Why you should care
This is an opportunity to witness the largest migration of mammals on the planet.
Last year, Cape Town couple Barry and Julie Coltham went on an 8,000-mile road trip through six African countries. While the iridescent fish of Lake Malawi and the great elephant herds of Hwange were special, the unlikely highlight of their trip was little-known Kasanka National Park. This small park in Zambia plays host to a mesmerizing annual event where 10 million megabats with 30-inch wingspans show up for dinner.
The straw-colored fruit bats’ 1,500-mile round trip to and from the park is believed to be the largest migration of mammals on the planet. But the best way to appreciate the spectacle is to catch them once they’re already in Kasanka — specifically just after sunset, when all 10 million bats head out to feed in a 30-minute period. And again before sunrise, when they return, fat and chirpy, for a well-earned sleep.
Watching the sunset departure was “a spiritual experience that gave [me] goosebumps,” says Barry, explaining that the bats leave for the feeding grounds in complete silence save for the whoosh of their wings. The predawn return is a much noisier affair, with the bats squeaking like excited mice about the night’s exploits. “You can almost understand their conversations,” he adds.
Having 10 million bats fly above you is not claustrophobic, smelly or scary, adds Julie. Instead, watching the sky “fill with a moving flow of blackness against the pinks and purples of the setting sun” is an experience she calls “exhilarating,” “wondrous” and — perhaps most aptly — “impossible to describe.”
They can even rack up 40 miles on a single Kasanka fruit foraging mission — quite something for what is essentially a pub crawl.
Sunsets are best appreciated from one of the public viewing areas (ask the park staff for recommendations) where tourists gather with deck chairs and G&Ts to await the main event. Around 1,000 people make the pilgrimage every year, says Geraldine Taylor, Kasanka’s knowledge manager. As the sun slips behind the horizon, bats fill the sky and the jovial atmosphere instantly turns solemn. “We lay on our backs watching them,” says Julie, explaining that some of the bats fly so low you can see their feet tucked up under their chests.
Sunrises warrant an altogether different plan. Here it is worth forking out $35 per person for a guided game drive (you’ll head out at 3:30am!) to one of the “hides” (like raised viewing platforms) that offer a bat’s-eye view of the proceedings. It’s incredible how many bats can roost in a single tree, Barry says. Which is not to say it doesn’t go wrong sometimes — like when he witnessed a branch get too heavy, sending a few unlucky bats to the crocodiles eagerly waiting in the swamp below.
But where do the bats come from? And why do all 10 million of them descend on a patch of the Fibwe swamp forest the same size as three soccer pitches? Taylor says “there’s still a lot we don’t know” about the Kasanka bat migration — it was discovered only in 1980 — but a 2008 paper in the Journal of Zoology used satellite telemetry to establish that the bats fly from multiple smaller colonies across equatorial Africa. They arrive in mid-October to feast on the bounty of fruit brought about by Kasanka’s first rains (the region’s humans also go wild for the masuku, or wild loquats, says Taylor) only to head home by around New Year’s Day, when the food supply peters out.
During the migration the bats can fly a whopping 230 miles per night. And they can even rack up 40 miles on a single Kasanka fruit foraging mission — quite something for what is essentially a pub crawl.
Between sunrise and sunset, bat activity quiets down. It’s a great opportunity for birdwatching, or a batnap.
You’ll need all the rest you can get to fully appreciate witnessing the “wonder of lazily and haphazardly flapping mammals in every direction,” says Taylor. Combined with dramatic skies, scattered thunderstorms and beautiful sunsets, the bat migration makes for “spectacular pictures that nevertheless don’t do the experience justice.”
Many photographers, she adds, end up putting their cameras down to simply savor the moment.
Go There: Kasanka National Park
- Where: The park is an eight-hour drive from Lusaka on good paved roads. There’s also a small airstrip in the park.
- When: The bats arrive on about October 20th and leave around Christmas Day.
- How much: Entry to the park is $10 per (foreign) adult plus between $15 and $30 per vehicle per day, depending on how big your vehicle is.
- Stay: Wasa Lodge offers all-inclusive accommodation ($350 per person per night during bat season), while Luwombwa Lodge has self-catering options ($70). There are also three campsites in the park ($20). The Colthams recommend Site 2 at Pontoon Campsite — it’s a great place to spot sitatunga, a rare amphibious antelope with splayed hooves and a “rubbery” coat that make swamp living enjoyable.
- Hot tip: African Bush Adventures runs trips to see the bats where you’ll drive your own vehicles but have all the nitty-gritty taken care of by the bionic husband-and-wife duo who lead all trips themselves.