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What You Should Expect and How to Prepare for a Self-Driving Safari in Zambia

Diane Du Plessis

Author: Diane Du Plessis - 30 January 2024

Last Update: 24 August 2023

Part of the Safaris In Zambia & Explore Zambia & African Safari Collection

Zambia is a dynamic and developing country. It has magnificent scenery, an extensive and improving road network, mind-blowing wildlife and a wealth of activities for visitors. A self-driving trip through Zambia presents an unforgettable adventure in one of Africa’s great unspoilt wildernesses. 

Elephant herd in Zambia.
Elephant herd in Zambia.

But, and it’s a big but, while a self-drive safari is a fantastic option for a adventure holiday, it’s not for the faint-hearted! It demands careful preparation and a lot of ‘kit’, especially if you’re going to be camping. But first, let’s look at why a self-drive safari is such an amazing experience. 

The Benefits of a Self-Drive Safari

There are several benefits, with the major ones being freedom, flexibility and affordability. A self-drive safari offers a unique way to enjoy the wilderness. You use your own vehicle, set your own timetable and plan your own itinerary. 

You see animals going about their daily lives in their natural habitats at your own pace. You can linger to explore if you feel like it, take photos, or just sit and watch and soak up the tranquillity. You have complete control over where you go, what to see, and how long to stay in an area.

Leopard in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.
Leopard in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.

You also know you’re supporting conservation and local communities by paying entrance fees at the parks and staying at lodges and camps that provide employment for local people. It’s a great way to discover ‘hidden gems’ by venturing off the beaten track and exploring less visited areas. 

And, finally, if you’re on a budget, self-drive safaris are generally significantly less expensive than guided tours. 

What Makes Zambia Such a Great Self-Driving Destination? 

Oh, reasons abound! Zambia is an excellent self-drive safari because:

  • It has a wealth of fantastic wildlife

Zambia is home to a stunning variety of wildlife, including the renowned Big Five – elephants, buffalos, leopards, lions and rhinos, though the latter are rare. Its diverse ecosystems of forests, thickets, woodland, savannah and wetlands, hold more than 237 mammal species and more than 700 bird species.

Hippo family spotted at Luangwa River, Zambia.
Hippo family spotted at Luangwa River, Zambia.

Hippos, crocodiles, antelopes, zebras, giraffes, wild dogs, hyenas and cheetahs are just some of them.

  • It has great national parks

Zambia has 20 national parks and a further 34 protected game management areas. Many of them are perfect for self-driving. These include Luangwa, Kafue, Kasanka, Lower Zambezi, Mosi-oa-Tunya and Mweru Wantipa just to mention a few.

  • It has spectacular landscapes

Zambia’s diverse and stunning landscapes include nine different ecoregions comprising woodland, savannah grasslands, flooded grasslands, and evergreen forests. 

  • It offers visitors unique experiences

Zambia’s unique wildlife viewing experiences will enrich your self-drive experience immeasurably. Liuwa Plain National Park has Africa’s second Great Wildebeest Migration in November each year. Kasanka National Park’s boasts an astonishing 10-million fruit bat migration from October to December. 

  • Its culture and people

Zambians are known for their warm hospitality and rich cultural heritage. Learning about local cultures in Zambia and interacting with local people will add a great dimension to your self-drive trip.

  • It has excellent remote campsites

Zambia has some of the best campsites in Africa. They’re usually situated in spectacular locations and generally have very good facilities.‍

What are Road Conditions like in Zambia?

To put it very plainly, driving in Zambia can be hazardous! Many of the roads, especially secondary ones, are in poor repair. You’ll discover road and traffic conditions that are very different from what you’re used to. You’ll often need to navigate rough terrain and deal with challenging road conditions. 

Driving through a river on a self-drive safari in Zambia.
Driving through a river on a self-drive safari in Zambia.

Many of the roads don’t have sidewalks or shoulders. In practical terms this means that pedestrians, vehicles and livestock use the same road. At night this poses great dangers as streetlights are in short supply. In fact, don’t drive at night if you can avoid it. 

Self-drive safari in Kasanka National Park, Zambia.
Self-drive safari in Kasanka National Park, Zambia.

Due to poor visibility, drivers often drive on high beams and frequently fail to dim their lights. Speed limits of 30 mph/50 kmph in Lusaka and 60 mph/100 kmph outside city limits pertain, but they’re rarely respected and speeding is common.

Why It’s Not Recommended for Beginners

The challenges for beginners are the driving conditions and the extremely long distances. Negotiating Zambia’s challenging terrain requires an excellent level of skill, experience and confidence behind the wheel. 

Dirt road in Zambia.
Dirt road in Zambia.

Also, unless you’re an experienced self-driver, you may find all the complex forward planning and unpredictable circumstances of a Zambian self-drive safari daunting. The latter could include mechanical issues and problems with navigation.

Cattle standing on a dirt road in Zambia.
Cattle standing on a dirt road in Zambia.Cattle standing on a dirt road in Zambia.

Domestic animals like dogs, chickens, cattle and horses, and wild animals like antelope and elephants, often wander onto the roads.

Best Places for a Self-Drive Safari in Zambia

Self-drivers in Zambia have a wealth of choices as regards destinations, and Zambia Tourism has some valuable pointers about the different routes and options. Here are a few of the game parks you can visit: 

Known as one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world, self-driving is a superb way of seeing the park’s wildlife. This includes elephants, hippos, Cape buffalos, lions, crocodiles, eland, kudu, hyenas and leopard, to mention but a few. Unique to this area are Thornicroft giraffes, Crawshay zebras and Cookson wildebeest. 

This is the largest national park in Zambia. Its diverse wildlife include lions, leopards, elephants, buffalos, zebras, and a rich variety of birds. The park’s Busanga Plains are famous for  impressive lion prides and cheetahs. You might even spot a rare yellow-backed or blue duiker.

Situated along the Zambezi River, this park has a diverse ecosystem that attracts many animals. You could also enjoy a canoeing safari or some fishing. Elephants, buffalos, hippos, and crocodiles thrive here.

Less visited than its southern counterpart, this park is renowned for its large herds of buffalo, elephants and antelope. Predators like lions, leopards, and hyenas are often seen.

Liuwe boasts the second biggest wildebeest migration in Africa. So if you’re interested in seeing multitudes of blue wildebeest, zebras, tsessebe, and red lechwe, this park is well worth a visit.

When Should I Do My Self-Drive Safari in Zambia?

The best time is during the dry season from May to October. This is Zambia’s peak tourism season. The wet season, from November to April, is the country’s off-season for tourism, and for a very good reason – road conditions can be horrendous with flooding and deep mud being common ‘attractions’! 

Elephants in the Zambezi River, Zambia.
Elephants in the Zambezi River, Zambia.

So, the end of June to end of October is the optimum period for a self-drive safari in Zambia. Driving is easier, and it’s better for wildlife viewing because the vegetation is less dense. The animals also tend to congregate conveniently around water holes. 

Lion roaming in Zambia.
Lion roaming in Zambia.

So, though it’s possible to do a self-drive safari during the rainy season, it really isn’t recommended. During this period 4×4 vehicles are an absolute must, as is carrying recovery equipment on your vehicle. Driving in convoy is also safer at this time.

‍Some General Points to Bear in Mind about a Self-Drive Safari in Zambia
  • Give yourself sufficient time

Zambia is a big country! You need at least three weeks to do the country justice and to see a goodly portion of what it has to offer. Also allow yourself time for overnight stops as you travel between destinations. 

  • You have to see Victoria Falls

Nobody should visit Zambia without seeing Victoria Falls. It’s a breathtaking experience, and the range of activities on offer is mind-blowing. These range from heart-stopping adventures for thrill-seekers to leisurely river cruises and sumptuous dining experiences. 

  • Make sure you have a robust vehicle for your self-drive

It’s crucial that you have a sturdy, well-maintained vehicle for your self-drive, preferably a reliable 4×4.

  • Familiarise yourself thoroughly with the Zambian Highway Code 

This is particularly important as regards the rules dealing with encounters with animals and pedestrians. There are several useful guides available online that contain important information for visitors like this one by the International Drivers Association

  • Make sure you’re properly equipped

This is particularly important if you’ll be camping, or if you’re going to be travelling through very rough terrain. It’s mandatory if you’re travelling during the wet season when you’re sure to need recovery gear and spares. There are numerous guides and lists available, so get yourself well-informed and well-equipped.

Aerial view of famous Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Aerial view of famous Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Discover Africa offers some excellent Zambia travel advice and suggestions.

  • Make sure all your documentation is in order

It’s vital your personal travel documents and the documentation for your vehicle and trailer (if applicable) are in order. Zambia Tourism is a great resource about this vital aspect of your trip.

  • Make sure your vaccinations and inoculations are up to date.

You won’t be allowed into Zambia without these vaccinations. The most common vaccinations required are for measles, tetanus, diphtheria, MMR (mumps and rubella), typhoid, polio, and hepatitis A. A rabies vaccination is also recommended, as is preventative treatment for malaria, so consult your doctor well in advance of your trip.

Cheetahs cross the plains in Liuwa National Park, Zambia.
Cheetahs cross the plains in Liuwa National Park, Zambia.

A self-drive safari in Zambia really could be the adventure of a lifetime! If you want to incorporate some luxury into your self-drive safari, Zambia has a wide range of luxury safari lodges and tented camps where you can break your trip in style!

Deck at Thorntree River Lodge in Mosi Oa Tunya National Park, Zambia | Photo credit: Thorntree River Lodge
Deck at Thorntree River Lodge in Mosi Oa Tunya National Park, Zambia | Photo credit: Thorntree River Lodge

They offer visitors superb amenities, service, cuisine and activities. A stay at these great accommodation options could really be the cherry on top of your Zambian self-drive adventure!


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Copyright © Discover Africa Safaris | What You Should Expect and How to Prepare for a Self-Driving Safari in Zambia | Last Updated: 30 January 2024