It’s Bat Time! Safari in Kasanka, Zambia

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We decided to go to the  Kasanka National Park  because of the Great Bat Migration that happened to be at it’s peak during the exact time we wanted to go. While we could  easily see ourselves coming back to Africa sometime in our future and possibly doing a safari or finding exotic wildlife, the chances of us being in Zambia again at this precise time of year for such a phenomenon was low. We would be spending a total of three nights in the park camping. After running into our friends from Chile (that we had originally seen in Zanzibar and crossed paths with again in Livingstonia and Nkhata Bay) our portion of the group would be seven people; Chris, Izzy, James, Gonzalo, Theresa, and us.

 

Gate Crashers

Bastian had instructed us to take one of two buses that each left around 2pm. He also forewarned us to go as early as possible to the bus station to buy tickets. Since there were only two buses and they didn’t go every day, they both tended to fill up fast. This piece of advice was golden because even as we arrived at 7am to the bus station to buy tickets, we barely were able to secure seven seats on the bus. After a bit of a scare and a phone call from the person selling tickets to whomever managed seating, we had our bus tickets (again, more expensive then you would expect for travel in Africa) in hand. We then packed up our bags  and headed to the nearby Levy Junction shopping center to do an afternoon mall campout  and a large grocery run. We would be responsible for packing in almost all our meals over the next three and a half days. The idea of meal planning was discussed but it felt incredibly overwhelming for us.  In the end we decided to keep things simple.  We stocked up with cans of curried veggies, beans, loaves of bread, peanut butter, doughnuts, coffee, water, veggies and fruit to munch on, and some cheddar cheese as a treat.

Arrival Sign - Kasanka

Getting on the bus was quite a chaotic mess. We did our best to make sure the people loading our bags understood we would be getting of at a random location (at the Kasanka Wildlife Trust gate) and not at a normal bus station stop. Then we all loaded onto the bus with our many bags of groceries that we stuffed in the available overhead areas onboard the bus. The seats were split up into two groups. Thinking the back would have more leg room (as it sometimes did on buses) we headed for the back seats. We turned out to be wrong about the legroom or room at all. James was squished with us in the very last row along with four other people. Bags that didn’t fit above were then shoved in the back cramming us all into a hot sweaty pile of luggage and people. The other group seemed to be in luxury at the front comparatively. They too complained of the heat and we are sure it probably just looked a million times better than it actually was. At the time anything seemed to be a bit better than where we were.

The trip began quite uncomfortably but we eventually settled into our crammed spaces and fell asleep as the bus rolled northward. After the first two stops both of us were deep in sleep. The next thing we knew the bus was stopped, people were shuffling around, and Chris was yelling back to us that this was where we get off. It is a good thing we had taken the time to remind the driver at the last stop, and that he was a nice driver who listened to us and remembered to stop where we told him. Otherwise we would have slept all the way to wherever the bus ended up. It took a couple minutes to adjust before we all figured out we were here and then it took another couple minutes for us to reassess and realize that now we were even more crammed into the back than before. As we gathered our things we called to the front asking for help carrying the many bags of groceries off. Ben and James both jumped over the several people in the asile heading to the front. Amanda thought they would wait and she could then hand them the remaining bags she had been instructed to help carry off in the form of a sort of assembly line over the heads of all the people in the asiles. Instead she watched as they got off the bus to try to get the main bags from the compartment below. She scrambled to try to collect the grocery bags she could and place them in the front seat before going back (again over about five people) to try to find what other bags remained. As she grabbed at the white plastic bags a passenger snapped at her, informing her that those bags were theirs. Not sure what to do, feeling pressured by everyone on the bus to get off so they could move on, and with no help, she grabbed the only bag that seemed to belong to the group and added it to the pile on the front seats. About this time Ben finally came back onboard to figure out where she was and help her carry the stack of bags off the seat and bus.

 

What followed after getting off the bus was failed communication between everyone and ultimately a lot of frustration. These are the tensions that arise when traveling in a group. Not to say they don’t happen as a couple but the more people you add the more room for confusion, especially on a night like this one, when the group is split up on the bus and there are 50 local Zambians waiting for us to get our stuff off the bus so they can get back on the road.

The bus didn’t wait around for long after we were all off and despite Amanda’s calls to James that she didn’t get all the bags off the bus, we didn’t have another chance to get back on. With the bus gone, people tired, and not much more we could do about the current situation, we found ourselves at the gate of the Kasanka National Park and all began to set up our tents and sleeping spaces. James, Theresa, and Gonzalo shared one tent. Ben, Amanda, and Izzy shared another, while Chris slept in his hammock/mosquito-netted cocoon. What had been another scene of commotion slowly settled into the sound of the occasional car passing and the sound of animals scurrying about in the night.

Camping at Gate -- Kasanka

 

Camping: Home Sweet Home

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We awoke the following morning just after sunrise. Everything looked very different in the daylight than it had at night. By 8am everyone was awake and most had their tents broken down. Tensions from the night before still brewed but the calm of nature allowed them to simmer softly without any boil over. Each of us did our own activities in the morning, exploring the area with small walks down the road and on various paths. Afterwards we played cards and read books, or just sat in the sunlight soaking up the warmth and energy. At about 10am the first wave of Peace Corps volunteers started to show up. What was at first five slowly grew to a group of nine. As they arrived the introductions began and stories and backgrounds were shared. Most of the volunteers were about eighteen months into their two year commitment. It was fascinating to hear where they were from, why they joined Peace Corps, and about their experiences in general. What would be even more interesting was to watch how each of their personal individual characters started to grow over the three days we spent with them.

 

At about 11:30am Bastian showed up with two safari trucks to transport us first to a swanky lodge and then to our camp site in the bush. The lodge was obviously where the high payers stayed. It was fully equipped with electricity and running water, and situated on the edge of a large lake. Here we got our first included meal of pizza and salad. Sitting at picnic tables, enjoying the meal while overlooking the lake to the sound of hippos snorting was pretty amazing. And despite all the mayhem, headaches, and maybe even a few tears it took to get here it was totally worth it already.

After departing the swanky lodge we arrived at what would be our home for the next three days. Home would be 80% nature, 10% flush toilet with running water, 8% shower (a very nice concrete floor shower with bamboo walls and a hanging hot bucket of water), 5% covered gazebo with a concrete floor, and 2% cooking area (which was a fire pit and a iron table to set above the fire as a sort of stove top). We were totally happy with this, but were bit worried about the possibility of rain storms since our tent wasn’t exactly storm ready. We set the tent up under what looked like a spot with decent branch coverage and decided to just keep on eye on the weather. If it looked like rain or began to rain we both made a pact to ‘bail out’, break the tent down, and wait under the gazebo until the heavy rains passed over. Satassifed with our plan, we settled into our new home.

View from our camp - Kasanka

When we weren’t out exploring and checking or the bats in action we were here. As there was zero electricity, it was a great chance to play some games (Bastian scored more points in our cool-bookwhen he pulled out Cards Against Humanity), read books, cook meals, take naps in the sun, or sit around the fire drinking coffee or beer and chatting with others. We soon learned that the Peace Corps people were serious cookers (they would have made a great team with chef Chris) as they sometimes began cooking a meal at 3pm to have it ready to eat by 8pm. We personally kept our meals simple, only borrowing a pot here and there to heat the contents of the can or water for our instant noodles. In fact sometimes we even just put the can straight on the iron table above the flames forgoing the hassle of using and cleaning a pot.

 

 

Camp at Kasanka - Kasanka

Rain Storms

Unfortunately for us the weather had looked a bit spotty from the moment we entered Kasanka Park. In fact, there were light rains that began just as we arrived at the lodge for lunch, then a very heavy downpour during the transport between the lodge and our campsite. We lucked out being the only two people that were riding up front with the driver. While we stayed dry the others in our group had a shower in the outdoor safari seats of the truck and were soaked by the time we arrived.

Rain Storm - Kasanka
Storm watching from our campsite.

This was the reason we were a bit worried about setting our tent up without covering above it. But after that first storm the skies seemed to clear up and the sun had started to shine. People all laid their clothes out in the grass to dry out and we felt that if another storm came in over the next couple days we would surely spot it coming beforehand. Luck seemed to be in our favor for the rest of that first day. Before zipping up in our cozy tent for the night the skies were still clear and stars could be seen.  However, we had predicted wrong. At about 12:30am the booms of thunder grew louder and we woke up just as light rain began to come down. We began our evacuation as planned and moved most everything from inside the tent underneath the covered area. Just as we were about to break down the tent Amanda took another look at the sky and the rain. She was sure the rain would pass soon and it wouln’t get much heavier. It had already been raining for about five minutes and since the amount of rainfall hadn’t picked up she assumed it wasn’t going to be a big downpour. Ben disagreed, but let her and Izzy stay in the tent if that was what they really wanted.  He headed to the covered area, and Amanda zipped herself and Izzy into the tent to sit out the rain until it passed over. About five minutes into her tent lockdown the rain picked up… hard. Amanda and Izzy sat on the pad in the middle of the tent with the light keeping an eye on the amount of water that entered. Sitting it out was the best option since the rain was so heavy now that it would be a mess to try to get out and break the tent down during the downpour. At one point it felt like lightning struck right in the middle of our camp as a bright flash of white with a simultaneous deafening boom filled the air. While Ben kept dry in the gazebo with Chris (who had evacuated his hammock early on), Amanda and Izzy were surprised to see how little water was actually entering the tent. The storm was huge, and we doubt anyone at camp slept through it that night (other than James that is). It lasted about forty minutes, before silence and the distant claps of thunder were all that was left behind. As soon as the rain had lessened to a sprinkle Amanda and Izzy were out of the tent and headed to the dry gazebo as well. There hadn’t been much water that entered the tent but it was enough that sleeping there for the night wouldn’t have been as comfortable.

Foggy sunrise the day after the storm.

The four of us laid out over the piles of bags that were spread out in the one sheltered area. It was a snug sleeping arrangement but we were dry and we were tired, and thus we slept well. The biggest dissapointment was the fact that maknig a fire for coffee at 5am the next morning before we headed out for a safari walk was impossible. The wood for the fire was soaked, along with anything else that hadn’t made it under the covered protection of the gazebo.

By mid-day the sun was high in the sky, temperatures were hot again, and tents/clothing/shoes were laid out in the sun to dry. The second storm would roll in that afternoon. It was much less of a show and by that point our tent had dried and we kept it broken down until just before bed. We were blessed that the remaining two days were rainless and our evening slumbers were not disturbed again. Rain sucks, especially when you are camping. Being wet and cold is not a winning combination for either of us. But you can look at the glass half full or half empty, and considering it was the brink of rainy season in south-eastern Africa we will happily take having only one storm out of four nights we were there.

Post Rain Dryout - Kasanka

In Search of Wildlife

Since we were camping in the middle of a wildlife reserve we technically were not allowed to go for walks into the nature unattended. The river just in front of our camp site had a couple of friendly (given they were left alone) aligators. There were also some herds of elephants that were roaming about (although we didn’t get to see them during our visit). And hippos (which if you remember from prior posts are actually one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, second only to the mosquito) also frequented the waters nearby. Bastian however had arranged for us to take an escorted walk amoung the fields to see all these wonders of nature first-hand. Our group signed up for the first morning walk, and thus awoke at 5am bright and early and wet after the night of the storm extravaganza.

Hippo Pod - Kasanka

If Bastian hadn’t already won us over, he definitely did that morning. The only pair of shoes he had brought with him to the camp were now more like small water jugs as they had been left outside his tent the night before. A situation like this would put most people off, but Bastian took it all in stride. The seemingly small fact of soaked shoes was not going to delay or keep him from guiding us that morning. Shoeless Bastian tromped ahead leading us through fields of wet grass mixed with mud and animal crap in search of the early morning wildlife in the park.

Duo Puku - Kasanka

For the next two hours of the early morning we strolled across fields with Bastian and our escort who carried a rifle with him in case we needed to scare any large animal out of  attacking us. Kasanka Park has over 108 mammal species, with puku being the most plentiful of them.  Everywhere we looked, at any time, there were puku.  We even found a poor unfortunate puku spirit in the form of a skull.  Bastian then told us that many locals still poached puku and sold the meat.  Among the many puku we also stumbled upon pods of hippos, blue monkeys, and also saw a few sitatunga (these are a type of water antelope that are rare in the world but happen to be common in Kasanka Park).

Kasanka has also been noted as a bird-watchers paradise.  The park has recorded over 450 species of birds, many of which are uncommon in any other part of the world.  Alas, we are not professional nor passionate bird watchers.  But we still enjoyed the large variety of beautiful birds that would both sit calmly among the fields as well as fly by through the sky.

For being one of Zambia’s smallest national parks we were impressed with the life this hidden corner of the country held.

 

Puku Pano - Kasanka

Bat Migration

Bats… they are the entire reason we had all made the effort to come all this way to Kasanka. And were we disappointed? In one word, no. During our travels southward from Dar Es Salem we had heard about this great bat migration for the first time in our lives. We would assume that most people out there in the world really have never heard of it.

While it is referred to as the bat ‘migration’ we soon learned from Bastian that it is actually more like a bat congregation.   Kasanka happens to have large clusters of mushitu forest containing some of the densest and richest sources of fruit the bats eat.  This ripening of the local fruit and berry species such as the masuku (wild loquat) and water berry draws bats from all over to come and feed for a few weeks.  The count of bats at it’s peak is estimated to be over ten million.  It is believed to be the highest density of mammalian biomass on the planet, as well as the greatest mammal migration known to man.

Professional Bat Watchers - Kasanka

Bastian had told us that each night would build up to the finale of bat mania on the final night we were there, and he did a perfect job of keeping to his word on this. The first night we all sat in the large field near our campsite and watched as the sunset and a handful of bats scattered the sky all flying in one direction. It was nothing to impress, but the scenery and nature around us was magical. The second night we drove to the designated bat viewing area. As we sat on the benches that had been set up specifically for bat watching during this season we were joined by a large group of local school children. It was great to see and hear that Kasanka Trust made continuous efforts to involve local communities and schools as well as provide educational programs for the children. Kasanka National Park is actually the first and only national park in Zambia to be privately managed for almost thirty years.  The park is entirely reliant on tourism revenue and charitable funding to keep things in operation.  Despite this they keep many education programs throughout the year and welcome researchers.

What we all whitnessed on this second night was much more impressive, by leaps and bounds. You could see the bats go up in what looked like huge tornados above the clusters of forest nearby. Then, after circling around as if calling and gathering all the other bats, the tornados slowly lightened as bats departed flying in the same direction eastward. The flow of bats flying overhead eastward seemed never-ending. Even the school children watching nearby were wide eyed and as memezorised as we were.

Bat Migration - Kasanka

Just as Bastian had planned this second night was only a leadup to what we would experience as our grand fanalle on our final night at Kasanka. The third night Bastian took us to special hideouts just inside the edges of forest that the bats slept in during the day. There were three hideouts all angled with different views. After a drive out toward the forested area we took a short walk through a field toward the hideouts. The bats began to start their gathering in the sky just as we were arriving. We then got to sit in the hideouts with front row VIP views. Here we could see up close and personal how the bats would alternate hanging in the trees and fluttering about in circles above the trees (creating the mini bat tornados we had witnessed from afar the night before). From this viewpoint it was crazy to see how many bats were flying about in every direction yet none of them would run into each other. It was organized chaos.

For two hours we switched off between the three hideouts getting different viewpoints of the bat chaos. Our silence was matched with the soft high pitch squeaks of the bats all around us. Finally, just before dark they all began to depart slowly for their nightly fruit feasting. It was incredible and almost unbelievable at the same time. This particular area was only one cluster of the forested areas where the bats rested during the day and the number of bats was astounding. It was hard to imagine that there were several other areas all within a few kilmeters of this one where this same phenomina was happening at that very moment.

 

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Bat Migration BBQ Dinner Celebration

I know what you are thinking. No, we didn’t BBQ (or eat) bats. Although we learned from a fellow Frenchman on the road in Africa that bat is actually quite tasty (from his bat eating experiences in Seychelles). Other than watching their nightly ritual, we left our furry little flying friends in peace during their annual bat conference. We did however feel the need to celebrate and have our own feasting on our final night in Kasanka.

On the third night another group of about nine had joined the camp. Most of the group were ex-pats now living and working in Kasanka. They were just beginning their two day bat adventure as we were ending ours. Bastian had arranged and catered an outstanding BBQ dinner for us on this final night. This post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning it, because it was one of the highlights of the trip to Kasanka. The feast included chicken, tuna burgers, bean burgers, sausages, potato salad, rolls, and coleslaw. Prepping and cooking all this food for what was now a group of almost thirty people is something that can’t go without mention. And amazingly there was still leftovers even after people had two or three plates. Unfortunately we didn’t get any photographic evidence of this feast, but it was a perfect end to the past three days we had spent camping in Kasanka.

 

There are many migrations of animals to be seen, especially in this part of the world, and with this come the sensations of the power of nature. We couldn’t help but have a deep feeling of awe while we watched millions of these small creatures transform the sky above us each night for only a matter of a couple hours. There is a reason people are drawn to watch these natural ebb and flow of nature.  Not only are they incredible and powerful, but they spark something within us. There is something about them that reaches hidden corners of your spirit and heart, leaving traces of inspiration.

 

For many more photos of wildlife and the bats of Kasanka, click HERE.