Kafue National Park is one of the biggest in the world, larger than Chobe or Kruger and at 22000 sq km, larger than Wales and almost the size of Belgium. It has a reputation for cats especially leopards and we were keen to see what we could find. It is advertised as one of the highlights of Zambia and also one of the most accessible parks. There are many lodges, some with camping, but they are mostly strategically placed along the eastern edge towards Lusaka. Maybe that's to facilitate its use as a weekend destination. It certainly is in line with a lot of thinking that accommodation should be on the edge of a park to reduce the impact of the provision of facilities and rubbish disposal.
Initially we thought we would enter in the north and work our way down but we were soon to find out this was not an option. The road systems seem a bit random. Many of the roads are those made by the lodges for game drives around their range but not as through roads and the lodges seem to be protective of their own routes.
The result is virtually no accurate maps of the roads and roads that don't connect. Indeed we often took to tracking the lodge vehicles to see where the game was! The many rivers also hinder access. We were heading for camps 36 km apart but had to travel back on the main road and through town, 220 km, to get from one to the next.
Zambia Wildlife Authority, (ZAWA), appears not to be very active in the park except at collecting fees. The locals seem to think they do their best but are very under resourced for such a wide area. The fees seem high for the level of infrastructure and little appears to be reinvested in park upkeep or development. The road signs, if present at all, are mostly broken down and illegible. The offices at the entrance gates, if there was one at all, we're falling down and with no park information available. The roads are in bad repair. One lodge owner told us that they have to provide the fuel if they want the roads graded.
Although the roads frequently follow the rivers, there are few view sites over the water, unlike in Kruger where they have taken the trouble to create strategic view points to improve the game viewing opportunities. Often the bush is impenetrable. There is no thought or effort into any aspect of adding quality or value to the visit. The lodges are also largely responsible for supporting the anti poaching efforts and poaching is felt to be a big, and perhaps underestimated, problem.
One fellow traveller we met, who has been coming to Kafue for years, said she would be rethinking this as she felt the game was rapidly reducing with each visit.
Before the lodges came in the more remote areas poaching was much worse. At least with a lodge in the area there are eyes on the roads. The lodges often have to collect and transport the anti poaching teams. Again petrol, and transportation in general, is an issue. The ZAWA appear to have few vehicles and most staff we saw were on foot or on bicycles
The whole west and central park is classified as wilderness and is without roads which is likely a poaching haven. Apparently Zambian people expect to eat bush meat at least once a week and bush meat means poached meat. They poach with snares rather than guns but there are a lot of people bordering the park and that represents a lot of snares. The animals are notably skittish and whether this is unfamiliarity with cars or the pressures of poaching would be debatable.
Fires are also a big problem and there is smoke on the horizon every day. Indeed at one camp the crackling of fire was so loud in the night we got up and packed the car thinking we may have to run for our lives. False alarm but it does not pay to be complaisant.The bush is dry and I would expect it to go up like a tinderbox but mostly it seems to favour a slow burn.
The fires are felt to be the work of poachers who may have been smoking bush meat and, even more commonly, from the scouts who do not put out their cooking fires properly. Despite this if the lodge wants a fire break they have to submit a mountain of paperwork and an EIA which seems a bit redundant when they represent the most organized and hands on management.
Not the most well run park then which is a disappointment because they charge you for it. For the two of us it was $55 a day including camp fees but they do not provide camps, the camping is at the lodges who charge another $20 or $25 a day per person so the cost to be in the park is nearly $100 a day. For that fee a bit more organization would be nice.
The only plus is that firewood is generally free unlike in Botswana. Everything else is extra and a game drive can cost between $10 and $45 per person. Well those were the hard realities so on to the actual adventure. Anyway you can't put a price on real wilderness right?
After a relatively painless session with the bank we hit Mungwe to collect supplies. It is a small disorderly town and all the shops are small holders and stalls so it takes time to find a few things. The basics are there if you look hard enough but it was uphill especially when we were hit up for money every few yards. Strangely it's the well dressed guys with cell phones and apparent employment who come looking for Kwatcha. Their lifestyle is clearly expensive to maintain!
The people are friendly. There are fresh veggies on the side of the road.
The butchery is a popular place and humming with people and the produce looked fresh. The meat came in big random chunks. I don't think they pay much attention to cut. The grocery had staples but no tinned tomato or tuna or self raising flour. A local delicacy was a mince filled deep fried pastry, actually quite delicious but perhaps kept at incubation temperature as it returned to haunt Dudley later! As we have always stood by the philosophy that it is best to get exposure to local bugs to avoid travellers tummy this has to be considered part of the process.
We decided to start our Kafue experience in the north at McBrides camp. When in Senyati speaking to the Joberg ex Zimbos who travel Zambia a lot they could not sing the praises of this camp more highly. I tried to phone with no luck so went with the flow. So far we had been the only customers in each and every camp and park we had visited but McBrides only have 3 camp sites so I was apprehensive. Still we need not have worried. Once again we were the only customers! It is one of the privileges of Zambia that you can enjoy solitude and a true sense of wilderness. It does not bode well for their tourism trade.
The owners are Chris and Charlotte McBride. They are interesting and colourful eccentrics. He grew up on Timbavati and studied English and Zulu but did his masters in wildlife conservation in the states. An interesting range of study. He has written a few books, the most famous the White Lions of Timbavati and lions are clearly his passion.
They have been here 20 years. There is an open lapa and about 5 chalets overlooking the river and then 200 m further down camp sites with ablutions and a shade area. Most is constructed from reeds and looks a bit unsubstantial and slightly ramshackle. The lapa had mismatched arm chairs with a threadbare Persian carpet and books on birds and animals everywhere. My kind of space!
There was a big table with tea and coffee and drinks and a dining area. The view was breathtaking over the river. They invited us in for tea and were charming and very friendly. They have a habituated hippo living around camp where he shelters from the other bull hippos in the herd. He was sleeping just 3 m from the lapa under a tree. They feed him sausages from the sausage tree and everyone walks around him gingerly and whispers theatrically. He is called the Lone Ranger! Chris kept telling us what a lovely boy he is. In fact he told us every day! We agreed. Seeing a hippo up close and personal is pretty impressive.
That night the lions roared by the camp. We called in an African Barred Owlet and he filled in when the lions stopped, also all night. Note to self, you need to be a bit careful with unrestrained pfizzing. The owlet was more disturbing than the lions but we waited for light to get up as we are sure the lions were mere meters away.
In the morning we went on a river cruise on a flat bottomed two tiered aluminum boat with a 60 hp engine.
The Kafue River is a mighty river and really beautiful and peaceful. African finfoot, African skimmer, fish eagles and king fishers, honking hippos and a healthy croc population. We also found two male lions in the bushes on the side of the river. There are two sets of brothers currently contesting the area, named by the McBrides as Duke and Rex (the roarers) and Tate and Paddington from the river bank. They are often in the camp.
That afternoon we set out to game drive but, as mentioned, there are no accurate maps and the terrain was rough. Off roading does not seem to be too much of a problem , indeed , if looking for lions, it is positively encouraged It is not without its dangers as there are hidden dongas in the grass and river beds to negotiate. We found game not to be prolific but it was present in pockets. Puku, impala, sable and waterbuck were all quite common. We spent many hours crawling up and down the roads and river edges, sometimes on tracks, and sometimes making our own roads, in search of the lions.
Chris was enthusiastically encouraging of our off roading as long as we brought him the GPS coordinates of his boys!
Birding was excellent with Bohms bee eater a special treat. There is a special barbet called Chaplins barbet only found here but as hard as we tried he remained elusive.
Photographic opportunities were disrupted with prolific tsetse flies which were uncomfortable,especially after the air conditioner conked out. Still the river trips made up for a lot and the 5 days we spent there were well worthwhile.
As tsetse rather defined our stay in Kafue this is a good time to study the little b*******s in a bit more depth. Tsetse is the Twana word for fly. It's scientific name is Glossina morsitans and it is found in much of mid continental Africa. They live by feeding on the blood of vertebrates and are the primary vector of trypanosomes which cause human sleeping sickness and animal trypanosomiasis.
If you have never encountered this little pest you are lucky. Mosquitos pale in comparison. Indeed after a tsetse scourge you don't even notice mosquitos. They are the worst. The size of a housefly they look innocent enough but they are sneaky, thirsty for blood, painful and extremely tough. In Kafue they are thick on the ground especially in the Miombo forests, perhaps because they prefer dark and shady places.
Tsetse live on the game and have a preference for black and blue colours, Apparently this reminds them of buffalo and coincidentally are the colours of 90% of my wardrobe. Typical. Anyway they follow slow moving objects (me again!) and therefore home in on the beast with energy and glee, coating the bonnet and high lift jack and hiding in the wheel wells.
Their thirst for blood is explained by their unusual biology.
A female fertilizes only one egg at a time and it develops internally during the first three larval stages during which time it is fed by a milky solution secreted by a gland in the uterus. In the third larval stage the tsetse leaves the uterus and crawls into the ground where it develops a hard pupa from which it will emerge , after 20-30 days, as an adult fly. As this stage occurs without feeding, it is the richness of the bloody diet of the maternal female which ensures the success of the process.
We first encountered them in Tanzania and I have vivid memories of my friend Louise doing what we called the tsetse dance in the back window of their land rover. She slapped squashed and pulverized them with enviable energy as the windows became smeared with blood from the process. Part of the need for this enthusiasm is the almost uncanny difficulty actually killing them presents. They have an almost bionic quality. You can hit them hard. They fall but within seconds they shake it off and set off again on the assault. It has a cartoonish feel like the antics of Tom and Jerry. Anyway it means dealing with them requires technique and determination. Firm contact with a rolling motion generally does the trick.
Still however good you get in this there are always more where they came from. It means the game drives must be done with windows rolled up and air con on and this does not make for photographic spontaneity. It was a major reason Kafue did not perform as well as we hoped photographically. When the car rolled to a stop the bonnet was swarmed and an upswell of sinister low humming could be heard. They threw themselves at the window with little thuds and you felt like you had been transported into an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
It is necessary to stop for 5 minutes in the sun to try and clear them. The photographic subject is unlikely to stand still for this and led to a rather subjective process where we would stop and look at the bird or animal then look at each other and try and calculate if the photograph warranted the risk. As time went on the answer to this question was usually no. We were tsetsed out! It was better on the river or on the tar roads. By the end of the trip we were both covered in bites and looked like we had a tropical and antisocial disease.
There are strategies for them, Some lodges provide their clients with protective capes and it helps to spray Dettol and burn elephant dung behind the vehicle. I suspect they laugh at Doom and Tabard. The open game viewers are better because the tsetses are not trapped in the vehicle with you but I think they keep moving and don't have many serious photographers on board. We tried Dettol and it definitely kept them off the bonnet but did not really reduce the bites. Next time we will be better prepared.
As much as I have developed a strong tsetse phobia it must be mentioned that they have been the savior of many of the wildlife areas in Africa, making vast areas inhospitable to cows and discouraging settlement and livestock farming. Without them we would have a lot less wildlife to enjoy. It is a conundrum. As much as I would try to love them for this I can't!
The next stop on our journey was Mayukuyuku lodge. It is just north of the tarred transit road which bisects Kafue into north and south sections. It is 36 km from MacBrides as the crow flies but 220 km by the road!
The camp has chalets and shady sites by the river but we were finally among fellow campers and had to settle for an off river site. There is a bar and restaurant over looking the river but prices were high. Even staying here was $95 a night and the drives upwards of $30. We settled for 2 nights and park access for 3 days.
We encountered the same problem with lack of a map of the tracks. We spotted puku and impala, a few eagles and vultures. There were derelict camps dotted around and we stumbled over a new camp, not yet finished, but they still wanted $25 ppn for camping! ZAWA does not seem to make the failed lodges take down their infrastructure or rehabilitate the land which is odd.
I suspect lodging is thought to be lucrative but ends up having high overheads and catching the unwary profit seekers out. If you want to run lodges in Kafue your first requirement is to do it for the love of it. Despite the high fees I do not think occupancy is very consistent except perhaps for a favored few. Tsetse remained a problem as we travelled south but we were now armed with Doom and Dettol. An American missionary family finally give us a map of the roads , hurrah!
Next day we set out to explore and travelled along the river then out on the road into the south section of the park. There is a loop called Shingamoya which has some permanent water as it follows the river of the same name. We saw zebra, Lichtensteins hartebeeste, impala, puku, De Fasser waterbuck and oribi. A martial eagle was the highlight but nothing we could photograph even if we were prepared to open the windows.
We meandered on unmarked roads past an unmarked and unnamed lodge only to get hopelessly lost with the road petering out about 1 km from the main tar road. Dudley gamely bashed the bundu and we eventually met the road much to the surprise of a game scout vehicle driving by as we popped out. Smile and wave boys, smile and wave!
We left via the river route early next morning. Wearied by the tsetse and high cost of being in the park we decided to drive outside the park. We headed for Iteza-Teza to find a camp on the dam of the same name before entering the park lower down for the last leg of the visit. They try and encourage you to take the spinal road through the park claiming the other roads are too bad to drive but that's an extra $55 a day even for transit and did not feel worth while in our jaded state. We decided a slow, rough but free road would do just fine.
It meant we were traversing the tarred transit road for a few kilometers On the way we spotted a kettle of vultures, white backed, white faced and lapets . There was a kill for sure and we spotted a dead puku by the side of the road! Tsetse, as mentioned, are less on the road so we could take some shots of the lapets posturing. They have mean looking beaks that's for sure. Game spotting on the tar transit road is remarkably productive.
So, encouraged by our vultures, we turned south. The road, as it turns out, is corrugated but quite good and we were bowling along when we spotted a road to the left. According to T4A it ran along the Kafue River bordering the park and, although longer, it looked scenic so we turned off. It is in a wildlife conservation area through forests. There was little game ( unless you count the tsetse! ) but the scenery was beautiful.
We rarely start and finish our day on the roads we planned but route flexibility is one of the benefits of our random traveling style and at lunchtime we passed a sign to Kaingo lodge.
We decided to go for a drink. It is a beautiful place on the rapids and just like that we decided to stay. After all it may be $ 25 a day which seems the standard price but it's half the price of being in the park.
Relaxing after lunch on a lovely site with our own ablutions and shade we had made a good decision. We were again the only campers in the place but they had 4 lodge guests as well. The lodge is run by 3 multinational couples who each fulfil different roles within the business. Julie from Germany is front of house and runs a tight ship. Again the excursions were a little beyond our pocket especially as when using the river for anything, boat trips or canoeing , the park fee also kicks in again. Still they offered a varied and adventurous menu for the lodge including bush camping on islands and al Fresco dining so if you wanted to taste the high end of the market this looks like a good place to test it out.
We stayed two nights and we treated ourselves to dinner as well as a guided walk with a guide who turned out to be a absolute bush guru and introduced us to many fun facts like the anti malarial properties of the shambok tree and anti diarrheal properties of the mobola plum bark and taught us how to make twine from the Prince of Wales feather tree.
Self driving was again marked by sparse game but good birds. The tsetse were around but in reduced numbers due to the fact that the lodge has deployed many black and blue poisoned flags around the reserve. This is encouraging as it suggests there may be measures that can control them in designated areas apart from the widespread and ecologically unacceptable strategy of DDT. Still whether it is 10 or 100 they remain photographically inhibitory.
This lodge had some walking paths along the river and we scrambled along one to a view of the pools beyond the rapids. The river was wide with many small islands and channels. All the lodges along the river tend to base their excursions with an emphasis on water activities. The terrain was quite rough but most guests seem game and energetic.
This lodge had multinational marketing and a healthy clientele. They had just teamed up with 3 other lodges to buy a plane to bring their guests in from Lusarka. Many people don't want to drive the 3 hours on rough tsetse infested roads.
Once again it emphasizes that it's a high end business running lodges in Kafue and despite the rustic setting I am sure it is also very high in overheads and fees. As the mainstay of anti poaching it would be a catastrophe for the park if they don't make it. I think Kaingu is pretty safe but some of the others we have seen look less secure. Certainly your average Zambian cannot afford it. At least in South Africa there is a spectrum of places in our parks and it means the parks are much better utilized and there is a wider appreciation of the value of the park and the need to keep the wildlife safe in the broader population that uses them. Kruger may be smaller but Kafue probably sees less than 1% of the turnover Kruger enjoys. From the perspective of sustainable tourism I am sure Kafue would benefit from some diversification.
So we continued our interrupted journey next day to move towards Namzilla plains in the south but we needed fuel in Itezi-Teza first. Predictably we arrived to find no diesel but promise of a tanker on the way so we stopped off at New Kalala lodge on the edge of the dam to wait it out. As we drove there we passed the new hydroelectric plant which they were clearly still building. There were lots of Chinese foremen.
One tree downstream from the plant had 11 fish Eagles perched. We had never seen anything like it. Dudley says they are there because the downstream water from the plant is so cold it kills the fish and they float on the surface. That's a bit grim. Apparently rivers are sterile for kilometers downstream from these projects. Still this was an amazing photographic opportunity for birds and we spent 2 hours in the early morning watching the fish eagles, kites and egrets swoop and hunt below us.
We tumbled out of the car at New Kalala, hot and thirsty in baking heat. The fees were reasonable because it is not in the park or on the main route so for a mere $10 ppn, or 100 Kwatcha, we were set.
They served us very reasonably priced drinks and lunch in a bar overlooking the huge dam
Yet again we were the only ones there and, unless we wanted to pay a premium, there were no scheduled boat trips leaving.
They did have a sparkling pool however and an afternoon on a sun lounger by the cool water was not to be missed, especially topped off with local beer at the bar.
The lodge is owned by a Greek called Andreas who also has a small string of grocery stores. I must say there were a few telltale Greek touches here and there in the precarious and knotted electrical wires strung across the shower ceiling and the rubbish disposal in a big pit next to the path from the camp to the bar. Those of you who have travelled to Greece and experienced the plastic bag trees will know what I am talking about. Still the camp sites overlooked the dam and there was evidence of some lovely landscaping which cannot have been easy in this rocky environment. The trees and birds were lovely .
As we walked back to camp there were hundreds of rock dassies running and lazing away.
Many were perched on branches of trees eating the new shoots. Every so often there was a thump like a wet bean bag as they fell or hopefully jumped down and scampered off. As I saw no dead bodies I assume it's their normal technique!
Next day we went for our fuel. You cannot go to the petrol station direct as this town seems to be under the control of the power company and they sell the fuel at their main offices where you pay before driving to the pump station. There was a queue but eventually we were set. Later that day we heard they had a power cut and fuel was again unavailable for an indefinite period so it pays to get it while you can, especially as this is the only fuel point on the east and south of the park.
The east gate to the park is just south of Iteza-Teza and a scenic drive on the edge of the dam. The landscape here was more open with less forest and fewer tsetse but still enough to make shooting difficult. Small water holes dotted the landscape and there were plenty of birds. In one pond, no bigger than a puddle, 9 hammerkops were nailing frogs and at another there was a large gathering of Maribou storks. We found the Namzilla plains lodge quite easily and the drive was scenic. We saw sable and roan and reedbuck. Steenbuck were also there for the first time in this park.
The lodge is built around a lovely outside veranda overlooking a pool of water and the Impala and waterbuck were drinking. The camp site was 500 m further on with an oblique view of the water. Although initially the only guests, another over lander arrived late afternoon, a German self driver alone. He was a veteran traveler. He had done transafrica 5 times, 4 on a motorbike. He also travelled Iran Pakistan and the Far East. He had a cruiser which he had shipped to Namibia and he slept inside. He seemed to travel light, maybe all the motor bike experience, but I am sure it was hot inside the truck. He was not fazed by the tsetse. Is it just me?
On the afternoon drive we spotted vultures in a tree and then saw 2 cheetah lying in the shade, probably with a kill. We also saw more sable, roan and reedbuck.
That evening a honey badger visited camp, more accurately he visited the bins. Naughty scamp!
Next day we set off in the other direction. There were again numerous small pools and we saw wattled cranes and numerous birds. There were roan and sable on the plains.
There is more game in the south, or maybe they were just easier to see on the more open landscape. We met the camp owners, Cindy and Steve, a very pleasant couple indeed, and in the course of our chat discovered they are the parents of Peter Cloete's girlfriend! Peter is the son of our best friends. It is a small world indeed.
Namzilla is definitely a destination we will return to but at that point the tsetse had defeated us and it was time to leave and lick our wounds literally and figuratively. We turned south once more and headed back to the Kazengula ferry. We made this easily in one day so one learning point is that it is quite easy to make Namzilla plains from Botswana in a day's drive.
So Zambia is over for now. It was interesting and we will be back. Better tsetse prepared next time I hope. Once back in Botswana it feels more like Disneyland to Zambias real deal but the real deal is a lot tougher and more draining. Still it brings with it the privilege of being in the real wilderness bush. Not something to be taken lightly. In the meantime there are some elephants to capture and wine to be drunk.