In spite of grumbling about a 3:00 am wake-up call, there was no doubt we would do what was required to see the reason for our trip: The Great Migration of Fruit Bats to Kasanka Forest, in northern Zambia. It had been a destination intention from the moment we learned of the event. The Great Migration of the Wildebeest is enormous in Tanzania and Kenya, but the migration of the straw-colored fruit bats from the Congo to Kasanka is the single largest migration of mammals in the world.
Dennis had a history with bats, although not this particular species. As the ophthalmologist for the Oakland Zoo, in northern California, he had a patient, a Malayan fruit bat named, Romeo, blind from cataracts. His blindness would not have been a problem if Romeo relied on echolocation like many species of bats, but Malayan and African straw-colored fruit bats depend on sight and smell to locate food. A successful cataract surgery returned eyesight to Romeo.
During the years I managed the front office of our veterinary eye practice, it was a joy to accompany Dennis on “house calls.” While he was treating a patient, one morning, I wandered off not knowing where I was as we were behind the scenes of the public zoo. Sunny and cool, the thin clouds, looked like wispy brushstrokes on an otherwise flawless, blue canvas. I was not expecting anything in particular, but that’s the nature of wonder, it doesn’t announce itself, it appears, and it’s up to me to pause and take it in.
Down a narrow path, I walked, curious where the walkway would lead. From a distance, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, I only knew it was like nothing I’d encountered before—ever! As I neared an enclosure, I was frozen with awe, unable to move a muscle as the spectacle before my eyes took on meaning. The sun had backlit the spread wings of dozens of Malayan bats stretched out on a wiry enclosure perfect for sunbathing. Every long-bone of cartilage fanned out revealing the intricate pattern of veins pulsing with blood turning the gigantic wings deep red. I could barely breathe with the splendor of it all. As much as I had hoped, we would see mega-bats, like Romeo, the fruit bats of Kasanka Forest were smaller, though still considered mega-bats. I guess that makes Romeo a mega-mega bat with his five-foot wingspan as compared to the two-foot span of the fruit bats.
Early morning reveille required pre-planning, as the Wasa Lodge would not have electricity until later in the day. I set out my boots and socks and layers of clothing I figured I’d need along with my flashlight. I looked around our rondavel, though larger, it was not unlike the housing we had at the Cheetah Conservation outpost in Namibia. Wasa Lodge had clean sheets and mosquito netting and a hot shower, but the facilities were basic. I like to unfurl mosquito netting before the turndown services at the lodges within which we stay, checking for protection against insects. A fist-sized hole would not do. Mosquitoes streaming in to feed on my blood leaving me parched and white like the skeletons on the African savannahs, though exaggerated, was an unwelcome thought. Suspended from the ceiling, tipi-like, the netting did not cover the edges of the bed. What is it with me and mosquito netting, anyway. Either I’m sitting on it, or it’s in my face all night long! It was not a good fit, but at least the lodge sent someone to repair the hole.
Wasa Lodge had a willing, friendly staff, and the food that came out of the kitchen was tasty, but this was a poorly funded national park, like so many struggling parks on the continent. Wasa provided housing for those who made an effort to visit, primarily to see the bats. The problem is the migration happens three months a year: October, November, and December. The park has not developed its’ other wildlife assets, yet. They need an infusion of money to upgrade facilities, and expand bird and game viewing, as well as to protect the dwindling Kasanka Forest
Housing isn’t everything. We had gotten off to a great start with a couple, from Germany, Michael, and Liane. The four of us flew from Lusaka in a single-engine Cessna built in 1950—I know because I read the safety inspection reports stuffed haphazardly in the seat pocket behind our pilot. Initially delayed at Lusaka Airport due to weather, we killed time talking, getting to know one another. After what felt like a long time our hearty pilot took another look at the grey, roiling sky and declared it was safe to take-off. He’d fly “out of it.” The four of us were apprehensive, but sometimes you have to trust the experience of what I took to be a rough and tumble bush pilot. One rocky ride later we decided a one-way flight in a tiny aircraft built 68 years ago, was enough. We pooled our resources and hired a larger plane for the return flight to Lusaka.
I had no idea when we met, I only knew without having asked, that Michael and Liane were seasoned travelers. It turned out they had made many trips to Africa as they are the founders of the largest African travel agency in Germany, Abendsonne Afrika. Dressed in cool safari clothes, energetic, and youthful, they were on a scouting trip researching potential lodges and trip ideas for their many clients. Wasa Lodge and the King Lewanika Lodge, we had just left in the Liuwa Plains, were among several they were visiting. Years of experience in Africa made for interesting conversations and rich storytelling. Mostly I listened. I am a newcomer to Africa, just beginning to understand the continent and the many factors affecting conservation. I wished I’d started this business of loving Africa a long time ago.
Our first morning I rugged up in layers and a hat, and still needed the cover of a warm blanket. We struck out at a time of day when the nocturnals were searching for food. Small termite mounds looked alien in the moonlight. Our destination was one of five blinds or platforms in different areas, at varying levels of the forest, from which to view the spectacle. Ten million straw-colored fruit bats had invaded Kasanka Forest to roost at night, flying off to eat an abundance of mangoes, water-berries, wild loquat, and red milk-wood berries, during the day.
Flashlights lit our path. From below the rough-hewn rungs of a ladder disappeared into the canopy of trees and the dark of the early morning. A recent MRI in Cape Town revealed I had a bad left hip and I was scheduled for a hip replacement in mid-January. I had no choice but to take the climb one step at a time and allow Mike and Liane, to help. I followed a nimble Liane to the top. When she offered a hand to help me navigate a low hanging branch, and around a twisted area of the main trunk, I took it. For once I didn’t chastise myself for needing help, I was grateful.
In position, at tree-top level, I fumbled around getting prepared for the early morning lift-off. I had time and just enough light to take a long look at the branches heavy with bat bodies, so close together they looked like bunches of long, furry grapes. Fruit bats eat enormous amounts of food, yet remain slender because they metabolize fruits quickly, excreting what goes in one end and out the other within 30-60 minutes. With wings wrapped around their bodies, they resembled nori holding the contents of a sushi hand roll. I focused on their petite faces and thought: Mexican Chihuahua with wings.
Settled, waiting for the event to begin, a few bats began circulating. Gradually, a few more joined the early starters. This could be a long process if only a few become airborne at a time. Suddenly the air exploded with screeching and wings in a massive lift-off. The thin pink line on the horizon grew, casting a peachy bloom silhouetting the bodies of millions of flying fruit-bats.
I have nothing with which to compare the experience. The air was electric. My mind was spinning. My ears burned. The whir of wings and high-pitched voices are 20 minutes of physical, emotional, sensory overload. The late-risers unhook from tree limbs the way a bag of potato chips falls to the tray at the bottom of a vending machine. It’s other-worldly, noisy, and spellbinding. Dennis, Liane, and Mike are as quiet as I am. What can one say in the midst of wonder?
Some wonders are massive in scale, the fruit-bat migration, the migration of the wildebeest, Victoria Falls in the rainy season. Others are singular in their simplicity, the dragonfly picking minerals from the dirt near our rondavel; the yellow frog who calls our Wasa Lodge, home; the rare siting of a silver cobra slithering over the ground on the Liuwa Plains.
In a world turned upside down and inside out with earthquakes, floods, genocide, dictators, mass shootings, my aches and pains and personal challenges, it’s easy to focus on mayhem, healthier to seek wonder. It’s the perfect anecdote to the messy, glorious planet upon which we live and a blessed reminder that I may not be able to explain God, but what I see looks like the handiwork of a benevolent architect.
Between visits to the various platforms, we rested. My hip reminded me I was pushing the boundaries of her comfort. Like the hike to the mountain gorillas, climbing ladders to witness a phenomenon unlike anything I had seen before—well—it was worth it.
Our last afternoon as the sun moved below the horizon and we carefully backed down the long ladder to the ground in the dark, I was aware of the quiet settling upon the trees. In my typical anthropomorphic way of thinking I speculated the bats would share stories—the best stand of mangoes, the near misses with the martial and fish eagles, pythons, who consider the fruit bats as delicious as the bats find the fruit for which they have migrated. Who left the forest and did not return?
I leave the forest the next morning, not in search of fruit like the bats, but to continue my journey seeking that which feeds my soul. With me go the images and sounds of millions of fruit bats along with plenty of memories in this odyssey year of traveling and self-examination, spiritual reckoning, and gratitude.
Mike, of Abendsonne Afrika Travel, produced a wonderful video of Kasanka Forest and the fruit-bar migraton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CukdCWnaVG0&t