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Using two charter planes, one for our camera gear and one for ourselves, we flew deep into central Zambia where inside a national park called Kasanka, we used a mobile-tented camp as our base. This park, unlike other tourist parks is not uuummm, how can I put it – touristy? Yes, definitely not touristy! Remote, isolated and ‘far off the beaten track’ would be more suitable adjectives. Not sure where to go or where to find a single bat, let alone the rumored 8 million, the first afternoon was spent avoiding the issue and getting our cameras ready. How do you even attempt to photograph 8 million bats, was the only question ringing in my head as I attached the widest wide-angle lens I own.
The first 'bat evening' was spent sitting in small hides that were especially built prior to our arrival, and with cameras that cost thousands of dollars, sheepishly perched on top of not-so-cheap carbon-fibre tripods, and pointing into a blank sky, I began to wonder if this entire migration was not the biggest hoax of the natural world. I had been told that the bats fly to Zambia from the Congo at this specific time of year, to feed on the fruiting forests around Kasanka. These however, are not your ordinary little bats that you see flying around street lamps in suburbia; these are Straw-coloured Fruit Bats, each with a wingspan of over one meter in length. Sitting in my hide, pretending like I knew exactly what to do if 8 million bats suddenly burst onto the scene, I tried to imagine what exactly millions of erupting bats would indeed look like? Feeling overwhelmed, I affirmed that I should definitely have bought that fisheye lens that I had seen on eBay, instead of paying this month’s house-rent.
It was getting dark and the park scout told me that at any moment now, the bats would erupt. I had done my research before the trip and I had learnt that the entire bat migration roosts in a tiny forest only two hectares in size. Pondering this dubiously goggled fact, I was having a really hard time believing that 8 million fruit bats were roosting a mere hundred yards in front of me, and in a forest the size of only four football fields. According to my research however, the forest before me was no ordinary forest, but one with a large stream flowing through the middle of it. This stream keeps the bats cool and is also ultimately the reason why the bats roost inside this particular forest - to keep cool.
A couple hundred bats materialized that evening but it was hardly what you would call a ‘migration spectacle’ and as is so often the case in wildlife photography, we moved to plan B. The next morning, waking up at 03h30 we located the precariously perched and infamously titled ‘BBC Platform’. This rickety platform sits about ten meters high and looks down onto the forest. It is from this perch that the BBC filmed part of their ‘Life’ series and judging by the haphazard and meager construction, they must have been on a tight budget! Despite being vulnerably balanced, I definitely felt that we had found the right location from which to photograph the bat spectacle and just as dawn broke, it seemed as if I was correct in my thinking. Millions of bats flew over the horizon, as I recalled yet another interesting bat fact: did you know that these bats double their own body each night whilst gorging on fruit? The now somewhat plumper bat blizzard were returning to roost in the forest for the day, and grabbing my camera, still with the wide-angle lens attached, I eagerly peered through my viewfinder. The bats looked like dust spots on my reflex mirror, that is how tiny they were! Not to worry, I thought to myself, a good photographer is always prepared, and pulling my longest lens out the bag as well as a converter, I attempted to photograph the bat blizzard yet again. This time round, the bats never looked at all like small dust spots but rather like large dust spots! It dawned on me then exactly where the BBC’s budget had gone - into large cameras with super telephoto lenses!
Avoiding the distinct urge to hurl myself off the platform and into the tiny two-hectare forest below, I chose to forget the ‘death by bat’ suicide and rather to focus my attention on the bat’s movements. Looking at the forest that had been severely beaten down by the sheer weight of the bats, to a point where only a few tall trees still survived amongst the otherwise stunted growth, I remembered another fact that my research had revealed. This being that the single greatest threat to the bat migration are in fact the bats themselves! Their combined weight literally breaks the forest’s branches, the same forest that provides them with life giving air-conditioning.
Spending the next few days painfully studying the bats movements and watching blizzard after blizzard pass me by, frustratingly out of reach, the dreaded thought dawned on me that I only had one last morning to attempt to capture some of the spectacle on camera. And so, as is so often the case in wildlife photography, I moved to plan C (knowing full well that plan D did not exist).
Sneaking off on my own to a fringe of the forest in the pitch dark of my last morning in Kasanka, I set my camera up on a tripod and waited. Fearing that the safari would end without me having captured a single image except for copious amounts of migrating dust spots, I waited rather anxiously in the dark with only my headlamp for comfort. The sun seemed to take forever to rise and when it finally did, I looked to the opposite horizon and low and behold, I saw an almighty bat blizzard on its way back to the forest. Waiting for the blizzard to engulf the sun, I hit the shutter button with the finesse of a machine-gun operator in World War 2. This was not the time to pick one’s frames, this WAS the time to shoot like a man possessed. After skillfully capturing the same frame thousands of times over, I finally stopped and the bat blizzard continued for the next hour.
The sight I had witnessed was one of the most amazing spectacles I have yet to see in Africa and packing up my gear, I was relieved at having saved the photographic integrity of the trip, by the skin of my teeth and on the last morning nogal (sorry but some words just have to be written in Afrikaans). But, more than just feeling relieved, I felt outright grateful, humbled and overwhelmed at having had the privilege of witnessing such a great spectacle. Knowing that the memory of this special morning will long outlive the photograph, I finished packing up and made my way to the airstrip.
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