Kafue National Park is an absolute monster. Situated in the central parts of western Zambia, and covering over 22 400km2, it is the second largest game reserve in Africa and boasts 58 different species of mammal. The Kafue is home to more species of ungulate than any national park south of the Congo Basin. The list includes rare and elusive antelope such as the blue and yellow-backed duiker, sitatunga, lechwe, roan, sable and hartebeest.
This reserve is not a place to zoom about ticking off the Big 5, but more of a wonderland in which to enjoy the sheer diversity found in very few other places on earth. Founded in the 1950s by Norman Carr, vast areas of the pristine and varied bushveld remain almost completely unexplored due to its immense size.
The reserve is bisected from north to south by the river that gives the park its name. The Kafue River is the only purely Zambian river, starting and ending within the borders of the country, and is the largest tributary of the Zambezi. This slow, wide river is fed by the Lufupa and Lunga rivers in the north, the Luansanza in the centre and the Musa in the south. Otters, hippo and some of the largest crocodiles in Africa call these waters home, and before its final destination in the mighty Zambezi, the Kafue feeds the huge Lake Itezhi-Tezhi. Spanning over 370km2, it is a fishing hotspot with 19 different species to hook, including the African pike. The fishing season extends from April to October.
Miombo woodland dominates most of the reserve, with seasonally flooded plains or ‘Dambos’ interspersed throughout the region. These areas become a frenzy of activity in the dry months as they hold water until well after the rains.
Belts of spectacular teak forests and Mopane woodland occur in the central and southern sections of the reserve, while in the open grasslands, hundred-year-old termite mounds dot the landscape. Here, birding enthusiasts can tick off some of the area’s specialties like the sooty chat, or the pink-throated longclaw that occur in the wetter sections of the reserve.
The large Busanga plains in the far northwest of the reserve is the most productive game viewing area, and is also an important breeding ground for the endangered wattled crane. Large flocks of these enigmatic birds are seen here regularly, mixed in with other beauties such as pelicans and open-billed storks.
The bird species list for the whole reserve is an astounding 500, more than for the whole of Europe! Look out for rarities such as the Chaplin’s barbet, Pel’s fishing owl and Bohm’s bee-eater.
The Kafue is not just famous for birds, and if it is the big toothy predators that excite you, then look no further. The Busanga lion prides are notorious, and they treat countless guests to fantastic sightings as they stalk through the long grass, hunting the herds of red lechwe, roan and buffalo. These herds are massive, and cover the landscape as far as the eye can see.
The reserve is also renowned for some of the best leopard viewing in Africa. These normally secretive cats are seen relatively frequently, either from the vantage point of a boat, or on one of the exciting day or night drives. However, it is the cheetah population that sets Kafue apart from most of its counterparts. Cheetah only occur in the western parts of Zambia, and are absent from both Luangwa and the Zambezi Valley. Kafue and Leuwa Plains are the last remaining strongholds of these incredibly rare and majestic predators. They thrive on the open plains, but are seen throughout the reserve, hunting the abundant herds of impala and puku.
Wild dog, Africa’s second most endangered predator behind the Ethiopian wolf, also occur here in good numbers on both sides of the river, and the reserve is heavily involved in research and conservation programs of both cheetah and wild dog.
Due to the altitude of the reserve, the heat is not really a factor when choosing a time to visit. However, there is still a distinction between the wet and dry months. Whereas some areas of the park stay open all year round, the majority of camps will close from November through to April. The Busanga plains becomes the Busanga swamps during this time and visiting any other way than with a snorkel and goggles is out of the question! The dry months from June to October are generally viewed as the best game viewing months: the roads are dry and easily passable, and the vegetation not as thick.
Kafue National Park is a fabulous giant of a reserve. Things happen in Kafue on a grand scale, no matter when you visit. There will always be something new and worthwhile to see. It is advisable to try and spend as long as possible here. Its size alone means that there is plenty of exploring to be done, and you will need more than a day or two to get the full experience and really appreciate its beauty.