Zambia - the warm heart of Africa

Zambia may not be the first country that springs to mind when considering an African safari, often being eclipsed by the more popular East African safari destinations such as Kenya and Tanzania. However, if you take the time to do a little homework you will find that this peaceful, friendly country is an absolutely wonderful destination that truly deserves a place on each and every visitor’s wishlist.

The country is blessed with some of the most extraordinary scenery and natural wonders on the continent, including the famous Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. (Just for the record, Zambia boasts seventeen other amazing waterfalls, besides the Victoria Falls!) Life-giving water is abundant in Zambia and the country is criss-crossed by several major rivers which attract vast numbers of animals and birds, making this one of the best countries in Africa for game watching and birding.

Zambia is dedicated to the protection of these wonderful natural assets and more than 30% of the country is set aside for conservation. There are 20 national parks and extensive further “game management areas” surrounding them. Several parks are almost totally un-developed, making them the ideal destination for adventure seekers, while those (like me) who enjoy comfort and even luxury while on safari will not be disappointed! Here is a short introduction to some of the most popular Zambian safari destinations to give you an idea of what to expect.

Livingstone – Mosi-oa-Tunya and Lower Zambezi National Parks

Elephants, Lower Zambezi National Park
Lower Zambezi National Park's wetlands are world-famous for its large elephant herds in a relatively untouched environment.

Most visitors to Zambia will fly into Livingstone, on the banks of the Zambezi River, and this is a great place to start your Zambian adventure. Perhaps you could spend a couple of days at Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park which has one of the most enviable positions of any national park in Africa, overlooking the thundering waters of the Victoria Falls. This park is divided into two separate areas, one for viewing the falls and enjoying some of the adrenalin-pumping action sports that Vic Falls is famous for, and the other quieter area for game viewing. Here the adventurous visitor can go bungee jumping, white-water rafting or, more sedately, enjoy a magnificent aerial view of the falls from a helicopter or small-plane scenic flight.

From Mosi-oa-Tunya (which translates as “the smoke that thunders” – a very apt description for the largest sheet of falling water in the world!) it is easy to get to the Lower Zambezi National Park just across the river. This Park was previously the private game reserve of the country’s president and has not been commercialized in any way, which means that it retains the unique atmosphere of true African wilderness. Here you can expect to see four of the Big Five (sadly, no rhino) and specially good elephant, hippo and crocodile sightings.

South Luangwa National Park

Hippos, South Luangwa National Park
With one of the highest hippo populations, South Luangwa National Park allows for unmatched sightings, and is also a bird-lover's paradise.

South Luangwa is just a quick flight from Lower Zambezi or Livingstone, and this is where you can take a walk on the wild side and enjoy the ultimate African safari experience with a walking safari, the highlight of any visit to Zambia. The vast majority of Africa’s National Parks do not allow walking safaris or night drives, and this is what sets Zambia apart. Here you can enjoy one of the most exciting ways of getting up close and personal to some of Nature’s most intriguing animals, under the expert guidance and protection of experienced walking safari guides.

Zambia’s beautiful South Luangwa National Park is where the great African walking safari originated. A walking safari here can take a few different forms, depending on your adventurous spirit and fitness level. Most of the camps and lodges in South Luangwa offer short guided walks, where you set off for a couple of hours on foot with an armed guide to ensure your safety. This is the ideal way to see some of the smaller animals, birds and insects that you would miss on a game drive and an excellent way to learn about indigenous plants too. Your trip will generally combine a few walks with regular game drives and night drives to give you the best all-round game viewing experience.

If you are up for a bit of serious walking, you can undertake a “real” walking safari where you spend several days walking between camps, generally along the winding Luangwa River and her many tributaries. Your luggage will be moved from camp to camp for you and if you are up for it you can spend a night sleeping under the stars in a fly-camp – a unique African experience! You need to be reasonably fit for this type of safari (and have a pair of really comfortable walking shoes) but there are always back-up vehicles available if you get too tired.

The variety of wildlife in South Luangwa is remarkable; the park has one of the highest densities of hippos in Africa and elephants, lions, leopards and even the endangered wild dog are regularly spotted. Birding is also particularly good here (especially water birds) and there are dedicated birding safaris available, led by an ornithologist or expert birding guide who knows just where the shyer birds hide out! Water-based (canoeing and boating) game viewing is another brilliant way to see some of the many animals who line the river banks, and for something really different, some South Luangwa camps can arrange for you to go on a mountain-bike excursion for a few hours or a day – another unique way to experience the bush.

Kafue National Park

Male lion, Kafue National Park
The Zambezi River draws large numbers of animals to drink from its waters, which in turn draws copious amounts of predators too.

This is Zambia’s largest park and one of the largest wildlife sanctuaries in the world. It is a vast, almost-deserted place that just oozes with atmosphere, it’s quite possible to visit here and not come across any other tourists. The park is famous for the Busanga Swamps, a huge seasonal wetland which attracts thousands of grazers when the waters retreat and are replaced with lush, sweet grass. Of course, since buffaloes are a favourite meal for lions, you can expect to see plenty of predators here too, and the birdlife is just incredible.

In addition to buffaloes, the flood plains of Busanga attract a wide variety of other grazers including many antelopes, wildebeest and zebras, closely followed by a good variety of predators besides lions; cheetah seem to thrive in the northern parts of the park (perhaps because their greatest enemy, the lion, has such a smorgasbord of food to choose from here?) and there are also many smaller hunters including spotted hyenas, jackals and an excellent concentration of the endangered African wild dog.

The scenery and habitats vary greatly from north to south in this large park and to get a good all-round perspective you should try to stay in more than one camp. Definitely visit Busanga, but also try to spend a night at Lake Itezhi Tezhi, which is stunningly beautiful and a great place to sit quietly and observe the many hippoes and the nesting places of the African fish eagle and many other water birds. Night drives are allowed in Kafue – a big highlight!

North Luangwa National Park

Black rhino, North Luangwa National Park
Black rhinos are being successfully reintroduced in North Luangwa National Park, which is one of the few places in the whole continent where you stand a good chance of spotting one.

This is another of Zambia’s remote and un-developed wildernesses, famous for its vast herds of buffaloes. This park is basically untouched Africa, there are strict limits on the number of people who can visit each year, and only a few safari operators are licensed to bring visitors to this wilderness haven. North Luangwa is also a great place for a walking safari since the road network leaves much to be desired, and walking is the best way to get around – another great place to surround yourself with the true essence of the African bush.

Most walking safaris here will move between 2 or 3 base camps, all of which are seasonal and set up from scratch each year using locally found materials such as reeds, grasses and ropes. The camps are no-frills, but very comfortable and you will not have to give up the comfort of a real bed, ironed sheets or private flushing toilet and hot bush shower. The good news is that you may be fortunate enough to see a black rhino in this park – they have been re-introduced here after being hunted to extinction in the past, and are making good progress.

The beginning of something special

This list of wonderful Zambian national parks is by no means complete and we have just managed to scratch the surface here. If you long for an African adventure far from the crowds and the jostling vehicles, perhaps Zambia is the ideal destination for you – come and see it soon before everyone finds out!