I’ve always maintained a vivid mental image of a female cheetah with cubs perched on a termite mound scanning a wind-rippled grassland peppered by herds of antelope. I’ve always hoped to fulfil this little fantasy on the Busanga Plains of the Kafue National Park (KNP). For one reason or another (and an excuse or two thrown in) it has taken me almost thirty years to fail to reach the Busanga Plains. And yesterday was no different. Once I went on a busman’s holiday with three or four other professional guides, travelling to the Ngoma and Nanzhila area in the south of the park. With the collective pool of enthusiasm and bush knowledge we shared and eyes sharpened by a long, hot safari season in the South Luangwa, I recall being blown away by the diversity of habitat and wildlife that makes up the whole. As Norman Maclean said, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” And a helluva river she is, the Kafue, flowing some 256 km through the Park and shaping much of its 22,480 sqkm. Apart from the dominant, dry and comparatively sparsely populated Miombo and Mopane woodland most of the other habitat is there by the grace of the river with the floodplains boasting riparian woodland and grasslands, dambos and nearby forests, thickets and savannah. Such varied habitat in turn gives KNP the greatest diversity of antelope species (twenty one in all!) of any African park, an arsenal of predators to hunt them, and over 500 species of birds to goggle at if you’re that way inclined. With such credentials the KNP should be a world renowned safari destination, but I would hazard a guess that if you canvassed a thousand Europeans and Americans and asked them to name a game park in Africa, KNP would be mentioned less than a handful of times. Spin doctors call it “Africa’s best kept secret” which for me translates as “piss poor marketing” especially considering the history of tourism in KNP. The Park was officially opened by the Governor in 1958 by which time, largely due to the efforts of pioneering ranger Len Vaughan, there were eleven Game Department camps operational in the park. Of these only four remain in use (Nanzhila in the South and Treetops, Lufupa and Kafwala in the North) and only the last, Kafwala, operates in anything like the way that was originally intended; to provide affordable access to the Park for self-drive visitors. In the useful “A Visitors Guide to Kafue National Park” funded by the Danes, commissioned by the Kafue Trust, edited by John Hanks (renowned Game Department biologist) and written by Peter Moss, it says of the self-drive 4×4 market “Routes through and around KNP are being enthusiastically developed”. Not enthusiastically enough I fear.
The visitors book at Kafwala Camp (which is a delightfully “old school” down to earth destination, very well run by WECSZ) speaks loudly of the Northern Kafue as the favourite stomping ground of many dynastic resident farming, hunting and safari families who have used the camp for decades as a base from which to fish and game-view (mostly by boat judging from their success at both). These are the same folks who have the best interests of the KNP at heart and who through voluntary work, donation and lobbying are partly responsible for there being anything left to conserve by the time the park came to the attention of the donors. It seems that apart from this one last bolthole there is no place left in the Kafue for people who would care to see it preserved. Throughout the 1980’s when the South Luangwa was becoming the fashionable destination for international clients and through tireless marketing by private operators was becoming well known to agents across the safari world, the Northern Kafue was only ever visited by the type of local tourists mentioned above. Or by a seemingly endless supply of British Caledonian (and later BA) air crew who were whisked away on their two day “lay” over by the infamous and charismatic Map Patel’s Busanga Trails; to be wined, dined, bedded and given some of the best big cat encounters anywhere in Africa. While we mainstream guides in the SLNP did everything by the book under the watchful, and critical eyes of Norman Carr, Phil Berry and Robin Pope the Busanga Boys were living it large and playing at Cowboys and Indians with a load of trolley dollies! And boy, were we jealous! Busanga Trails operated through the lean years of heavy poaching and it is to their credit, being the only presence in the area, that there was any game to be bartered by ZAWA when foreign investors turned their interest to the Kafue in the nineties and early noughties.
The formula for development of tourism in most African parks has long ago changed and with ZAWA having to rely on itself for funding with little help from central Government, tourism has to foot the bill. Old Game Department sites are tendered out to the highest bidder, with short operating seasons, high logistical costs, fixed fees and bed-night levies based on minimum occupancies ensuring that only top drawer operators in the $600-1,000 per person per night bracket can make the sums work. It’s hard enough to lure this kind of spending power to Africa at all, never mind a relative safari backwater; poor cousin to the better known Kenyan, Tanzanian and South African destinations.
With SLNP getting the jump on marketing and Lower Zambezi later snatching the title of Zambia’s “other” National Park, the KNP was left, like a comely sister on the sidelines, waiting to be asked to dance. Even with all the investment that Wilderness Safaris put into the Northern KNP, even with ballooning and night drives and walking trails on offer to sweeten the already lavish natural spectacles, it is estimated that the tourist traffic to KNP is only 15% of that to SLNP which itself is only just becoming better than marginal as a place to do business. For Wilderness Safaris this has meant scaling down their operations hugely, and for ZAWA this means that the dreamed-of cash-cow to be milked in perpetuity, has remained a weedy little veal of a thing. And to me it seems that the cost of this has been to alienate KNP from the public domain. The only camp we managed to book was Kafwala, but with around 90 kms between there and the legendary Busanga Plains where my cheetah family awaited, and two small boys attempting fratricide in the back seat until the tsetse drained them of the will to live, there was no way that Arthur Ansell (who had frequented all the back tracks of the KNP from North to South as a Game Department child in the 1960’s) and myself were going to make the round trip in a day. Chilanga had helpfully sold us around $300 (reluctantly in Kwacha of course) of permits to enter the park, self-drive and camp, omitting to mention of course, that this latter activity was not legally possible anymore, since all of the designated campsites had long been pimped to investors and made out of bounds to cheap-skates like us. We forged northwards but still only managed to reach Treetops where the staff (pitilessly and quite rightly) turned us away. Heading south again we were impaled on the horns of a dilemma and with the Landrover spluttering on bad jerry-can fuel from Mumbwa, my sons nauseous from blood loss and jarring roads, and the sun sinking fast, we made the executive decision to obey the spirit of the law (if not its letter) and made a dry camp at one of the few gazetted sites not already upgraded for use by filthy capitalist pigs … I mean foreign visitors. Morning came and leaving nothing but footprints as we are well trained enough to do, we turned south again. Disappointed (in my case quite bitterly) that the only way I am going to see the Busanga is by driving around three sides of the Park so that I can bushcamp in the GMA at Lushimba Gate on the Western boundary and then dash onto the plains like an adulterer and drive around until I am chased away by an operator. Too bad, I was thinking as we made our way back to Muyukuyuku, where we found a group of 9 French travellers shoehorned into two Landcruisers who were saying exactly the same thing (“Tant pis”). Nine foreign tourists who like us, would happily have paid $20 each to overnight in a ZAWA managed campsite inside the Park if such a thing existed. It is only ZAWA who could afford to run such a low rent operation, as it is only ZAWA who don’t have to pay ZAWA the almost prohibitively high concession fees. All they need to do is identify two or three of the several thousand perfect spots between the Lufupa River Camp area and the Plains, dig some long drops, set up some bucket showers and truck in the occasional load of nkuni and place at these sites one or two of that army of scouts who languish in various parts of the country on full salary lacking the will or physical ability to undertake arduous patrols, to collect the money. It might not be a fortune, but each camp would certainly raise a few thousand dollars (I mean Kwacha) a year to be put towards sitting allowances for all the meetings at Chilanga. And it would open up the KNP once more to Zambians and residents of Zambia who might actually care for the place to continue to exist as it does, somehow miraculously a few hours from hungry Lusaka.
I never saw the cheetahs, but I did see a sexy little serval … and a melanistic (black) genet which was a first for me and Arthur both. And on leaving for Lusaka we were told that on a recent visit, Xen Vlahakis, ZAWA’s DG had taken this same message on board and assured Kafue operators that campsites, run by and for the fiscal benefit of the community, might actually be on the cards. Hurrah! We’ve come full circle since Norman Carr set up Nsefu Camp in 1951 … was that a penny I heard drop just then?