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Kasanka National Park

Kasanka National Park

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Kasanka National Park, A Hidden Gem

Early morning mist hovers over the marshland as the sun began to rise, turning the sky a pale pink. From our perch in Vivienne’s hide, the flood plain is below us and, we watch as one by one, sitatunga emerged from the dense beds of reeds and papyrus and begin grazing in the open floodplain.

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Sitatunga are early risers and most active just after dawn, which is why we are here, coffee in hand, as the sun comes up. Kasanka National Park is one of the best places in the world to spot this secretive, semi-aquatic antelope, the park is home to more than 500, and we spend several hours watching them. As the sun rises higher in the sky, a herd of elephants make their way across the flood plain, and one by one the sitatunga melt away into the reeds. Delighted with our morning, we headed back to camp.

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At the end of the day we returned to Vivienne’s Hide for sundowners, and as the sun began to sink in the sky and we were rewarded with a spectacular sunset, tinting the flood plain orange and scarlet. The grazing sitatunga glowed golden in the fading light. We stayed till we could see them no longer and as the moon rose, climbed down the ladder and left them in peace.

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Kasanka National Park is one of Zambia’s smallest national parks, but one of its hidden treasures. What it lacks in size, this peaceful little park makes up for in diversity. With rivers, lakes, wetlands, forest and dambos, the park is picturesque, and with an incredible 480 bird species and 114 mammals, there is a lot for you to see.

Sitatunga aside, Kasanka is also home to a unique and spectacular annual migration of Straw-Coloured Fruit Bats. Between October and December each year, about 10 million of these bats descend onto a tiny patch of evergreen forest inside the park. They come to feast on wild fruit that appears with the first rains. The migration is one of the natural world’s best kept secrets. Scientists don’t know exactly where the bats come from, nor where they go to after leaving the tiny little patch of forest they call home for a few months every year.

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Arriving at Kasanka in the late afternoon, we head out to one of the parks ‘bat hides’. Climbing the 13m from ground to the wooden platform, wrapped around the tree trunk, we grip tightly to the handrails. An orange hue lights the sky and bolts of jagged lightning strike the horizon. In the forest below, no larger than a hectare, the trees start to tremble, as the bats hanging from their branches start to stir from their slumber.

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As dusk falls they begin to depart, flocking into the sky. Flying out in fits and starts. Some head out, change their minds and turn back, only to try again a few minutes later. The sky fills with chatter as the bats dart in and out of the trees, like a swarm of overgrown bees. It’s the end of November and there are at least eight million fruit bats filling the skies, at eye level with our perch in the top of the tree hide.

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We watch and wait, until it’s almost too dark to see the ladder down. The sky is empty. The bats have vanished. The sound of thunder gets closer, as we descend the ladder and make our way back to the vehicle. Fat drops of rain fall as we drive back to camp.

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At 3.45am the next morning I emerge from my room, rubbing sleep from my eyes. Coming face to face with a bush baby, clinging to a branch overhanging our verandah, we stare silently at one another as I pass. I am on my way to see the bats returning to roost after a night foraging for wild fruit.

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Climbing onto the back of the vehicle, I wrap myself in a blanket, as we set off to the bat forest. It’s still dark as we park the vehicle and, walking through the forest, the bats flutter and feast in the trees above. The sun rises and bats start returning to the roost. Coming from all directions. Splashes of scarlet and gold light the sky, silhouetting the bats as they flock back to the colony. A breath-taking sight and definitely worth the early morning wake up.

At roughly 390 km2, Kasanka is one of Zambia’s smallest national parks, yet home to some of its greatest treasures.

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Image Credits: Sitatunga Photos by Kasanka Trust, Kasanka Bat Migration Photos by Chris Meyer

Stories From Sarah Kingdom