Once facing a seemingly inevitable slow strangulation, the Kafue National Park is today one of southern Africa’s beacons of hope: a vast reserve with diverse habitats, impressive tourism lodges, experienced guides and wonderful wildlife and birds. Tricia Hayne reflects.
“Cheetah!” The single word is little more than a whisper as our guide points. Night is falling, creating shadows that fever the imagination. But moving shadows? Like a 1990s Magic Eye picture, the cheetah suddenly materialises in the long tawny-coloured grass, edging forward almost imperceptibly as he stalks his hidden prey. For long moments we watch, mesmerised. Then the last of the light is gone – and the picture fades.
These are the Busanga Plains, in the far northwest of Zambia’s largest and oldest national park, the Kafue. Half submerged under water for much of the year, and seriously off the beaten track, these floodplains bordering the Busanga Swamps have been largely protected from the ravages of poaching by their inaccessibility. As the dry season pursues its relentless march, the plains come into their own, a magnet for thirsty animals – and their predators. Buffalo, zebra, blue wildebeest, roan antelope, puku and the water-loving red lechwe: all are drawn to the rich grazing.
But that is not to detract from the Kafue as a whole, a vast patchwork of a park that sees remarkably few visitors. Dominated by an undulating plateau, it includes a range of diverse habitats, threaded through by the meandering Kafue River. Broad, clear and slow-moving, the park’s lifeline snakes its way south across wide open plains fringed with dense thickets of deciduous trees, glides under Zambia’s main east-west arterial road, and bubbles over boulders worn smooth over millennia, to reach the Itezhi-Tezhi Dam.
As the waters broaden into the manmade lake, skeletal trees – drowned when the dam flooded the Kafue basin – wave their eerie limbs alongside the shore, whose fringing grassland makes a perfect hunting ground for lion and cheetah. And as the river turns sharp left, the park continues on, beyond what remains of once-huge teak forests, to open its final page: the great emptiness of the Nanzhila Plains.
For visitors, the river comes into its own at its most accessible point – in the centre of the park. To while away an afternoon on a small pontoon boat, binoculars at the ready, is to have front row seats in a natural cinema. Even in October, when most of the land has dried out, the riverbanks offer irresistible mudbaths for the local elephant population.
Puku and impala make their way to the water, their seemingly casual approach belying the constant threat of cats and crocs. Hippos play hide-and-seek with camera-toting tourists. And above it all comes the haunting cry of the fish eagle; there are fish aplenty in those waters!
Much of the Kafue, from the floodplains of the north to the central savannah, offers unforgettable walks – just you, your guide and an armed guard. To follow the line of the river, or to make your way along the treeline that fringes the savannah, is to discover the detail behind the bigger picture: the termite mounds, the minibeasts, the flora, the droppings, and the spoor. Like the best of history and geography field trips rolled into one, it provides a perspective that helps to make sense of the whole. Be on your guard, though: it’s all too easy to forget the wood for the trees – or the elephant for the elephant shrew.
Further south, where the muddy banks give way to a jumble of scenic boulders, the river briefly gathers speed. In the first light of dawn a light foam lies on the surface, a phenomenon that dissipates later in the day. A wattled lapwing stands on sentry duty, while rock pratincoles hop about near the rapids and wire-tailed swallows perform their aerial display.
Pride of place, though, goes to the kingfishers – seven different species of them, from the diminutive bejewelled malachite to the rather sombre giant. This is superb territory for birders, encompassing a large number of the Kafue’s 500-plus species, and handsomely repaying exploration by motorboat or canoe.
But perhaps it’s in the deep south, where the river has abandoned the park, and the seasonal rains dry out to leave shallow pools or dambos, that the Kafue feels at its most remote. Here, on the Nanzhila Plains, the land resonates to the deep, primeval boom of the ground hornbill.
Wattled cranes bring their leggy grace to the landscape, while saddle-billed storks and the black-cheeked lovebird add gaudy flashes of colour. More sheltered waterholes, such as the Nangandwe Pool, attract herds of waterbuck, and up on the hills you may be lucky enough to spot a lordly sable antelope surveying his realm.
Yet if this sounds like some idyllic African Eden, think again. Much of the Kafue is fringed with villages where lives have long depended on hunting. For centuries animals and humans co-existed here, but then came the rise and rise of the ivory trade, turning sustainable hunting on its head and bringing untold wealth to a few unscrupulous individuals.
Despite the valiant efforts of a handful of lodge owners, the park’s rhinos were wiped out in the 1980s, and its elephant population – numbered at around 60,000 in the 1960s –almost disappeared. In those that were left, and particularly a cohort around the Ngoma area of southern Kafue, their deep suspicion of man turned to understandable aggression.
But now, slowly, the tables are turning. Lodge owners, working hand in hand with specially trained forces from the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA), are fighting back. University researchers, such as Neil Midlane of the Kafue Lion Project, are investigating animal movements within the parkand raising awareness far beyond its borders.
Even the politicians are on board, for the Kafue, along with its surrounding game management areas, is earmarked for inclusion within the massive KAZA Park – a cross-border conservation initiative more correctly known as the Kavango-Zambezi Trans-Frontier Conservation Area, that will take in protected areas of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola, as well as Zambia.
And, most importantly, tourism is on the increase, creating a compelling economic reason for the local population to conserve their wildlife. Unfenced and untamed, the Kafue is on the way back.
Tricia Hayne travelled throughout the Kafue while helping to update Zambia: The Bradt Travel Guide
Life-changer, by Pippa Turner, Mayukuyuku Bush Camp
My first visit to the Kafue National Park, in late October 1985, was unplanned. I was working as a British Caledonian crew member. On a six-night layover in Zambia, our scheduled trip to Luangwa was cancelled, so we decided to visit Kafue instead.
We saw a male leopard up a tree during daylight hours – a rare sighting on these open plains. We saw lions in abundance – pride after pride, so numerous I can’t remember how many. The variety of wildlife we saw impressed me: oribi, reedbuck, bushbuck, waterbuck, kudu, wild dog, eland, cheetah, sable and roan… and one must not forget the hippos, crocodiles, birds and water monitors on the river.
The final ‘hook’ for me was the outdoor shower with no roof, which gave such a wonderful feeling of liberation and which I have replicated at our camp at Mayukuyuku.
It changed my life forever. I couldn’t get enough of the Kafue after that, returning on numerous occasions until I was invited to join the team at Lufupa Camp, where I stayed for twenty years. Eventually the camp was let to Wilderness Safaris, and I decided to branch out and start our own camp at Mayukuyuku (meaning ‘water that hits the rocks’).
Sadly, in the ’80s we did not see any elephants. I will never forget how, on that first journey to the camp, we saw a dead one, slain by poachers, lying by the side of the road. Although there were signs of elephants about, I did not see a live one for at least ten years after that. Now we expect to see them on almost every game drive, and the bulls come into camp on a regular basis. Our overall elephant population is stable, and there is also the David Shepherd Elephant Orphanage at Ngoma.
Building momentum, by Tom Heinecken, long-term Kafue lodge manager and conservationist
In recent years Kafue National Park has gone from being Zambia’s Cinderella park to its Rising Star. The wildlife authorities have had an unenviable task of trying to manage this vast estate with only a handful of rangers. Their efforts have been augmented by the formation of a highly motivated Special Anti-Poaching Unit under the auspices of Game Rangers International and supported by David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and The Nature Conservancy, amongst others.
Access to the Park, in particular the vast unexplored central sector, has been immeasurably improved with the completion of the ‘spinal road’. The D769 is now under construction and this will further open access to the south and the beautiful Itezhi-Tezhi Dam.
Two good, up-to-date handbooks are now available giving accurate information on all the park has to offer. Wildlife sightings are improving daily; the presence of tourists has given the animals a sense of security so that they are now more easily seen and photographed. To top it all, the major domestic airline, Proflight, is now advertising scheduled flights into one of Kafue’s main airstrips.
Southern Secrets, by Steve and Cindy Smith, Nanzhila Plains Safari Camp
The Kafue National Park is huge, and rightly renowned for its array of habitat and diversity of species. This is particularly true of the Nanzhila area, in the southern sector, which is still very wild and remote, despite being the closest to Livingstone and the Victoria Falls. Access to this wonderful area is much improved, and will only get easier in coming years. The spinal road linking the north to the south has already made Nanzhila more accessible, and the tarring of the Itezhi-Tezhi Road will halve the travel time from Lusaka. The later upgrading of the Kalomo to Dumdumwezi road will shorten the transit time from Livingstone to just three hours.
Lifestyle choices, by Edjan and Robyn van der Heide, Mukambi Safari Lodge
When we first visited Kafue in 2001 we were blown away by the size of it, the diverse landscapes and the variety of animals. It made such an impact we decided to move with the whole family from the Netherlands to operate Mukambi Safari Lodge. It was the sheer adventure that had us hooked. We wanted to help protect this unique part of Africa and show it to more people. For us the great excitement of Kafue is that the game viewing is a very personal experience, without other vehicles or boats around. The biggest park in Africa, Kafue currently attracts 10,000 visitors a year, compared to 1.5 million in Kruger. It offers one of Africa’s true wilderness experiences.
Guiding Hand, by Phil Jeffery and Tyrone McKeith, Jeffery & McKeith Safaris
The Kafue is about the unknown, the unexplored and the untouched. It is not uncommon to stay a week here and not see another vehicle, lodge or person. It really is one of the last, vast wilderness areas and with a diversity of habitats and species so wide as to keep you interested for a lifetime. Our advice would be: do not dismiss the Kafue as a first-time safari destination. Spend time in the park and visit a few of the smaller ‘owner-run’ properties. Combining the central and northern sectors will give you a very rewarding and varied safari experience.
• Getting there To some degree this may depend on where you intend to stay. Most visitors to camps in the Busanga Plains in the north fly in, while access to camps in the central and southern regions is easy via road from Lusaka. The park is bisected by the main road, and a new spinal road has made access to the southern sector, along the Kafue River, considerably easier.
• Getting around Kafue is an increasingly-popular self-drive destination, although access to the northern and far southern sectors in particular is seasonal. A 4WD is recommended: travel in convoy if possible and take provisions with you from Lusaka. Most camps and lodges provide guided game drives by vehicle or boat. Wilderness Safaris offer hot air balloon trips over the Busanga Plains.
• When to visit Although the central lodges are open all year, much of Kafue is off-limits during the rainy season, roughly from late October to June. This should be a great time for birders and photographers, but access to areas such as the Busanga Plains or Nanzhila is impossible. As the land dries out, around April-May, the temperature drops and photographers will appreciate the clear light, though movement around the park is still limited. From June onwards, when the grasses start to die back and water becomes increasingly scarce, the animals are more visible, making this a particularly good time for safari-goers.
• Health Malaria is present throughout Zambia, so precautions are essential. Tsetse flies can be a nuisance in wooded parts of the Kafue, making a good supply of insect repellent advisable. Check with your doctor or travel clinic for vaccination requirements, including yellow fever.
• Further reading The Bradt Guide to Zambia, by Chris McIntyre.