KASANKA NATIONAL PARK
Kasanka National Park isn’t as famous as some of Zambia’s other parks. But visit at the right time of the year and you’ll witness the biggest, battiest, most primordial wildlife spectacle in Africa.
Millions of bats congregate in Kasanka in Zambia every year – one of the wildest, most primordial natural spectacles on earth.
You hear them before you see them, and once you’ve seen them it’s impossible to tear your eyes away. I’m standing on a wooden platform about 5 m off the ground. The rustling sound starts in a grove of swamp fig trees about 50 m away. They call this kind of grove a mushitu forest, and it’s the perfect habitat for bats: enormous, straw-coloured fruit bats. At first I can almost count them: Ten-strong groups combine into clouds of hundreds. The bats are getting more active as the day’s tropical heat seeps away. Around us, the swamp breathes. A slight chill sets in. Now the mushitu forest comes alive. The bats are swirling like a tornado gathering speed. The tornado picks up flotsam, flinging it aloft: dark, jagged shapes, each one a hungry bat. The rustling noise intensifies and merges with other sounds – thousands of flapping wings and chirpy bat sounds – until it becomes a frenetic storm of static; a continent’s worth of radio stations all out of sync, slowly blurring into one almighty roar.
How to bat
The bats have gathered here for centuries. Every year in mid-October they arrive from their usual haunts elsewhere in tropical Africa – some from as far as Cameroon. They come for the feast of veld fruit available in Kasanka and they stay until mid-December. Visit Kasanka in January and you might not see a single bat. How many bats congregate? It’s hard to say. Researchers estimate between 5 and 15 million, which makes it the biggest mammal migration in the world. The wildebeest of the Serengeti have nothing on these guys. What does a colony of a million bats look like? Bring your binoculars and focus them on the horizon at sunset. See that grey bank of smog? All bats. It’s easy to see Kasanka’s bats, provided you visit during the mid-October to mid-December window period. Tourists are split into small groups and guided to different viewing platforms next to the mushitu forest, where the bats spend their days napping. At sunset they leave their roosts and fly out to look for fruit. The other time to visit the roosts is early morning. You get to the hide before sunrise and wait for the bats to return from their nocturnal feasting. They return in smaller groups like students buddied up after a night on the town. The first golden sunrays illuminate their delicate wings and it feels like you can reach out and touch that leathery membrane that allows these miraculous mammals to fly. They’re less graceful than birds, but some respect is due. Imagine you taped wings to a miniature Dobermann and set it free to dream… There are opportunistic predators, too. Vultures and raptors, even fish-eagles, hang around the roost, waiting for a weak or wounded bat to fall to the ground. That’s breakfast sorted. There’s one viewpoint that you can visit without a guide. It’s situated a little further away from the roosts so as not to disturb the bats. Sunset is the best time to visit this particular spot. Pack a cool box and park off on the bench. Better still, lie on your back and wait for the show to fly over.
About that Pel’s…
After being featured on TV shows and in nature documentaries like BBC’s Planet Earth, Kasanka’s bat migration is no longer a secret like it was when I first visited the park nearly a decade ago. And it’s fleeting: two months of the year and then they’re gone. So what can you see in Kasanka during the other 10 months of the year? Outside of bat season, the 400 km² park is quiet and you’ll be able to enjoy its other pleasures in peace. There are very few elephant in Kasanka, and no lion, but the park is home to one of Africa’s most secretive, strangest antelope species – the sitatunga. Similar in size and appearance to a bushbuck, the sitatunga distinguishes itself when it lifts a long, delicate hoof from the swampy grass. Its hoofs are split and up to 18 cm long, an adaptation that allows the animal to spread its weight over a wider area, like an old-fashioned snowshoe. In this way, the sitatunga can walk across reed beds and over water plants, making it the master of its marshy, reed-forest habitat. Sitatunga are usually very shy and difficult to see. But in Kasanka, with a little patience, you’ll almost certainly be rewarded. I camped at Pontoon Campsite and saw a small herd of up to eight individuals every morning and late afternoon when they left their reedy refuge to graze in the open. Though common in Zambia, another buck
that will be new to many South Africans is the puku – the slightly stockier cousin of the lechwe. In Kasanka, there are so many that you eventually stop noticing them, like impala in the Kruger. There’s a decent network of game-viewing routes that you can explore on your own and you can also book a guided game drive during the day or at night. On a night drive, you might see a genet or a huge white-tailed mongoose.
A bizarre sound wakes me up. Half asleep, I imagine it’s my phone vibrating. But there’s no signal… I look at my phone screen: It’s just after 3 am. There it is again: a deep, buzzing sound. Then I recognise it. It’s a sound I first heard on a paddling trip years ago in Mozambique, along the Rio dos Elefantes: the unmistakable call of a Pel’s fishing-owl. I quietly zip open my tent and stick my head out, shining my headlamp into the branches of the jackal-berry tree above. There, barely 15 m away, is the big, brick-coloured owl. And it’s got a fish in its talons! My camera is locked in the Fortuner so I snap a grainy pic with my cellphone before the owl silently flaps off. At least I’ve got evidence. Pel’s fishing-owls are relatively common in Kasanka. If you’re not lucky enough to see one above your tent, ask a guide to take you to one of their haunts. Birding is a big attraction in the park. During my short stay, I also see specials like rufous-bellied heron, Ross’s turaco and swamp boubou. Another unusual bird that I discover at Pontoon Campsite the next afternoon is an African broadbill. It’s not as impressive to look at as the Pel’s (small, brown and unobtrusive), but it has an equally unique call – a loud frrp, like someone quickly thumbing the pages of a thick book. Apparently the broadbill makes this sound by flicking or rubbing its wing feathers against each other at lightning speed as it hops up from its perch. Frrp! Millions of bats at sunset, a Pel’s fishingowl above your tent in the dead of night, shy sitatunga daintily stepping into a clearing while you enjoy your morning coffee and – just when you think the rest of the day will be boring – a ball of feathers going frrp above your head. These things are classic Kasanka. Time to plan a visit, I’d say!
KASANKA CHARACTERS. One of the most common antelopes you’ll see in Zambia is the puku (below). It’s related to the lechwe and waterbuck. Then there’s the sitatunga (opposite, top left), which has long, split hoofs to enable it to “walk on water” – or at least walk through swamps and marshes more easily. For such a plain-looking bird, the African broadbill (opposite, top right) has a remarkable call. Rednecked spurfowl (opposite, bottom left) are plentiful in Kasanka. This one was looking sorry for itself after it got wet in a rain shower. The viewing platforms in the park (opposite, bottom right) allow you to get a better look at the bats.