Western Tanzania's three parks are the hardest, and in Katavi's and Mahale's cases, the most expensive, to get to. Yet for the intrepid and dedicated few that make it there, they are well worth the effort and the expense.
The main draw of Mahale National Park and Gombe Streams National Park are the chimpanzee sightings, whilst Katavi National Park, the country's third largest National Park, is a remote, untouched wildlife haven visited by less than 1,000 people a year. Often there are fewer than two dozen people in the national park, that covers 4,471 square kilometres.
katavi national park
Located along the rift escarpment in Western Tanzania, the 4,471 square kilometre Katavi National Park is the third largest in the country. However, its remoteness and inaccessibility leaves it comparably untouched, with just a few hundred visitors per year. A land of great diversity, this untamed and wild area is in the heart of one of the largest and richest wildlife areas in Tanzania.
Home to the largest herds of buffalo on the planet, Katavi National Park is a wilderness paradise, situated in the western area of Tanzania. The park boasts a wonderful array of habitats, which range from flood plains of thick reeds and dense waterways that teem with hippo and crocodile to woodlands, open grasslands, forests and pristine seasonal lakes.
Katavi is a classic dry season reserve. From June to October buffalo herds of up to 3,000 graze on the plains. Game drives offer superb photographic opportunities, whilst walks beside sluggish rivers are exciting. Large crocodiles lie in mudholes, marabou storks pick over hippo carcasses and spotted hyena lope off into the distance. Elephants drink from tiny water holes in mud-cracked pans, roan and sable antelope hide in dense thickets, while vultures clean and dry their wings in small streams. As the sun falls low in the sky, a visit to the hippo pool, where 600 hippo live in dense formation and engage in fierce territorial battles, provides a perfect place for a sundowner.
In contrast to many other Tanzanian parks, night drives are permitted, and after, as the smoke curls up from the fire and the sound of cicadas becomes deafening. If you sit quietly you might see a pennant-winged nightjar flit across the purple sky or hear an eery owl.
With only three small upmarket camps, and only two expensive flights on 12-seater planes each week, this is no place for the masses, but for the dedicated safari enthusiast.
mahale national park
Mahale is both one of the most remote and most beautiful national parks in Tanzania. Mahale National Park encompasses a large mountainous forest rising from the white sandy shores of Lake Tanganyika, where you will find the only two lodges in the park. It is most famous for its chimp tracking and is arguably the best place in the world to see man's closest relative. The park was originally established to protect the large population of over 1000 chimpanzees and other primates. Over the decades since its establishment, researchers have managed to habituate a group of over 50 chimpanzees, allowing visitors to get very close to the chimps for unforgettable encounters.
The hike to reach the Mahale chimpanzees can vary from a short stroll of 20 minutes to a more strenuous hike lasting up to three hours. The easiest time to see the chimps is during the dry season (August to October) as the paths are less slippery and the chimps tend to stay closer to the shores of Lake Tanganyika. During this time they occasionally venture very close to camp.
Getting to Mahale National Park is expensive, due to the distance from Tanzania's main airports and the fact that only very few people travel on this route. The flights take 4-5 hours from Arusha or Dar es Salaam and only go twice a week. On the positive side, this is the reason why Mahale has remained so untouched, which makes it a real off the beaten track adventure experience.
GOMBE STREAM NATIONAL PARK
Gombe Stream National Park is a thin strip of ancient montane forest also bordering, Lake Tanganyika, the second deepest lake in the world. This park was made world-famous for the primate studies conducted by pioneering British researcher Jane Goodall. With just one lodge in the national park, prepare yourself for a truly remarkable experience of chimpanzees and nature in one of the most untouched parks of Tanzania
You can see a selection of our Western Tanzania itineraries here.
Southern Tanzania is home to the very accessible Selous Game Reserve, the largest wildlife reserve in Africa, the beautiful and little-visited gem of Ruaha, the country’s largest National Park, Mikumi National Park, the Udzungwa Mountains, and the ancient trading port of Kilwa.
SELOUS GAME RESERVE
Selous Game Reserve is on the coastal plains, with the Rufiji River running through it, supplying a system of lakes with water year-round, allowing for boat-based game and bird viewing too. Both reserves are linked by daily flights in light aircraft operating from bush strips within each reserve/park. Ruaha can also be linked to the superb and even more seldom-visited Katavi National Park in the west, three times a week.
The enormous, 50,000 square-kilometre reserve (almost twice the size of Belgium and two and a half times larger than the famous Serengeti in the north) also prvides the most varied game viewing experiences in the country, with boat-based game viewing, mornign walking safaris, and standard game drives all an option. Some lodges also offer an excellent fly-camping experience. The landscape here has remained almost as it was before tourism began and the massive park has only a few accommodation options inside the reserve and low visitor numbers, which creates a more authentic experience than safaris in the northern circuit.
For the more budget conscious traveller, there are some good-value options just outside the main gate that we have excellent relationships with.
Flora and Fauna
The reserve contains a great diversity of vegetation types, including rocky acacia-clad hills, gallery and ground water forests, swamps and lowland rain forest. The dominant vegetation of the reserve is deciduous Miombo woodlands and constitutes a globally important example of this vegetation type. Because of this fire-climax vegetation, soils are subject to erosion when there are heavy rains. The result is a network of normally dry rivers of sand that become raging torrents during the rains; these sand rivers are one of the most unique features of the Selous landscape. Large parts of the wooded grasslands of the northern Selous are seasonally flooded by the rising water of the Rufiji River, creating a very dynamic ecosystem. The reserve has a higher density and diversity of species than any other Miombo woodland area: more than 2,100 plants have been recorded and more are thought to exist in the remote forests in the south.
Selous protects an impressive amount of game; it contains globally significant populations of African elephant, black rhinoceros, and an estimated 1,300 of the worlds’ roughly 5,000 remaining rare wild dogs, giving guests an opportunity to glimpse all of these exotic animals in true unspoilt wilderness. It also includes one of the world's largest known populations of hippopotamus (18,200) and buffalo (204,015). There are also large populations of ungulates including sable antelope (7000), Lichtenstein's hartebeest (52,150), greater kudu, eland and Nyassa wildebeest (80,815). In addition, there is a large number of Nile crocodile and 350 species of birds, including the endemic Udzungwa forest partridge and the Rufous winged sunbird.
How to get there
The best way to access Selous is by flying in from Dar es Salaam or Zanzibar in a light aircraft, landing on a bush strip, and being collected by the lodge. Flights are from US$170 per person each way. It is also possible to arrange drive-in safaris from Dar-es-Salaam, but we do recommend to fly, as the drive can take anything between 5 and 8 hours to Selous, depending on the road conditions.
A safari to the Selous can also be combined with a trip to Ruaha National Park, another little-visited gem. To visit the Selous there are two types of camp. Those inside the reserve itself, and those just outside.
RUAHA NATIONAL PARK
The hidden jewel of Africa...
The rolling wilderness of Ruaha National Park, studded with the great baobab trees, and intersected by the Ruaha river, is known for its elephant population, large herds of buffalo, big lion prides, rarer antelope species, and its bird life. Park fees are lower here than in the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater, and visitor numbers incomparable. With only a dozen lodges and camps inside the park, which covers 24,000 sq. km, peace and tranquillity are assured. It’s not uncommon to not encounter another vehicle on a game drive.
Of all the reserves and national parks in Africa, Ruaha is in our top three favourites. Nothing can beat its variety of stunning landscapes and dry season wildlife action. Combined with only having a handful of lodges and being bigger than the Serengeti, if you really want to feel in the heart of Africa, Ruaha is the place for the ultimate safari.
As well as hosting 450 bird species in its abundant trees, Ruaha is also home to the elusive and rare, stinky but beautiful, African hunting dog. With a varied landscape there is also a good chance of spotting a cheetah stalking on the open savannah, encountering the majestic Sable antelope and its dry grassy areas make it a great habitat for cheetahs. Ruaha has unusually large prides of lions, and encountering a pride of 20 or more is not uncommon. As the river slows to a trickle in the drier months, the game concentrates on the dwindling stream, and the game viewing is superb. In the wetter months after the rains in March and April, the game viewing is still very good and the birding excellent.
Ruaha has the widest range of antelopes in the region, being a crossover/meeting point of southern African and eastern African species. Roan antelope, Sable antelope, Common waterbuck, Defassa waterbuck, Greater kudu, Hartebeest and Tsessebe can all be seen there. Ruaha is a sublime step into safari wilderness.
A vehicle safari can cover the ground and will deliver you concentrations of animals – you can count yourself unlucky if you don’t see a large pride of lions here - but walking safaris take you closer, both physically and spiritually, to the soil. Walking with a park ranger alongside the river the next morning, hearing nothing but the wind rustling the vegetation and your own footsteps makes the bush an even more intimate place. With so few tourists around and covering such a vast area, you are no longer visiting the bush, you are the bush.
Sightings of distant crocodiles and, by keeping downwind, nearby giraffes, zebras, and antelope are the norm, but you can also look at the bizarre, sprawling nest of the hammerkop, a large stork-like bird that buries its eggs in a three-roomed nest decorated with old bones; inspect spoor (field guide talk for prints and poop) of some of the bush’s unseen nocturnal inhabitants like the aardvark and the genet, the choggy footprint of a hippopotamus and an impressively large lion paw; and prod biscuit barrel sized elephant pats. And all this before brunch and heading on to your next destination for dinner.
How to get there
The best way to get to Ruaha is to hop in a light aircraft. Ruaha can also be accessed by light aircraft from Selous Game Reserve, offering splendid views of the savannah and the Udzungwas. Despite being larger than the Serengeti, there are only a dozen lodges and camps inside the park. It’s a 10-hour drive from Dar, so is best broken up with a stop over in Mikumu and/or the Udzungwas.
Mikumi National Park
West of the bustling town of Morogoro, Mikumi National Park is small reserve with some lovely scenery and offers a gentle game experience – ideal for a two-night stop and a good base for daytrips to the Udzungwa Mountains. Mikumi shares a border and its game populations with the Selous, so you'll find plenty here, including elephant, giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, warthog, impala and buffalo. The vast Mkata plain is often a good place to search for lion, whilst the lucky will spot leopard or even wild dog.
The park is bisected by a major road, which detracts from its feeling of wilderness, but does make it easy to reach by vehicle; it's just four hours south-west of Dar es Salaam.
There are a few fairly simple camps here; all suitable for stopping at with your own vehicle and guide. The best in the area is Foxes Safari Camp with twelve en-suite tents. And the recently renovated Mikumi Wildlife Camp is also good with 12 simple, clean cottages made of stone and thatch. There is also Vuma Hills which is only 15 minutes from the park entrance and has 16 spacious en-suite tents. It's a convenient location for a stop-over and short safari en-route to Ruaha, but we wouldn't recommend more than two nights here.
Udzungwa Mountains National Park
Part of the 'The Eastern Arc', an ancient group of mountain ranges stretching across Tanzania and Kenya, the Udzungwas are the most extensive mountain range in Tanzania. They were formed at least 100 million years ago and many endemic species have evolved here, making them something of 'an African Galapagos'. Local taboos have helped to preserve the wildlife, and now this national park protects almost 20% of the Udzungwa Mountains.
Amongst the larger attractions are 10 species of primate, three of which are endemic: the Uhehe (aka Iringa) red colobus, the Matunda galago and the Sanje crested mangabey. The last of these is amongst the world's 25 most threatened primates. With a day to explore slowly, you'll usually see the red colobus, along with the black and white Angola colobus. Blue and vervet monkeys and yellow baboons are also common.
More than 400 species of birds live here, including many regional endemics like the Udzungwa forest partridge, which was new to science in 1991. With more scientific research, further new species are bound to be discovered. A quarter of the plants here are endemic, including some Saitpaulia species, closely related to African violets. There are also endemic amphibians, reptiles, and butterflies.
Setting off in walking shoes, with water and snacks, you'll explore the park's walking trails with a guide. These trails vary in length from a few hours to three days, and do have steep sections, but are always taken at your own pace. Expect to pass streams and waterfalls amidst the thick forest vegetation. We recommend Udzungwa as an excellent day trip from Mikumi - or perhaps a short stay at the new Udzungwa Forest Mountain camp to break up the journey between Dar and Ruaha.
Kilwa – meaning ‘Place of Fish’ – is the collective name given to three different areas on the Tanzanian coast: Kilwa Kisiwani, Kilwa Kivinje and Kilwa Masoko. Exploring UNESCO-listed ruins that tell the story of close to a millenium of coastal history is the main draw.
Kilwa isn’t located on the usual tourist route, so the quality of accommodation isn’t as high, however, travellers who want to learn a little more about the colourful history of this area will find it an adventurous addition to an off-beat itinerary, with comfortable and well-hosted, if relatively basic, accommodation.
The most modern of the three ‘Kilwas’, Kilwa Masoko is where most people base themselves to visit the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani. There is little of historical interest here, but Jimbizi Beach – where Kimbilio Lodge is situated – is pleasant enough for a day or two relaxing.
Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara
Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara were Swahili trading cities and their prosperity was based on control of Indian Ocean trade with Arabia, India and China, particularly between the 13th and 16th centuries, when gold and ivory from the hinterland was traded for silver, carnelians, perfumes, Persian faience and Chinese porcelain. From the 9th century all the way up until the 19th century, Kilwa Kisiwani was a wealthy and powerful port. At its height, the empire stretched from Kenya to Mozambique, and Kilwa Kisiwani’s prosperity was crucial to the development of Swahili civilisation. Kilwa Kisiwani minted its own currency in the 11th to 14th centuries. When the Portuguese took over the coastline in 1505 they assumed control of Kilwa Kisiwani. They murdered the majority of the residents and replaced the Arab palaces with forts. Today, a small number of local fishermen live on the island, but for the most part it is deserted.
Kilwa Kisiwani is now an abandoned city covering much of the island, filled with crumbling mosques, remnants of once glorious palaces, and ancient tombs. Considered one of the most important surviving examples of the Islamic-influenced Swahili maritime trade, it’s quite rightly the main attraction for visitors to the area. The runs of the Sultan's 100-room palace are the largest palatial ruins on the continent, and the Great Mosque the oldest standing in East Africa. Constructed in the 11th century and considerably enlarged in the 13th century, and roofed entirely with domes and vaults, some decorated with embedded Chinese porcelain; the palace Husuni Kubwa built between 1310 and 1333 with its large octagonal bathing pool; Husuni Ndogo, numerous mosques, the prison constructed on the ruins of the Portuguese fort and an entire urban complex with houses, public squares, and burial grounds. In 1331-1332, the great traveller, Ibn Battouta made a stop here and described Kilwa Kisiwani as one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
The ruins of Songo Mnara, at the northern end of the island, consist of the remains of five mosques, a palace complex, and some thirty-three domestic dwellings constructed of coral stones and wood within enclosing walls.
Kilwa Kivinje – a small town on the mainland – was once the wealthy southern centre of the slave trade with up to 20,000 slaves passing through. Banned in 1873, the slave trade is still thought to have continued in Kilwa Kivinje until 1880. Afterwards, the Germans took over the town and used it as an administrative centre, but following the end of World War II the town gradually lost importance and today it is a small port. Travellers can visit the big fort with a cannon leftover from World War I, an old German market hall, as well as an attractive beach where you can watch the local fishermen. Very few people visit the area, so it provides an authentic insight into Tanzanian life.
How to get there
There are light aircraft flights to Kilwa, or it can be reached in an six-hour road transfer from Dar, or four hours from Selous. The island can be reached by a short boat ride, and explored with a private guide for around US$50, including the entrance fee (which the guide will buy on your behalf from the Department of Antiquities). The trip takes at least half a day, or a full day if you want to combine it with Songo Mnara.
I first went to Namibia in 1998 and have been back many times since. In that time I have met, tried, and tested many different service providers, car hire companies, lodges, campsites and routes. I’ve done it in everything from a four-door saloon car to specially built 12-seater four-wheel-drives, one modified to take a wheelchair-bound client.
Namibia has a surprising variety of landscapes, the oldest tribes in Africa, and some rare and stunning fauna and flora, from desert-dwelling elephants and rhinos to 2000-year-old plants. There is a similar variety in itineraries, campsites, and lodges.
Namibia is easily explored on a self-drive basis, which gives maximum flexibility and even though the roads are 70% gravel roads, with a suitable vehicle the driving is easy; I’d always recommend a raised SUV or pick-up truck over a normal road car. There are also a number of set-date group guided trips to experience the main highlights of the country on a budget. And if you want to see more in less time and have a very exclusive experience, then a flying safari is the way to go.
The sand dunes of the southern Namib Desert five hours from the capital, Windhoek.
Desert-dwelling elephants, black rhinos, and lions in the other-worldly wildernesses of northern Damaraland and Koakoland.
Abundant game in Etosha NP.
Leopard and cheetah tracking at Okonjima, three hours north of Windhoek.
In the far south, the supremely photogenic deserted mining settlement of Kolmanskop and the fantastic Fish River Canyon.
Amazing scenery throughout the country.
If it rains, it rains between November and March, the rest of the year is very dry. In the winter months of June, July and August, night time temperatures in the desert can drop to freezing. Daytime temperatures are 25-31°C.
Namibia is a country we know extremely well; I have been there nine times, spending a total of 27 weeks in the country, coming it from north to south and east to west. Matthew O’Brien, one of our Senior Safari Consultants, used to guide overland tours there, and Ines Moosmann, our Sales and Product supremo, has spent over two months here too.
To paint a bit more of a picture of the many wonders of this beautiful and diverse country, we have put together a selection of our individual highlights.
Kicking off is Matthew.
It is hard to conjure up the adjectives to describe your feelings when you first set your eyes on Dead Vlei. I can remember the first time I saw pictures of Dead Vlei in postcards and thought that such a place couldn’t be real. The colours were too vivid and too contrasting. Those postcards had to have been manipulated. There was the whiteness of the salt pan, the sharp ochre colour of the towering sand dunes and the deep blue of the sky that you find in parts of the world that haven’t been touched by air pollution.
The journey to Dead Vlei is an exciting one. It is located 66km inside the Namib-Naukluft National Park on a stretch of road that winds through the oldest desert in the world, past some of the highest sand dunes in the world, all of which are bright orange, with the occasional Oryx and Springbok running on them.
About 5km before you get to Dead Vlei, the tar road ends and turns into a 4x4 sand road. If you have your own 4x4 and know what you are doing, you can proceed along the sand road yourself, keeping your revs up so that you don’t get stuck. Digging your car out of sand is not anyone’s idea of fun. If you don’t have a 4x4, you can either walk the last 5km, or catch the shuttle that will take you there. The shuttle is quite an experience as the drivers load you into the back of an open game viewer and roar through the sand like rally drivers while you cling to the roll bars.
Once dropped off in the parking lot, in the shade of the only tree there, it’s just 400 more metres to go and after one short climb up a tiny dune, you can lay your eyes on Dead Vlei and confirm to yourself that those postcards were not lying. Most people stop and stare for a few minutes to take it all in before finally heading into the Dead Vlei to marvel at it all and take their own post card pictures.
It might seem weird to be writing about a seaside town as one my favourite places in a land of contrasts such as Namibia, but you have to remember what you will have been through to get to the town and the sights you will have seen along your journey. Most people who arrive in Swakopmund do so after bouncing along a corrugated dirt road for hundreds of kilometres. To those travellers from more developed parts of the world where everyone has a nice smooth tar road running past their gates, finding what actually amounts to a dirt highway snaking its way through the driest landscape in Southern Africa must be quite an experience. Then the corrugations end, the dirt turns to tar and you have arrived in Swakopmund, Namibia’s seaside playground. It is perhaps a weird place to have a seaside resort, as the Atlantic Ocean is freezing and the town is usually blanketed in sea fog every morning.
But just outside the town is 35km belt of sand dunes where you can go quad biking, sand boarding or camel riding. Out in the freezing cold sea, there is also much to see. There are daily sightseeing cruises that will get you up close to dolphins, Cape fur seals and pelicans. There is also the Swakopmund Sky Diving Club. This is arguably the best place in the world to go sky diving because of the consistency of the desert weather. They claim to have more clear sky diving days than any other sky diving club in the world. This is where I did my first sky dive and if it was more affordable, where I would have done many more sky dives.
After an eventful day of activities and fun in the, well, cold, we finally come to my favourite part of Swakopmund; watching the sun set at the Tiger Reef Beach Bar. Now, you probably won’t find the Tiger Reef Beach Bar in any main tourist guides and it isn’t where tour guides take their guests for dinners, but it is one of my favourite restaurants in Southern Africa, for the setting. The bar is literally the last building in Swakopmund and is built on the beach. You need a 4x4 to park there. The floor of the bar is beach sand and you can take your shoes off when you enter and walk around in the sand. This is where I like to come, order a plate of chips, a local Tafel Lager and watch the sun set over that frigid Atlantic Ocean. I can’t think of a better way to end the day. Don’t forget your jacket.
Ines heart beats to these Namibian tunes.
Namibia Rand Reserve/Wolwedans
The Namib Rand Reserve offers the most beautiful desert scenery, where mountains meet the desert that looks like a soft, orange and light green carpet and all that with no crowds of people. Activities are all private, guided by fantastic guides who not only find the bigger game like all the common desert adapted antelopes, zebras, giraffe and baboons, but also the invisible inhabitants of this harsh environment like hares, moulds, mice, moles, beetles, spiders, lizards, chameleons and other reptiles. A highlight is an excursion on horseback, which really makes you feel one with nature and brings you to the most special spots.
Etosha is the only national park in Africa with an semi-arid environment and its main characteristic, the Etosha Salt Pan is so large that it can be seen from space. Despite this dry environment you can find an abundance of wildlife here, congregating around the many waterholes. Nowhere else can you find as many species sharing a waterhole as in Etosha, it’s usually a lively gathering of giraffe, zebras, wildebeest, elephants, rhinos, jackals, warthogs, lions, and numerous antelope species and all with the background of white earth and blues skies; beautiful and fantastic for photographers.
Fish River Canyon
The second biggest canyon in the world might not be as spectacular as some of the other well-known canyons in the world, but it is still spectacular to see how the river has snaked its way through the rocks all the way from Seeheim to AiAis, on the border to South Africa. My favourite spot here is Fish River Lodge, where you will also be the only one around and your room will look straight down into the canyon, with incredible sunsets, which is pretty special. The hikes from there also take you down into the canyon, rather than just along the rim and you can even camp overnight in the canyon and make it a multi-day hiking excursion.
I’ve got to say, these are pretty cool spots, mainly. Swakopmund doesn’t do much for me these days, though the size of steaks at Kuki’s are always impressive. Etosha has superb wildlife, Okaukuejo waterhole is a rhino magnet at night, and the elsewhere elusive blavk rhino is easy to see. Big cat sightings are common too, and it is the only place where I have seen Aardwolf in daylight, mating nonetheless. Wolwedans is s-t-u-n-n-i-n-g, both the reserve and the accommodation, I love it there, such a special place. And enjoying a sundowner round the fire (it gets cold at night) at Fish River Lodge having spent the day descending into the canyon and then bounding back up, is a delight.
But my favourites involve desert-adapted wildlife in Damaraland and Koakoland, where not only elephants, rhinos, and lions roam, but where the game is truly wild, not hemmed in by any boundaries. Giraffe, zebra, oryx and springbok can be encountered as you cruise along the gravel roads through the ever-changing and ever-stunning landscapes.
Damaraland is a huge, untamed, ruggedly diverse and beautiful region with prehistoric water courses, open plains, grassland, massive granite kopjes and deep gorges. Along the coastal belt, the geography has vast sand areas that are able to sustain small, but wide-ranging, populations of desert-adapted elephant, black rhino, giraffe, ostrich and springbok. Elephant and rhino move through euphorbia bush country. It's also home to the highest peak in the country, Brandberg, and its ancient "White Lady" rock art.
Damaraland extends 600km south of Kaokoland down to the main road to Swakopmund at Uis, and extends 200km inland from the Skeleton Coast. Named after the Damara people in the area, the name is still commonly used, although the entire region has now been renamed; the southern section is in the Erongo region and the north forms part of the Kunene region.
The remote northwest corner of Namibia, the remotest part of the country, is one of my favourite places on the planet. Now part of the Kunene Region, it's rugged yet sublimely beautiful, with incredible craggy mountains, coastal desert, huge areas of sand in dried-up river beds full of trees and bushes, and the country’s only flowing waterfalls at Epupa and Ruacana. Stretching north from the Hoanib River up to the Kunene River and the Angolan border, the region is home to desert-adapted wildlife; elephants, black rhino, lions, giraffe, springbok, Hartmann's zebra and around 5,000 Himba pastoralists. The game is relatively sparse, but so rewarding to see it, and the backdrops make excellent photographs in the early morning and late afternoon light, when the pastel shades glow. From ragged mountain ridges, to sandy plains dotted with bushes or tufts of grass, the landscapes are postcard porn. Boating or canoeing on the Kunene, and putting a cheeky foot or two on Angolan soil is a bonus. Kaokoland is also the place from where the Skeleton Coast can be experienced in the most depth, if staying at one of the up-market lodges , like Shipwreck and Hoanib Valley Lodge.
Self-driving in the far north is for the intrepid, experienced, and prepared only. There is no cell phone coverage in most parts, and very few to no passing vehicles, depending where you are. Some of the routes involved driving through thick sand, navigating with a mix of GPS and dead-reckoning. It is possible to drive part of way, and then make use of a lodge transfer service or light aircraft for the final leg.
My final favourite place is also the last on a classic circuit, Okonjima Game Reserve, halfway between Windhoek and the Etosha National Park; only a two-and-a-half-hour drive or a brief flight into the reserve’s private airstrip. At the end of a trip, it’s a great last stop to give yourself the best chance of having a good encounter or two with leopard and cheetah, and potentially brown hyaena and pangolin, as well as the in-house patients of the AfriCat Foundation.
Too far west to be East Africa, too far north to be southern Africa, and not quite central Africa either, Zambia is not only a geographical anomaly when it comes to safari destinations, but also very different in other aspects too.
You may have heard of its reputation as the birthplace of walking safaris, or the adventure capital of southern Africa with Victoria Falls, or its excellent guides, the best on the continent, along with their colleagues in Zimbabwe. Compared to South Africa, Botswana, and Kenya, the lodges are generally more outdoorsy and authentic (a number of the seasonal camps are rebuilt every season), though there are some opulent options too. And compared to these wildlife tourism hotspots, Zambia has remained largely off the radar, for no good reason. It's my favourite safari destination, no doubt partly because of the lack of tourists in most of the parks, but also for the variety of habitats, the diversity of activities, the abundance of wildlife, and the quality of the guiding.
Access is usually into the international airports at Lusaka or Livingstone, often via Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, or Dubai. The usual way to get around the various key locations is by light aircraft.
Whilst Livingstone has one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls are immensely popular, the rest of Zambia has long since been something of a secret backwater. Despite being host to superb safari, arguably some of the best, visitor numbers remain low. Yet those to do make the effort to get here are rewarded with rare levels of intimacy and authenticity, often falling in love and returning time and again.
Lusaka, the capital, sits in the middle of the country, more or less. At seven o’clock, in the south, Livingstone and Victoria Falls have a wide range of activities, and a good mix of hotels, guesthouses, and safari lodge style places to stay. From chopper rides down the gorges and over the falls, microlight flights, rhino tracking on foot, bungy jumping, white water rafting the rapids downstream, or more sedate canoeing upstream, sundowner G&T cruises with sumptuous nibbles, there is plenty to keep visitors occupied. Oh, and you can also walk opposite the widest single sheet of falling water in the world.
The most frequented safari area is South Luangwa National Park, way over in the east of the country, up at two o’clock. South Luangwa has a range of lodges and bush camps, and it was here that Norman Carr pioneered the walking safari back in the fifties (watch the video below to hear about his legacy). Most of the lodges don’t have the same level of sophistication as the top lodges in neighbouring Tanzania, Kenya, or the safari mecca of South Africa, but the wildlife experience, thanks in part to the excellent guiding standards here, is top-notch.
Add to that the picturesque floodplains, the lovely Luangwa River, and you get my personal favourite location for a green season safari, and in my top five over all. You can choose from classic 4x4 game-watching, day or night, half-day walks, walking between camps, a combination of walking and driving, or, between December and April, boat-based game-viewing too. South Luangwa is very strong for cat sightings, and the usually elusive leopard is a common sighting here. I’ve seen at least one on almost every day I’ve spent there, and on one three-night trip, 2 lion kills and a leopard kill.
My beloved Wild dogs are also well-established here, and some of my favourite Wild dog sightings are from South Luangwa. Watching them mess around with Zebra one sunset, and give the run around to an elephant mum and calf at a waterhole one afternoon were endearing moments. Access is via scheduled flights to Mfuwe.
Another great safari area is Lower Zambezi NP, at three o’clock from Lusaka, with superb camps and a wide range of activities. The Zambezi River is wide here, and boat-based game-viewing, canoeing, sundowner cruises, and tigerfish fishing are all possible in addition to the usual walking and diurnal or nocturnal 4x4 game-viewing. Opposite Zimbabwe’s famous Mana Pools, it shares its northern border with the huge rift escarpment. With a mix of beautiful leadwood and fig forests and rolling grass plains, the different habitats here encourage a wide variety of flora and fauna, though oddly it has no giraffe. The huge densities of wildlife tend to stay close the river, and game drives and canoe safaris often encounter large herds of elephant, buffalo, zebra and wildebeest. The riverfront is also ideal leopard habitat and it's not uncommon to see one of these rare predators lazing in a tree beside the river. Lower Zambezi is only visited between April and November.
Another top safari area is Kafue, at nine o’clock from Lusaka, a huge and little-visited reserve well worth considering. The size of Wales, it’s a magical landscape but one that receives substantially less attention than both the Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa. The wildlife viewing isn’t as abundant, but few places can match them, however with a little bit of patience and an appreciation of beauty and solitude, Kafue can be ideal. In actual fact, the park has a larger variety of species than anywhere else in Zambia, including cheetah, sable antelope and the elusive roan antelope, and it’s the only area where hot air ballooning is possible. With a mix of forests, plains, savannah, and the Kafue River, canoeing and boating are on the menu alongside day and night drives and walking. Out to the west, Busanga Plains attract huge herds of plains game from July to November. Other parts of the park are open year-round.
For those seeking more solitude and a step back in time, North Luangwa, with a focus on walking safari, might be your cup of chai. 50% bigger than Luxembourg, with just three small camps, including three-tent Mwaleshi, and two-chalet Takwela, located at the honey pot; the junction of the Mwaleshi River with the Luangwa River. The lion along the Mwaleshi River are known for their confidence and walking safaris can get great views, you will feel like a true explorer of old. Open only in the dry season between June and October, there are very few vehicle tracks, though more are being created to enhance the variety of game-drive areas. With enormous herds of buffalo, ever-present predators, remarkable birdlife, the rare Cookson’s wildebeest, and few human visitors, North Luangwa is one for the safari purists’ list.
Whilst Liuwa Plain, far to the west, is a remote and little-known safari area, it’s fast becoming an addition to the to-see list of the discerning safari aficionado. Its 3,660 km2, the same as Delaware’s land area more or less, of broad savannah are home to the second biggest wildebeest migration on the continent, a flourishing cheetah population, the famed Lady Liuwa lion pride, hyenas in clans of 50 or more, zebra, red lechwe, eland, buffalo, tssebe and more than 300 bird species, Africa's densest concentration of endangered wattled cranes and other rare game. Yet it remains one of Africa's greatest secrets. The solitary camp, King Lewanika opened in 2017 and only has six tented villas, so if exclusivity is your bag, this is the place for you.
At just 254 km², Luambe is one of Zambia’s smallest national parks. Situated on the eastern bank of the Luangwa it lies in the heart of the Luangwa valley between North and South Luangwa national parks. The park was declared in 1938 making it one of the oldest conservation areas in Zambia.
The wildlife found in Luambe is similar to that of its larger neighbouring parks and includes all the typical large herbivores, carnivores as well as some less well-known species, but they are generally present at lower densities than in the bigger parks. The advantage of Luambe is visitor density. With one small losge, you will have the place essentially to yourself.
Habitat diversity in Luambe National Park is enormous and within a few kilometres the vegetation ranges from riverine forest, cathedral mopane woodland, floodplain acacia thickets to the sausage tree-dotted open grasslands of the Chipuka plains.
There are over 200 species of bird in Luambe and elephant populations as well as those of lion and leopard are said to be on the increase – so it’s well worth visiting now before everyone else catches on. From the south it’s a three to four-hour drive from Mfuwe on dirt road through the Nsefu sector of South Luangwa National Park. From Lundazi it’s a three-hour drive on dirt road to Luambe’s northern entrance making it easy to combine with either or both of its neighbours.
So, there you have Zambia, in a nutshell. Loads to do, not enough time to do it all. So if you want to go, have a read of our Zambia pages here and check out some of the sample itineraries we have, or drop us a line here.
It’s not a budget safari destination though, so if you are on a tight budget, check out our African safari specials to other countries here
The Kruger, possibly the best-known safari destination in the world, synonymous with safari. Established in 1898, The Greater Kruger Park extends over some 22,000 square km (8,500 sq. miles). That’s the size of Wales if you are European, and Massachusetts if you are North American. (If you are neither, it’s flippin’ big). It supports a total of 500 bird species, 145 mammal species, and 110 reptile species, including an estimated 13,000 elephants, 40,000 buffalo, 2000 lions and more rhinos than any other protected area. We aren’t allowed to say how many, but it is lots and lots. The only decent wildlife reserve with a higher density of rhino is Hluhluwe-Imfolozi in KwaZulu-Natal.
What's the difference between the Greater Kruger Park and Kruger National Park?
The Greater Kruger Park is comprised of the Kruger National Park (KNP) and a number of private reserves next to the KNP. The fences between the private reserves and the KNP came down 23 years ago allowing the animals to move freely..
The KNP is managed by Sanparks, a government-run organisation, and covers about 80% of the total area. Tarmac roads run through the middle of it, there are numerous large rest camps, of which at least half a dozen have over 100 one to four-bedroom units, camping sites, and fast food restaurants catering to self-drive clients. The private reserves are managed by groups made up of small lodges and camps. Many lodges and camps only have between six and twelve one-bedroom chalets or luxury tents. No self-driving is permitted, there are no tarmac roads, and vehicle movements are carefully managed.
From a fauna and flora point-of-view, there there is not much difference. The parks are next to each other and there are no fences between them, so the animals and birds who call the area home can roam freely, and are found in both. In saying that, however, the area is large, so habitats differ and of course animals gravitate toward whichever habitat is best for them. Some areas are better known for their leopard sightings, others for elephant, and so on.
The parks that make up the GKP are quite strict about how many people are allowed in at a time. This means that your safari experience is far more exclusive and you won't be trying to get through dozens of other cars to see a lion kill or catch that special photo of a zebra baby. This is not an exaggeration. I have seen 50 vehicles in a scrum to look at a pride of lion lazing in the bush 50 yards from the road between Satara and Skukuza.
Guided Wildlife Experiences
Game-viewing in the private reserves is facilitated and managed by experienced and knowledgeable guides with excellent tracking skills in open-sided 4x4 game-viewing vehicles with a maximum of 9 guests from your lodge in them. Some lodges limit it to six No self-driving is permitted. The majority of the time, your vehicle will be the only one at a sighting.This ensures that you see not only the keystone species, but also the birds and the little fellas, who are arguably equally important in the local eco-system. On each game drive you stop for a break at a scenic point, get out of the vehicle, and enjoy refreshments and snacks. Game-viewing can also be conducted on foot, allowing a greater understanding of and connection with the bush.
The lodges and tented camps in the private reserves are more high-end than those found in the KNP. With limited numbers of guests at each, you are assured of a far more private and exclusive experience. Hospitality is personal and service is a priority, to ensure that you get the best possible safari experience. All the lodges have a watering hole, river, or lake, meaning that there is good chance of seeing wildlife when you are not out on safari too. Many lodges are also unfenced, so having interesting visitors around the grounds is not uncommon.
Our favourite private Kruger reserves
Sabi Sand with Mala Mala covers 780 sq km. The Sabi River and Sand River run through the area providing diverse habitats for the huge range of animals. Sabi Sand is known especially for its big cat sightings, most notably of the elsewhere elusive leopard. We have never had a client who has spent three night here without a good leopard sighting. It is the least budget-friendly of the private reserves, but at the upper end of scale has some excellent value-for-money lodges, with excellent attention to detail and fine dining combined with top=drawer wildlife sightings. My “Big Five record” of 2 hours 35 minutes was set here. Granted, the rhino was a 10-second arse-end encounter, but we had 45 minutes with a leopard and her two cubs eating a kudu up a tree, and a 20-minute coffee break watching mating lions…..
One of the largest privately-owned reserves in South Africa, Klaserie covers 600 sq. km of land along the Klaserie River. The owners are strongly committed to conservation and the park hosts three great conservation projects: the Ground Hornbill Project, Rhino Protection and The Elephant Project. Generally, the habitat is more open than Sabi Sand, which is great news for cheetah fans. With less of a reputation than Sabi Sand, the prices for the same level of comfort are lower too.
Bordering the KNP on one side and Klaserie on the other, Timbavati is also a prime game-viewing area, and a hot spot for African wild dogs (Cape hunting dogs), my favourite mammal (other than my kids), great for cheetah, and also pretty good for leopard. It also has the only wild white lions left in the world. Lodge rates here are also, on average, lower than in Sabi Sand.
Balule, Thornybush, Umbabat, Manyeleti, are good private reserves, and there are also Jocks and Lukimbi private reserves within the KNP.
When to go
Dry season –May to September – Winter
There is virtually no rainfall during the whole of winter, humidity is very low. and there is almost no risk of malaria. As water becomes scarce wildlife is attracted to permanent water sources. Temperatures from the evening to mid-morning can be chilly.
Wet seasons–October to April – Summer
It is hot and humid in summer. Temperatures can reach over 40°C/104°F, although average daytime temperature is 32°C/90°F. Mostly rain falls in the afternoon or at night. The rains bring green grasses, seeds, flowers, and as a result, more birds. The rains also mean there is no dust, and, other than Christmas and Easter, fewer tourists.
Photographer, conservationist, dive and field guide, teller of bad jokes.