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24 Travel Zambia May 2009 Kafue the overhanging bank. Scarcely believing our luck, we double back to a gully we' ve just passed, hoping she will emerge into view. And indeed she does, charging our vehicle with a deep growl then turning tail and vanishing in the cloud of dust. It's a pulse- quickening moment: clearly the cats around here are not used to people. Are the lions any more relaxed, I wonder? For several kilometres our road has been embroidered with the spoor of the local pride, which must have been on the move last night. We investigate a few likely hangouts, searching for tawny bodies. But no luck: the day is hotting up and any self- respecting cats will have hit the shade. Besides, no time to dawdle: there's a helicopter coming over the horizon and it has my name on it. " Would you prefer the boring ride or the exciting one?" asks Bruce, my pilot, as he ushers me beneath the whirling blades of the chopper and buckles me in. But before I can respond we are lurching up and away - leaving Bas, our vehicle and indeed the whole wooded expanse of eastern Kafue rapidly behind. Please don't let him tell me this is the boring ride, I think, as the horizon tilts crazily and treetops zoom into crisp detail at our feet. But when my perspective steadies I thrill to the new landscape beneath us. These sweeping grasslands, dotted with islands of greenery and glinting with the floods, are the legendary Busanga Plains - a wildlife oasis in Kafue's remote northwest corner. Imagine a cross between the Serengeti and the Okavango, then take away the tourists: that's Busanga. No sooner have I retrieved my stomach than we are touching down beside one of those tree islands. Kapinga Camp, another Wilderness project, is tucked discreetly into the foliage, with wooden walkways connecting the chalets and dining area beneath the filtered shade of the sycamore figs. Birdsong trickles from the canopy and every chink in the greenery offers an alluring vista of sweeping plain. It's a gorgeous and exclusive retreat. But I'm here for the wildlife. And so for the next two days our guide Idos Mulenga drives us out across the bumpy sea of grass. This is a quiet time of year, he explains. The grazing herds have not yet moved out of the woodlands in force and so the local predators are widely dispersed. Even the resident lion pride, famously fond of treeclimbing, has gone AWOL across the river in search of buffalo. Cheetah, a local speciality, have not been seen for a fortnight. No problem. With the pressure to find predators lifted, we can better appreciate Kafue's wider spectrum of wildlife. Take the antelope: we find delicate oribi nibbling the burnt grass plains, red lechwe grazing beside the waterways Above: Lions find welcome shade on Busanga Plains by climbing trees. Birdsong trickles from the canopy and every chink in the greenery offers an alluring vista of sweeping plain. ANDREA STALTMEIER / WILDERNESS SAFARIS

and a single statuesque roan bull - the ' Roan Ranger', Idos calls him - waiting for the rest of his herd to show up. None of these would be on your usual Luangwa or Lower Zambezi list. And while we may have missed the bigger cats, a spotlit serval pouncing after rodents as we return from sundowners is fine compensation. And then there are the birds. Busanga's combination of wetland, grassland and forest makes for a feast of feathers. We find wattled cranes stalking the plains, barred owls calling around the campfire and African marsh harriers quartering the reedbeds. Indeed it is birds that provide our most dramatic moment at Kapinga. On the last afternoon, a huge martial eagle swoops from nowhere across our vehicle to strike at a black-bellied bustard in the long grass. The bustard ducks nimbly and takes to the air, whereupon the eagle - having recovered its position but lost its momentum - gives chase. We watch the two birds circle in a cumbersome but deadly aerial ballet. The bustard, to my surprise, gradually pulls away to leave its pursuer behind. The exhausted eagle lands on a nearby bush, whereupon the irate locals give it a piece of their collective mind: first a hamerkop, then a roller and finally a drongo all fly up to taunt and harass their nemesis. Eventually it flaps off towards the horizon. Prey one; predator nil. T he next day I'm back in the air, this time heading south. The flight to Ngoma once again brings home the sheer size of Kafue: a seemingly endless carpet of woodland rolls out below us, unbroken save by silver flashes of the river itself. Eventually, as the nibbled shoreline of Lake Ithezi- Tezhi swings into view, we start to descend. Chris Cooke is waiting at the airstrip, and whisks me off towards the new camp that his family has recently opened on the southern shores. As we rumble along the dusty bush tracks I point out fresh elephant dung and Chris explains how - despite popular misconceptions - the recovery of Kafue is not confined to the northern sector. As if on cue, a party of defassa waterbuck gallops across our path, while warthogs thunder off in the other direction. Konkamoya Lodge is beautifully situated. " In a couple of months this will all be grass," says Chris, sweeping his hand over the lake vista, where currently cormorants perch among the drowned trees and hippos grunt in the shallows. " And that's when the buffalo move in," he adds. " We had up to 1,000 last year." He explains how every dry season the fresh grazing exposed by the receding water draws the herds from miles around, and with them come the predators: lion, cheetah, even wild dog. Cassy, the new caterer, chips in. " We had two leopards mating in camp last week," she tells me. " Just there, beside the Lapa. The noise was amazing." Kafue fact file Above: Martial eagles are the most powerful of Kafue's many raptors. Below left: The ' Roan Ranger' ventures out onto Busanga Plains. Below: Bohm's bee- eater at Kapinga Camp. Kafue MIKE UNWIN May 2009 Travel Zambia 25 Bas van Soest / WIlderness Safaris DANA ALEN / WIlderness Safaris Kafue National Park is the largest in Zambia and the second largest in Africa. It covers 22,400km2 - about the size of Wales - and was established in 1924 by the British colonial government. The Great West Road between Lusaka and Mongu divides the park into its northern and southern sectors. Habitats Miombo woodland dominates the park. The Busanga Swamps in the far northwest are a permanent wetland, surrounded by the open Busanga Plains. In the very south the woodland thins out towards the Nanzhila Plains and mopane replaces the miombo. Riverine forest lines the banks of the Kafue, and there are isolated pockets of teak forest. Rivers The Kafue River enters the park in the northeast and exits in the southeast. It was dammed in 1973 near Ngoma to form Lake Itezhi- Tezhi, which regulates water flow downstream. Its major tributaries include the Lunga and Lufupa ( northern sector) and the Nanzhila ( southern sector). Wildlife An exceptional variety of antelope includes such specials as roan, sable, sitatunga, red lechwe and Lichtenstein's hartebeest. Predators include lion, leopard, wild dog and - notably - cheetah. Elephant, buffalo and zebra are widespread, but there are no giraffe. Hippo and crocodiles are plentiful in the rivers. Among over 495 species of bird are wattled crane and Denham's bustard on the grasslands, Pels' fishing owl and African finfoot along the rivers, and black- cheeked lovebird in the far south.