2 DAYS IN BAT COUNTRY
In October each year, a small patch of forest in northern Zambia plays host to the largest mammal migration on the planet. Drawn to the fruiting fig trees of Kasanka National Park and its surrounds, millions of Straw Coloured Fruit Bats descend on what has become known as Bat Forest. At sunset each evening they leave their roosts and head off to feed, turning the sky from orange to black in one of Planet Earth’s greatest wildlife spectacles. Or so we were told. We weren’t there in October, and we didn’t see a single fruit bat. So why bother, you might ask.
Don’t expect big game, or endless plains filled with thousand strong herds of antelope. Don’t expect to sit in a safari vehicle flying from one sighting to the next. It’s not that kind of place. And that’s probably why we loved it. Kasanka lacks the obvious attractions of Africa’s more famous national parks, so another thing you shouldn’t expect to see is many other people. It’s a pristine wilderness experience, untainted by commercialisation and over-crowding, where you can drive around for days and feel like you have the entire park to yourself. Throw in an incredible diversity of habitats, outstanding birding, beautiful campsites and some remarkably confident Sitatunga, and it all adds up to a little Zambian gem that we’re already planning a trip back to.
We didn’t get off to a great start in Kasanka. While looking for a suitable branch to hang our lamp on, I managed to rouse a wasp, which promptly zapped me three times on my face, one dangerously close to my eye. Half a tube of Stingose and a couple of Celestimines did the trick, however, and from there on out things got a whole lot better.
We camped at Pontoon Campsite for a couple of nights, in the shade of some of the tallest trees we’ve ever seen. Just in front of the campsite, the Kasanka River oozes into a little swamp, which draws in birds and game like a magnet. Pontoon is one of the best (if not the best) places in the world to see a Sitatunga, a shy, notoriously difficult-to-see antelope that skulks around in Africa’s most inaccessible swamps. For some or other reason, Kasanka’s Sitatunga don’t seem to mind the spotlight, and we were lucky enough to see several right out in the open during our brief stay.
Another highlight was Fibwe Hide, a rickety-looking but surprisingly sturdy treehouse over-looking the bat forest and a vast wetland. It’s pretty hair-raising clambering up there, but once you’re at the top the views are spectacular. We didn’t have too much time on our hands, but we’d imagine it must also rank as one of the best places in the world to kill an afternoon with a good book.
Two days seemed a couple of days too short for Kasanka, but on these kinds of trips it’s hard to stop moving for very long. On our way out we popped into the office at Wasa Lodge to say thanks and ask for directions to our next destination, Nsobe Community Campsite on the edge of the Bangweulu Wetlands. I was a little anxious about getting lost or stuck in the mud (or both), and was hoping for a little reassurance. We found that and more, when we bumped into two fellow Gautengers in the office who were also going to Nsobe. They were more than happy for us to tag along in convoy, and the four of us headed off for the wetlands, in the hope of finding a very special bird.