Expert Reviews – Zambia

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Adventurer’s Africa
Overall rating

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.

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.

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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