Imagine an open plain of flat grassland interspersed with island thickets of wavy acacia trees, leadwoods, palms, fig trees, shrubs and others. Imagine this scene is so vast that you if you sweep your gaze from left to right, from front to back, you can only see it fringed far off on the horizon by a ripple of tree-tops. Imagine that during the rainy season this grassland transforms as it is inundated by the back-flow of the Lufupa River, and then as the season dries up, so the water drains out bit by bit, withdrawing its reach and leaving behind a fertile plain of nutrient-rich soil upon which a wonderland thrives. This is the life-force of the Busanga Plains in northern Zambia. Tucked away on two separate islands, Wilderness Safaris hosts Shumba Camp and Busanga Bush Camp. In the daylight you cannot see them, only at night does the reflection of the camp lights reveal the hidden gems, like stars that have fallen to earth from a clear sky.
In this vast, remote and extensive paradise several iconic places are to be explored. One is Hippo Pools, which hosts possibly the laziest pods of hippos – and I mean ‘pods’ literally , because there are many of these hippo-clans to be found here. These fat fellows are so content, well fed and laid-back that they are seen either lazing in their watery wallows, or heaving themselves out onto the banks of the trickling waterways to feed on the rich buffet of grasses, or collapsing in a heap, tucked up together in a muddy bed basking in the warm winter sunlight. Despite this languid life-style, testosterone-heavy skirmishes keep the males on their toes and there are wonderful displays of attempted dominance shown with huge heads thrown back in large jaw-gaping yawns that show off big ivory incisors. From both camps, the grunts and guffaws of these fat beasts can be heard lulling you to sleep at night. Hippo Pools is also a wonderful morning drive from Shumba camp as many photographic opportunities present themselves, in misty–and non-misty–light.
Four-fig and Lone-fig are another two iconic landmarks. Lone-fig is a huge dominant fig tree that stands on its own island with nothing else. Its branches are extensive and hang down in hammock-like waves that are low enough for a lioness to leap onto – a unique feature of the lions of the Busanga Plains. As I write this, the whole dynamic of the lion prides has changed since last season with the introduction of two new males to the territory who now replace the Musanza Boys (who themselves ousted Mr Busanga). They are chasing the females who have young cubs and who are desperately trying to keep one step ahead of the boys so their cubs may survive. Four-fig is another island to the north of Lone-fig, standing prominently with its landmark arrangement proudly displayed, it marks the distance between the northern papyrus territory and the southern reaches of the plains.
Kapinga Island is a thick woody forest that seems quite impenetrable. Last year, on the southern fringe of the island a young little female leopard presented herself. She was very shy, but on several occasions she showed herself to us, albeit through some tall grass or a fleeting glimpse as she dashed across the road track. This year we have gone back in search of her, but alas to no avail. We know she is there still because she has been seen, but as any leopard will, they only show themselves to you if they want to be seen. Despite our disappointment at not seeing the Kapinga Female, we still weren’t let down by many interesting sightings on our regular trips to find her.
On one such afternoon we went as far as the road would allow before it sunk into muddy boggy wallow, and on the side, in a shallow puddle decorated with day-lilies we watched some knob-billed ducks. They were thoroughly entertaining as they ducked their heads into the water, tipping their pristine white tails straight up into the sunlight, holding their balance by paddling their legs. They made me laugh so much as to how ridiculous they looked, as if they were playing ‘hand-stand-up’ or performing a synchronised swimming routine.
There are many, many other iconic landmarks that begin to reveal themselves as the season matures and the water recedes. The main access point from the airstrip via Twin Palms dries up so the mokoro/drive/walk combination of getting in and out of the Plains becomes a simple drive in and out.
More areas towards the south-east and Paradise Island also open up. Areas to the south moving towards the tree-line become a regular playground for cheetah, zebra, wildebeest and roan.
And so it goes, as if taking a deep breath, the area expands itself for man and beast alike before it exhales and the water inundates the Plains again, pushing us out till the next inhalation.
Written by Marian Myers and photographed by Mike Myers