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...

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