Hot-air ballooning in Kafue is done in ideal circumstances, over Zambia’s immense, level Busanga Plains, and this exclusive experience is certain to be a highlight of your Zambia safari. Here you’ll share a fish eagle’s-eye view of wooded islands, wetlands and large herds of antelope.
Seasonal flooding means that Zambia’s Busanga Plains are only accessible from around June to October each year, and this fact, plus their remote location, means that relatively few people have explored the floodplains and islands of Kafue National Park. Just being there, we felt immensely privileged – but the experience of gliding over the plains in a hot-air balloon made this part of our Zambia safari seem even more exclusive.
A cheerful call woke us before dawn, and we assembled in the main area of our luxury Zambian safari lodge as the first light of the new day spilled over the horizon and across the largely level terrain towards us. Idos, our guide, drove us to the take-off site as a big orange sun clawed its way up the sky. With the smoke haze from distant bush fires, the dry season sunrises were particularly intense.
Just a short distance from the lodge, Idos (whose eyesight was apparently unaffected by light levels), pulled up and pointed to the left of the vehicle. A serval – the first we’d seen – stood poised to pounce on a rodent it had heard in the reeds. Oblivious to us, it was still in the same pose when we drove on. We decided that this was an excellent omen for our hot-air ballooning in Kafue.
The balloon, with its multicoloured checkerboard design, lay on its side on the grass. As we arrived, we saw a jet of flame directed into the balloon and it began to fill and swell as the air inside warmed up.
As the balloon righted itself, we clambered into the basket with Eric, the pilot. We would soon discover that he wasn’t just a precise judge of altitude, but also an immensely knowledgeable Kafue aficionado.
With the highest points in Busanga being the treetops, an expert pilot like Eric can safely skim very low above the water and grass. In the dawn light, each flare from the burners caused the balloon to glow like a good-idea lightbulb as we glided over tawny grasslands with a filigree of streams and channels.
We were joined in the air by a small flock of snowy-white egret. As they turned, the sun caught their wings and for a moment they seemed to be made of burnished copper. Glancing down again, we were struck by glimpses of the balloon’s reflection in the complex mosaic of water and grasslands. Eric explained the meaning of the wonderful word ‘dambo’ – a small, shallow wetland.
He also outlined how the space available to the wildlife of Busanga is much greater in the dry season, and this was borne out by sightings of large herds of lechwe and puku. Perhaps slightly spooked by the balloon, one group of lechwe took to their heels through the shallows, their massive hindquarters powering them through the water as they kicked up silvery spray.
Eric maintained a low enough altitude that he was also able to point out some of the smaller details, including a rosy-throated longclaw for a new tick on my partner’s Zambian bird list.
The Busanga Plains reminded me a little of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, but with their own unique beauty and wildlife moments. Eric’s passion for this area was clear to see, and he was excited as we were when in the strengthening light of day, he spotted a small herd of roan antelope, very rare in Kafue.
Steering the balloon with remarkable precision, he managed to get us into the right place for ‘golden hour’ pictures of the roan, and at that moment two magnificent male lion (almost certainly the dominant ‘Musanza Boys’) emerged from a nearby island, and slowly walked past the herd. It was the archetypal Busanga moment: a herd of antelope transfixed by a passing lion, but not fleeing (although you got the sense that some of them wanted to).
A final highlight came when, after rising over an island with mature trees, we dipped again as we floated over an open stretch of water. It contained a pod of hippo, and we had fun speculating what they must make of this rotund aircraft, not dissimilar in shape to themselves. The balloon was so low by now that we felt that a well-directed exhalation by one of the hippo would see the spray reach our feet.
Looking ahead, we spotted two vehicles waiting for us, and there was Idos, waving cheerfully. As we came in for a gentle landing on an area of shorter grass, the balloon’s ground crew came running towards us to hold the basket down. Next to the vehicles was a table set for a delicious Champagne breakfast.
Demonstrating his sabrage skills, Idos used the blunt side of his machete to open the bottle, and we toasted a remarkable morning’s flight over wonderfully diverse scenery and wildlife.