Zambia

Kafue

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Kafue recovers a glorious past

Kafue recovers a glorious past

Kafue recovers a glorious past

A personal account of visits two years apart to Kafue National Park reports on the astonishing changes which have taken place.

How many times have we felt we were born too late?  What it must have been like, for example, to experience the Ngorongoro Crater before the vehicle became a common species there.  What it must have been like to see the migration of black wildebeests on South Africa’s highveld before the great slaughter for their skins.  What it must have been like to eavesdrop on great white hunters gathered at the Stanley Hotel bar in Nairobi…and so on.

The Nanzhila Plains area in Kafue National Park is one such place that evoked that exact sentiment when I visited in 2009.  Nanzhila revealed glimpses of the past in carefully controlled doses, leaving me to conclude that I, born too late, had missed it.  Well, now having visited for the second time, I am not so sure…

When I adventured to this relatively forgotten place back in 2009, it was planned mostly out of curiosity.  A respected walking safari guide had ceased operating in the area.  A self-driver who camped at Nanzhila reported of not seeing any game, much less hearing anything overnight.  Thankfully, Steve Smith, armed with indelible memories of his childhood holidays in Kafue, tendered for the then derelict site and built Nanzhila Plains Camp in 2006.  In 2009, our “adventure” yielded some surprisingly good sightings, including lion, cheetah, wild dog, sable, roan, bush pig and a good assortment of birds – all pulse-quickening, high quality sightings – but in fleeting doses.

Then began a real push to conserve the area.  Nanzhila Plains Camp sponsored a first ever off-season (rainy season lasting from November to April) anti-poaching effort during the 2009 – 2010 season.  Then, The Nature Conservancy, along with the Zambian Wildlife Authority and Nanzhila Plains Camp, led an anti-poaching and fire management effort starting in late 2010.  The result is astounding.

Merely two years ago, reedbuck would high-tail at a distance while letting out their distinctive warning whistles.  Now, they seem to have at least doubled in number; and just sit under the shade of a termite mound chewing the cud while watching us with indifference.  The same goes for the impalas.  In just two years?  It almost doesn’t make sense.  Oribis abound as well out in the open.  Waterbucks gather around the Nanzhila River, which is reduced to a series of shrinking pools this time of year.

Greater kudus emerge from the tree line to feed on termitaria vegetation, gliding from one mound to the next.  I will never forget the sight of one particular male two years ago panicking into full stride as he saw us from more than a thousand meters away.  On this trip, about half the kudu groups would be approachable, and none would panic.  Elephants, however, still keep their distance.  Zebras and wildebeests are still scant and remain shy.  My guess is that unlike most animals of Kafue, elephants, zebras and wildebeests disperse outside the park during the rains, where they encounter poaching.

Nanzhila Plains Camp is a comfortable bush camp.  It is a throwback in that there is nothing fancy – just sensible comfort.  The vehicles are charmingly creaky, the food is simple but excellent, and the hosts (Brad and Ruth) are endearing.  The place is frozen in time, really.  If someone gave me a million bucks to upgrade Nanzhila Plains Camp, I wouldn’t spend a dime.

In each of the three excursions through Mafuta Loop, we would have multiple sightings of sable, roan, kudu, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest and wildebeest.  Along with eastern Hwange, the western woodlands at Nanzhila must be the best place to view sable.

An interesting day excursion is the Lake Itezhi-Tezhi area.  A two-hour drive north from Nanzhila lands you in a totally different biome – with the lake, narrow floodplains surrounding it, and brushy vegetation surrounding them.  Hippos and crocs are easily seen on the lake, and hundreds of impalas and pukus graze the lakeshores.

So, is Nanzhila a specialty area that appeals merely to the safari connoisseur?  Not so fast.  Steve Smith had never seen a male lion in the immediate area until this year.  Now, there are four known male lions in the area.  Nanzhila has always been good for cheetah and wild dog.  In fading light one evening, we encounter a mother cheetah and cub near Mafuta.  Wild dogs hadn’t been seen since May, but this is likely due to their denning far away from the newly intensified lion activity.  (Indeed, a pack of 19 dogs, with 10 pups are seen in late October returning to the Plains.) Signs of leopard are everywhere.

Fittingly, lions surround my chalet just as I hit the sack on our last night.  Benson Siyawareva, my guide and companion on both visits to Kafue, who is still sitting by the campfire, shines his torch on a lioness who is merely 15 meters from my doorstep.  Leaves rustle near the side of the chalet.  As I would later find out, the rustling is caused by a big male lion looking at me through a wire mesh “window” of the chalet.  Though I cannot see him in the darkness, his face is only a few feet from mine, causing me to get a whiff of rancid meat he was feeding on.

From the ‘poached out’ days of the ‘90s, Nanzhila has come a long way.  It is within a few feet – sniffing distance – of becoming a prime wildlife destination again.  Much of it will depend on the effectiveness of the current conservation projects.  The ‘easy’ part, if you will – resource protection – is being executed, but long-term conservation objectives will not be met unless the communities surrounding the park are engaged.  TNC, ZAWA and Nanzhila Plains Camp are trying to do just that.  And if successful, I will have been born just at the right time.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 09, June 2012)

Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Kafue