Sleeping Giant

Kafue, Zambia’s oldest national park, is so vast it could swallow both the Serengeti and Ngorongoro whole. Yet the number of visitors it receives is tiny. For decades it’s suffered from under-investment and neglect but now, little by little, things seem to be changing for the better. With the opening of an impressive array of new camps and lodges, is southern Africa’s sleeping giant finally back on its feet? Huw J. Williams investigates.

On Busanga Plains, the land is ironed flat to the horizon, wilderness in all directions. A vast expanse of golden grass, waist-high and gently waving in the wind for miles around, lone trees standing guard. Drive on, and suddenly the savannah is short and green, pinned to the earth under a huge sky. Further, and the trees congregate in larger numbers, conquering the grass with copses and swathes of mixed-species woodland.

This is Busanga in the dry season, but when the rains come, it is locked away from visitors. For months the plains flood, forming a huge shallow lake dotted with tiny islands where the land rises a few feet to break the water’s surface. Busanga is a patchwork of habitats stretching for eight hundred square miles. Yet these plains are only a fragment of Kafue, Africa’s largest single national park.

Kafue is not merely big, it is bountiful. Within its boundaries lie a rich assortment of primordial habitats: teak forests, mixed miombo woodland, mpane woodland, riverine forests, hills, huge granite boulders, savannah wetlands and seasonal rivers. Three permanent rivers cut through this diverse terrain, bringing their own special scenery and species; the wide Kafue and its tributaries, the Lunga and the Lufupa. Kafue covers over 22,400 square kilometres, an area roughly the size of Wales, yet this pristine expanse of untouched Africa never hosts more than three hundred tourists at a time. Many parks lay claim to wilderness. For Kafue it is true.

Its diversity of habitats means Kafue is home to over 150 mammal species, more than any other park in Africa. Lion, leopard and cheetah, serval and caracal, hyena and jackal, wild dog, they are all here. Numerous antelope species, from eland to the tiny blue duiker. And others such as sable, roan and red lechwe, here in impressive numbers but rarely seen or absent from other parks. Its peerless biodiversity isn’t limited to game. Kafue is a paradise for birds, with over 470 species, many of which are prized sightings, such as blackcheeked lovebirds, Chaplin’s barbet and Denham’s bustard. At Nanzhila Plains Safari Camp, set deep amongst woodlands, plains, ponds and seasonal streams in the south of the park, one visitor spotted over a hundred different species in just over an hour. All whilst sitting in the grounds.

It’s not just the rare species that can offer a delightful birdwatching experience. One morning, as we stroll through the bush at Nanzhila, we spot large birds flocking in the distance. Walking towards them, we see well over two hundred circling in the sky and slowly descending behind a stand of trees. The area around Nanzhila floods during the rains. It is interlaced with seasonal streams that carve meandering depressions through the plains and woodland. Now, in the dry season, the streams are no longer flowing, but deep pools covered in lilies and pads remain. It is to one of these ponds that the birds have headed. We creep slowly forward using the trees as cover. Through the tall grass we can see a tight, vigorous mass of white bodies, flapping wings and splashing water. The birds are pelicans in a feeding frenzy; herding the fish trapped in the ponds. Spectacularly, the scene suddenly erupts as the birds become aware of our presence and hundreds of wings beat as one, pulling the whole flock skyward in a swirling mass.

Despite its natural wealth, Kafue lacks the prestige and fame of many other African national parks. For many years it was a neglected treasure, like a stately home that had been left to decay, its glory days a distant memory. Slowly, it slipped into a negative cycle; few visitors meant little investment and easy pickings for poachers; declining game populations gave tourists ever less reason to come. But now the downward spiral has been halted and Kafue has entered a new era. Recent investment from businesses and international agencies means this jewel in Africa’s crown could reclaim its rightful status as a premier park.

At the edge of a large pool where hippo break their bathing to call loudly to the setting sun, Phil Jeffery, camp manager of Wilderness Safari’s Kapinga Bush Camp, maps out Kafue’s changing fortunes for me. As we sip a beer, he explains why visitors won’t see the vast herds of game that other parks boast. A past history of heavy poaching is the cause, but for Phil that’s no reason to stay away.

“The numbers are not here,” he admits. “The game is not as prolific as the Delta or even Luangwa. But I think that even though Kafue has been hit by poaching it still has that untouched feeling. You really feel that you are in the wilderness.”

As Phil says, poaching has taken its toll, and not just on numbers. Many of the animals are skittish and wary of humans. Sightings are usually at some distance. Somehow, however, this is part of what makes Kafue seem wilder than other parks. On a evening game drive, we round a corner to see a small herd of zebra galloping away, a cloud of dust marking their flight. They stop a little distance off and turn as one to watch us. Later on the same drive, a family group of seven sable stir as we approach, wandering slowly off into the sanctuary of a nearby copse. It’s strangely rewarding to see animals like this: stolen glimpses of game a hundred metres away, alert to your presence, acting as if predators were around. It seems more of a real wilderness experience than watching game that seems blithely unconcerned by the proximity of a vehicle full of tourists.

The present low population density might deter some people, but Steve Smith, owner of Nanzhila Plains Safari Camp, believes that Kafue fills a particular niche for discerning visitors. “Maybe it’s not the right destination for the first time traveller to Africa who wants to see the Big Five. We can’t guarantee that. For the person who has been to the popular destinations and wants a slightly different experience, who wants to see more of what Africa can offer, Kafue is definitely a good option. What we have here is very good quality; animals that are scarce in other areas. And the variety is here, because of the range of habitat. It’s a connoisseur’s destination.”

Quality rather than quantity is the current reality of Kafue, yet there is strong likelihood that soon, as well as diversity, the park will once again have large populations of mammals. The World Bank has allocated a multi-million dollar budget to a five year plan to develop the infrastructure of Kafue and preserve its biodiversity. A recent influx of private investment is also playing a key role.

In the last few years, new lodges have opened, each in prime locations dispersed throughout the park. KaingU Safari Lodge has one of the most beautiful settings of any game lodge in the world. It sits on a magical stretch of the Kafue River where the water’s wide stream has been broken by wooded islands. Huge rounded granite boulders lie dotted through the river, like stepping stones hurled by a giant. Game watching is done from a boat as it weaves its way through the rocks and rapids. Guests will soon be able to cross the river to walk through the bush and spend nights sleeping under the stars.

In the north of Kafue are the luxury lodges and bush camps of Wilderness Safaris. Two of the bush camps in Busanga Plains, Shumba Camp and Kapinga Camp, were built this year, during the rainy season. All the materials had to be trucked in, transferred to 4×4 vehicles and then into mokoros and finally carried by hand. It was a very ambitious project; many people thought it too ambitious. Yet less than a year later, the camps are open. Sitting at Shumba with Phil Nicholls, Wilderness Safaris’ New Developments Manager, he explains the benefits increased tourism brings. Poaching is more prolific when there are fewer people around to prevent it. More camps mean more eyes in the bush.

“Every time a game drive goes out it is a sort of anti-poaching patrol,” he says. “There will be aircraft flying into the dirt strips and helicopter transfers to the camps, so that will be a way of monitoring. Should we come across anything we can contact the Zambian Wildlife Authority scouts and they will be here in flash. So poachers will think that there’s a better chance of being caught, and that maybe now it’s just not worth it.”

Phil is keen to point out though, that it is not simply a case of helping to reduce poaching; Wilderness also has a policy ensuring local communities find a benefit from tourism. “We’ve got a big investment here and we need to protect that investment. So whatever we can do to help conservation in the park we will do. But we will also help the local people around the park, they must not be left out. We are providing employment and we will also work with various community projects to try and distribute some of benefits that we get through being here.”

For every new visitor to Kafue there will be a step taken towards rejuvenating the park. With time, game numbers will increase and the lives of the local people will improve. Long term plans for Kafue also involve its incorporation into the Peace Parks scheme which is running throughout southern Africa. This provides links between national parks across international borders that will eventually allow free movement of animals from one area to another. At the same time it will bring income to the local communities along these migratory routes.

As Oliver Nelson, the park’s Southern Region Manager says, for the first time in decades, the future for Kafue is brighter. “I have worked in parks throughout Africa and Asia for many, many years, but for me Kafue is a true unspoilt wilderness. If you want to see the Big Five in thirty minutes then go to a zoo. If you want to enjoy the experience of being in the bush and looking for the wildlife then Kafue is the place. Game numbers are already recovering and I am very hopeful for its future. There’s a lot of support from both the government and the private sector and with the common sense and visionary management that Zambia Wildlife Authority is implementing, it will be a success.”

On the last morning in Kafue, during a dawn walk, we emerge from a leafy grove, and in front of us the grass of the plains has been burnt by a bush fire. A sooty carpet of back is flecked by a dense shag pile of shoots, lush green and eager, a stark testament to the resilience of nature and an apt metaphor for the park itself. Kafue is at a turning point. The return of tourism, managed well, will mean that animal populations can recover and Kafue can reclaim its title as one of the great African game reserves.

Travel Africa magazine, Issue 36, Autumn 2006 [read it here]

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