Journey to Busanga Plains

October 2, 2016

In winter, when the flood waters of Busanga Plains recede, open grasslands draw thousands of herbivores, like red lechwe, puku and Cape buffalo. And where there is prey, there are predators. This northern jewel of Kafue National Park in Zambia offers some of the best opportunities in Africa to photograph lions. I travelled to this spectacular wild place in Zambia's largest protected area.
Lion Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

Around July and August, the flood waters begin receding on Busanga Plains, and the lions can sometimes be seen leaping across the channels.

During the dry winter season, most of Zambia is on fire. Local people living in rural areas set the dry grassland alight, 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 Busanga Plains in the north of 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. Created in 1924, it’s surrounded by so-called game management areas of another 43 000 square kilometres. At more than 6 million hectares, the area is one of the biggest wild places on the continent.

Our flight was during the middle of the day. The hot sun and smoky air quickly evaporated any of the romance of flying low over an African wilderness in a small plane.

The miombo woodland below seemed endless, even relentless; kilometer after kilometer of Brachystegia trees that had shed their leaves, waiting with unending patience for the summer thunderstorms that will arrive in November, when everything will turn verdant again.

And then, as our bumblebee dropped down 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, entranced.

Extending for about 600 square kilometres, the grassy plains of Busanga are an exception to the rule of miombo woodland in Kafue National Park, Zambia’s largest protected area and it’s flagship park. The Lufupa River, a tributary of the Kafue River, 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

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 huge numbers.

Kafue has 20 antelope species, the most of any park on the continent. We drove past herds of sable and roan antelope, usually 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.

Over the next few days, my guides Newton Mulenga and Isaac Kalio introduced me to the wonders of Busanga. We found a Cape clawless otter foraging in a channel of water, near to two fighting hippos. At dusk, a spotted hyena came cantering past us, intent on its nocturnal mission for food. We regularly came across flocks of fifty 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 thirty 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 inside who got the fright of his life. The barrel-chested Newton came to the rescue, chuckling, shouting and waving his arms at the cubs, chasing them away.

For two days we followed the pride across the plains as they crisscrossed their kingdom: two big males in their prime, plus a sensuous lioness and those same scoundrel cubs, which had scared the hell out of the poor guest in his tent. They were full of trouble, stalking their mom and the two big males, jumping on them and causing havoc wherever they went.

My camera worked over time. The lions posed like models at a fashion show, staring into the distance at the lechwe and puku which kept well away. When the big cats 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 on the plains.

Wilderness Safaris operate 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 come back here soon, to spend several weeks, perhaps months, absorbing Busanga into every cell of my body. I was spellbound.

And then on the last 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 their mates.

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 Sebastiao 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 cleary made an impression.

“Sebastiao loved it here,” Eric told me. Of course he did.

Below us, large pods of hippos 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 amber eyes. As I write these words, I just want to be back in Busanga.

But for all the serendipitous natural wonder of Busanga, this wild beauty is on a knife-edge. Like so many other wilderness areas in Africa, it’s wildlife and habitat face serious challenges.

Throughout the days and nights while I was there, bush fires raged on the horizons. As part of their traditional fishing rights, locals are allowed into the park to fish in the rivers, and they set the land alight to rid lions of their cover in the grassland, and to keep elephants away. Satellite images show that up to 80% of the park burns ever year. (When the park was established, most of the Nkoya people were evicted from their land, and their fishing rights are a key source of livelihood and protein).

While fire is a necessary and natural ecological occurrence in savanna, if the land burns too often it can reduce species diversity, and eventually disrupt the balance of the whole system.

Although the recent Great Elephant Census notes that Kafue’s elephant population may be one of the few that is stable or even increasing, poaching continues to be a serious problem, according to the guides. (In the 1960s, Zambia had about 250 000 elephants. Today there are only 10 000 elephants, of which Kafue has about 2 300. Kruger National Park, similar in size, has about 17 000).

We didn’t see one elephant in my (admittedly short) stay of four days, and very little evidence of their movements on the plains. An old dung ball here and there, but that was it.

Apparently, when elephants do emerge from the miombo woodlands at sunset, they move quickly across the plains to drink at the rivers, and then head back into the safety of the trees long before morning arrives.

And then there are the lions themselves. Increasingly, because of rampant bushmeat poaching by hungry people on the peripheries, the lions are inadvertently snared. Some survive, some die from the wounds and pain. I interviewed lion researcher Dr. Neil Midlane after my trip, and you can read my interview with him here.

I had to leave Busanga after just a few days, but I didn’t want to. Even with the bushfires burning on the horizons, and the poaching problems, I get the feeling that there is much hope, that Busanga could be even more spectacular, if it receives the help it needs. Like most other wilderness areas in Africa, there is so much to admire.

From a landscape and species conservation perspective, Busanga (and the rest of Kafue – although I haven’t explored all of it) is one of Africa’s finest wild areas. And from a photographic perspective, it ranks as one of my favourite places for wildlife photography. Wilderness Safaris deserve plenty of credit for investing in this remote area of Africa. I can recommend Busanga Bush Camp and Shumba Camp to anyone who wants a unique, unforgettable wildlife safari. And by travelling there, you’re making a real difference to its conservation. The camps employ mostly local people, and a percentage of your money goes to anti-poaching operations in the area.

Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

In summer, most of Busanga Plains floods, but as the dry winter progresses, more and more grazing becomes available for antelope.

Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

The grasslands of Busanga Plains are very different to most of Kafue National Park, where thick Miombo woodland is the dominant vegetation.

Sunrise Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

Sunrise on Busanga Plains. The red colour of the sun is caused by smoke from veld fires that burn during winter.

Red Lechwe Busanga Plains - Kafue National Park Zambia

Red lechwe antelope on Busanga Plains. These herbivores with their soft, elongated and splayed hooves are adapted to soft, marshy ground, of which there is much in Busanga.

Lion and Lechwe Busanga Plains - Kafue National Park Zambia

Prey keeping an eye on predator. Puku antelope watch a male lion in Busanga Plains in Kafue National Park

Lion Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

A huge sycamore fig tree dwarfs a male lion.

Lion Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

Another leaping lion in Busanga Plains

Lions Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

Male lions on patrol in Busanga Plains

Lioness and Cubs Busanga Plains Kafue Zambia

Lioness and Cubs in Busanga Plains

Hippos Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

As the flood waters recede, the large hippo population is forced into ever smaller and smaller pools...

Hippos Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

The shrinking pools of water lead to some feisty confrontations between the male hippos...

Cape Buffalo Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

Cape Buffalo and Red-Billed Oxpecker

Cape Clawless Otter Busanga Plains - Kafue National Park Zambia

Usually secretive and elusive, this Cape clawless otter revealed himself to me on the edge of a water channel.

Roan Antelope Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

There are healthy populations of the otherwise rare Roan antelope in Busanga...

Crowned Cranes Busanga Plains - Kafue National Park Zambia

Crowned cranes in flight...usually only seen in ones or twos, there can be up to fifty or sixty of these birds in one flock on Busanga Plains.

Yellow-billed Storks Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

Soaring yellow-billed storks

Spotted Hyena Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

Early morning sighting of a spotted hyena. With all the lions about, hyeans tend to keep a low profile on Busanga Plains.

Lions and Tourists Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

Busanga really is a spectacular place for wildlife viewing...the open, unobstructing grasslands are superb for photography too.

Guide Isaac Kalio Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

A double exposure of guide Isaac Kalio and a lion cub we had seen...

Busanga Bush Camp Kafue National Park Zambia

Busanga Bush Camp in Kafue National Park

Busanga Bush Camp Kafue National Park Zambia

Another aerial view of Busanga Bush Camp in Kafue National Park

Busanga Bush Camp Kafue National Park Zambia

Simple but elegant, Busanga Bush Camp strikes just the right balance between comfort and connection to the wilderness.

Busanga Bush Camp Kafue National Park Zambia

My room at Busanga Bush Camp

Shumba Camp Kafue National Park Zambia

Shumba Camp is a little more luxurious, but still in keeping with the landscape

Shumba Camp Kafue National Park Zambia

The deck area at Shumba Camp has great views in the morning of the sunrise over the plains

Hot Air Balloon Ride Kafue National Park Zambia

If you're going to Busanga, you must do the hot-air balloon ride. There is only one operator, so you're ensured of being the only balloon in the sky over the plains. The experience is probably in my list of top twenty things to do in Africa.

Hot Air Balloon Ride Kafue National Park Zambia

Sun rise from the hot-air balloon

Hot Air Balloon Ride Kafue National Park Zambia

Herd of lechwe below us, as we soar over the Busanga Plains in a hot-air balloon

Hot Air Balloon Ride Kafue National Park Zambia

The light changes quickly as the sun rises into the sky...

Hot Air Balloon Ride Kafue National Park Zambia

Landing after our flight...followed by a glass of champagne, hot cups of coffee and bush breakfast. It's tough to be on safari sometimes.

Fires Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

As part of their traditional fishing rights, locals are allowed into the park to fish in the rivers, and they set the land alight to rid lions of their cover in the grassland, and to keep elephants away. Satellite images show that up to 80% of the park burns ever year. (When the park was established, most of the Nkoya people were evicted from their land, and their fishing rights are a key source of livelihood and protein).

Fires Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

Huge tracts of land are burnt every winter. While it looks like a scar on the landscape, grasslands do need to burn every few years to remain healthy and nutritious. And humans have been following a burning regime for thousands of years in Africa. Indeed, that's part of the reason why there's an extensive savannah system currently on the continent. But at the moment, the burning takes place every year...which leads to degeneration of grass species composition and diversity.

Fires Busanga Plains Kafue National Park Zambia

A fire on the move just south of Busanga Plains...

Kafue River Zambia

A view of the Kafue River as I flew into Busanga Plains from Livingstone Airport to the south...

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