Ah, November! The season of respite... when the rains finally sweep across the dry African plains. The smell of petrichor fills the air, storm clouds gather, and every few days there is an electrifying downpour that lasts a couple of hours. The bush is still sparse, but green leaves are budding on the trees and many trees are in bloom. In areas where migrations happen, animals such as zebra, wildebeest, many bird species, and even bats, are drawn by the promise of a season of plenty. Trees bear fruit, fertile plains shoot nutritiously rich grass, and shrimp and algae bloom in previously dry salt pans. Migratory birds are in breeding plumage and many animals begin to calve their young.
It’s a life-affirming time to visit the wilderness!
In Zambia, the little known spectacle of the African straw-coloured fruit bat migration occurs in Kasanka National Park. This is actually the world's largest mammal migration! By the end of November, over 8 million fruit bats will be on less than a hectare of land in the National Park, having travelled from the Congo. Tree branches droop under their weight, and when they take to the sky, they create cloud-like masses that move in a cascading rhythm as they search for fruit trees to feast upon.
In Botswana's north-east is a collection of salt pans known as the Makgadikgadi Pans. They make up the world's largest salt flats and cover an area the size of Portugal, which is largely uninhabited by humans. When it rains from November to March, the pans fill with water, attracting migrating zebras, flamingos, springbok, and wildebeest, all pursued by their predators. The shallow pans and lush landscapes become a hive of activity for wildlife. The zebra migration, with herds of up to 20,000 migrating through the pans, is a little-known but truly spectacular event.
And in Zimbabwe, the granite wilderness of the Matopos, with its majestic stone formations and wooded valleys, lies close to the city of Bulawayo. The ‘hills’ are a UNESCO World Heritage Site that formed over 2 billion years ago. The area is known for its giant balancing granite boulders that lie in unlikely and impressive formations and that are scattered with ancient rock art. Matopos is home to a huge diversity of flora and fauna and a highlight is the chance to see white rhino in the wild on guided walks. November is the beginning of the rainy season here, so the bush is still thin, allowing for easy game viewing, but the weather is cooler and more temperate than elsewhere in Southern Africa at this time of year.
Kasanka National Park, Zambia.
Between October and December each year, about 10 million greater straw-coloured fruit bats descend into a tiny patch of evergreen, swamp-forest inside Kasanka National Park, in Northern Zambia, from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kasanka has specially built bat viewing hides nestled 15 metres high in the treetops from which to view the bats' daily pilgrimages. They go out every day at dusk to eat the myriad of native fruits that surround them. The colony disperses in search of food in a nightly show that is incredible to view. The rustling and heavy flapping of leathery wings fills the air. As the swarmlike colony of bats erupts, the sky fills with noise. They return to roost in the trees in the morning, squeezing and jostling for room on closely packed branches. It's fairly common for branches to snap, sending bats flying or crashing to the ground.
The straw-coloured fruit bats can eat nearly double their body weight in fruit in a single night. Every night, more than 8 million bats devour fruit. They then distribute seeds and pollinate flowers on their long migrations and nightly forages. Researchers discovered that bats fly up to 50 kilometres per night and thousands of kilometres while migrating. This indicates that their role in seed distribution is critical for maintaining genetic variety and connecting plant populations across fragmented landscapes.
Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana.
The rainy season in Makgadikgadi National Park begins in November, when the pans are turned into a lush emerald-green grassland and thousands of zebra and blue wildebeest feast on the sweet summer grasses. Up to 20, 000 zebras pass through each season and lions, cheetahs, and hyenas are always close by. Flocks of migratory birds arrive and add vibrant colour and birdsong to the landscape. The green season in the desert is a magical time to visit.
Specialties such as brown hyenas and meerkats can also be seen in the grasslands, while aardwolves, bat-eared foxes, honey badgers, aardvarks, gemsbok, springbok, and black-backed jackals, and the black-maned Kalahari lion are among the desert-adapted carnivores to look out for. Thousands of flamingos travel here from Namibia and East Africa when the pans are flooded, attracted by the abundance of algae and crustaceans. The pink clouds of flamingos are a truly mesmerising site when they pass overhead.
Matopos National Park, Zimbabwe.
As a bequest from Cecil John Rhodes, Matobo National Park was established in 1926. The national park and the surrounding Matopos hills are characterised by a profusion of distinctive hilly granite rock formations. On the summit of Malindidzimu, (the 'mount of spirits') Rhodes is buried alongside other 19th-century colonists. The smooth boulders are host to an abundance of ancient rock art and the area has spiritual significance to local peoples that can be felt today with many shrines and sacred areas in the hills.
The Matopos National Park is also notable as a great birding destination, and a stronghold of both white and black rhinos. Visitors may walk with white rhinos on guided walks with the National Parks Scouts who guard them in the wild. The park also has Zimbabwe’s largest concentration of leopards. Over 200 tree species, close to 200 bird species, and over 100 animal species have been identified in the park. Over 3000 rock art sites reveal the San people's legacy, which dates back over 2,000 years.