WEST LUNGA NATIONAL PARK
West Lunga National Park
The third time that we visited West Lunga, we stayed at Jivundu, the science & research camp at the south of the park. They were planning on doing some animal collaring, so they had a helicopter on hold for the weekend. When we got there, the researchers and conservationists had some exciting news: they had just discovered what they thought to be a meteorite crater in the northern part of the park, which they’d spotted during a heli scouting venture.
After they had finished their important duties with the heli, they took my husband and I up for a photographic mission. We lifted off in the very early morning, just as the sun rose over the Kabompo River and flew over hundreds of square miles of Mavunda forest, which is so thick that people still don’t really know what’s inside it. We circled the treetops where Marabou Storks nest in their hundreds, their bright white eggs perched like giant fruits atop the branches.
After 20 minutes or so, someone shouted “there it is!” and pointed to our left. The pilot leaned towards it and we excitedly looked down. There, in the middle of a vast sea of trees stretching to the horizon, was a shadowed, deep, perfectly circular hole in the ground. The pilot searched for a place to land, and, to my unease, seemed happy with a tiny opening in the forest. “Watch my tail,” he said, and carefully navigated us down towards the ground. He managed to park the heli safely, and we all hopped out. We were only a few metres away from the crater, but the forest and undergrowth made it impossible to see. Using the coordinates on a GPS, we hacked through tall grass and thicket and found the forest abruptly dropping away. From the edge of the crater, we could see the other side; it was perhaps 1000 metres across and 30 metres deep.
We stumbled and slipped down the steep edge, using vines and trees like ladders. The first thing I noticed when we got to the bottom was the melodic echo of birdsong, as though we’d climbed into an atrium. The inside of the crater wasn’t shockingly different from the rest of the forest, but it was certainly much cooler, and seemed to have its own little ecosystem. The bottom was filled with water, but we couldn’t tell if it was deep or just a shallow swamp. I didn’t know where to start shooting; there wasn’t a particular feature or object to focus my camera on. Like the rest of the forest, there were trees, ferns, and grass. But the crater had a mood about it: a cool, quiet mysteriousness.
When we climbed out and headed home, I felt a sense of excitement. I had gotten to be among the first to explore an undocumented place. With today’s technology and globalism, there aren’t many of those places left. As West Lunga opens up to tourists, many more people will likely get to climb down and touch the bottom of the crater, and experience the same sense of awe that I did. Right now, though, West Lunga is only just coming into the public eye. It is still, amazingly, a place that is yet to be explored.