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Kafue, an African paradise





13 December 2016


  • The haze in the air can't hide Busanga's beauty for long
  • A stunning African sunset over Kafue's plains
  • Hippo constantly gather in the pools that remain on the Kafue floodplains during winter.

Busanga’s breathtaking beauty

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Scott Ramsay has seen some wild places in his days. But Kafue in Zambia, he reckons, is one of the most special African wilderness areas he’s ever visited. Here, he tells of his amazing adventures at this amazing place.

During the dry winter season, most of Zambia is on fire. Locals burn the dry grass so that when the summer rains arrive, their cattle can graze on the succulent new growth.

The smoke from the fires casts a drab veil over everything. It’s a thin grey soup that fills the air up to 3 000 metres.

We were flying in a small four-seater plane from the town of Livingstone near Victoria Falls, and were headed north to Kafue National Park. Our little plane bounced around on the thermals like a drunken bumblebee.

Kafue in central-west Zambia is just over 22 000 square kilometres in size. It’s surrounded by so-called game management areas of another 43 000 square kilometres. At more than six million hectares, the area is one of the biggest wild places on the continent.

The haze in the air can't hide Busanga's beauty for longThe haze in the air can’t hide Busanga’s beauty for long

Our flight was during the middle of the day, when the hot sun and smoky air quickly evaporated the romance of flying over an African wilderness.

The miombo woodland below seemed endless, even relentless. Kilometre after kilometre of trees that had shed their leaves, waiting with unending patience for the summer thunderstorms that would arrive in November, when everything turns verdant again.

And then, as our bumblebee dropped out of the dreary haze, Busanga revealed herself to us. I forgot about the heat, dust and smoke, and pushed my nose up against the small window and stared out at the view, entranced.

I’d heard good things about Busanga from others who knew her well. Her reputation was tantalising, but the real thing exceeded my expectations. This was unlike anything I’d seen before in Southern Africa.

Extending for about 500 square kilometres, the grassy flats of Busanga are an exception to the rule of miombo woodland in Kafue. The Lufupa River, a tributary of the Kafue, sustains the vast fertile grasslands in this northern sector of the park.

In summer, these plains flood, leaving only islands here and there. In winter, the waters recede to reveal massive grasslands. Like veins and arteries pumping blood through the body of a thoroughbred, the narrow water channels spread out across Busanga, where thousands (and thousands) of red lechwe and puku antelope come to graze.

Within half an hour of landing on the small airstrip, and being plonked onto a game-viewing vehicle, we were surrounded by hordes of these antelope, which dotted the plains in almost unbelievable numbers.

Kafue has the largest number of antelope species of any park on the continent. We drove past herds of sable and roan antelope, usually very rare in Africa, but relatively common in Kafue. We spotted several groups of oribi, which surely get the prize for being the daintiest, prettiest of them all.

Hippo constantly gather in the pools that remain on the Kafue floodplains during winter.Hippo constantly gather in the pools that remain on the Kafue floodplains during winter.

Over the next few days, my guides, Newton Mulenga and Isaac Kalio, helped to give me an unforgettable wildlife experience. We found a Cape clawless otter foraging in a channel of water, near to two fighting hippo. At dusk, a spotted hyena came cantering past us, intent on its nocturnal mission for food. We regularly came across flocks of 50 or more crowned cranes, and several pairs of wattled cranes.

One evening, just after enjoying a cold beer under a blazing red sky, we saw a serval, stalking in the grass just 30 metres from us. We followed it, and almost drove right past it, as it hunkered down. It stood up, scampered off, then stopped and looked back at us for a few seconds, before melting into the blackness.

And then there were the lions. On the first morning at Busanga Bush Camp, the local pride passed through the unfenced camp. I didn’t see them, but as I walked out my tent, I could see fresh lion tracks everywhere on the soft, sandy substrate.

Then I heard shouting and screaming. Soon after, I learnt that two six-month old cubs had started scratching playfully on the canvas of one of the safari tents, to the consternation of the sleepy guest, who got the fright of his life. The barrel-chested, chuckling Newton came to his rescue, chasing the young cubs away, shouting and waving his arms.

For most of the following two days we followed the pride across the plains, as they patrolled their kingdom: two big males, in their prime, plus a sensuous lioness, and those same scoundrel cubs. They were full of trouble, stalking the two big males, jumping on them and generally causing wonderful havoc.

My camera worked overtime, as the two males and lioness posed like models at a fashion show, staring into the distance at the lechwe and puku, which kept well away. When the lion came to the narrow water channels on the plains, they’d launch themselves through the air, manes flowing backwards, clearing the water like unlikely ballet dancers at an opera.

Busanga is breathtaking, mind-blowing stuff for anyone who loves Africa and its wildlife: the uncluttered horizons, the endless plains, the thousands of antelope and the jumping lions. We were alone mostly, and witness to all of it, with just one or two other game-viewing vehicles in the 500 square kilometre area that makes up Busanga.

A stunning African sunset over Kafue's plainsA stunning African sunset over Kafue’s plains

Wilderness Safaris operates two small, spectacular camps – the more basic, yet still comfortable Busanga Bush Camp and the larger, more luxurious Shumba Camp. (I prefer Busanga, as it’s smaller, simpler and more connected to the surrounding wilderness).

The accommodation, food and service at both camps hits just the right note. My guides – Newton at Busanga, and Isaac at Shumba – are brilliant: they love what they do and they want nothing more than to share their wilderness with their guests.

One morning, as the other vehicles headed back for breakfast after their morning drive, Isaac asked me whether I wanted to skip breakfast and stay with the lions. Of course! We ended up spending seven hours with the big cats. That’s how I like to spend my days. Thank you, Isaac.

After a day, I’d already resolved to return here soon, to spend several weeks, perhaps months, absorbing Busanga into every cell of my body. I was spellbound.

And then one morning, like some goofy, clichéd climax, we were whisked away into the sky on a hot-air balloon, floating low over the plains and the woodlands, where fish eagles perched on the treetops, throwing their heads back as they called to each other.

Depending on the weather and the wind, all guests get a chance to ride on the balloon. You’re in safe hands. Owner and operator Eric Hesemans has been doing this his whole adult life, mostly in Namibia, but more recently in Busanga.

Eric told me how he’d become good mates with famous Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, who a few years ago had flown with Eric over Busanga every morning for several weeks, taking aerial photographs. Salgado has spent the last few years documenting the wildest places on the planet. Busanga clearly made an impression.

“Sebastião loved it here,” Eric told me. “He was speechless a lot of the time.”

Below us, large pods of hippo grunted in the water channels, and all those lechwe and puku looked up at us. We were hovering so close to them that I could see the sunrise reflecting in their big beautiful eyes. As I write these words, I just want to be back there, doing it all again.

Staying in Kafue National Park
Wilderness Safaris operates two camps in Busanga: Shumba Camp and Busanga Bush Camp. For more, go to www.wilderness-safaris.com.

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Words and photos: Scott Ramsay

Love Wild Africa
Scott Ramsay is an adventurer, photographer and author, focusing on wild places and conservation in Africa. He is an ambassador for the Ford Wildlife Foundation and K-Way. Partners include Ford Ranger, Cape Union Mart, Goodyear Tyres, Escape Gear, Safari Centre Cape Town, National Luna, Tracks4Africa, Hetzner, Outdoor Photo and EeziAwn.