Expert Reviews – Zambia

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Africa’s Hottest Safari Option
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It is only in the last decade that Zambia burst back onto the African safari scene, re-building its safari reputation on the back of some epic national parks and outstanding wildlife. Anyone even vaguely familiar with Zambia and its wildlife heritage will probably be aware of the country’s Big Three: South Luangwa, Lower Zambezi and Kafue. These three iconic national parks are undeniably amongst Africa’s finest wilderness areas and they provide an enviable array of safari activities and game-viewing opportunities to wildlife connoisseurs from around the globe. There is, however, considerably more to the Zambian safari circuit.

This butterfly-shaped country is actually home to an astounding array of conservation areas with three transfrontier parks, 19 national parks, 36 game management areas (GMAs), 7 RAMSAR wetland sites, 42 important birding areas (IBAs) and numerous forest reserves. The bottom line is that a staggering 38% of Zambia is preserved under some category of protected area.

To be honest I am one of Zambia’s biggest fans and I think this country deserves its reputation as one of Africa’s foremost safari destinations. I really like that the parks of this country (with the possible exceptions of the Mfuwe sector of South Luangwa and Chiawa GMA) are not plagued by the safari hordes that invade other popular wildlife areas like the Mara in Kenya.

Zambia also boasts a handful of world-class rivers flowing through its protected areas: the Zambezi, Luangwa and Kafue rivers are spectacular. Aside from the country’s three premier parks and the world-renowned Victoria Falls, it is also home to Africa’s second largest wildebeest migration (in Liuwa Plain NP), one of the greatest concentrations of mammalian biomass in the world (during the annual bat migration through Kasanka NP), one of the best places in Africa to see the enigmatic shoebill (in the Bangweulu swamps), Africa’s longest and deepest rift valley lake (Lake Tanganyika and Nsumbu NP), and a whole host more.

Adventurer’s Africa
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One of my top five experiences in more than 20 years of African travel was a canoe safari a few years back in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park. This is a total wilderness experiences, offering the exhilarating immediacy of being right there, in the bush, on the river, without an engine in earshot, without a window frame in sight. And mostly canoeing the Zambezi is serenity personified, as the current generally guides you safely through the tropical riverine scenery and abundant birds that flank this mighty waterway.

But there are also less serene moments, that remain etched in my memory forever: floating within 10 metres of a lion pride whose guileless yellow eyes followed our passage across the knee-deep water; watching an elephant herd swim 50 metres downriver as we clung onto a partially submerged log before edging into the safety of an eddy, and shakily steering my canoe along a narrow course of shallow water flanked by two submerged hippos.

Adventure safaris are a big thing in Zambia. In South and North Luangwa National Parks, for instance, unlike most other main safari destinations, the most popular activity is guided walks through a vast stretch of wilderness where close encounters with buffalo, leopard, lion and elephant are an everyday occurrence. The same goes for the immense Kafue – Africa’s largest national park – where highlights include boat trips along a forested stretch of river and walks into the wooded wilderness.

Thanks partly to exceptionally high standards of guiding, Zambia’s finest ‘Big Five’ reserves all seem to offer a fuller and richer Africa than the one you see from the security of a vehicle. Whether you’re on foot or in a canoe, the zebras look bigger, the giraffes tower higher, and faced by the cold stare of a buffalo, or warning trumpeting of an elephant, your vulnerability and sense of being an intruder in the bush is painfully, thrillingly manifest.

Walking in the bush in Zambia
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Zambia’s safari industry is run by people who have a passion for the bush. More often than not, my stay in Zambia has felt like a visit to a friend – one who loves to share their passion for wildlife with me. There are no big hotels in the Zambian parks. All lodges are small and exclusive, and very few are part of a chain or a group. Most are owned by individuals who truly care.

Guiding in Zambia is of the highest quality; a far cry from East Africa, where many guides are basically professional drivers whose knowledge of car mechanics exceeds their empathy for the bush. Here, guides need to qualify for driving and walking safaris. Walking is a whole different kettle of fish because your safety is at stake. A safari in Zambia tends to be more in depth: you learn about the plants and the ecology, you look at spiders and faeces and you get actively involved in the tracking of animals. Walking safaris are exciting and Zambia is the place to do it.

My favourite park in Zambia is South Luangwa. This park is known for good leopard sightings and we mostly seemed to find leopards following the alarm calls of baboons. The night drives are possibly the best I’ve experienced in Africa. Kafue is also a great park with even less tourists. Wildlife sightings are a bit more hit and miss, but the feeling of exclusivity makes up for it. One of my greatest adventures was in Lower Zambezi National Park, where I canoed down the Zambezi for several days. It is amazing how much wildlife you get to see from the water without even trying.

Walking safaris and untouched wilderness
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Zambia’s wild open spaces, rivers and marshland contain some of the best reserves on the continent and yet the country is not nearly as popular with tourists as its better known rivals in East Africa.

You’ll find all of the Big Five here as well as more unique species such as Cookson’s wildebeests, Thornicroft’s giraffes and black lechwes. What’s more, Kafue National Park and South Luangwa National Park are well known throughout Africa as fantastic places to spot leopards; and Kasanka National Park and the Bangweulu wetlands are prime bird watching territory, the latter an excellent place to see shoebills.

South Luangwa is the country’s best-known and most easily accessible spot. On my last visit, I found plenty of accommodation for all budgets, and although the park is popular, it wasn't so busy that I felt hemmed in by other vehicles. It's also the home of the walking safari, and tracking lions and elephant on foot, deep in the bush, is not an experience that I'll forget.

For fans of remote and untouched places, Zambia has a huge amount to offer. Several of the country's parks are difficult to access because of poor infrastructure, but in general, this makes them even more worth a visit. At wild, expansive Kafue to the West, I saw big cats stalk the grasslands with hardly anyone else for company; at North Luangwa, visitors stay deep in the bush in small, exclusive mobile camps that are only open for a few months a year; and at Kasanka National Park I took advantage of one of the handful of remote and rustic self-catering camps and luxuriated in my party being the only group of visitors in the entire reserve.

Safaris for aficionados
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Zambia has emerged relatively slowly on the safari map. Overshadowed for many years by neighbouring Zimbabwe, and suffering from a poor conservation record and neglected parks, its attractions were best known to insiders. In recent times, however, many operators have woken up to the fact that the country offers superb safaris in remote areas, with abundant wildlife, excellent lodges and unbeatable guiding. Thus it has become something of a destination for experienced safari-goers – those who may already have ticked off the Big Five in the Kruger or Masai Mara, and now want to get closer to the wildlife, with fewer other people in the way. Zambia is particularly famous for its walking safaris, especially in the Luangwa Valley, which are conducted by highly trained guides. These allow a chance to track wildlife on foot and discover the secrets of the bush you will never experience from a vehicle.

For me, Zambia has always been about its three great rivers: the Luangwa, Lower Zambezi and Kafue. Each gives its name to a premier national park, and no safari is complete without the grunting of hippos and the cry of the fish eagle. It is also a place for getting off the beaten track. With the occasional exception of the main gate area of South Luangwa, I have never met a crowd. And in lesser-known parks, such as the stunning Liuwa Plain or watery wilds of Bangweulu, you might not meet another person at all. In general, guided lodge safaris are the norm; a poor infrastructure and limited road network means that independent travel is only for the experienced and/or adventurous. The town of Livingstone bucks the trend, with all manner of tourist accommodation, activities and adventure sports having mushroomed around the central hub of Victoria Falls. It also makes a convenient stop-off en route to Chobe and Okavango (Botswana) or Hwange (Zimbabwe).

Zambia: A safari-lover’s dream
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Zambia is a safari-lover’s dream, and one of my favourite countries. Its national parks including Kafue, North and South Luangwa and the Lower Zambezi evoke a sense of unspoiled Africa, full of exciting wildlife but with comparatively few tourists compared to competitors like South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya.

It’s where walking safaris first began in the 1960s, the brainchild of conservationist and guide extraordinaire Norman Carr, and the country is still renowned as perhaps the best destination for walking in the wild. North Luangwa in particular offers a real sense of wilderness – there are no lodges here and guests trek from fly camp to fly camp, exploring the bush in blissful solitude.

Carr also believed that locals should benefit from tourism and worked with the local communities of South Luangwa long before responsible tourism became a fashionable buzzword. Consequently, there’s a long tradition of communities and conservation working together here with some great community projects like Kawaza Village where visitors can stay and sample local life in South Luangwa.

My recent visit to Liuwa Plain National Park meant that I finally ticked off a place long at the top of my wish list. And it didn’t disappoint. It’s raw and remote, unlike anywhere else in the country with golden plains so vast you can see a lone tree piercing the horizon from miles away. And Bangweulu’s beauty took me by surprise, as did the ease with which we spotted the rare African shoebill – this is one of the continent’s best places to see them. These parks aren’t easy to get to – they’re not on the mainstream tourist trail – but well worth the effort to get to them.

Of course, Victoria Falls is on the main tourist trail and deservedly so – nothing beats getting drenched by the spray, the deafening noise of the water and the immense sense of power of the Falls. I never tire of going here. If you’re into extreme adrenaline activities, this is the place for you – bungy jumping, white water rafting and zip wiring against this spectacular backdrop will certainly tick the kudos boxes. But I’m happy simply walking along the gorge, getting completely soaked.

Unadulterated Africa
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If you’ve been on a couple of safaris already and are looking for something a little wilder, then look no further than Zambia. The infrastructure is poor in many parts of the country, parks are often remote and can be hard to access (in fact, large swathes of the country are completely inaccessible during the rainy season) and you might drive for hours or sometimes whole days without seeing another tourist, or even another car for that matter. But all of this, combined with the astonishing abundance of wildlife, is what makes Zambia such a special safari destination.

For me, having previously experienced “safer” safaris in South Africa, Kenya, Botswana and Namibia, self-driving through Zambia for two months in 2014 was a profound revelation of what safari can and, as far as I’m concerned, should still feel like.

Zambia is also set apart from the pack thanks to the unparalleled knowledge and professionalism of its guides. With the density of wildlife, dearth of fences and continued prevalence of traditional rural living, one of the arguments is that Zambia’s guides grow up in closer proximity to the wonders of the African bush than most. Whatever the case, Zambia is the undisputed “home” of walking safaris. There can be few more exhilarating feelings than tracking lions on foot without a single sign of human civilization to be found. South Luangwa National Park or Kafue National Park (the biggest national park in Africa) are among the best places to enjoy this special experience.

Amongst other highlights: for sheer prettiness, canoeing safaris, elephants and some of the best lodges you’ll find anywhere in southern Africa, Lower Zambezi National Park is a must. And the particularly remote Liuwa Plains National Park plays host to Africa’s second biggest wildebeest migration.

At present, many would still warn that a safari in Zambia isn’t for the uninitiated or faint of heart, and much of the country remains largely unexplored. But as Zambia’s reputation continues to blossom, this is bound to change. So by way of a parting tip: visit now before everyone else cottons on.

On Safari in Zambia
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Zambia is perhaps Southern Africa’s prime location for a ‘wild’ safari. The country’s national parks are remote, often difficult to access, have little in the way of facilities (outside of the private camps) and are jammed full of wildlife in a raw African setting. If you want to get a feel for the wild side of the African bush and its inhabitants, Zambia will serve you well.

Private camps are generally luxurious, expensive and well organised. Invariably they are placed in a beautiful setting by a river and offer transfers (often to/from a private airstrip) as part of comprehensive package deals. If you prefer the clinking of wine glasses to boiling your own water, this is the way for you. Many camps are unfenced meaning animals wander around at night - DO NOT go wandering after dark as hippos, elephants and others could well be about. The people who run these camps are often devoted to the park and its wildlife. In South Luangwa for example there are many opportunities to help out local conservation organisations who run programs to curb poaching, assist local people’s livelihoods and preserve local flora.

Self-drive safaris are also possible in many parks - they are fun, adventurous and provide real flexibility. Whichever way you go it is likely that you will be provided with an unforgettable experience. Especially if you do a walking safari, something which the country, and South Luangwa in particular, is famed for. Don’t miss putting a toe inside South Luangwa, Kafue and Lower Zambezi parks.

Watching Zambia’s prolific wildlife in classic safari country with stunning landscape, churning rivers and wide horizons may just be a life-changing experience. It was for me.

Varied wildlife, mighty rivers, and an excellent choice of safari activities.
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Zambia has got a lot to offer in the way of habitats, from meandering river flood plains to ancient savannah woodland; all of which harbour a great diversity of species. It’s not a place where you’re going to trip over the Big 5 in an afternoon’s safari – although they are all present – but each park is quite splendidly different scenically and offers unique wildlife encounters.

South Luangwa is the most visited (and has the largest choice of lodges and camps) and is the best place to see buffalo, leopard, lion and elephant. I’ve had many a memorable evening sitting on the deck of a lodge or at a campsite watching the activity on the sludgy brown Luangwa River – the constant procession of elephants coming down to drink, impala flitting across the sandbanks and ever-watchful crocs basking in the shallows. The Lower Zambezi National Park too is a good place to see the larger species, again attracted by a magnificent life-giving river. Here the best vantage point is undoubtedly from a canoe – silently watching the animals drink their fill from mere metres away is exhilarating.

For a long time Zambia was often perceived as under the radar or ‘untouched’ as a mass safari destination. While in places the industry has flourished tremendously in recent years, its success has sensitively progressed too – expertly-guided walking safaris are a fine less-obtrusive option to pop-up minibuses, while small bush camps and rustic river lodges make the most of their spectacular environments without spoiling them. And, while they receive very few visitors and have little infrastructure, there are still some quiet corners of Zambia to be explored. I’ve had some wonderful encounters with rhino, honey badger and wild dog on the remote and hard-to-get-to floodplains in North Luangwa, while watching the unfathomable and dramatic migration of hundreds of thousands of fruit bats in Kasanka National Park’s magical forests was nothing short of extraordinary.

Untamed Africa
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For anyone who wants their safari experience to be less packaged holiday camp and more wild untamed nature, then Zambia is place to go. In spite of its growing popularity with safari tourists it still maintains that unmapped, off the chart feeling that’ll have you imagining you’re part of Dr Livingstone’s exploration party seeking out the source of the Nile. For me, this is what I love about Zambia. There is a distinct lack of over-commercialisation that permeates other safari destinations. At the same time, you can still have your remote wild experience in a luxury lodge or a rustic camp. The choice is yours. While most tourists only venture as far as Livingstone’s namesake town to visit Victoria Falls, there is so much more of Zambia waiting to be discovered. It not only boasts some the continent’s best wildlife parks including South Luangwa National Park and Lower Zambezi National Park, but it’s also a prime destination for anglers and avid birders. Zambia also lays claim to being home to the world’s most dangerous swimming pool - Devil’s Swimming Pool. At 103m high and located only inches from the lip of Victoria Falls rim above the raging waters of the Zambezi, it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. With your heart firmly lodged in your throat, you can swim right up to and peer over the edge of the thunderous waterfall. Now tried and tested, I’m not so sure I’ll be brave enough to go back for a second view!

Home of the walking safari
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I think it’s fair to say that most true safari aficionadoes love the idea of spending a few days in an untamed wilderness, and are irritated by facilities which are simply too big, too grand, too slick or too popular. While Zambia can’t claim quite the same old-school, back-to-basics safari ethos as Zimbabwe, where sleeping under canvas remains the rule, rather than the exception, it has plenty of excellent lodges and camps run by superb operators who understand the magic of the wilderness experience.

Where Zambia really scores, of course, is as a walking safari destination. With easy-going terrain and highly trained, highly responsible specialist guides, some of whom are superstars of the African safari scene, this is a superb place to set out on foot. On a guided bushwalk, you connect with the environment and its animals and plants in a manner that’s quite different from anything you’ll experience in a vehicle.

Unfortunately, conservationists struggle to keep commercial poaching and subsistence snaring under control in many of Zambia’s protected areas, and some of the lesser-known parks are totally neglected. However, I’ve had some of my very best wildlife-watching experiences in Zambia’s best parks, which are home to the Big Five, wild dogs, rare antelopes, superb birds and much, much more.

Africa the way it used to be
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This vast and landlocked corner of Africa is best visited in the dry season between June and October. With neighbouring Zimbabwe it shares the rich wildlife of the Zambezi Valley and the awesome spectacle of the Victoria Falls, which Zambians call by a more colourful name: Mosi oa Tunya - the Smoke that Thunders.

Zambia’s finest big game viewing is to be found in the North and South Luangwa national parks where the meandering Luangwa River provides permanent water for a host of animals including all the Big Five. Both parks offer unrivalled walking safaris with top-notch guides and a reputation for small and comfortable owner-run camps.
Zambia’s biggest park, Kafue, is another must-see safari destination, and although it takes second place in popularity to South Luangwa it is utterly wild and untouched. To spend a few days here looking for lions in the endless grasslands of the Busanga Plains is to experience the true spirit of Africa as it used to be.

In addition Zambia has more than a dozen other lesser-known parks, ranging from the remote and roadless Liuwa Plains to Kasanka’s miombo woodlands and the Bangweulu wetlands with their shoebill storks and herds of black lechwe antelope.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.7/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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