Tag Archives: game

The Bats of Kasanka

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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.

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(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.

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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.IMG_2022 IMG_2012 IMG_2017

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!)

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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Come on a safari with me!

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The last two days of my week in Kenya were spent at the fantastic Maasai Mara Game Reserve.  I was accompanied by  my new friend Salaton and I felt extremely privileged to have the tribal chief as my personal safari guide!  We were driven in a 4-wheel drive van with a pop-up top, so I could stand up and take pictures.

This was my first real safari and I didn’t quite know what to expect.  I was expecting to see animals, of course, but nothing really prepared me for the enormous space of the Mara, or of how up close and personal we were able to get to the animals.  Since they have learned that these funny-looking two-legged creatures in the noisy contraptions are neither prey nor predator, they mostly ignore us completely…going about their business and allowing us to gawk.

I was able to see more than 30 different animals; most closely enough to get a good look and a good picture.  ALL the pictures here were taken with my little point-and-shoot camera.

We saw giraffes before we even got into the boundaries of the reserve…and later saw more, even closer.

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As I had hoped, we saw many elephants.  There were even a couple of babies…but the mother carefully herded them away as we approached.

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We saw several kinds of vultures…some in trees and a bunch feeding on the carcass of a dead elephant.

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I got a good shot of a malibu stork, which is the bird I saw flying from a distance on my bird watch last month.

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There were other birds, too….a secretary bird and a pair of Egyptian ducks with their little babies, no bigger than feather-balls.

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We saw a lot of zebras and wildebeests.  This was the end of their big migration (they tend to migrate together) and at one point, we saw a HUGE herd of them walking slowing across the plain.  There were also gazelles, impala, antelope and eland.

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We came upon a couple of water buffalo, which apparently is one of the more dangerous animals, as they have been known to charge a vehicle!  And we also saw some warthogs…and some adorable babies, trotting along after their parents.  (“The Kenyan express,” Salaton said.)  I was unable to get a picture of the babies, but did get a snapshot of one hog hiding under a bush.

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Of course, everyone wants to see the majestic lion.  We came upon four different male lions.  May I present: The King Of Beasts!

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Meanwhile, the female lion had made a kill and was guarding it carefully.  There was a flock of vultures nearby, waiting for her to be finished.

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We were lucky enough to see a cheetah – although not close enough for a good picture, I was able to view it through my binoculars.  It was sitting under a tree, looking like a huge housecat as it licked its paws and yawned.

Later on, we came upon a pair of lions.  Salaton said it looked as though they might be getting ready to mate, and indeed, the male put on a great show to the female – approaching her several times with his hips swaying and making huffing sounds.  He even went so far as to urinate most spectacularly right in front of her nose (and I got a picture of him doing it!) However, she was unimpressed and merely moved away from him.  He sat down again to wait for another opportunity.

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Just before lunch, we found a watering hole with at least a dozen hippos!  They did not come out of the water (which was probably a good thing) but we could see their heads and ears and hear their snuffling sounds…almost like whales…as they surfaced to breathe.

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More animals included a bushback (very rare to see; as they are quite shy…) a jackal, an ostrich (which is HUGE and looks like a mistake in design!), some mongoose and a couple of crocodiles, swimming near the hippos.

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We encountered some Maasai boys just as we were having our lunch and gave them all our bread-and-butter sandwiches.  I remembered to touch their heads and say “supa” to them – who knows what they thought of me, a mzungu woman with white hair, a big floppy hat and green sunglasses!  But they smiled and said “supa” back to me.

It was a fantastic way to end my week in Kenya.

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A bird watch…and cows!

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Sunday, I joined the Zambian Bird Society (http://www.birdwatchzambia.org) on their monthly bird-walk.  It took place at the Kalamazi Game Ranch, not far outside of Lusaka.  I borrowed a pair of binoculars for the occasion (and really need to get some of my own soon!)  I was also armed with a camera, a couple of bottles of water, a hiking pole and sunscreen.  I had neglected to bring my hat, but I made do with my trusty bandanna.

We met at the “Bird Watch Office” and caravanned towards the Game Ranch.  There were 7 of us…and no one was really a “regular,”, it seemed.  Once we turned off the tarred road, I realized that I should have jumped into one of the 4-wheel drive vehicles as my little Starlet was not meant for rutted dirt roads.  When we hit the turn to the ranch,  which was little more than a dirt path, I parked my car and grabbed a ride with a very nice American couple who had a sturdy 4 x 4.

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As we drove in, we passed several flocks of guinea fowl, which are very common and have been domesticated.  They apparently make good eating!

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Birders can be an interesting bunch.  I was asked if I had brought my notebook – apparently it is common to record sightings and observations as you encounter different birds…or think you encounter them.   Everyone had a pair of serious binoculars and when a bird was sighted (or someone thought a bird was sighted) everyone would stand perfectly still, binoculars up and steady, looking to see if certain markings or beak colours could be discerned before confirming the sighting.

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Some people thought this bird was definitely a “lizard buzzard” but others were not so sure.  The light was not good enough to check to see if he had the requisite black stripes down his chest, as shown in the close up picture (not mine!)

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We came across a whole bunch of nests made by a bird called a “weaver.”  They weave their nests onto reeds and thin branches.  There are several kinds of weavers, some that make neat, tidy nests like these and others who are sloppy and make ratty looking nests with loose ends and bits of sticks and grass sticking out. .

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The game ranch is part of a farm that borders a large dam and the lake that has been created.  We walked around the lake to the mud flats, where we hoped to see some of the “waders.”  It was very pretty and there was a nice breeze coming off the water.

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We were able to see several kinds of birds – ones that were positively identified were the pied kingfisher, the stilt, a common bulbul, a jacana (also called the “Jesus Christ bird” because it appears to walk on water!), a black-necked heron (which could possibly have been a grey heron) and a bee-eater.

The stilt is a very attractive bird – long red legs and black wings with a white body.  And the pied kingfisher is unique amongst kingfishers in that he hovers over the water before diving for his prey.  The bee-eater is a very pretty little bird – bright yellow body with a colorful head.  And the jacanas really do seem as if they are walking on the water – they have incredibly long toes which allow them to navigate on even the smallest leaves or twigs.

 (Please note: the close-up bird pictures are NOT mine!  I would have needed incredible luck and a much more expensive camera to take shots like these!  But they show what the birds look like!)

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And then…someone told the cows it was time for morning tea.  One came down to see if it was ready.

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Then, using some unknown cow-communication, the rest of them slowly followed.

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These cows are quite unusual in that they have a hump between their shoulder blades, in some cases quite pronounced.  They are called “Zebus” or Brahman cattle and originated in Southern  Asia.   They are well adapted to tropical temperatures and used for dairy, beef, draught animals and also hides and leather.  Their dung is used for fuel and fertilizer.

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Most of the cows moved placidly down to the water, but every once in a while, there would be feisty one who would seem more curious.

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Behind the mud flats, there was a curious structure that I first took to be an old foundation of some sort.  Upon closer inspection, and some discussion, we discerned it to be a “cattle dip.”  The cattle would be driven into the shoot and into the deeper end, where they could be soaked with insecticide or cleaner…

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There was much interesting flora, as well.  Thorned acacia trees and various bushes and tall rush-like plants.

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And as we returned to our cars, we could clearly see a marabou stork wheeling about overhead.  This bird has a wing-span of almost 2 meters.  From a distance, it was beautiful, but it was considered to be one of the ugliest birds, with its short neck, featherless head and huge neck- pouch.

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Right before leaving, I found a long-discarded impala horn on the ground…

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It was a fun morning…and next time, I plan to have a stronger pair of binoculars (and my hat!)

 

 

 

 

Sunday Market and a mini-game drive.

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For the last day of our new teacher orientation, we all piled into the bus and went to the Sunday craft market at the new Arcades Mall.  This is a smaller market, with many local crafts such as rugs, baskets, masks, statues, fabric, furniture and other traditional African items.  It was a colorful scene and I could easily see doing most of my Christmas shopping here.  Vendors would stand in the middle of the aisle and if they saw you even glance at their wares, would try to coax you closer to take a look.  “Just a look, Madam!  Not to buy!  Just to look!  See what I have!  Just a small look!”

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There were many beautiful items.  I was looking for some baskets for my house and also planned to buy several lengths of colorful fabric to hang on the walls, as the house is very plain and stark.  I am proud to say that I stuck to my plan, although I was sorely tempted by the incredible array of masks and wooden carvings.  I came away with four beautiful hand-made baskets, two with handles and two bowl-shaped ones.  I think I got a bargain on those.  And I bought five 2-meter lengths of printed cloth to hang on the wall.  I think I probably paid too much for those.  But it all evens out in the end.

Then we piled ourselves and our purchases back into the bus for a trip to a nearby lodge and game farm.  This is not one of the huge game parks that are several hours out of the city, but a more sedate affair only about 45 minutes away.  It was called the “Protea Hotel Safari Lodge.”   A beautiful setting on a lake, with a delicious lunch buffet.  As is my habit, I tried some of the more unusual offerings.  The salad table had an enormous variety.  I had some kind of coleslaw-like dish that was made of thinly sliced turnip with a creamy dressing…very nice.  And a cold lemon soup – again, a light cream base and a refreshing taste.  I also had a skewer of marinated beef and what I think was pork, along with an eggplant dish and fresh green beans.  There was the ubiquitous nsmiba to use as a base.  And my dessert was something called “South African Friendship Cake” which was like a very light cheesecake with a crumbly crust.

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You could walk around the grounds and view the very tame impala and other deer-like animals who would come right up to the edge of the dining area.  And the lodge has three very old lions – a brother and sister and their father (the mother died of old age last year, apparently) who seem to spend most of their time just lying around, looking as bored as only a cat can.  Then some of us took a short “game drive” with a guide.  No really big game at this lodge, but we did see zebra, warthog, sable, impala, several beautiful large birds and baboons.   And some enormous anthills!  I was not able to get pictures of everything from the bumpy van…but I did get some!  Anthills!A "zebra crossing"Tree grown around another treeAnd baby makes three...A sable

It was a wonderful way to end a week of orientation.  Today all the staff returned and we started to really plan the year!