kafue1. An enormous and excellent wildlife reserve

At around 22,500 square kilometres, Kafue is one of the largest national parks in Africa. It is roughly the same size as Massachusetts or Wales and is two and a half times the size of Zambia’s premium safari area of South Luangwa.

The park is cut into two roughly equal sections by the Great West Road …

The northern sector contains a generally more interesting range of landscapes and richer game, making it a far more obvious target for visitors. The majority of the land surface is made up of endless flat, dry mopane and miombo woodlands, really rather bland and uninteresting on the face of it. But there are sweet spots amongst the landscape … rivers, floodplains and open grasslands … where the scenery is more picturesque and the game more concentrated. It is these areas to which most visitors naturally head and about which we will concentrate most of our attention in the sections that follow.

The southern sector of the park has historically been considered to be of lesser interest, despite the presence of the huge Lake Itechi-techi and a network of open floodplains around Nanzhila. A combination of sandier soils as the land stretches south towards the Kalahari and greater levels of poaching mean that the game is undeniably thinner. So fewer people tend to visit this part of the reserve and probably rightly so as things stand.

elephant2. Low safari traffic and the resolution of poaching problems

Kafue has always been something of a poor relation in comparison with South Luangwa. Back in the early 1980’s, when a number of guys from our company were living and guiding here, it always seemed like a real backwater. Visitor traffic was virtually negligible, the bulk of the numbers being made up of British Caledonian cabin crew on lightning two night safaris whilst laying over in Lusaka.

By the middle of the 1980’s, the Angolan rebels had managed to exterminate virtually all the game within the park, with military helicopters and troops with AK47’s doing the dirty work and long caravans of porters carrying the ivory, horn, skins and bushmeat out to the west. After this Kafue really did fall of the edge of the map.

Some operators, notably Busanga Tours and Safaris, continued to operate in this backwater throughout the lean years, mainly surfing on the fact that their prime mover Map Patel was probably the best leopard man in Africa at the time. Guests knew that a stay at his old base at Lufupa Camp would virtually guarantee close-up sightings of wild leopards hunting. But you could go months without seeing a single elephant. In fact you could go weeks without seeing a guest for that matter!

In 2005 Wilderness Safaris, best know for their camps in the Okavango Delta, made a big play for the Kafue, taking over the majority of the camps in the northern sector and using their considerable commercial strength to support the battle against poaching, upgrade the camps and encourage a new and more significant wave of visitors into the park.

Although this venture may not as yet have proved a great commercial success for Wilderness Safaris, as indeed they had not projected it would, in most other respects it has to be viewed favourably. Poaching pressure has continued to recede and game numbers are appreciating considerably. The quality of camps and service throughout the park has increased significantly, both by Wilderness Safaris themselves and by the handful of smaller safari companies also operating in the area. And the access has been greatly improved, with Wilderness Safaris now operating daily flights between Kafue and the two major hubs of Lusaka and Livingstone.

Despite all this increase in activity, the number of visitors to the park remains very small, estimated to be as low as 15% of the traffic into South Luangwa, a statistic which is further underlined by the fact that Kafue is so much larger. It should be pointed out that almost all of this traffic is concentrated onto the main access road through the northern sector of the reserve and that vehicles out on the Busanga Plains are inherently more visible, but even so Kafue still manages to provide the impression of a vast, remote and virtually untouched wilderness.

lion3. Busanga Plains

The prime area of Kafue for gameviewing is generally considered to be the Busanga Plains. The Lufupa river, a tributary of the Kafue, enters the park’s northwest corner as a substantial stream, filling a relatively modest year-round wetland area known as the Busanga Swamp. Towards the end of the rainy season, in April and May, the waters of the swamp spill over to flood a much larger area of grassland known as the Busanga Plains, which extends over an impressive 750 square kilometres.

The rich black cotton soils that this floodwater brings makes the grazing on these plains exceptionally nutritious. Combine that with the presence of surface water for drinking and it is easy to see why this area is such a haven for wildlife.

We have always found that the early part of the safari season, early June to mid July, can be a little too wet here, the amount of floodwater severely restricting the areas which safari vehicles can access, although this effect has been much reduced by the introduction of helicopter transfers between the camps. On the other hand, this early flood period is very scenic, with particularly strong birdlife out on the floodplains.

But for us the area really comes into its own from mid July to end October, when increasing quantities of game are attracted into the area by the permanent water sources and by the fact that the grazing here tends to remain richer for longer as the dry season heightens. Herbivore numbers are dominated by puku and the semi-aquatic red lechwe, but Kafue hosts a remarkable range of ungulates, including roan, sable, oribi, kudu and impala. Of particular note are the large herds of buffalo, whose arrival very much interests the local lions and can lead to an over-excited glut of killing … we have seen a pride of six lionesses take down five buffalo in a single day, even though they could clearly only eat one or two at most.

But we don’t want to give the impression that the Busanga Plains is one of the richest game areas in Africa … at least not just yet. It certainly does not have the density of game seen in Serengeti or Kruger, nor does it have the richness or obvious diversity of Okavango, in fact it does not even have the same level of spectacle as lesser known reserves such as Katavi or even South Luangwa … we would not want to lead visitors into over-expectation. As game populations continue to replenish, Busanga Plains has the potential to become one of these great natural wonders, but for now it should be considered simply a very high quality safari area, whose attraction lies as much in its relative obscurity rather than the absolute volumes and range of game. And in the fact that since 1990 this place has been brought back from the brink … a real cause for celebration.

balloon4. Balloon safari

With the relative obscurity of Kafue still making it a difficult place into which to tempt international visitors, in 2009 Wilderness Safaris decided to introduce balloon safaris out on the Busanga Plains. With the overcommerciality of the major balloon operations in Masai Mara and Serengeti, we would have to say that this is probably now the best place to view game in this way … although for a pure ballooning experience we still think that the ballooning at Sossusvlei in Namibia is still probably the best.

Ballooning quite literally adds another dimension to a safari. Guests visiting any of the Wilderness Safaris camps on the Busanga Plains … Busanga Bushcamp, Kapinga Camp, Musanza Camp and Shumba Camp … may well find themselves travelling by balloon, helicopter and light aircraft during their visit, which certainly adds some variety to the usual vehicle and foot safaris.

buffalo5. Helicopter access

As mentioned in both of the previous two sections, the Wilderness Safaris camps on the Busanga Plains are usually accessed by helicopter. This enables the camps to open for a considerably longer season, now opening as early as May, a good six to eight weeks earlier.

In the old days vehicles coming up from the south would be confronted by a virtually impassable ploughed field of black cotton soil. A tractor used to be stationed here to pull vehicles through and even then it would often not be possible to pass until the end of June.

These days the safari vehicles are left in camp and the guests are taken the short hop from the roadhead or airstrip to the camps by helicopter.

Needless to say, a short ride in a helicopter is an extremely cool way to get around, sufficiently fun and practical to enable most people to brush aside any negative aesthetic considerations.

boat6. Motorboat safari

The other major feature of this northern sector of the reserve is the Kafue river itself, which flows from north to south, under a substantial bridge on the Great West Road and on south towards the enormous Lake Itechi-techi. By the time the river enters the park it is already quite mature, so its passage is relatively languid and slow-flowing, with an average width of around 100 metres … with the exception of a stretch of rapids in the Kafwala area. The river is lined by stands of jackalberry and sausage trees in particular, providing a deeper and more luxuriant shade than the mopane and miobo woodland that covers much of the hinterland. In some areas the river is also lined by floodplains, both seasonally active and historic, which provide open areas of higher quality grazing and therefore attract a higher density of game.

One of the real highlights of a safari in Kafue is to spend time out on a motorboat on the Kafue river. There are not many game reserves in Africa where a mature river flows right through the middle and provides such a great opportunity for gameviewing from a boat … Selous in Tanzania is the only other one which springs to mind as offering a similar quality of experience, although it could be argued that boating in Lower Zambezi is also just as good.

We have always loved spending time out on the Kafue. On occasion we have seen antelope being taken by crocodile, plenty of hippos and elephants, lions and leopards on the river bank and plenty of other game besides. Some of these sightings obviously requirea degree of luck. More regularly one can expect excellent birding, most notable amongst which is the African fish eagle, the national emblem of Zambia, which seems to be particularly happy in this environment and whose calls are such a memorable feature of the place.

Fishing is also possible, although lacks the drama of Lower Zambezi since there are no big tigerfish up here. Much more common are the sardine-like capenta, shoals of small bream and some big catfish for those willing to put a worm on the bottom and wait all day. Naturally we are concerned that increasingly fishing in a national park is considered tantamount to hunting and so we would tend to lean against encouraging this activity these days.

7. Night safari

Back in the 1980’s Kafue was the best location in Africa for night safari. With the camps all experiencing significant losses of game due to poaching, guides found themselves having to work their patches with increasing ingenuity and vigour. No longer could they rely on the usual daytime gamedrives. there simply wasn’t enough game left around … no elephant, definitely no rhino, much reduced hippo and generally less of everything.

The focus moved increasingly onto night safari and more specifically to lion and leopard. The owner of Lufupa Camp, Map Patel, who we mentioned previously, along with his number one spotter John Chibwantu, took night safari onto a whole new level. Guests would head out after dinner, at around 10pm, and spend between 2 and 5 hours out in the bush. This could be very cold, dull and uneventful for long periods, but most nights they would hit the jackpot sooner or later. Often after two hours of sweeping the bush with their torches, Map or John would suddenly detect a pin-prick of light, the reflected eye of a predator. Many a time we saw them find a leopard in the long grass at 200 metres … and from a moving vehicle. Once on the cat, at that time of night chances were that a hunt would soon be on. With leopard this tended to be a relatively low-octane event, watching a stealthy and patient approach towards a lone puku or impala, although the finale was often breathtaking. Once a kill had been made and taken up a tree it was often possible to get incredibly close in the vehicle. One leopard, Sarah Jane, would even let Map touch the end of her tail from below. Although as Map’s missing finger testifies, getting this close to wild leopards could be a risky business. If it was lion, then often the guests would find their vehicle sat in a semi-circle of lionesses, waiting whilst another lioness carefully drove the prey into their trap. Inherently when the kill came it was as often as not right on the bumper of the vehicle, the roars of the lions shaking the still night air in an incredibly primaeval way, difficult to explain but very moving. we always found it remarkable how neither the cats nor the prey were affected by the presence of the vehicle.

One of the disadvantages of Wilderness Safaris arriving in Kafue was that they took over the camps operated by Map Patel, finally easing him into retirement, although to be honest he was already out guiding much less frequently by then.

These days the great tradition of night safari in Kafue is no longer what it used to be. The camps generally operate the more conventional drive back from a remote sundowner type of night drive, which is clearly much less likely to deliver the same kind of experience since the cats tend not to start hunting until closer to midnight, except on the Busanga Plains where the lions often hunting during the day.

But to be honest this is probably not so much a disaster as we sometimes feel, since visitors these days seem to be less inclined to put in the hard hours that are needed on this kind of night safari. We do have a pipe-dream to reinstate them one day, maybe even get Map out of retirement to train up a new generation of spotters, but for now that remains on our to-do list!

We do find solace in the fact that night drives are still permitted in the park.

wild dog8. Walking safari

Kafue may not have quite the same tradition of walking safaris as South Luangwa, but walking is permitted within the reserve and the terrain is equally well suited.

Most camps offer walking safari as optional activity, which does help bring some variety to the experience, although it is usually pretty low-key.

9. Overland options

With most of the best safari areas now being dominated by flying safari, with the notable exception of the Ngorongoro and Serengeti area of northern Tanzania, it is nice to find that some overland options still remain here in Kafue.

The introduction by Wilderness Safaris of daily air connections to both Lusaka and Livingstone does now make it possible to fly in and out in a very convenient fashion, but only if you are intending to stay in their camps.

The other smaller operators are still largely dependent on bringing guests out from Lusaka by road. The first part of this journey, along the sealed Great West Road, can be a little bit tiresome, it is some 250km from Lusaka to the bridge, so a good 4 to 5 hours. Once off the tar and inside the park the journeys, whilst still long in some cases, are far more interesting and relaxed.

One format of trip which we particularly like is to travel out by road 150km to the town of Mumbwa, turn off the tar to the north and head through farmland for around 50km before entering the park through the lesser used eastern access, coming into one of the lodges along the river, most usually Kafue Hippo Lodge. After a few days here it is possible to head 40km down the river by boat to Lufupa Tented Camp, from where one can continue by road to Busanga Plains Camp or by light aircraft to one of the Wilderness Safaris camps on the plains … Busanga Bushcamp, Kapinga Camp, Musanza Camp and Shumba Camp. We do love travelling overland, it gives such a deeper and more comprehensive view of an area, so long as you are prepared to put in the road miles.

Source : Africa travel resource

15 June 2015