Written by: Michael Lorentz
During the last eight weeks of every year an incredible phenomenon takes place in the ‘Mushitu’ swamp forests of Kasanka National Park, Zambia. Up to 10 million straw-coloured fruit bats from across the Congo Basin converge on the forest, enticed by the abundance of fruit delicacies such as musuku, mufinsa and mango.
Scientists are still trying to ascertain the full reasons behind this phenomenon, however, a glut of food and the opportunity of finding a mate are all part of the appeal. Move over the famous Serengeti Migration – this lesser known 1,000 kilometre migration has six times more bats than there are wildebeest on the Serengeti plains. It is the largest aggregation of mammals in Africa and probably the most concentrated in the world!
Waking at 3am one heads out to the roost site (an area of only one hectare), where you climb 18 metres up to a hide in the canopy of a giant mahogany tree and wait for dawn. As the light creeps over the forest, a gentle whisper of sound grows into a rush, much like a waterfall, as the bats return to the roost after a night of feeding in the forests up to 70km away.
Landing amongst the mahogany and milkwood trees, there is a frenetic squealing and jostling, as the bats look for an open space to hang and roost, resembling giant bunches of grapes. After a night of flying and foraging, the bats are exhausted and they finally settle down and fall asleep. The high-pitched chattering is replaced by the morning chorus of bird song as the rest of the forest awakens. Three hours in the hide flash by faster than the beat of a bat wing as you descend the ladder, exhilarated and awed by the intensity of the last few hours.
The experience is repeated in the evening as the entire roost empties out in 20 orderly minutes as the bats leave at last light for a night of feasting. This time you find a patch of soft grass on their flight path, lie on your back and stare transfixed as the golden African sky is almost blackened by the squadrons flying overhead.
There is no way to express the wonder and the pure abundance of being amongst millions of these delightful creatures. Forget your bat phobias – these straw-coloured fruit bats are of the flying fox variety, not the ‘Halloween’ variety. With a wingspan just short of a metre, this is a remarkably beautiful and elegant mammal.
I have heard about this annual spectacle on many occasions over the years and always longed to experience it, so my expectations where high on this, my first visit. The reality way exceeded those expectations and I was completely blown away. This is a stand-alone experience and worth visiting Africa for!