A witness to one of the greatest animal migrations anywhere on the planet, only first noticed in the 1990s, this lush, marshy remote corner of Northern Zambia in Kasanka National Park becomes the largest fruit bat roost on Earth for six weeks each year.
In the fading twilight at dawn and dusk, over 10 million giant straw-colored fruit bats are drawn here from the vast rainforests of the Congo between October and December, creating one of Africa’s most spectacular migrations in a tiny patch of Mushitu swamp forest for a gorging bonanza.
It’s 4 a.m. and we are already up, creeping through tangled, matted vegetation, feeling our way towards what appears to be an apocalyptic wilderness. Trees are shorn of their branches, leaving a skeletal forest no bigger than two or three football fields
Blinking through the inky blackness, we trudge and stumble across the muddy swamp forest in hushed whispers under a chilly star-studied sky. The beams from our head-torches bob along in a lulling rhythm illuminating an onslaught of biting night insects. I’m relieved when we finally stop at the base of a massive red mahogany tree.
Bastiaan, our guide, signals that somewhere in the darkness above, buried deep in the canopy 65 feet from the ground, are two viewing platforms. Apparently, this rustic hide was built recently for the BBC specifically to film the bat migration.
Slowly and warily, I clamber up the narrow rickety ladder in the half-light, pulling myself onto a tiny, creaky deck. Nothing had quite prepared me for the primordial view. Thunderclouds of shadowy bats backlit in the bright moonlight swarm over the misty equatorial rainforest, chattering noisily as they return from their long night of foraging.
Huge silhouetted squadrons spiral haphazardly overhead from horizon to horizon, almost colliding, landing clumsily into the overcrowded roost. Crawling upwards, they use their short legs and long thumbnail on their wings, cramming together to hang tightly like oversized bunches of leathery grapes. Sadly, some branches inevitably buckle under their sheer weight, sending bats and debris crashing to the forest floor, and an unlucky few are either crushed or grabbed by a lurking crocodile or stealthy raptor.
Watching them flapping and squealing in the dawn light through binoculars, I can see why they are sometime called “flying foxes”, with their mischievous brown-eyed chihuahua-like faces and the soft golden fur of a faithful retriever.
Mystery surrounds their lifecycle and migration, but with a wingspan measuring three feet and an average body weight under a pound, the bats are powerful fliers capable of great distances. Each night they forage on an eruption of ripe waterberries, mangoes, and loquats over 39 miles away from the roost, easily consuming over twice their own weight in fruit. Each year the bats unwittingly regenerate vast swathes of the evergreen forest as they scatter tons of seeds from their exotic fruit diet.
Although the annual bat migration is akin to an epic biblical plague, surprisingly at close quarters the bats are unexpectedly cute and comical and certainly not the menacing beasts of horror films. Overdosed and “high” on pure sugar from their high-octane fruit diet, the huddled bats fidget and squabble excitedly before settling down in their roost, being spooked easily by gusts of wind and menacing eagles.
Kasanka National Park
Kasanka is Zambia’s only privately managed national park, and although tiny, punches way above its weight in terms of attractions. It may seem like an intrepid far-flung destination, but it’s certainly not inaccessible either directly from Lusaka or the nearby wildlife-rich Luangwa Valley.
As the main safari season starts to wind down in November, our friends at Norman Carr Safaris—the original pioneer of bush walking—lay on one of their first guided bat-safaris. In less than an hour we’ve hopped over the escarpment that prevents direct road access to Kasanka in a tiny Cessna, and bush-pilot Brad banks hard over Lake Wasa in a stomach-churning flyby, pointing out the stunted woodland where unbelievably 10 million fruit bats roost. As we bump over the midday thermals, the forest below certainly looks eerie through the heat-haze as if stripped by some kind of disease, pestilence, or drought.
Bastiaan, our passionate volunteer host, welcomes us to Wasa Lodge nestling on the edge of the lake fringed with wild yellow flowers and home to hippos, crocs, and prolific bird life. The shy and elusive sitatunga is another of Kasanka’s celebrity residents. Preferring its marshy papyrus swamps, the aerial viewing platform at Fibwe hide has become one of the best places in Africa to see this rare semi-aquatic antelope.
Our home for a couple of days is a typically old-fashioned African camp with 10 thatched rondavel huts each with their own verandas overlooking the lake with woodlands behind. The joy of Kasanka is its raw simplicity—it is remote, rustic, and exposed. Even showers must be requested in advance to allow our rooftop tank to be filled by hand. Despite the isolation, culinary miracles are served by hard-working Boyd at communal tables in the main lodge.
Without barriers between my hut and the wild, I listen to the pulsating bush sounds from under my blanket and shrivel into my own insignificance. Nowhere could you feel more humble and incidental to the grand scheme of things.
Kasanka’s low-impact approach to conservation allows only two guided walks to the bat roost each day. This evening we get to see the bats flying out at sunset. Leaving in the late afternoon, it’s still hot and steamy as we skirt around the bat colony in single file, wading through thigh-deep grass and murky reed beds. The smelly, decomposing vegetation squishes and squelches beneath my boots and the back of my neck still slow-roasts in the fading heat.
As we edge closer to the woodland in the ghostly twilight, the trees stand stark and forlorn, decimated by the immense weight of the fruit bats. And then, surprised, I see one lone fruit bat wriggling helplessly in the merciless talons of a crowned eagle. Bastiaan whispers that Africa’s most powerful eagle has learnt to hunt bats on the wing, caught for the first time on film recently by the BBC for David Attenborough’s Life and his new Africa TV series.
Reaching the three interconnected ground level hides in the Bupata area, we creep in, looking directly into the bat roost. In the unspoken stillness of the hide, I sense a calm descending over the forest in the waning light, and what seemed like huge clusters of giant seed pods dangling from ragged branches slowly wriggle to life.
The tangled treetops twitch and tremble and an incessant chattering builds, intensifying to a “roaring-rapids” pitch as the canopies explode with swirling life. Plumes of restless, hungry bats pour out of the woodland in bewildering numbers into the gathering darkness for a night journey across the forests to feed on a seasonal glut of wild fruit.
Bastiaan appears at my side urging us to join him on the high ground behind the hides. Caught in the grip of anticipation, we race outside. In every direction, bats reveal themselves, rapidly filling a sky bathed in an eerie terracotta glow. Tens of thousands become hundreds of thousands. In chaos and commotion against the fading blackness, millions of bats sweep over our heads silhouetted against a magnificent sunset in an epic 360-degree panoramic bat plague.
After only half an hour, the bats have dispersed, but my adrenalin levels still pound in the wake of the magical experience we’ve shared in awed silence. In the deep, lingering calm we reluctantly pack away our cameras and binoculars and turn on our head-torches to leave the roost. Plodding back in the cool night air, the brightest beam is the one firmly fixed from ear to ear as we squelch through riverine marshes smiling all the way to our lodge.
Squeezing myself into Brad’s Cessna after a good night’s sleep, I’m excited about returning to the big game of the Luangwa Valley, not to mention a few creature comforts.
Witnessing the spectacular bat migration at Kasanka may not be everyone’s choice for his first safari holiday. But when you’ve already seen the “big 5” and don’t need all that pampering; when you want to get close to wildlife but somewhere a little wilder and more challenging, a thrilling bat safari at Kasanka would be at the top of my list.
Planning your bat safari
The fruit bats usually arrive in Kasanka in mid October and stay until mid December, which coincides with the beginning of the rainy season, so it’s advisable to bring waterproof clothing and malaria medication. Contact the Kasanka Trust: www.kasanka.com
For further information and booking, Norman Carr Safaris can arrange a visit to Kasanka as part of a safari itinerary from the Luangwa Valley: www.normancarrsafaris.com
Kasanka is a 5- to 6-hour drive from Lusaka. Independent charter flights are available from Sky Trails directly to the airstrip in the park: www.skytrailszambia.com
Philip Dickson is a freelance travel journalist based in London but drawn to Africa as a teenager when he settled in Zambia. Having climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, survived a close encounter with crocodiles in Lake Tanganyika, micro-lighted and bungee jumped over the Victoria Falls, bush-walked with wild lions, traversed the Zambezi on elephant-back and witnessed the birth of a nation in Zimbabwe, he’s now experienced Africa’s greatest migration. Working with wildlife photographer David Godny, they specialize in travel features about this compelling, enigmatic continent, which are published worldwide.
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