Zambia: Kafue National Park - The Best Laid Plains
Issue 1
With its game management policy back on track, Kafue National Park is once again prime wildlife territory. Chris McIntyre heads off to the Busanga Plains in the northern park.

The leopard focused on a herd of puku, scarcely acknowledging our presence. We followed, fascinated, as our guide, Map Patel, steered a slalom course around the bushes.

A sharp jolt broke our concentration as the land-cruiser lurched sideways and a wheel spun in the mud. Poor timing to hit a deep ditch.

Quietly Map slid from the cab to engage the vehicle's four-wheel-drive, but the instant his foot crunched to the ground, the leopard froze. Map twisted the hub swiftly before jumping aboard. The leopard relaxed and resumed its evening ramble.

Being largely nocturnal, leopard are perhaps the most elusive of Africa's big cats. Zambia permits night drives in its national parks and so visitors have some of the best chances of seeing these cats in the wild.

During Kenneth Kaunda's reign, South Luangwa was Zambia's showcase park, often being cited as demonstrating that Zambia cared for wildlife. Without presidential patronage or the shielding escarpments of a rift valley, Zambia's other parks suffered. Kafue's game was slaughtered by commercial poachers and local villagers alike.

Fortunately, although game was killed, little permanent harm was done to the environment. Zambia's human population is small, and the park's land remained pristine and uncultivated. A decade later, attitudes have changed. The new government and private safari operators are keen to conserve and so benefit from tourism. The parks are protected by game scouts, whilst villagers are encouraged to utilise game management areas (GMA's), rather than hunt in the parks.

Kafue National Park is part of Zambia's high central plateau. It contrasts with the deep rift valleys of Luangwa and the Lower Zambezi, where Zambia's other main game parks are found. Being six hundred metres higher makes Kafue cool in comparison.

Lufupa is the main camp in the north of the park, overlooking the confluence of the Lufupa and Kafue Rivers. Remote yet relaxed, the rooms are simple thatched rondavels with en suite toilets and showers. No frills or luxuries, but this is the bush.

Map Patel is the camp's founder, dedicated to conservation rather than comforts. He arrived here in 1981 and since then has helped Kafue's game scouts in their anti-poaching efforts.

Before the CITES ban on the ivory trade, elephant and rhino were hit hard by commercial poachers. Now the elephant are gradually returning, perhaps encouraged by the presence of other game. Finally, Map is acknowledging some success. A crackle on his radio and our chat is abandoned. Within minutes we alight from the vehicle. Single file, we step carefully through the sparse bush. An armed scout follows. Map stops, pointing to a small group of adult elephant perhaps 200 metres away. Standing together under a tall kigelia tree by the river, they raise their trunks, scent us and flee, tails in the air. Seeing such powerful animals running in terror is sad, but seeing them at all is remarkable.

The environment around Lufupa is varied: a patchwork of mopane forest, mixed miombo woodland and the occasional low-lying, damp grassy dell which the Zambians call "dambos". Game numbers seem excellent. Clearly the antelope survived years of poaching and have regained much of their former strength. Herds of puku intermingle with groups of zebra, blue wildebeest, the occasional eland and some of Zambia's endemic Defassa waterbuck, notably bereft of the white rump markings on their common relatives.

Driving north, we follow the Lufupa River upstream. This flows south into the park to feed a permanent wetland, before draining back into its channel and continuing south to join the Kafue River. These are the Busanga Swamps, a maze of papyrus-fringed waterways and a refuge for the rare Sitatunga antelope. During the rains they flood south over the Busanga Plains, putting about 750 square kilometres under water.

At the start of the dry season, the water retreats to the permanent swamps, leaving fertile soils carpeted in fresh green grass. Travelling towards these, thick bush becomes less common and grassland more widespread. Eventually, from the black-cotton soil of the Plains, the view is breathtaking. A rolling expanse of lush grass spreads out in all directions. Its only interruptions are small raised islands of palm fringed bush often grouped around huge wild fig trees. Game is everywhere: zebra, buffalo, wildebeest, puku and water-loving lechwe in their hundreds and thousands.

At night the Plains take a different complexion as lions emerge from shady islands to hunt. Standing in the open vehicle, Map easily locates predators with his spotlight. Driving closer, we watch as the pride launch their attack: an efficient pincer movement. The action is over in seconds and as we arrive at the kill the pride is dining. Later we return to Shumba Camp to eat for ourselves. This is the only permanent bush camp on the plains, with fewer frills than Lufupa, but who cares for comfort when the game viewing is so good?

The animals have gone from strength to strength in recent years and more visitors are starting to come. Map knows that income from visitors is vital to help fund community development schemes and anti-poaching, but fears it will eventually spoil the area if uncontrolled.

The same discussions, of the costs and benefits of tourism, were happening in a hundred remote bush-camps in Africa that night. But sitting overlooking the vast Busanga Plains, having not seen another vehicle all day, it seemed that Kafue has more time left than most to get its balance right.

Chris McIntyre has written two editions of a guide to Namibia & Botswana, is the author of Bradt Publications' Guide to Zambia and has had articles published regularly in the travel press. He is a director of a top UK independent tour operator.

Published in Travel Africa Edition One: Autumn 1997. Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)

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