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Overland Travel North-Western Zambia: Birds, Bats and Bogs

934
VIEWS

Words by Patrick Cruywagen Pictures by Patrick and Ali Cruywagen

There aren’t too many places in the world where you can come face-to-face with 10 million bats and 430 species of bird, all within 400 square kilometers. In fact, there’s probably just one: Zambia’s full-featured Kasanka National Park.

Serengeti wildebeest migration. Tick.
Silverback mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Tick.
Lion kill in the Kalahari. Tick.
Rafting the mighty Zambezi. Tick.
Bat migration in the Kasanka National Park. Say what?

I hate bats. Aren’t they blind? Don’t they get stuck in your hair or suck your blood? Urban myths they may be, but these were the thoughts going through my head as I tentatively made my way up the creaky wooden planks that would take me up into the hide, from where I hoped to see the several million bats. Nope, that’s not a typo, you read right. Several million bats.

The official park brochure handed to us when we entered the park puts the figure at close to the 10 million mark. We’ve driven a long, long way to witness this natural phenomenon and I’m beyond excited. I can hear the chattering sounds of the bats above the treetops but because we’re still under the green canopy of leaves I can’t see any. With about a third of the ladder still to climb I spot some – they’re tightly packed, occupying every available branch of a mushitu tree, their preferred roost. Hundreds of thousands of brown glassy eyes stare my way.

And then my head is above the canopy and a few hundred thousand bats stir restlessly. Even though it’s early afternoon and technically still their roosting and relaxing time, some bats, probably the insomniacs of the bunch, are flying about. Our guide whispers in my ear that this is nothing compared to the show they put on in the evening. I’m impressed by their sheer numbers, their sounds and the sweet scent they seem to give off. I suppose if you ate fruit and burped then the odour would be similarly not too unpleasant. Suddenly a crack rings out – a branch can’t support the weight of its passengers and it crashes earthwards. Chaos reigns as the bats try to make sense of it all.

A bat weighs about 700 g so if there are 3 000 on a branch then that makes for about 2.1 tons of load. Branches break all the time. I’m told that the bats love this evergreen mushitu tree swamp found near the Musola River; this unique and fragile vegetation system is found only near rivers and only in this part of the world. When the bat season is over, the damage that the bats have caused is pretty plain to see if you fly over the area.

Kasanka is small by African standards, at around 400 km2. It was made a national park in ’72 but thanks to poaching and poor management it was initially a conservation failure. Enter one David Lloyd, a former district officer and big-time hunter turned conservationist.While flying over the park in the 80s David heard poachers shooting and concluded that there must still be animals around. The various habitats so impressed him that he decided to try and save the place. He, together with local farmer Gary Williams, began by putting in some infrastructure such as roads, bridges and camps. When the tourists started to visit the Zambian authorities were so impressed that they allowed the privately-funded but publicly-run Kasanka Trust to officially manage the park, back then a first for Zambia.

Probably one of the most important events of those early years was the blessing and support David received from the Chief Chitambo IV, whose great-grandfather had received Dr David Livingstone in the 1873. David realised that without the chief and community’s blessing the park wouldn’t survive.

Today the Kasanka Trust employs just under 100 locals and is financed through tourism and donor funding. It’s a model that has been adopted by many other African parks. While the bats are the biggest drawcard in Kasanka there are many other things to see and do. There are over 430 bird species in the area, thanks to the lush vegetation and abundance of water. We saw kingfishers, bee-eaters, herons, lesser jacanas and pygmy geese. Many east and central African species also occur here such as Schalow’s and Ross’s turacos, Sousa’s shrike, Boehm’s flycatcher, Boehm’s bee-eater and the black-breasted barbet. And while out on an evening bat walk we saw some of the park’s elephant stroll by.

The most common sighting in the park is the puku, the impala of Kasanka. They’re everywhere. There are several other antelope species to be found but a highlight was seeing a shy Sitatunga grazing near the Chikufwe airstrip during a morning game drive. Our guidebook said that another good spot to see them was the Machan Sitatunga Hide, but we wouldn’t get lucky again.

After our first taste of the bat migration during our afternoon walk we returned later for the main attraction, the evening show. When the sun disappeared the first few took off . Then slowly but surely the numbers increased until it seemed that the entire dusk sky would be blacked out by millions of beating black wings. The bats circled the forest they were sleeping in only minutes earlier. I felt something splat against the back of my shirt – one of the millions had identified me as a mobile bat toilet.

Then without warning the hungriest individual makes a break for it and the masses follow. The night time search for food is on. Soon they’re all gone and you can almost hear all the trees in the forest give a collective sigh of relief. We watched this ritual repeat itself over two days and two nights and then we were batted out. So while the bats roosted we went on game drives around the park to see the various habitats which had so greatly impressed David Lloyd. Most of the park’s activities are centred around the wildlife and include game drives, guided walks, hanging out in the hides or visiting the very informative conservation centre.

As we yearned for some exercise we decided to head for the lodge at Luwomba River where one can do canoe trips down the river. Unfortunately they are colonial styled canoe trips so we could do nothing more strenuous than lie back and relax while our guides expertly steered the long green canoes upstream. This is a popular area for fishing with several tilapia species and catfish in attendance.

High up above us something stirred in the trees. “Blue monkeys,” said our guide. But no matter how much I stared at the foliage I couldn’t spot this rather rare primate. After about an hour or so we stopped at a clearing – some lunch for us and a rest for our oarsmen. Not long aft er we returned to the canoes there was a tremendous commotion on the elevated riverbank next to us.

A crocodile came flying through the air and landed just a few metres away; it was one of the biggest ones I have ever seen, right up there with the fat ones you get on the Mara River. Our presence on the river must have disturbed it and surprised crocs know only one course of action: head for the water. Imagine if the bugger had landed on one of the canoes! Soon our world was tranquil once more, and as our canoes quietly cut through the murky brown water I must have dozed off on more than one occasion.

There are many things to see around the Kasanka National Park such as the Nsalu Cave or Kundalila Falls but we decided to head for the most popular of them all, the Bangwelu Wetlands, which lie about 50 kilometres to the north as the crow flies. Locals warned us that this proximity is misleading as it takes about six or seven hours to cover the 150 kilometre track.

In the Oct ’10 issue of SA4x4 we published a story on these wetlands by Stephen Cunliff e, an account that detailed a visit during the height of the wet season. But now, even though the first rains had fallen and the plains had turned a bright, punchy green, it was still very dusty and dry, and we were able to drive all the way to Shoebill Island. This isn’t possible at the height of the rainy season when you have to take a boat the final few kilometres to reach the island.

This drive was one of the highlights of my trip. It was one of those classic remote African tracks that doesn’t see more than one vehicle a day. There are far more animal, bicycle and human tracks than tyre tracks. The locals greet you with wide white smiles and pigs wallow in the water-filled potholes. Before we got stuck into the track proper we took a slight detour to the Livingstone Memorial where the great explorer’s heart was buried in 1873 after he succumbed to malaria and dysentery. As soon as our big white Fortuner stopped at the memorial dozens of local kids came running to investigate. A man carrying a visitor’s book and asking only for a donation to help maintain the place greeted us. While modern medicines such as Coartem and preventative sprays such as Tabard help to keep present-day adventurers such as ourselves alive and well, the people of Chitambo village continue to die from malaria.

It would’ve been rude to drive past Chitambo village without stopping, so on the way back towards the main track we turned into what is known as the Chief’s Grounds. A white sign at the entrance tells us that no shouting will be tolerated. Several people mill about the car park and as we disembark, one of them – dressed in a brand new pair of green Wellington boots – saunters towards us. “Take off your hat,” he instructs me. I don’t have much hair on the top of my head and the African sun tends to boil my brains if I go hatless so I ask why he is allowed to wear a hat. “I am the chief and I can do as I please,” comes the quick retort.

In a flash my hat is off . This is a great start to our visit – I’ve mistaken the chief for a car guard. We follow him into his office which is adorned with the most interesting memorabilia. A clock which sports a photo of the chief in his younger days has stopped ticking. There’s a certificate which says he has attended an anti-corruption course. And there’s a big London Underground ‘Mind the Gap’ poster – he has visited London in the past. There’s a silver ice bucket full of drinks but we’re not offered one.

The chief cuts to the chase. “What did you bring for me?” I knew this was coming and I hand over a newspaper so he can get with the times, plus a copy of the latest SA4x4 magazine. As one of the 286 traditional chiefs in the country he gets a subsidy from the government. Plus, every time a tourist goes into the Kasanka National Park a percentage of the money goes into his pocket. “The tourists are good for us as they bring in money during the hard times. The money is used for the community and we build things such as schools with it,” says Freddy Chisenga, also known as Chief Chitambo IV. We still have a long way to drive and so after some photos and a handshake we are gone.

While the drive to Shoebill Island and the Bangwelu Wetlands is one of the most memorable I’ve undertaken there is one important thing to note. This track will take you through dozens of settlements, and when passing through you need to slow down as the chance of a child or animal running out in front of your vehicle is very real. We took in all the attractions, stopped often for pictures and still arrived at Shoebill Island in good light (there is an overnight option on the way). You will pass Lake Waka Waka on the way and it is supposed to be free of crocs and hippos so one could have a swim here. That is one overnight option. The other is Nakapalayo Village which not only has chalets and camping but they also do traditional meals and activities such as village tours. I was impressed by what I saw at this little village and I encourage you to stop here.

After driving through blankets of forest, sandy tracks, a little mud, and rutted tracks, we eventually dropped onto a vast green plain. Shoebill Island was only a few kilometres away but before we reached it we passed tens of thousands of black lechwe, which on their own are reason enough to make the long drive. To fully appreciate the area we jumped into a bush plane upon our arrival at the island and went for a short flight over the area.

The wetlands consist of three habitats; to the north-west there’s permanent open water, in the centre there are massive swamps, while the area we flew over, the southern and eastern fringes, flood from around January to May. During our visit in November December they’re bone dry but they have a covering of short green grass as a result of the first rains.

Great herds of black lechwe cover the plains in every direction we fly. In the area around Shoebill Island the locals have used mud and rocks to build fishing dams so that when the floods come they can farm the fish in the dams by placing nets at the exits. For now these dams are empty and they look like the millions of miles of stone walls, like the ones you see in Yorkshire. Locals cross the plains by bicycle, some of which are impressively packed with gear and goods – bikes are the primary mode of transport here.

A massive storm is moving in from the north and so we head for the safety of the ground. Here we meet a interesting fellow by the name of Carl Huchzermeyer, a master’s student who’s doing a study on the fish and fishermen in the area. Carl joins us for dinner and proves to be a great guest, filling us in on the history and the developments in the area. While Shoebill Island is run and managed by the Kasanka Trust, the actual island falls within the Bangwelu Wetlands area, which in turn is supported and managed by African Parks. My understanding is that their focus is conservation and anti-poaching rather than outright tourism. “The environment here is rich enough to sustain a strong fishing industry,” maintains Carl when I ask him about the fishing dams.

One of the area’s biggest attractions locally is the Shoebill, one of those birds you have to see once in your lifetime. I’d seen one before but sadly that was in a Ugandan zoo. My luck wasn’t in as the best time to see them in these parts is at the height of the floods – March to May. But all was not lost as Carl showed us two of these birds which they’d saved from some local fishermen – the species are in high demand on the black market. The birds were contained in a special enclosure complete with a small dam stocked with fish so they could learn to hunt for themselves. On the day of our departure, one of the birds named Bwalya was due to be released back into the wild.

As I hate driving the same track twice we decided to head back to the Great North Road via the Lavushi Manda National Park, another Zambian park-in-progress. Pretty much like David Lloyd did way back in the 80s at Kasanka. The conservation wheel seems to be turning and expanding in Zambia which is a good thing. As we headed south I felt a sense of accomplishment and contentment at having not only visited a real wilderness area but having witnessed a wonderful wildlife spectacle, the bat migration of Kasanka. But I still have yet to see a Shoebill in the wild – perhaps that’s a reason to return to Bangwelu?

Toyota Fortuner 3.0 D-4D Auto – R451 200

If comfort and space are important to you then the Fortuner should be high on your list of possible expedition vehicles. There were four adults in our party and we had lots of gear, yet the Fortuner easily satisfied our demands. Our ARB fridge in the load bay ran off the power point located there, while my Montana GPS was powered by one of the two power points up front.

The roofrack and rooftop tent didn’t have any negative effect on the handling and performance though our fuel consumption did climb a little. All in all we did over 5 000 km on this trip and not once did our Fortuner disappoint, whether it was overtaking trucks on the Great North Road or negotiating river crossings in Kasanka, both were easily and safely negotiated.

We did this trip in the middle of summer so temperatures were high; the rear overhead vents meant that those sitting in the second row remained just as cool as those sitting in front. One of the new feature of the Fortuner is the display audio system which can be accessed and controlled from controls on the steering wheel. This system will also accept data from your iPod or a memory stick.

The new Fortuner remains a really comfortable drive. In this regard it measures up to a good sedan yet when you go off-road it performs as well as any other vehicle in its class. If you’re looking for a family vehicle which will be pressed into service a couple of times a year when it’s time to visit our wilder neighbours, the Fortuner remains a difficult all-rounder to beat.

Where we Stayed

Kwanokeng Lodge, Martins Drift Border Post
Conveniently located on the Botswana side of the border post on the banks of the Limpopo River. The lodge has a pool and a restaurant. There are several accommodation options to choose from: camping (70 pula per night), riverside cottages (835 pula per night), safari tents (245 pula per night) per night, luxury tents (495 pula per night) and chalets (495 pula per night). For more information see www.kwanokeng.com.

Zambezi Sun, Livingstone
A great place to relax after the long drive from down south. From here one can comfortably walk to the falls and entrance is free for hotel guests. Try the Butter Curry from the Room Service menu! Rooms are airy, bright and spacious. For more details see www.suninternational.com.

Pontoon Campsite, Kasanka National Park
The park does have two lodges and two campsites but we based ourselves at the Pontoon Campsite, which is the closest one to the bat migration. It’s pretty basic with a long-drop toilet and bucket showers but there are ample trees to camp under. Firewood is provided by the scouts and they’ll make sure that you have water for a shower. Camping cost ZK52 920 pppn, while park fees are a further US$10 and you pay US$15 for you vehicle to enter the park. We took a drive to Luwombwa Fishing Lodge where we went on a lovely paddling excursion for only US$10. See www.kasanka.com.

Shoebill Island Campsite, Bangwelu Wetlands
The camp is administered by the Kasanka Trust and one is able to choose from three accommodation options: reed huts, furnished tents complete with showers and flush toilets and then good old camping. Rates are obviously higher for the catered option. Camping is around US$10 pppn. There’s a restaurant and bar (with cold beers).

Note that during the rainy season it’s not always possible to drive all the way here and you will have to park your vehicle at Nsobe, which is about three kilometres away, and take a boat transfer. Another rainy season option is to set up camp at Nsobe if you have an off-road caravan, trailer or rooftop tent or else if you intend to camp at Shoebill you will need a spare ground tent to take with on the boat.

This article appeared in the February 2012 issue.