the mighty Zambezi again; at places up to 27 kilometres wide. When this happens, all forms of life make beelines for the high ground. From mice and men, rats, snakes and the feared suluyi (the African driver ant). The Lozi say that even snakes hide in the reeds to not be confronted by these mighty red soldiers.

Barotse floodplains bursting at the seams

As any king should, the king waits for his people to safely clear the area before he announces his own relocation from his summer palace in Lealui, an island in the flood plains to the high ground of his winter palace, Limulunga near Mongo.

This happens anywhere from mid March to mid April, but nobody knows exactly when. When his people are safe, when the moon is right and when King Litunga Lubosi Imwiko II is ready, the maoma make the drums talk, readying the rowers. The Nalikwanda  – a huge canoe-shaped boat weighing over 11 tons and its 120 rowers will be ready. For a young, able-bodied Lozi soldier there is no bigger honour than to be a Kuamboka rower for his king, taking him on a 34 kilometre spectacular water trek lasting more than eight hours to his safe winter high ground.

Early the morning of 12 April we left the mainland at Mongo for the king’s summer palace. Piet was way ahead with protocol and brought chief Mubilikautema from his district, where Kabula is, along to negotiate the rights to take pictures. With a sigh of relief I see the litunga’s second in command nodding positive for pics. Then things suddenly started happening rather frenetically.

Spectators surged and you had to jockey for a position to see anything. I was getting stressed out, yet again being so near yet so far. With all this turmoil I was sure I was going to miss the opportunity to witness the litunga on the Nalikwanda.

Suddenly princess Monde was there, urging us to go with her. Not knowing what else to do, we followed her. In totally the opposite direction, away from the Nalikwanda.

She made us get into a makolo (a hollowed-out tree trunk resembling a canoe) and off we glided. Away from everything. We could’t really fathom what’s happening. She was taking us away from everything.

“Trust me on this one,” she tried to assure us. “I’ve witnessed more than 25 Kuombokas. The whole entourage is coming this way. This channel we’re on now, is the channel to his winter palace,” she ended her plight.

A VIP view of the Nalikwanda

I felt like somebody in the wrong dream. A nightmare. Everything was happening elsewhere. We were all by ourselves in the channel that princess Monde said was just the place to be. Why was everyone else elsewhere? It felt wrong. Monde kept her cool. Suddenly  the Nalikwanda turned into our channel and came straight at us. Monde laughed. I cried, wrestling my Nikon upwards. It was happening. The drums. The rowers heaving in unison. Johan looked on in awe. We were a part of the Kuomboko. I’ve never seen, never experienced anything like it. I felt Johan’s strong bangled arm giving me a powerful man-hug.

The arrival at the winter palace
We followed the Nalikwanda for some time down the channel, but at a shorter water channel, too narrow for the Nalikwanda, Monde instructed the polar to veer off. We needed to get to the landing spot at the winter palace as soon as possible.

There she managed to get us into the VIP space. We sat right up front on the bank of the channel where the Nalikwanda was to beach. The sun was glaring high in the West. Sharing our eyes, we stared in the same direction; the direction the king would come from. We waited. The Lozi was singing. The Lozi was dancing. There king was on his way. Anticipation …

Slowly the sun started dipping, meeting the dust from their dancing, shuffling feet. Suddenly, in the haze, we saw two makolo’s gliding in. Each carrying four men. This was the natamekwa, the reconnaissance group, coming to ensure everything is safe for their king’s arrival, causing a slow, collective sigh from the crowd. The big moment was only a moment away.

The natamekwa, or reconnaissance group, ensuring the landing place is safe

The sigh grews into an almost growl. An ancient call from the bowels of Africa. The  Nalikwanda glided out of the golden reflection of the water into view. The king was arriving. His people heaved forward. I was sitting on the edge of the channel, determined to get my pic of the king setting foot ashore.

The rowers rowed up to the edge, but didn’t beach. In unison they reversed their stride, taking the Nalikwande backwards. The masses groaned. The rowers brought the boat back to the shore yet again. Repeating the reverse stride. It was like a mock-charge. The crowd became more and more energised. They resembled thousands of athletes waiting for the gun to go off. The dust cloud mushroomed upwards. Aah … the litunga is here. Long live the king.

The arrival of the Nalikwanda

On the next charge the Nalikwanda beached. Everything became quiet. Somewhere in the enclosure with the life-size handmade elephant on its roof, the litunga waited at the ready. The sun started a last waltz with the dust cloud. The women started singing. Barotseland held its breath. Then a statuesque Litunga Lubiso Imwiko II walked out of the enclosure in his formidable British military uniform. Slowly he approached the shore. It went completely quiet. Almost all you could here was the lapping water against the Nalikwanda, cicadas in the trees lining the shore and the distinctive, plaintive cry of a fish eagle in the distance.

I was ready, following him through the Nikon’s viewfinder. Somehow I felt that his first step on land form the Nalikwanda is the height of it all. I wanted that pic. I have the camera’s shutter release sett on continuous. As he stepped ashore I let rip. However, as he stepped ashore a hoard of the king’s devotees also let rip. All hell broke loose as the mass of bodies broke loose, and stormed forward, wanting to touch their messiah. They literally ran over me, using my back as a springboard to try and clear the arrow point of the channel. All I could do was protect my camera in the hollow of my bent body.

 

The PIC: King Litunga Lubosi Imwiko II stepping ashore

Then it was all over as the king entered his palace. Together with the last rays of the sun, the last of the Lozi’s disappeared in the settling dust. Apart from a myriad Lozi tracks on my back I was fine. My camera was fine. As I looked up, I saw Johan grinning as he walked over to me with widespread arms while shaking the red Barotse dust from his long, wild hair.

“Five years … I’ve been waiting five years for this. Thanks bud!” and he grabbed me in a bear hug, almost crunching my camera singlehandedly this time. Over his shoulder I spotted Piet with a happy grin lighting up his sunburnt face.

“Now we are forever part of the Kuomboka chums,” he drawled.

“Thanks Chum One …”

From behind him, mukwae Monde Mubita appeared.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you Monde, and I apologise for doubting you,” I tried to express my gratitude.

Uzamaye hande,” she answered. (“Go well,” Chum One mouths.)

“You too princess, and we will see again.” She put her hand on her heart, smiled with a little nod before turning around. She slowly disappeared into Barotseland’s settling dust. I never saw her again.

Postscript: Going back, we did opt for the adventurous Luampa road. It was still there since 1975. Well, sort of. It was fine and rough at the same time, including a water crossing of 500 metres through the Loanja River. It took more than two days to complete, meaning if we took it going there, we would have missed the Kuomboka, arguably Africa’s most spectacular event.

The adventure road going back

Count me in
If you want to experience the Kuomboka, you will need Africa’s biggest commodity: time. And patience. But it is worth the wait. Contact Gerry at gerry@travelinafrica.africa or click HERE.

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