10-Day Northern Bat Safari (December 2014)

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My last safari of 2014 began on 13 Dec, in Lusaka, and included ten days of travel through Northern Zambia. The focus of the tour was the huge concentration of fruit bats in Kasanka National Park, which was to be covered first-off, to be followed by some general exploration. My two guests were Andrew and Neil Burns, a father and son team from England and South Africa respectively.

DAY 1
Andrew and Neil arrived during the 13th and we stayed in Lusaka for the first night. Neil’s baggage was missing, so we were delayed somewhat in our departure next morning, then delayed again by a heavy rainstorm. We left Lusaka near noon.

We spent our first night at a campsite about 300km northeast of Lusaka. Here we staked out a certain tree, which contains the nest of a family of Lord Derby’s Anomalure (less accurately called a ‘flying squirrel’), a very rarely seen nocturnal animal. These we saw on queue, and Andrew, a keen photographer, managed to capture them as they scampered to the top of their tree, from which they glide out to their feeding grounds. We then repaired to camp for dinner.

DAY 2
Next morning Andrew and I were up again at 0400, hoping to renew the acquaintance. Obediently, one anomalure glided in and hopped to the nest giving us excellent views. It then entered the nest but continued peering out, presumably waiting for the rest of the family. Not wishing to cause undue disturbance, we took some photos and left the nest. After breakfast and packing up the tents, we continued north to Kasanka National Park.

The first part of our Kasanka stay was in a lodge in the west of the Park, which overlooks a beautiful, tranquil river. We settled ourselves in and spent some time soaking in the surroundings, then headed back east to explore, and to watch the fruitbats emerging from the Fibwe Forest. On our way, the first real rains of the season hit. The fairly heavy shower had been under way for perhaps twenty minutes when we came upon a herd of elephants blocking the track. They were a group of females with young, which were in no hurry to let us through. As it happens, we were perfectly happy to sit and wait. In addition to splashing about in the puddles, I think they had also come into the open to feel the rain on their backs. It was very encouraging to see such confidence in a breeding herd – these will go to great pains to stay out of sight where they do not feel completely safe.

Eventually, we managed to squeeze past the herd and continued towards the bat roost. By the time we arrived the rain had obligingly stopped. We watched the emergence from a point in the Kapabi Swamps which gives a wide view of the roost, from the south. As always, these huge fruit-bats, which often travel over 60km in a night, provided us with twenty awe-inspiring minutes as they silently overflew us in their millions. Even this late in the season, they were still near peak numbers.

The road back to our lodge was vibrant with the activity which always follows a really good rain, particularly the first of the season. Among the highlights were Hildebrandt’s Ornate Frog, a beautiful green and brown specimen, and Bocage’s Tree Frog. Soon after arriving back at the lodge, it became clear that the fun was far from over. All the way through dinner, a young Pel’s Fishing Owl called repeatedly, begging its parents for food. Eventually the owl was calling from very near the camp, so Andrew and I went to have a look. We found an adult with the juvenile on a perch very low over the water, looking surreal in the mist which was rising thickly from the surface.

DAY 3
We took a canoe trip on the river next morning seeking, among much else, the perfect photo of a half-collared Kingfisher. We had plenty of half-opportunities, but the process is trickier than it would seem. Our idyllic exploration became somewhat more urgent when the rains caught us again, falling quite heavily. We headed back at a brisk pace and arrived completely soaked, but agreed that the experience had been exhilarating. We had lunch and then, once the weather had cleared, packed up and headed out for the next phase of the Kasanka adventure. For the following two nights we would be camping at a spot near the roost, which would give us easier access. In the evening, we watched the out-flux from the north. At our new campsite we had the opportunity for some interesting close encounters with the smaller animals surrounding us, before we turned in.

DAY 4
On the fourth day of our tour, Andrew and I again woke up very early and headed to the bat forest at 0400. We climbed into a high hide overlooking the roost and, as the morning progressed, watched the bats returning from their feeding-grounds. This offered us excellent views and photo opportunities. Later, a Crowned Eagle flew into view and caught a bat for breakfast. There were other birds of prey around, some of which were a threat to the bats, like Fish Eagles, and others which weren’t, like the Amur Falcon and White-backed Vulture. We stayed a while in the hide and watched a herd of elephants traversing the distant marshes as a beautiful morning unfolded.

That afternoon we headed to a different part of the Park, where the Kasanka Stream forms an expansive lake. This was mostly dry, but there was much to be seen. At one point we were attracted to a strange mewing sound and found a baby Puku, under a week old, in obvious distress. It died as we watched. As we turn towards the bat forest for our last evening in Kasanka, we saw a large storm crossing our front. Fortunately it didn’t hit us. After the bat ritual we drove slowly back to camp, and on the way saw a young jackal, which I lured close to the vehicle with an imitation of its call.

DAY 5
On our last morning in the Park, Andrew and I drove out to Fibwe again and spent some time in the Fibwe forest hide, where we spotted for Sitatunga and other swamp- and forest-denizens. As we drove back to the campsite, we crossed paths with another family of elephants and Andrew took some excellent photos.  After this, we packed up and left for our next Northern destination: Kapishya Host Springs.

We got to the Hot Springs campsite after an idyllic lunch at Lwitikila Falls, just outside Mpika. On our way in we detoured briefly to the ‘Shiwa N’gandu’ Lake, where various types of game are kept, and visited the office at Shiwa to arrange a visit to the famous mansion on the property. Kapishya is 20km beyond Shiwa Ngandu. We spent that evening in and around the Hot Springs.

DAY 6
Next morning, Andrew and I took a hike into the hills around Kapishya before we got back, picked up Neil, and drove to Shiwa Ngandu for the House tour. Here we were given a run-down of the history of Zambia’s most famous colonial family. Afterwards we drove up to the grave site, on a hill overlooking the farm, where Stewart Gore-brown and other family members are buried.  Another shower caught us as we left, and we had much intermittent rain during the afternoon. It did clear up in time for us to have a look at the nearby Shiwa Power Station, which is situated in dramatic scenery. The rain came back, quite heavily, that evening when we were in camp.

DAY 7
Our last activity before leaving Kapishya was a walk to some recently-discovered cave-paintings in the nearby hills. This was a very scenic, pleasant ramble in glorious weather. It was fairly brief, allowing us time to pack up camp in good time, and set off for Mutinondo wilderness. Mutinondo lies about 200km South of Kapishya and we were quite surprised to find that there had been no rain here at all. The area was empty and we got the best campsite. That evening we took a scenic stroll to Choso Falls with Julian, the temporary proprietor. We also arranged for Andrew and Neil to go horse-riding the next morning. After the morning’s ride and lunch, we decided on sundowners at Charlie’s Rock. Andrew and I set off on foot, to be met later by Julian and Neil who would come by vehicle. It was a very pleasant trek through woodland to the outcrop which includes Charlie’s Rock, then an interesting and scenic climb to a point overlooking the Rock, from where we watched Julian and Neil getting the chairs and beers ready. When all the work was done, we descended.

DAY 8
That night we were hit by a huge storm, with spectacular electrics and torrential rain. In the morning, we were told that over 90mm had fallen. Andrew and I set off for the highest peak on the property – Mayense. The path was covered in insects and other arthropods, which had been stirred to activity by the rain. We were especially intrigued by some very cryptic grasshoppers which were so well camourflaged against the rocks as to be invisible, until they flew and exposed brightly coloured hind-wings. Again, we were treated to beautiful views from the top of this outcrop, after which we returned to base.

After an early lunch we left Mutinondo for Mkushi, via Kundalila Falls. We encountered two snakes on the way out, one a Black Mamba of close-on 2 metres, which allowed Andrew a few photos. We reached Kundalila around 1600 and had a good view from the top, before we continued on our way. We attained the Mkushi campsite at about 1800. We had our last appointment with the anomalures then retired for the night.

DAY 9
Drive back to Lusaka.

DAY 10
Transfer to airport; Andrew and Neil fly out.