The November safari to Liuwa Plains in Western Zambia is on Explore Africa’s annual program for the past 15 years. This year I decided to add an interesting twist to this already extremely successful itinerary, namely a visit to Kasanka National Park, close to the DRC and the Tanzanian border, to witness the “Migration of the flying Foxes” or straw coloured fruit bats.
We all met at Chobe Safari Lodge in Kasane from where the ten well prepared and equipped safari vehicles left for Zambia. The convoy was once again led by the Cross Country sponsored Nissan Navara with the guides, Andre van Vuuren and Martin Slabert, from Explore Africa Adventures in the front seats.
After spending two nights in the tranquillity of Kabula Lodge on the western bank of the Zambezi, we drove further north to Liuwa Plains, one of the remaining true wilderness areas in Africa.
Flooded the rest of the year, it’s only open from beginning July to end December. Best time to go is when the grass starts sprouting in November. The wildebeest arrive in large numbers to feed on the nutritious grass, and they start to calf, which means the predators also arrive in large numbers. So do birds of prey, vultures, crowned cranes, wattled cranes, saddlebill storks, pelicans and thousands of black wing pratencoles.
Only 25 vehicles per day are allowed in the park and you hardly see other people. There are three designated campsites, and neat ablution blocks with toilets and showers were added recently. Kalabo is the last town, and you cross the Luanginga River by hand-drawn ferry….a true Africa experience.
After one night in the luxury of Mukambi Safari Lodge on the Kafue River, it became time to continue our journey to Kasanka National Park.
During November and December each year ten million straw-coloured fruit bats take up residence in one hectare of Kasanka National Park’s mushitu swamp forest. Enticed by the abundance of such delicacies as musuku, mufinsa and the other wild fruits in the area, colonies of bats start arriving in late October. They come from the Congo Basin and Equatorial Guinea and their numbers is ten times as many mammals as the Serengeti wildebeest migration. Straw-coloured fruit bats are identifiable by their pale, tawny fur and bright orange neck. As with all fruit bats (alias flying foxes) they have dog-like facial features with small ears, large eyes and a long snout. The wingspan of a straw-coloured fruit bat reaches 85cm making them the largest bat in Southern Africa.
By day the bat colony roosts in the trees of the mushitu forest, packing themselves around branches and trunks which often break under the sheer weight of bat! Daily life is not easy for the bats as many predators including raptors turn to a diet of bats for the two months that the colony is in residence. Fish eagles, martial eagles, vultures and numerous other raptors have been seen to take the bats in flight and from the roost. Crocodiles, pythons and nile monitors clean up any bats found on the ground.
Watching the bats by day dispels a lot of the myths people associate with these nocturnal creatures. They are fascinating to study as they land upright on a branch, crawl along using four limbs over sleeping friends, until a suitable place is found, then drop into a hanging position only to be disturbed by one of the multitude of bats also clinging to the same small portion of branch. From this inverted position, the bats clean themselves, mate, urinate and perform most bodily functions associated with resting animals. Take off is very easy – let go with the feet and flap.
At dusk the noisy chatter and activity from the colony increases. Scouts fly out first and then in a seemingly ordered fashion the entire colony stream out of their roost in search of food. For 25 minutes the sky is full of bats for as far as the eye can see, as they disperse over a 360 degree radius from the forest. It’s like an air traffic controllers worst nightmare! An occasional individual changes his mind and heads back inwards ducking diving and dodging others on their way out.
This is a spectacle not to be missed. Some of the world’s most experienced bat researchers have described it as a sight once seen, never forgotten. Chris and Tilde Stuart, wildife researchers and authors of many popular wildlife books, described it as one of Africa’s greatest wildlife spectacles if not the world’s.
Bats aside November and December are probably the most beautiful months in Kasanka. Grass turns green, wildflowers appear, bright skies with occasional thunderstorms, migratory birds swell Kasanka’s bird list to well over 400 and as at all times of year sitatunga sightings are guaranteed from Fibwe hide!
After this memorable experience, it got time to start the journey south, and everybody agreed that Kasanka and the Migration of the flying Foxes have to be a MUST on the future program of Explore Africa Adventures. Visit www.explore-africa,co,za for more information.