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The 22,500 square kilometre Kafue National park is both Zambia’s largest, and one of the largest on the continent. Its northern section, specifically the Busanga Plains area, where Wilderness Safaris have their beautiful Kapinga camp, is remote, wild and extremely diverse.
Covering 750 square kilometres of pristine wilderness, the Busanga is home to 158 mammal species, including puku, red lechwe, roan, buffalo, elephant and all of the major predators – lion, leopard, cheetah and wild dog. More than 491 species of birds also make it a top destination for birdwatchers. And, of course, there’s lots of hippos.
Those are the stats, and that’s the sales pitch, but the reality is so much more. The Busanga defies the old adage that only Animal Planet can whip up an unending role-call of Africa’s top wildlife.
It’s 7am, the morning after a hippo got bootylicious with my tent decking, literally rocking the boat, and I’m on a game viewing vehicle and within a kilometre of camp all of the usual suspects are here, in the flesh. The difference is that they’re all competing with one another to get into my camera’s viewfinder at the same time.
Stage left is a large herd of buffalo, two of which have decided to have a barney and lock horns, with the accent on lock as they become hopelessly entangled with one another. Centre stage is a large, and rather imposing male lion, calling to his Mrs who is just over the other side of a patch of boggy ground with her two newborn cubs emerging out of the long grass. Stage right – a mixed bag of lechwe, puku, roan, wildebeest stretching, Fawlty Towers-style, majestically across the plains.
I feel like a Japanese tourist on amphetamines, with my mind trying to wrap itself around the decision of which to shoot first. Which is when the pink-throated long-claw decides to put in an appearance, sending this particularly enthusiastic ornithologist into paroxysms of delight but completely blowing what chance I have of capturing this incredible scene with the all-seeing eye of my all-singing, all-dancing digital camera.
By 8.30am I am exhausted. The buffalo have moved into the distance, the male lion has exited, stage left, the wildebeest have found the shade of a large and exceptionally beautiful sycomore (Subs: correct – o, not a) fig, leaving Mrs Lion to try and drum up a spot of breakfast for her and the kids.
We wait, patiently watching her edge closer and closer to the main herd of lechwe, wondering at her ability to blend into the ground because there is absolutely no cover for her out here at the water’s edge.
For two hours we watch. And suddenly, almost in slow motion, a young sub-adult male lechwe leaps from a patch of long grass, headed directly towards Mrs L. A flash of tawny fur and a few heart-stopping seconds later, the lechwe has gone to meet its maker, dispatched swiftly by a deft stroke of a feline paw and indomitable jaws clamped around its windpipe.
I am completely floored. This is my first kill. And I am sitting three metres from Mrs Lion as she prepares, and eats her breakfast.
So by the time I get to mine, an hour or so later back at Kapinga, the day can’t really get much better.
A hearty brunch helps to dissipate the remaining adrenalin in my system, and as I relax I begin to take in the subtleties of camp life at Kapinga.
Whoever said location, location, location, knew what they were talking about. This particular one is perfect, with the camp strung out in a small island of tall trees at the edge of the Busanga Plains.
For almost half of the year this area is under a couple of metres of water as the Kafue river floods, almost Okavango-like, into the surrounding plains. Between April and November the water recedes, leaving sodden, marshy areas and permanent pools. This is when Kapinga, and the other camps in the area, are accessible by air, making for a short, but hectic season.
Kapinga’s layout is traditional in that the tents are situated around a central lounge and dining area, with a small pool and sun-deck off to one side. There’s lots of plush, red cushions and tasteful decor and more than a spattering of colonial elegance.
The tents are huge, off-pitch Meru-style affairs, packed full of dark brown furniture and rich textiles, all of which makes for great levels of comfort, but at the end of the day this is the middle of the bush, and the luxury of the fittings pale in comparison to the natural beauty surrounding them.
And the animals that bump into them.
Out there on the plains is where the action’s at, and for me time at camp is just filling in between game drives. The food is great, the lodge is picture-perfect, but the Kafue calls…
Flying over it, homeward-bound after three action-packed days, it’s actually easy to see how the Zambian tourism fundis came up with the “real Africa” thing. There’s nothing below but untouched bush – no roads, no sign of human habitation.
For more than an hour we continue south-east to Lusaka, flying over a huge wetland called the Lukanga Swamps. The only signs of life are the trails made by hippos through the reeds as they move from one pool to another.
Only when we near Lusaka does the terrain below change, with scattered villages and communities starting to appear, and growing closer together the nearer we get to the capital.
I for one am hooked, and willing to bet that Zambia is going to be a top safari destination for a very long time to come.