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
Photographer, conservationist, dive and field guide, teller of bad jokes.