The Kafue, in a nutshell.
We talk to a lot of safari experts and read a lot of safari material online but it always surprises us how few experts know about the Kafue or have ever been - 'we never made it to the Kafue last time we were in Zambia' is a common phrase.
Also and importantly, the few folk who actually have been to the Kafue have rarely visited the Kafue throughout it's length and breadth, which in the context of this park is very important if one is to pass judgment or claim to 'know it'.
Even we do not know the Kafue. We may know our areas of operation, but this doesn't mean we understand our neighbours areas of operation or respective 'corners' of the Kafue.
What is the Kafue like? This is a particularly difficult question to answer and here is fundamentally why:
It is very big and very varied
Many national parks and wildlife areas are big and many are varied too, but none (or very few) to the extent of the Kafue.
Big - is nice, but what does that even mean to a prospective visitor? We often read about the Kafue being 'the biggest and oldest national park in Zambia'. It's nice to know this but it doesn't really explain anything about the park today and in fact I wonder if folk read the emphasis on 'big' to mean 'not much to see', something which is certainly not the case in the Kafue of today.
Varied - this is where the Kafue becomes unique and why the nutshell I am trying to put it into is actually near-impossible to do so here. There could quite conceivably be 5 or 6 distinct national parks within the Kafue. Without getting too technical on soils and rock types (and therefore associated vegetation and therefore wildlife species) the North of the Kafue is a complete world-away ecologically speaking from the South - for example the South of th epark recevied half of the annual rainfall as the North does - that's how big and diverse the park is, it straddles different weather patterns! As such, when folk say 'I have been to the Kafue' the next question should be 'which part?' because having visited the Busanga Plains only, or having visited Musekese only, does not mean one has seen 'The Kafue' - what about the Nanzhila Plains, or the vast Lake Itezhi-Tezhi? One could argue that having stayed at any location within the South Luangwa National Park (where there is also variety, to an extent) you have 'seen' the South Luangwa. Of course accommodation styles and guiding quality will always vary, but in some parks, the general-feel, the habitat and spectrum of species seen is similar throughout it. This is not the case at all for the Kafue.
So now we know that the park is big and one should go the various different regions within it if they really want to get to grips with the park, the question would therefore likely be - 'why would I visit the Kafue over other parks?' and then, if there are enough reasons to choose a visit to the Kafue then 'where would you suggest I visit given the time I have to utilise?'
Why visit the Kafue - A good question! Well if time and money were no issue then I would say visit the Kafue, but also visit absolutely everywhere else too! This reality is unlikely to be common for most travellers, as such let me try and boil down what over-archingly makes the Kafue so very special; true isolation. Being truly away from civilisation is rare these days (even on safari) - this means no fences, no overhead power-cables, no (or little) cell signal. Another word for Isolation is Exclusivity, and this has to be one of the top USP's for the Kafue. In some regions in Africa one can find exclusivity, but it comes at a high cost, a premium paid for 'private concessions' where only a handful of camps and a handful of cars are allowed into any given area. In the majority of the Kafue exclusivity is the 'norm'. You are genuinely more likely to see more leopards than vehicles in the Kafue, and you are not paying over-the-odds premiums for this (yet).
Where to stay and what to see - Let me try and break this question down into rough geographical regions, with highlights on offer and places to stay (in no particular order, purely starting North to South):
1) Busanga Plains - This is the 'busiest' area of the Kafue, with a handful of very small camps across this 700km2 odd section of the park. The reality of the experience here is still one of isolation and one may well have several days on safari in the region and see not more than the dust of a few other game drive vehicles in the distance. Seeing 3 or 4 cars at a sighting would be extremely rare. Busanga is an open-plains environment, half swamp floodplain full of lechwe, and half dryer grasslands full of roan, zebra and wildebeest. Busanga features in the ether more than most areas of the Kafue, it is indeed special but there is a lot more to the Kafue than just the Busanga Plains. Check out our very own Ntemwa-Busanga Camp for inspiration for this area.
2) Musekese Region - Until a little over a decade ago this area had never before been seen by a tourist. The only camp in Central Kafue found on the Eastern side of the Kafue River. The conservation outcomes from Musekese Camp and the work by the non-profit organisation Musekese Conservation in anti-poaching and wildlife research has made this area of mixed plains environments, dense and ancient Miombo woodlands a wildlife haven. By foot, boat or drive there is so very much to see and explore - again, completely to yourself, nobody else to cross-paths with until you leave this special place with a handful of leopard and lion sightings to boot. Check out our very own Musekese Camp (the ONLY option in this region!)
3) Central Kafue - Even this generalisation from South of the Busanga to the area South of Chunga is too large to do it justice (apprx. the size of the Lower Zambezi National Park alone!). Just in this region alone are mighty rainforest-tree lined river rapids with otters fishing in the pools, to sandy acacia forests with kudu and elephant to huge open-areas with massive buffalo herds and attentive lions. Check out Ila Lodge, KaingU Lodge and Kasabushi for some options in this region.
4) Lake Itezhi-Tezhi - A stunning, vast expanse of water which prior to 1974 didn't even exist! The lake shore itself is a prolific wildlife area, particularly in the dry season with herds of elephant into the hundreds, buffalo and also a good place to see wild dog and cheetah. This is a transition zone between the Miombo woodlands of Northern Kafue and the Mopane woodlands of Southern Kafue - as such the species of bird and game are numerous. The Lake itself, which covers a staggering 390km2 provides a stunning backdrop to the scenery, with dead trees exposed and dozens of fisherman in traditional canoes carrying out their daily routines. Check out Nanzhila's Lake Camp and Konkamoya Lodge.
5) Nanzhila Plains - A completely unique area, more akin to something more 'Botswanan' with grassy plains, interspersed with mopane woodlands and smaller streams and gulleys dissecting the vast grasslands. Despite tougher times with wildlife protection the past decades (and now hopefully increased protection thanks to Panthera and African Parks) this region never fails to amaze with it's sightings and diversity thereof, from Serval and Caracal to Cheetah and Sable, this place has it all. Remember though, one needs to be pateint, there is just 1 (yes 1!) camp in the whole area of around 3,000km2 (yes 3,000km2!) and as such more special sightings need luck and patience - not because it is not there (it is), but because it is truly the wildest of wild areas... Check out Nanzhila Plains Camp.