In the northern part of Zambia, about 6 hours drive from Lusaka, there is a small national park called Kasanka. Every November and December ten million straw-coloured fruit bats take up residence in one hectare of Kasanka National Park’s mushitu swamp forest. This is not a “migration” as such – as the bats come from various places (such as Congo and Uganda) It is more like a “congregation” as the bats gather to feed on the delicious mangos that are just ripening.
I had a 4-day weekend for American Thanksgiving and I thought since I wasn’t having turkey, what would be better than to spend some time in the forest, watching +/- 10,000,000 bats take to the sky? I was not disappointed.
I booked accommodation at the rustic but charming Wasa Lodge, and arranged a ride from Adam, a sort of jack-of-all-trades who turned out to be a fountain of knowledge about landmarks, flora and fauna on the trip up.
As we passed through Kabwe, he pointed out the “Big Tree” monument (which is an enormous fig tree) and also several ancient locomotives – the town is still the putative center of Zambian railways, although employment on the railways has be greatly reduced.
(We had a small adventure just south of Serneje – a mini-bus full of passengers had blown a tire and was tipped over on the side of the road. The people were waving branches to try to flag down a vehicle, so we stopped. There was a boy about 8 or 9 years old who had a sizeable gash in his leg, and an older man who looked like he may have had a concussion. We piled them into the back seat, along with the little boy’s brother and detoured to the nearest clinic, about 20 minutes away. Luckily, the gash on the boy’s leg had not been high enough to hit the femoral artery and although it was very deep (I could see the fat layer and muscle) it had not gone to the bone. I gave him water and covered the wound with gauze from the first aid kit. The clinic was out in the middle of nowhere, but the nurses and orderlies came out with a couple of wheelchairs and we had some assurance that our unexpected passengers would be okay.)
We finally arrived at the lodge. I was pleased to find that I had been “upgraded” and I didn’t have to share a bath. I had my own little “chalet” – a terra-cotta coloured roundel, which had a thatched roof and was cool and comfortable. The bath had cold running water and a “bucket” shower – when you wanted a shower, the staff would fill up a large container on the roof which was connected to the shower inside. It worked splendidly.
There was a large main building (also round!) which looked out over Wasa Lake. They had a full bar and meals were included. You could see puku (a kind of antelope) grazing across the lake and there was a sizeable pod of hippos in residence – you could hear them grunting as they surfaced and see their ears peaking out above the water.
Sam, the proprietor, greeted me warmly and said he would organize all the bat drives for me. There are several “hides” from which to view the bats and there were drives in the evening (leaving at about 4:00pm) and morning (leaving at 4:00AM!) I decided to go to all three available hides and did one twice…because it is a different experience in the evening, when the bats are on their way out, and in the morning, when they are returning, fat and tired and full of fruit!
Some of the hides were platforms in trees, (you climbed up a wooden ladder-like staircase) and some were right on the ground in a sort of marsh. (To get to this one, we walked through a field of mint, which smelled wonderful!)
There is no way to adequately describe viewing the bats. In the evening, they would emerge from the dense forest beneath, where they had been sleeping all day (protected from the various birds of prey and other predators.) They would hover around the tree-tops, circling and making their high-pitched bat-noise, and then descend again, as if to rally the rest of the group. Each time, more and more bats would emerge, until finally, at almost exactly 6:00pm, they would ALL emerge – thousands and thousands and thousands of them – all heading off (as much as 60 kilometres away) to feast on the mangos.
Our guide, Lloyd, told us that in the morning, they fly noticeably lower and more slowly, because they are so full…and that they sometimes bump into each other (I did see one collision.) It’s like they are coming back from a night on the town…possibly muttering “Man, I shouldn’t have had that last mango” as they weave their way home.
Lloyd was an extremely knowledgeable and interesting guide. To become a guide, you have to take a 4-year sequence of classes and then pass a very stringent exam. He had some great stories, including one where a walking safari inadvertently came between a mother elephant and her baby and another one where a guide actually lost his life protecting an idiot guest who was insisting on getting close enough to “see the eyes of the elephant.”
I loved the morning viewings best – you leave in the dark, with the stars above and then, as the skies slowly lighten, you hear and then see the bats returning…flying with the sun gleaming through the membrane of their wings, making them look golden. There was no way I could possibly get a picture of this, no matter what kind of camera I might have had.
They roost for a while in the tops of the taller trees and then, suddenly, all swoop down at once – making it look as though the tree is shedding its leaves. You hear their wings whooshing as they all descend back down into the forest. The trees in the picture below are FULL of bats…look closely!
I met some interesting fellow bat-viewers, as well. On the first drive, there were two guys from Spain, who had cameras that looked big enough to see the footprints on the moon! They were very particular about their pictures.
The following morning, my companions were three older Englishman who had been friends with David Lloyd, the founder of Kasanka National Trust and a real character, by all accounts. He squandered half his fortune on wine, women and song and then used the rest to buy Kasanka. These guys knew a great deal about the park and on our drive back, we detoured a bit so we could try to view some of the animals and interesting plants. We saw a warthog and a kind of goose and had a fantastic view of a bateleur (a kind of eagle.) I got a shot of it sitting in a tree, and then it swooped off and circled back over our heads, showing a spectacular wingspan. (I wasn’t quick enough to get a picture, but the sight of that bird, winging not 10 feet above us, was glorious.)
We also saw some huge termite mounds and a field of smaller ones that looked remarkably like a cemetery! There was a magnificent “sausage tree” and several large sycamores. And plenty of puku.
The last day, I sat in the shade of the lodge’s balcony, just relaxing and enjoying the view. It was fun to listen to the other guests come back from their bat viewings. That night, I sat out by the fire with a glass of wine, watched the sun set and the moon rise and listened to the sounds of the bush.
And I was thankful, indeed.