West of Lusaka and southwest of the Copperbelt, Kafue is an undiscovered gem in the heart of Zambia, an enormous area of floodplain and forest, dissected by rivers including the Kafue, the Lunga and the Lufupa.
Kafue has prolific plains game, including large populations of species, such as roan, sable, and oribi, that are uncommon elsewhere.
Kafue was proclaimed a national park in the early 20th century, and extended in the 1950s, but it has been neglected, because the Zambian government does not have the resources to manage this vast area.
The park suffered from poaching – not just subsistence poaching by communities living around the park, but also organised by poaching gangs hunting elephant meat to trade in the Congo, which lies only 400 km to the north.
With just a few small tourist lodges in this massive area, no-one was able to keep these activities in check.
Building a new future
Things are changing for the better now. Wilderness Safaris has taken over the existing bush camps and is building more with the aim of eventually opening ten lodges in Kafue. The World Bank has allocated US$10 million for improving infrastructure and for anti-poaching initiatives.
Former poachers, from the communities surrounding the park, were recruited to work on the construction of the new lodges, and have subsequently been employed at the lodges or to work in park conservation, including the anti-poaching units. A ‘Children in the Wilderness’ school is being built to provide conservation education for young people living around the park.
The first tourist development is in the Busanga Plains, a 750-square km area of floodplain in the north of Kafue, where two new lodges – Shumba and Kapinga – opened in August 2006.
The Busanga Plains is dry from about July through to November and, during that period, its grassland surface supports enormous herds of antelope, especially puku and red lechwe, as well as roan, sable, bushbuck, oribi, reedbuck, defassa waterbuck, and others. There are also zebra, blue wildebeest, elephant and buffalo. Their predators include the sought-after tree-climbing lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog and hyena.
These are some of the finest grasslands in Africa. With poaching under control, Kafue will emerge as a prime game-viewing destination over the next few years, on a par with the Okavango Delta, but with far fewer lodges.
In November, the rains begin. Both the Lufupa and Lunga rivers feed into the Kafue, which rises in the Congo and, in its turn, flows into the Zambezi and out to the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. The river system is unable to drain this vast area and the Lufupa River backs-up, spilling out over the floodplain.
By January, only tiny islands remain on the central plain, marked by the giant fig trees which are a common feature of these grasslands. The herds and their predators retreat into the woodlands bordering the floodplain, re-emerging as the water recedes in June or July.
Unlimited quantities of catfish live in the Busanga Plains, since shallow pools and water channels striate the plain right through the dry season. There are so many fish that, during August, the local communities are allowed into the reserve to collect the catfish in giant reed fish traps.
Consequently, birds that enjoy these fish are present in abundance: fish eagle (I counted six sitting in just one fig tree), and enormous flocks of Crested crane, Marabou stork, Yellow-billed stork, Saddle-bill stork, Wattled crane and pelican, as well as Grey heron, Spurwing goose, African spoonbill, African jacana, Goliath heron and Sacred ibis.
With more than 500 species recorded, Kafue is a prime destination for serious birders: unusual species you may see on a game drive include Rosy-throated longclaw and African finfoot.