Found in the centre of western Zambia, Kafue National Park is the oldest and largest of Zambia’s national parks. It covers a massive 22,400 km2. First established as a National Park in the 1950s by the legendary Norman Carr, Kafue is one of the largest national parks in the whole of Africa. Despite its size and prominent location only two hours drive from Livingstone, it remains little-known and largely unexplored with vast tracts of its virgin bush still untouched. Thanks to its size and variety of habitat types the Kafue holds a fantastic diversity of wildlife.
In recent years the Park has seen a well-managed growth in the number of Safari Camps and Lodges that operate in and around the Park. This new interest has brought with it more visitors and investment to the area, notably in infrastructure with a number of well-graded roads and airstrips.
As a consequence of the increasing interest and benefits in terms of investment this brings, the wildlife is beginning to enjoy an increased level of protection by the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA), always aided and supported by the operators in and adjoining the park.
Founded in: 1924
Province: North-Western, Central and Southern Zambia
When to visit:
Temperature-wise the Kafue is wonderfully mild due to its altitude, averaging 1100m above sea level; it is generally cooler compared to the Luangwa or Zambezi valley’s in October and November and in fact the Kafue goes sub-zero in winter (June-August) in some areas. The park is well serviced by a number of all-year-round airstrips, notably at Chunga, Ngoma and Lufupa- these enable tourists to make the most of the park in any of its ever-changing seasons.
The dry season runs from June to October, with most of the park being inaccessible during the wetter months of November through to April. Inaccessibility however need not be a deterrent to those wanting to visit the Kafue in the ‘green’ season, as it is a spectacular time of year and the lush greenery of the bush is something really to behold. The trick is visiting the camps that do stay open for 12 months (or as close as possible to), Mukambi Lodge, Mayukuyuku and Musekese Camp being some in the central/northern section of the park.
It is possible to reach Itezhi-Tezhi all year round too. The dry season does however enable easier driving and the game is generally easier to view in the dryer months.
The Busanga Plains area is still strictly only accessible from (water-level dependent) early July until early November, this area is a floodplain and unless you enjoy swimming then unfortunately you must visit in these months! There is a new airstrip at Busanga which should be operational for 2013, which will facilitate access to one or other of the camps operated by Wilderness safaris which do operate in some of the wet months.
The Kafue is dissected by the main M9 or Mongu Road, this is a tar road, and allows for easy access, even by 2 wheel drive vehicle to the park, 12 months of the year, this drive can take 3 to 4 hours to reach the Hook Bridge. Do not attempt to drive the relatively extensive internal road and game drive network in a 2 wheel drive vehicle however 4×4 vehicles are a must and one should not even attempt self-driving in the park in the wet months, black-cotton soil is notorious and plentiful.
Notable roads to avoid from November through to June are the road from Hook Bridge to Lufupa and further north to Moshi, Kabanga and Busanga. In the south of the park heading South of Ngoma and Itezhi-Tezhi towards Dundemwezi and Nanzhila is not advisable when wet and needs local knowledge at the time of travel. The road to Chunga from the M9 is well-graded and accessible 12 months of the year, in fact, it is probably wide enough to land a small aircraft on (but no need with Chunga airstrip open and operating 12 months).
Boat cruises are available from most of the river-based camps and lodges and are available all year round, although water levels do change dramatically through the year.
Fishing is possible of course, but there are restrictions on the amount you catch and keep for the pot and there is also an off-season to allow spawning and breeding without disturbance (between Nov. and March).
Canoeing trips are also available, notably at Kaingu with the Mawimbi Canoe Trails.
Good news for those wanting to visit the Kafue in the ‘green’ season is that many safari camps offer special reduced rates.
The park can also be accessed from the tourist hub of Livingstone in the south, again on a well-graded road, reaching Dundunwezi gate after 3 or so hours. The park is also accessible by plane, with many airstrips, some all-weather, such as Ngoma, Chunga, and Lufupa.
From Lusaka – take the main M9 tar road due west to Mumbwa. If you plan to visit the northeastern camps (Hippo Lodge, McBrides, Leopard Lodge, Kafue River Camp or Mushingashi) then go into Mumbwa town (124kms from Lusaka) and take the left turn at the roundabout by the filling station (last fuel before Kasempa). Continue on this road out of Mumbwa on the D181 gravel/graded road to your destination.
To reach the Central and Southern sectors of the KNP using the spinal road – After passing the turn off for Mumbwa, stay on the main M9 road, heading west for 38kms to the Nalusanga Entrance Gate. Continue on the M9 for another 80kms, drive over Hook Bridge and after a further 7kms turn left on to the 21K road (ignore the 17km road turn-off). The Spinal Road is reached 14kms south of the 21k road and continues to Lake Itezh-Tezhi, a further 130kms. Mawimbi and Kasabushi Camp are accessible from Spinal Road and Konkamoya at the southern end of the road. Roads connect to the southern sector of the park and Nanzhila Plains Camp. The Spinal Road is a good gravel road and driveable year-round. Seasonal river crossings can flood from time to time in the wet season.
To reach the southern section of the Kafue – After passing the turn off for Mumbwa, stay on the main M9 road, heading west. 66kms from Mumbwa you pass the Nalusanga Entrance Gate to the park, after this gate (approx 20kms later) is a left-hand turn, well signposted for Itezhitezhi town and the dam. Following the Itezhi-tezhi D769 road allows for access to Puku Pan, Kaingu Camp and the various lodges on the lake itself. This road is gravel but does require a good strong vehicle, as it is long and bumpy.
To reach the Busanga Plains – It must be noted that there are no camping of self-drive facilities at or even near the Busanga Plains (closest is approx. 160km away), as such self-driving on the Busanga is not advised. Driving from the Hook Bridge-Gate will take you approximately 5 to 6 hours, this is a bush road and only accessible when dry. When reaching the Busanga Plain be advised that there are no signposts and it is exceptionally easy to get lost, as such seek local advice before travelling (Mukambi Lodge have a camp on Busanga as do Wilderness Safaris).
From the west – take the Mongu to Lusaka tar road (M9), entrance is at Tateyoyo gate.
From the north (Copperbelt area) – Take the road from Solwezi and then to Kasempa (it may be useful to note there is a good hospital at Kasempa). From Kasempa follow the graded gravel D181 Kaoma road and branch of it to reach the Kabanga Entrance Gate to the park. To reach the Kabulushi Gate (and nearby camps) take the left fork off the Kaoma road onto the D301 towards Mumbwa, follow this road to the Lunga river pontoon (after approx 98kms) and then onwards again until the Lubungu river pontoon, after crossing and another 86kms you reach Kabalushi Gate. As always local advice at the time of travel is essential.
From Livingstone – Travel 124kms to Kalomo on the excellent tar road, or T1 which heads to Lusaka. At Kalomo turn left through the open air market, taking the D714 graded road for 74kms to the southern Dundumwezi Entrance Gate. This gate leads to Nanzhila Plains Camp, Ngoma and Lake Itezhi-tezhi further north. Recent grading of the Dundumwezi road means that a trip from Livingstone to the Kafue is very doable, even within a relaxed half a day. The Kobil station at Kalomo is the last fuel before the park.
The Kafue is not about the sheer numbers of wildlife you see, it is about the diversity of wildlife you see. This is not to say the Kafue does not have healthy populations of many of the more charismatic species of animals, because it does, but if you are looking for the ‘Big 5 in 24 hours’ experience then you will miss the point of this special place.
The Kafue is home to more species of ungulate than any national park south of the Congo Basin. Rare and elusive antelope such as the blue and yellow-backed duiker occur in the thickets, sitatunga and lechwe in the swamps, roan, sable and hartebeest in the miombo woodlands, the list goes on.
The park is regarded by those who know it as one of the best places in Africa to find leopards. In certain areas and at certain times of the year these secretive and elusive predators are frequently seen, especially on night drives (allowed in the Kafue) and even from afternoon boat cruises along the Kafue River in the hotter months when leopards come down to drink.
A rarity for Zambia is the cheetah. Cheetah can not be found in the Luangwa or Zambezi national parks and only occur in the west of Zambia, with Liuwa Plains and the Kafue holding the last viable populations of this rare and charismatic predator. In the Kafue cheetah are not solely restricted to the plains, in fact, they do very well in mixed woodland and riverine areas, where they can be found preying on puku and impala, amongst others.
Cheetah are found throughout the Kafue, from Nanzhila in the south to the Busanga in the north.
The African wild dog is a highly sought after species for wildlife tourists; these exceptionally rare and elusive predators are not easy to find, however, the Kafue has what some might say the largest population of this species compared to any other national park in Africa. Packs can be found on both sides of the Kafue River and in almost all habitat types, from dense woodland to riverine and dambo areas. This species has started to receive much needed and warranted interest in the Kafue from various conservation organizations, as such in 2011 the Zambian Carnivore Programme began baseline studies of wild dog in the Kafue and look set to continue its good work for the foreseeable future.
The Kafue River and its tributaries themselves are a hive of activity and home to pods of hippo and some of the largest crocodiles in southern Africa. As the bush dries out towards August and September it is not uncommon to watch elephants frolicking in the water and swimming from bank to bank, with their trunks holding on to the tails of the individuals in front.
The Kafue has a reputation for a history of poaching. Simply put, during the 80’s the last Black Rhino was poached, the Kafue had one of the largest populations of rhino in Africa, and today not one exists. Elephant in the late 60’s numbered approximately 60,000 in the Kafue, today estimates are at 4,000. It is worth noting however that this is not solely a Kafue problem and that in fact rhino were decimated from every single Zambian reserve, and elephant numbers have been and continue to be reduced in all parks throughout most of Africa.
Today we see a different trend; and the last decade has seen real concerted efforts from the Wildlife Authorities and park operators to look after the park’s natural resources, and this has seen an increase in game numbers and sightings to levels not seen for many years. The Kafue is on its way up once more and will continue to become a leading wildlife destination for Zambia and southern Africa as a whole.
There are few parks in Africa in which sightings of these more unusual species are so possible: pangolin, bushpig, spring hare, monitor lizards, aardvark, numerous mongoose spp. (selous, white-tailed, marsh, etc.), civet, serval, caracal, wild cat, bush baby, grysbok, oribi, roan, honey badger, otters, sitatunga… the list goes on and in fact stops only at 158 recorded species of mammal!
The Kafue is a birders paradise. Thanks to the outstanding array of habitat types, the plethora of bird species the Kafue houses stands at over 500 recorded species, roughly as much as the whole of Europe. With too many to write here, some notable ticks in the Kafue are as follows: Pel’s Fishing Owl, Black-cheeked Lovebird, Chaplin’s Barbet (Zambia’s only endemic bird), Wattled and Crowned Crane, African Fin-foot, Bohm’s Bee-eaters, the list goes on…
Even in and around the camps in the Kafue some outstanding birding can be had, with entertainment from beautiful Paradise Fly-catchers to any of the numerous Kingfisher species in the park to the diminutive and iridescently coloured Sunbirds. The woodlands are home to Racket-tailed Rollers, flocks of Helmetshrikes and flitting Sooty and Arnot’s Chat’s. Soaring above the bush are raptors large and small, from African Hawk-eagles to the magnificent Black-chested Snake-eagles.
Over the grass plains of the Kafue come Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, Lesser Kestrels and European Hobby, all making the most of the termite hatchings before the rains. All in all, a birders paradise.
The dominant vegetation type of the Kafue is called ‘Miombo’ which is typified by a semi-deciduous woodland comprising a number of three dominant genera of tree (Brachystegia, Julbernadia and Isoberlina), interspersed with seasonally flooded areas, often adjoining the main rivers and tributaries, locally called ‘Dambos’. These Dambos are a huge feature of the Kafue with most holding water well into the dryer months, creating lush fodder and a hive of activity for the grazers.
Miombo woodland has over time developed a degree of fire resistance in response to generations of widespread fires occurring and passing through the park in the dryer months. The park also has prominent stands of less common but aesthetically appealing Teak forests and belts of Mopane woodland, particularly in the central and southern sections of the park.
Open plains, large and small, are found throughout the Kafue, often dotted with thousands of small termite mounds, many of which are rubbed smooth and shiny by the bottoms of warthogs. These mounds are the perfect stooping haunts for a number of bird species, notably Sooty Chat and in the wetter areas the Pink-throated Longclaw.
In the more wooded area, the mounds are larger, thanks to a different species of termite. These larger mounds can reach enormous proportions and some are hundreds and even thousands of years old; almost all are topped with evergreen trees and shrubs, notably the Candelabra Tree (Euphorbia ingens), and the Jackalberry Tree (Diospyrus mespiliformis) which provide browse and cover for a whole host of the game throughout the year.
The Kafue is named after the very river that dissects it almost north through the south. The Kafue is the largest tributary of the mighty Zambezi and is the only truly Zambian river (that is it begins and ends within the borders of the country). It is a large river, broad and unhurried in places, interspersed with fast-flowing rapids, home to otters and hippo, and sand islands with colonies of Skimmers and basking crocodiles.
The river eventually feeds the beautiful yet relatively undeveloped Lake Itezhi-Tezhi, a fantastic spot for keen birdwatchers and fishermen. This big expanse of water (370km2) has not always been here, with the dam created in the mid to late ’70s to aid the flow of the river for the Kafue gorge power station downstream.
The Kafue’s main tributaries are the Lufupa and Lunga rivers in the north, the Luansanza in the centre and the Musa in the south. The Busanga Plains is arguably the most well-known area of the Kafue and situated in the far north-west of the park; these wide-open seasonally flooded grasslands (stemming from the Lufupa river) generate an expanse of lush grazing for the plethora of wildlife that resides here.
Thousands of red lechwe can be found as far as the eye can see, often in the company of some of Africa’s most relaxed herds of roan antelope and large herds of buffalo. As a consequence of this rich environment, birdlife is equally prolific, with flocks of pelican, egrets of many species and the most numerous gatherings of open-billed storks which spiral skywards in their thousands in the late afternoon.
Busanga is one of the few known breeding sites for the endangered wattled cranes and it is not uncommon to see large aggregations of these rare birds, sometimes in mixed flocks with the iconic crowned cranes which scour the Busanga in search of food in mega-flocks. Busanga is mostly known through local knowledge, but also international wildlife documentaries, for its predator sightings, notably lions. The Busanga lion pride are well known by the guides at the few safari camps situated on the plains and nobody can give you a better insight into the dynamics of this fascinating population.
Cheetah, wild dogs and even leopard are sighted throughout the season too.