This landlocked country is a truly extraordinary safari destination, boasting some of the continent’s most remote and wild wildlife areas, topped off with the magnificent Victoria Falls. Zambia Safaris are renowned for their natural beauty and are one of the most pristine and unspoiled wildlife havens on the entire African continent, owing to the country’s incredibly low population. Zambia has a generally pleasant climate, however the river valleys are typically hotter and more humid.
Leopard-spotting on night drives in South Luangwa or Lower Zambezi
White-water rafting on Grade Five rapids below Victoria Falls
Spectacular birdlife along the Zambezi and around Lake Bengweulu
Where to go in Zambia
Kafue National Park in Zambia
Kafue National Park is Zambia’s largest wildlife reserve and also one of the biggest in Africa. It covers more than 22000km² (2500km2 more than South Africa’s Kruger National Park), and the terrain varies significantly from north to south. The park’s top third is separated by the M9 highway and this northern section is defined by rivers, large and small. Seasonal floodplains and far-reaching, wildlife-rich wetlands dominate northern Kafue and as the Kafue River flows south, the surrounding area becomes increasingly drier. Large sections of Kalahari wood- and grassland make southern Kafue a perfect home to ever-growing populations of plains game as well as the park’s largest concentrations of elephant.
Martial eagle in Kafue
Birders will delight in the extreme northwest of the park where the Busanga Swamps, an official Ramsar site, attract close to 500 species, including large flocks of herons, egrets, and endangered wattle cranes. Numerous antelope species are also common in the north, especially kudu, bushbuck, eland, reedbuck, duiker, grysbok, lechwe and waterbuck. Buffalo and elephant can be found in large herds further south. Lion are widespread and there’s a particular pride in Busanga that’s known for climbing trees. Leopards are frequently spotted in forested areas, especially during night drives, though these are only permitted with certified guides, booked through a camp or lodge. Walking safaris are best during winter, while boat safaris are available along the Kafue River during the wet summer months.
The tarred M9 (also known as the Mongu Road) provides year-round access to the north, and Kafue’s main gate, Hook Bridge, can be reached in a four-hour drive from Lusaka. The park’s extensive internal road network is 4×4 only, however, and much of it is totally inaccessible from late November through April, when heavy rains turn the dirt tracks to mud. Wildlife is generally more prolific in the north of the park and this is also where a number of luxury lodges provide all-inclusive safari packages. Many of them stay open all year, offering fly-in safaris to avoid the bad roads. Camps in the central and southern sections tend to be more affordable, but without access by air they usually close during the worst of the rains.
Kasanka National Park is Zambia’s only privately managed park, run by the Kasanka Trust charity in partnership with the local community. At slightly less than 400km2, it’s also one of Zambia’s smallest, lying just south of the Bangweulu Wetlands near the border with the Democratic Republic
of the Congo. With its wonderful papyrus marshes, swamp forests and miombo woodland it’s one of Zambia’s most beautiful reserves and the many criss-crossing rivers and seasonal, swampy pools support an incredible number and variety of birds. Kasanka is a great place to see the rare sitatunga antelope, but is best known for its annual bat migration which takes place in late November and early December each year.
Kasanka has limited big game, but supports a number of interesting antelope species including the rare sitatunga, which is relatively common here. Crocodile and hippo are also plentiful, while buffalo, elephant and leopard are present, but rarely seen. The major wildlife attraction is the annual bat migration which begins in November each year. Up to 10 million bats, with wingspans over half a metre in diameter, cloud the skies in an incredible swarm – small predators and scavengers pouncing on any that fall. The park is also home to almost 500 species of birds, a quite astonishing number considering its small size. Fishing and canoe trips are available on the Luwombwa River, although river fishing is banned across Zambia from December to March. Many visitors combine Kasanka with a trip to the nearby Bangweulu Wetlands to see the shoebills and endemic black lechwe.
Kasanka is great for experienced self-drivers with fully-equipped 4x4s. Access is relatively straightforward along the tarred T2 from Lusaka, which is in good condition for most of the way. Within the park there are well-managed campsites with toilets and shade, and the roads are easily manageable during the dry season (although not at all in the wet). Fly-in safaris are also available – there’s an airstrip near Wasa Lodge. Wasa Lodge is the park’s main camp and all visitors must report here on arrival. Guided, multi-day bat safaris can be booked through various operators and self-drivers can arrange local bird and fishing guides at Wasa Lodge. It’s best to book these in advance to ensure availability, especially during the bat migration season.
Lake Kariba is the world’s largest man-made lake and reservoir by volume
Lake Kariba is the world’s largest man-made dam by volume, extending over 5000km2 along Zambia’s southern border. Completed in 1959, the dam provides hydro-electric power to both Zambia and Zimbabwe, and fish stocks – mainly tilapia, kapenta and the prized tigerfish – are also shared. Access to the Zambian side the lake is fairly limited, with Sinazongwe or Siavonga the only two towns of any significance. Siavonga is the larger, a sleepy lakeside holiday village that’s popular with locals and only a few hours’ drive from Lusaka. Sinazongwe is much smaller and less developed, and most head to Siavonga as their base for exploring the lake.
The Zambian side of the lake is far less wild compared with Zimbabwe and there are no game reserves anywhere along the northern shore. For wildlife, you’ll have to visit one of two large islands, Chete or Chikanka, both in the southwest and accessible from Sinazongwe. Chete is the larger of the two and guided game walks are possible. There’s a small population of elephants, some leopards and plenty of crocodiles, hippos and birds. Chikanka is privately owned, with a single, dedicated fishing lodge. It’s one of many fishing options on Lake Kariba, with tigerfish the most sought-after catch. Various expeditions can be arranged from Siavonga – from live-aboard houseboats to private motorboat trips and canoes. Siavonga is also right next to the dam wall and by flashing your passport you can walk out onto it, or catch a boat from Siavonga for a dam-wall cruise.
It’s not safe to swim along Lake Kariba’s shallow shoreline, both due to the waterborne parasite bilharzia, and the high numbers of crocodiles and hippos. It’s generally okay to swim further out in deeper water so a quick dip from your house boat is usually fine. There are good roads to both Siavonga and Sinazongwe, but Siavonga is easier to reach as it’s closer to Lusaka. Any visit to Lake Kariba is largely about houseboats and/or fishing so if you’re not into either then you might want to look elsewhere. If it’s boating and fishing you’re after then you can’t go wrong. There are hotels, lodges and campsites in Siavonga to suit a range of budgets and whereas fishing is banned on Zambia’s rivers from December to March, Lake Kariba is exempt, with fishing year-round.
One of Zambia’s most remote national parks, Liuwa Plain lies west of the upper Zambezi River, close to the border with Angola. It’s made up of vast grasslands with a smattering of pans, dotted here and there with palms and clumps of Kalahari woodland. As with much of northern Zambia, large areas of the park are totally flooded during the rainy season (December to April), and even in the drier winter months it’s difficult to reach and explore. Those who can find a way there will often feel like they have the entire park to themselves. And with its abundant wildlife, panoramic views and genuinely low visitor numbers, Liuwa Plain exudes tranquillity and a sense of total, magical isolation.
Liuwa Plain’s biggest single attraction is its annual blue wildebeest migration. Comprising an estimated 40000 animals or more, it’s the second-largest of its kind in the world. It takes place around November each year as rising water levels force the herds southeast in search of fresh grazing. Liuwa Plain’s birdlife is another major draw, with some of its pans holding water year-round. They attract a surprisingly large variety of species, including marabou and saddle-billed storks, spoonbills, and herons, plus a noteworthy bird rarely found in groups elsewhere – the Slaty egret. Another notable highlight is the hyena population. Estimated at around 600, they take the top spot as Liuwa’s apex predator.
The best time to visit Liuwa Plain National Park is in November when the wildebeest migration starts to gather steam. It’s also the last chance to catch the best game viewing before the ensuing rains render the network of dirt tracks impassable. The park is closed to self-drive travellers between December and May, with wet-season access by fly-in safari only. Accommodation is limited to one very luxurious lodge, which operates for most of the year, and a handful of basic seasonal campsites dotted along the wildebeest migration route. Permits (and a map of the park’s 4×4 network) are available from the town of Kalabo, south of the park.
Lower Zambezi National Park is one of Zambia’s premier wildlife destinations, certainly in the top three with South Luangwa and Kafue. Ravaged by poaching in the 1980s, the park has since recovered well, though tragically the rhino population was wiped out completely. Wildlife viewing is best along the rivers, which border the park on three sides. The Zambezi River itself is the region’s main source of water and the major attraction, both for visitors and game. There are no campsites at all inside the park and all the lodges and tented camps are mid-range to luxury.
The Lower Zambezi is known for its large populations of buffalo and elephant, which congregate along the Zambezi River during the dry winter months. Lion, leopard and hyena are also common as well as large numbers of hippo and crocodile. If you’re feeling adventurous you can take to the river itself – most lodges offer short canoe and/or boat excursions. Multi-day canoe safaris are also available, ranking among Africa’s most special experiences. Although not without risk, these canoe safaris are truly unique, with experienced river guides leading small groups between the crocs and hippos, down one of Southern Africa’s wildest, most spectacular rivers. Also on the river, tiger fishing is very popular and the best conditions are between August and October. Many lodges cater specifically for anglers who are drawn to the area by the huge tigerfish on offer.
May to November is the best time to visit the Lower Zambezi, and the prime game-viewing season begins in June. October and November can get extremely hot, however, with daytime temperatures well over 40°C. Once the rains begin – usually by mid-November – most camps inside the park close. Between January and April all the park’s lodges shut down, but there are year-round lodges and campsites outside the park, across the Chongwe River. Within Lower Zambezi National Park there is no budget accommodation – self-drivers can camp along the Zambezi to the west. Many visitors opt for a fly-in safari or drive to Chirundu and take a boat transfer from there. A number of safari operators offer packages to the region, often at better rates than booking directly with a lodge.
South Luangwa National Park is arguably the best wildlife-viewing destination in Zambia. It has a number of excellent lodges and tented camps, with more budget accommodation available just outside the park at Mfuwe Bridge. This Mfuwe section of the park gets relatively busy and can feel a bit touristy at times. The best options are further north along the Luangwa River, where there’s a mix of mid-range to luxury lodges and mobile camps, many open year-round. Both parks offer day and night guided game drives and some of the best walking safaris in Africa.
North Luangwa National Park is the only area where you can find black rhino
Both South and North Luangwa are famous for their walking safaris, which are led by expert guides through some of Africa’s best game viewing territory. South Luangwa is home to a number of rare and endemic species including Thornicroft’s giraffe, Cookson’s wildebeest and Crawshay’s zebra, and there are plenty of elephant, buffalo, lion and, especially leopard. In late October, before the start of the rains, thousands of hippos gather in the Luangwa River’s deeper pools – an incredible spectacle as they jostle and fight for space. Unlike most of Zambia’s parks, many camps in South Luangwa stay open during the rainy season, with boat safaris the major attraction. As the Luangwa River breaks its banks, shallow-draft vessels can navigate into the flooded riverine groves, one of Zambia’s unique safari highlights.
Of all Zambia’s national parks, South Luangwa has the best network of all-weather roads so during the rainy season both boat and game drive safaris are possible. During the dry season, fully-sufficient self-drivers can explore North Luangwa’s rough network of dirt tracks, a wild and beautiful adventure best done in convoy and with some previous 4×4 experience. October and November can get brutally hot in the Luangwa Valley with temperatures well above 40°C. Walking safaris are not recommended during this period; the best time to walk is between May and September. Fly-in safaris are available throughout the year and package deals booked through reputable agents are often cheaper than going direct to the lodges.
North-eastern Zambia is a vast, varied region – a mix of lush, open grassland, thick riverine forest, beautiful rivers, wetlands and lakes. To the south, the Luangwa Valley area is the most accessible – by Zambian standards – and South Luangwa National Park is one of the country’s best, and most popular, wildlife destinations. Further north, access becomes increasingly difficult. The Great North Road, the T2 highway from Lusaka, is the north’s main artery, and while it’s generally kept in reasonable condition, most secondary roads are rough and challenging and in the wet season can be completely impassable. Many of the region’s few visitors forgo the bumpy, time-consuming roads, and opt instead for fly-in safaris to the more remote highlights: North Luangwa and Kasanka National Park, and the Bangweulu Wetlands.
South Luangwa National Park is arguably Zambia’s best for wildlife. It certainly offers the best combination of natural beauty, accessibility, wildlife, and the range of lodges, camps and safari activities available. The Luangwa Valley is where the first ever commercial walking safaris began and they’re still a highlight of the region. They’re especially worthwhile in the more isolated North Luangwa National Park which is known for its expert guides and pristine, largely unvisited wilderness.
Northwest of Luangwa Valley, the Bangweulu Wetlands are wonderfully wild and remote. The few intrepid adventurers who do visit usually do so for the endemic black lechwe and the remarkable 1.5m-tall shoebill, which with its goofy smile could have been plucked from fanciful Disney animation. Nearby Kasanka National Park is a wonderful reserve, and home to a sky-darkening, 10-million-strong bat migration in November and December each year. If you’re in the area be sure to visit Shiwa Ng’andu estate, the Incredible early 20th century project of British-born Stewart Gore-Browne, who became one of Africa’s greatest champions for autonomy and self-rule. There are hot springs, fishing, canoeing, rafting and guided walks nearby.
If you’re planning to drive, don’t drive alone. North-eastern Zambia is extremely challenging and remote, and only recommended for experienced 4×4 enthusiasts, ideally travelling in convoy. Fly-in safaris are the norm here, and all the major camps and lodges offer air transfers, usually from Lusaka. It’s a good idea to book your entire trip with a single, reputable agent – they’re often cheaper than booking directly with a lodge. You’ll also get better rates if you stick to just one safari operator. The bigger operators run multiple camps and lodges, with deals available for longer stays across their properties. Be aware that similar prices don’t necessarily denote a similar style. The most remote lodges are much more expensive to run and you’ll pay a premium for the wildest, most exclusive locations.
Covering 5,000km² of Kalahari woodland, Sioma Ngwezi is Zambia’s third-largest national park. Tucked away in the southwestern corner of the country, it’s bordered by the Kwando River to the west (which also forms the Zambia’s border with Angola) and Namibia to the south. Once heavily affected by cross-border poaching, Sioma Ngwezi is seeing something of a revival. This has been made possible by several factors, including a slowly improving local infrastructure, good tourism numbers to nearby Livingstone and, most importantly, the park’s inclusion in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. Combined with the impressive Ngonye Falls National Park further north, this is one of Zambia’s up-and-coming regions and a steady return in wildlife numbers makes it an exciting prospect for adventurous travellers.
Sioma Ngwezi has a history of excellent giraffe sightings and although wildlife is still scarce and relatively skittish, small populations of Zambia’s other species still occur and are growing, including leopard, lion and spotted hyena. Water is also scarce, and so the best wildlife viewing is just after the summer rains, when the animals congregate around the drying pools. Safari operators are running guided tours and camping/walking safaris into the area, for those in search of complete isolation and a truly remote wilderness experience.
At just 25 metres high, Ngonye Falls may not be as grand as Victoria Falls, but what it lacks in stature it makes up in its impressive volume. There’ also the chance to swim, fish, kayak or go white-water rafting, and all this far from the much busier Livingstone, a bumpy four-hour drive away.
The best time to visit Sioma Ngwezi and Ngonye Falls national parks is from May to early June, just after the rainy season. Many of Sioma Ngwezi’s dambos (wetland pools) will still have water and it’s the most prolific period for wildlife viewing. The falls at Ngonye (about 120km further north) are also at their best while the river is high. Unfortunately, the road from Livingstone is heavily potholed for long stretches, but with brand new tarmac laid further north, there’s hope that this southern section of the M10 will be resurfaced soon, making the journey from Livingstone much easier. Driving in Sioma Ngwezi is strictly 4×4 only, and there are no facilities at all inside the park.
Zambia’s southernmost region is also its most popular, dominated by the mighty Zambezi River, which flows east from the town of Sesheke all the way to Mozambique. The river forms Zambia’s southern border with Namibia and Zimbabwe, and it’s along this strip that you’ll find the country’s best infrastructure. The T1 and T4 highways, which stretch from Livingstone to Lusaka and Lusaka to the Malawi border, are the country’s two major arteries. Naturally, the towns along these two main roads are the busiest, but also the best equipped for travellers. These are the access points for some of the country’s top highlights – Victoria Falls, Lake Kariba and the Lower Zambezi National Park.
Victoria Falls is one of the major highlights of Southern Africa. Although there are fewer viewpoints on the Zambian side, visiting the falls from Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park provides visitors with a quieter alternative to Zimbabwe’s much busier Victoria Falls National Park. Further down the Zambezi, Lake Kariba is another highlight. With just a handful of small resorts on its northern shores, a few days on Lake Kariba is the perfect holiday if you enjoy fishing or canoeing, or simply relaxing on a stately houseboat. The lake also boasts a small number of game-rich islands, although passionate wildlife lovers should look to scratch that itch a little further east, on a safari to Lower Zambezi National Park. Arguably the best park in the country, this magnificent reserve holds its own against Africa’s best. An open-top vehicle safari here is not to be missed.
Zambia’s T1 and T4 highways are in relatively good condition, but there are still sections that are severely degraded and travel times, even over short distances, tend to be longer than expected. Allow plenty of time between destinations and avoid driving at night. Swimming in Lake Kariba’s shallows is also unsafe. The lake is home to numerous crocodiles and hippos and the waterborne parasite bilharzia is an ever-present threat, especially along the shoreline.
Southern Zambia is a good year-round destination but from late September it can become extremely hot, until the rains begin in November. High temperatures and humidity make this region especially risky for malaria so be sure to take appropriate precautions.
Arguably Africa’s most famous attraction, the 1.7km-wide Victoria Falls lives up to its hype, especially when viewed in full flow. At its peak between February and May, more than 550 million litres of water (enough to fill 220 Olympic-size swimming pools) spills into the Batoka Gorge every minute. The falls can be viewed from both Zambia and Zimbabwe, but Zambia tends to be quieter and more intimate. From August to December the flow may not reach the Zambian side at all, but daytrips into Zimbabwe can be easily arranged.
Knife’s Edge Bridge shouldn’t be crossed in September
Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park is well geared for travellers, with an intimate network of pathways and viewpoints, a restaurant and numerous information boards. The Zambian side also boasts what is probably the falls’ most dramatic viewpoint – the Knife Edge Bridge, which is completely shrouded in mist during peak flow. Above the falls, Livingstone Island and the Devil’s Pool are only accessible from the Zambian side, the latter a spectacular swimming spot right on the edge of the falls. It’s a major highlight, but for the brave only, and only open between August and January. If adventure activities are your thing, there’s also sky-diving, bungee jumping, abseiling and white-water rafting. The rafting is also best between August and January, when the river is lower and the more difficult rapids are safe to run.
It’s difficult to recommend a best time to visit Victoria Falls. Swimming in the Devil’s Pool is only possible when the water level is low (from August to early January), and white-water rafting is also best during this period. On the other hand, peak flow is incredible to see. It’s these months, from February to May, that give the falls its local name: Mosi-oa-Tunya, ‘The Smoke That Thunders’. If you’re visiting during peak flow, take a raincoat and waterproof shoes (or flip flops). You’ll certainly get soaked it you don’t. Plastic ponchos are also available to rent at the park’s entrance and an extra one of these will help to shield your camera. There’s no shortage of hotels, lodges and tented camps in the area. The upmarket lodges are generally along the upper stretch of the Zambezi River, above the falls, while more affordable backpackers and hotels can be found in Livingstone town itself.
Western Zambia’s topography is largely defined by two of its biggest rivers: the Zambezi and the Kafue, both of which have carved wide valleys into Zambia’s plateaus over the millennia. Heavy rains from November to January cause them to swell over onto the surrounding grasslands, creating extensive, swampy floodplains for a few months each year. Several pans dot the region and some hold water year-round.
At the extreme west, Kalahari sand dominates, while miombo woodland, papyrus swamps and a handful of evergreen forests make up the remaining major flora. The region suffered during southwest Africa’s border conflicts of the 1970s and 80s, and it’s still one of Zambia’s least developed areas. These days its parks are bouncing back fiercely and new tar roads east of the Zambezi are making access significantly easier.
Western Zambia encompasses the wildest stretch of the Zambezi River and its highlights are equally untamed. A handful of isolated lodges and camps make the most of the area’s aquatic riches, offering challenging, but exceptional opportunities for tiger and bream fishing. Seasoned off-road enthusiasts will find the Kalahari sand equally challenging, and exploring this region in a 4×4 requires good backup, and patience. Rewards come in the form of quiet, underexplored parks such as Sioma Ngwezi National Park and the magnificent (and more easily accessed) Liuwa Plain National Park, as well as natural wonders such as Ngonye Falls. Combine this with the resurgence of nearby Kafue National Park, Zambia’s biggest, and it’s an unmissable region for a truly wild experience.
Sparsely populated, wild, and untamed – the features that make this region attractive for the adventurous also make it essential to be well prepared, especially if you’re self-driving. As a rule, fuel becomes scarcer the further north you travel, so fill up in the south and always carry extra. Much of the extreme west is undriveable during the rainy season, as are large parts of the Kafue Valley. It’s highly inadvisable to travel in one vehicle only – a small convoy of three or more is best. A GPS and prior 4×4 experience are essential.
For most travellers, it’s recommended to book an all-inclusive stay with a lodge or tented camp, either within one of the parks or along the Zambezi River. Allow them to handle your transfers, which will typically be from Livingstone. Not all lodges operate during the rainy season, but those that do usually offer fly-in options. Reduced prices are sometimes available to encourage bookings and it can be an excellent time to visit, especially for peace and quiet, and the abundant birdlife. Note that fishing is banned on the Zambezi River from December to the end of February.
January is the height of Zambia’s summer rainy season and most guide books will tell you it’s the worst time to visit. By January, heavy downpours have turned Zambia’s dirt and gravel roads to an impassable mush, rivers break their banks, and many camps and lodges close completely, only reopening once the waters have subsided. Daytime temperatures average about 30°C, with nights around 20°C across most of the country.
Conditions on the ground are tough, especially if you’re driving, but not all safaris are confined to roads. Some operators in South Luangwa National Park offer fantastic boat safaris from late January to April, when the Luangwa River is high enough to explore into its flooded woodland groves. These exclusive, fly-in safaris are a fantastic way to experience Zambia’s ‘emerald season’ and South Luangwa also has a reasonable network of all-weather roads so some game driving is still possible. When the rain does fall, it tends to be brief and heavy and is more spectacular than disruptive. The dramatic skies and clear air make for excellent photographs and specialist photographic safaris are also available.
Although the rainy season is generally less productive for wildlife, that’s not to say you won’t see any. Most mammals give birth from December to March and it’s a great time to spot juveniles as they (rapidly) learn to fend for themselves. This is also by far the best period for birds across the region, but what’s food for the birds can be a nuisance for you. Be prepared for plenty of insects and don’t forget the bug spray.
By January, the Zambezi River is starting to rise rapidly and the flow over Victoria Falls becomes more and more dramatic. At the beginning of the month there may not yet be enough water to extend the full length of the falls and the Zambian side always has less flow than Zimbabwe. By the end of the month, however, the entire width should be covered, with good viewing from both sides, and from the air. The famous Devil’s Pool – where the brave can swim right up to the falls’ edge – is only accessible from the Zambian side and closes when the water level become too high. In very rainy years this could mean it’s closed by late January, only reopening in August.
February in Zambia is much the same as January, with short, fierce afternoon thunderstorms, swollen rivers and washed-out roads. It can be a difficult time to visit in Zambia, unless you’re flying into a specialist lodge that operates throughout the season. These usually offer their best safari deals from January to April and will sometimes have discounts for families and children. Expect day-time temperatures around 30°C and nights falling below 20°C by the end of the month.
Fly-in safaris are the best – arguably the only – way to experience Zambia’s wet, ‘emerald season’, and although not all lodges remain open, a few in South Luangwa National Park offer extraordinary boat safaris at this time of year. By February the Luangwa River overflows deep into the Luangwa Valley, allowing boat access through half-submerged forests and offering a unique perspective on this incredible region. South Luangwa is also one of the only parks in Zambia with game-viewing roads that remain drivable during the rainy season. It’s practically impossible to self-drive any of Zambia’s other national parks during February (or any time from December through April), so South Luangwa’s boat and partial vehicle access makes it an excellent February destination.
By February most herbivore species have already given birth and both young and old are in excellent condition. Predators can be elusive and hard to spot in the thicker vegetation, but sightings are still possible. If time is short, however, and animals a priority, then it’s better to postpone your safari until later in the year.
February is an excellent time for birding, with many species in their bright, breeding plumage. By the end of the month, shoebills return to the Bangweulu Wetlands although March is a more certain time to see them.
Steadily rising throughout January, the Zambezi River reaches full flow in February. Expect a spectacular display at Victoria Falls, so much so that by the end of the month it can be difficult to see the falls at all through the incredible explosion of spray and mist. Flights over the falls are the best way to see them, while exploring the walkways will certainly leave you drenched. The Devil’s Pool swim is usually closed in February and white-water rafting switches to half-day trips – only the lower sections of rapids safe enough to run.
Zambia’s wet season is nearing its end in March, but there’s still plenty of rain, especially in the north. Up north, the season lasts longer, but gradually the rains retreat from the south, first from Livingstone and then Lusaka. Hot days remain around 30°C, but the nights get slowly cooler – down to around 15°C by the end of March.
Although the afternoon storms are getting less frequent, water levels across Zambia remain high, in fact they’re at their highest levels throughout March and April. This is still an extremely difficult time to explore Zambia by road. Livingstone, Lusaka, and the main connecting roads are fine, but driving off-road into the parks is practically impossible. South Luangwa National Park has the best network of all-weather roads and also offers fly-in safaris along the Luangwa River. These incredible boat safaris follow the swollen river into the surrounding floodplain, drifting between half-submerged trees in search of game that may not have seen humans for months. It’s especially rewarding for photographers and birders, with great light and dramatic skies, and thousands of birds getting ready for their approaching winter migration.
In Zambia’s Western Province, a very different migration is also preparing. The final date varies from year to year, but in late March or early April, Zambia’s Lozi people undertake their annual odyssey, vacating their summer residence near the Zambezi River for higher, drier ground. This ‘Kuomboka’ festival literally translates as ‘to get out of water’ and is marked by a spectacular ceremonial procession as the king and queen navigate their huge, decorated barges to their winter residence at Limulunga.
Further south, the mighty Zambezi is by now in full flow over Victoria Falls. It’s not the ideal time for white-water rafting as the volume is so great the first section of rapids is usually closed. Above the falls the famous Devil’s Pool swim is also closed in February; the high waters make it far too dangerous. It’s during March and April that the falls’ local name seems most appropriate: Mosi-oa-Tunya, ‘the smoke that thunders’. It’s an awe-inspiring – and very wet – experience, and you won’t see much of the chasm itself with the amount of mist and spray pouring into the air. For the best views, take to the skies. Helicopter and light aircraft flights are at their best at this time of year.
Although not considered prime game-viewing season, April is an excellent time to safari in Zambia. Rates tend to be lower, the weather drier and slightly cooler, and the atmosphere clear and crisp and scattered with fluffy clouds. It’s an ideal month for photography enthusiasts and for those who want to see the greener side of Southern Africa without the afternoon downpours. Hot days will still touch 30°C, with colder nights falling to between 10°C and 15°C. By mid-April the rains have almost completely left the south, but may linger in the north into the first few weeks of May.
April and May are Zambia’s autumn low season, when good deals and increasingly pleasant safari conditions must be weighed against lingering flooding that continues to make park access difficult. Off-road driving is still nearly impossible in April, although conditions get gradually easier towards the end of the month. Fly-in safaris remain the best way to access most parks and as the lodges that closed over the wet season reopen, many offer discounts to encourage early visitors. The lush, thick vegetation means predators are harder to spot than later in the year, and the tall grasses can make walking safaris difficult, even dangerous. Nevertheless, it’s a good time for group and family deals; the bush is at its verdant best, the birding fantastic, and early April is superb for boat and canoe safaris.
Also in early April, or sometimes late March, the annual Kuomboka Ceremony takes place in Zambia’s Western Province.
Kuomboko ceremony | Credit: Getaway
Literally translated ‘Kuomboka’ means ‘to get out of water’ and it marks the local Lozi people’s yearly move from the Zambezi floodplain up to higher ground. Powerful drums summon thousands to the site, before the king and queen board massive, decorated barges, and begin their stately procession upstream. It’s a festive occasion with plenty of music and dancing and visitors are welcome providing they’re respectfully attired.
Further downstream Victoria Falls is in full flood and exploring the walkways and viewpoints will certainly leave you drenched. Take a poncho or raincoat and don’t expect to see much of the gorge itself – most will be hidden under the roaring white torrent. April is a great month for flights over the falls, but not for white-water rafting or swimming in the Devil’s Pool. Water levels are too dangerous for the latter activities, although half-day rafting excursions are usually still an option on the lower-grade rapids down river.
May is arguably Zambia’s most beautiful month, with the vegetation at its lush best and Victoria Falls in full flow. By May, all of Zambia’s southern camps and lodges have reopened after the rains and across the south the dirt roads are drying, allowing self-drivers back into the parks. May is not yet prime time for wildlife viewing – the thick vegetation makes animals harder to spot. That said, Zambia’s guides are experts and guided game drives can still produce great sightings.
May is also an excellent month for discounts, with low or shoulder season rates at most camps and lodges. Late May, when the vegetation has thinned a little, is perfect for a walking safari in the Luangwa Valley. Expect lower rates and comfortable daytime temperatures, prolific wildlife and some of Zambia’s most qualified and enthusiastic guides. By now the summer rains have completely retreated and nights are cooler and far less humid. Hot, clear days may still touch 30°C, but closer to 25°C is more common in the south.
Although most of Zambia’s southern park roads are open by late May, dirt roads in the north are often still impassable. Both the Kafue River Valley and Liuwa Plain National Park can stay flooded into June, but conditions depend on the rains and vary year to year. As the floodwaters withdraw the rivers gradually clear and late May / early June marks the start of the best river fishing in Zambia.
In the magical Bangweulu Wetlands, the subsiding waters also start to make travel easier, and late May through June is the best time for shoebills. These goofy looking birds are well worth the trip, not just to see them, but for the stunning natural beauty of the wetlands themselves. At nearly 10000km2 they’re almost as large as the Okavango Delta and support a rich, varied flora and fauna, including the endemic black lechwe.
May to August are also the best months to spot the elusive leopards, nocturnal predators who generally only venture out once it’s cool. At hotter times of the year that can mean quite late in the evening, but in winter they prowl at twilight, inspecting their territory as they prepare to hunt. South Luangwa is particularly good for leopard and all the main camps and lodges offer guided evening and night drives. Sightings aren’t guaranteed, but this is the best way to see them, especially as Zambia is one of very few countries to allow spotlights on game vehicles.
Note that May is still high water at Victoria Falls and tours of the Devil’s Pool will definitely be closed. White-water rafting is usually limited to half days on the downstream rapids, so May is not a good time for either of these activities. You will, however, get to see the falls at near-peak flow and experience the full might of Mosi-oa-Tunya, ‘The Smoke That Thunders.’
June marks the start of Zambia’s prime safari season, but many lodges still offer reduced ‘shoulder season’ rates so it’s one of the best months to visit. Later in the season conditions can get very hot, but June is cool and pleasant, with daytime highs not much over 25°C and nightly lows around 10°C. Pack thick socks and a warm jacket for early morning walks and game drives. And prepare yourself for one of Zambia’s best months for a walking safari.
The Luangwa Valley is Zambia’s walking safari mecca, although all the major parks offer guided walks as well. South Luangwa National Park is where it all began, however, and the region still boasts some of the most experienced walking guides in Africa. June in Zambia is cool with clear skies, and after a month or two without rain the vegetation is thinning, but not yet completely desiccated. It’s a beautiful time to walk in the parks and you’ll find a range of walking safaris available. The more adventurous can try multi-day mobile safaris where guests walk between temporary camps, through some of Zambia’s most pristine wildlife areas. North Luangwa National Park is especially wild and the few operators in its southern section are walking safari specialists.
Northwest of the Luangwa Valley, the Bangweulu Wetlands are also excellent in June. Those wishing to see the strange, smirking shoebill will have better chance at the beginning of the month, before the floods recede. As the waters withdraw, the endemic black lechwe emerge from the surrounding woodlands, gathering in great herds on the exposed floodplain.
Across in northern Kafue, the Busanga Plains also begin to dry out in June. Here you’ll find red lechwe and roan and sable antelope, as well as elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard. By late June, the dirt roads of Kafue and Liuwa Plain National Park have usually reopened to self-drivers and as the region’s rivers subside and become clearer, the fishing conditions take off. It’s a wonderful time to combine a safari and fishing holiday along the Kafue and/or Upper Zambezi rivers. Bream and tigerfish are the prized catches in the area.
Although June is a great time to see Victoria Falls in high flow, the waters are usually still too high for the best white-water rafting. Half day trips starting further downstream are possible, but these skip the highest-grade rapids closer to the falls. The famous Devil’s Pool swim, above the falls, is also closed until around August, but guided walks onto Livingstone Island are normally operating by the end of the month.
July to October is peak season in Zambia, when game-viewing is at its finest, but lodges and camps also charge their highest rates. This is this the best time to go on safari, with the thinning vegetation making wildlife easier to spot. It’s also the coldest month to visit Zambia, with daytime temperatures around 25°C in the south. Hot days can still reach 30°C, especially in the north, but expect some chilly nights and take a fleece, or better yet a windproof jacket, for early morning walks and game drives.
Across the country, July is a great time to travel. There’s zero rainfall and by now almost all the dirt roads have dried and hardened. Liuwa Plain and northern Kafue may still present a few challenges, but for the most part self-drivers can explore where they wish. Fly-ins are still available to all the major parks and remain the quickest and most comfortable (and expensive) way to travel internally.
From late July the white-water rafting season opens, although it may be a bit earlier or later depending on the rains that year. When the water is low enough the higher-grade rapids nearest Livingstone can be run and the rafts set off from just below the falls. The entry is spectacular, especially in July and August when there’s still a lot of water pounding into the gorge. The first 10 rapids are the most extreme so if you’re serious about rafting, this is the time to do it.
Above the falls the Devil’s Pool may not yet be open in July. This daring chasm-lip swim can only take place once the river’s flow has decreased, and water levels are usually not low enough until August. Even so, July is a great time to experience Victoria Falls. The world’s widest sheet of falling water will still be pouring into the gorge and with less spray obscuring the view you should be able to see right down into the chasm.
Keen anglers will already know that July is a fabulous month for fishing in Zambia. There are numerous species in Zambia’s lakes and rivers, but bream, yellowfish and especially tigerfish are the most prized. Dedicated fishing lodges and camps can be found all over Zambia, but head to the upper Zambezi if you’re after really big tigers.
For those looking to combine local culture with their safari, the annual Mutomboko Ceremony takes place on the last weekend of July. Hosted by the Lunda people, this two-day music and dance festival celebrates the incorporation of the Lunda tribe into Zambia from the DRC. Visitors are welcome, but as it’s up in Zambia’s far north, near Lake Mweru, most will likely find it a bit too far to travel.
Zambia’s peak season extends into August and the combination of cool, dry weather and increasingly thinning vegetation makes it one of the best months to go on safari. Across the country, surface water is rapidly drying and by the end of the month the animals begin to mass along the rivers, congregating near permanent water in ever increasing numbers. As pools dry, fish are trapped, and a variety of birds, including the supremely ugly marabou stork, descend for an easy meal.
Throughout August, conditions remain dry and clear. Expect cool mornings around 10°C and warm afternoons that gradually climb over 30°C by the end of the month. It’s still a good time to see leopards in South Luangwa National Park, while the evenings remain cool and they continue to begin prowling at dusk. Like July, August is a top month for walking safaris and the more popular South Luangwa camps can book out over a year in advance. With excellent game-viewing and dry dirt roads, it’s a popular month for both fly-in and self-drive safaris across all of Zambia’s parks.
Many visitors also come for the fishing – August is a phenomenal time for giant tigerfish on the upper Zambezi. A handful of excellent lodges cater specifically for anglers, and camps on the Kafue, Luangwa and lower Zambezi rivers also offer excellent fishing for bream, yellowfish, catfish and tigers. There’s great fishing on Lake Kariba year-round, but August to October are especially productive, with bigger and bigger tigerfish being caught as the season progresses.
Fishing holidays on the upper Zambezi can be combined with a cultural trip to the Likumbi Lya Mize Ceremony, which takes place near the town of Zambezi in the last few days of August. Over five days, the Luvale people of Western Zambia celebrate the passage of their older boys to adulthood, with feasts, songs and traditional dancing. The festival is particularly well-known for its colourful Makishi dancers who perform for the crowds in giant, painted masks and flamboyant headdresses.
Down south on the Zambezi River, the flow is gradually decreasing over Victoria Falls. August marks the start of the best white-water rafting on the Zambezi, with full-day rafting excursions beginning just below the falls. High up on the lip above, the Devil’s Pool also reopens in August. The lower water levels allow tours to recommence and it’s once again possible to take a swim right next to the precipice.
By September things are hotting up in Zambia, as temperatures rise and the increasingly water-stressed animals compete for resources. As more pools dry, fish are exposed – an easy meal for hungry eagles, storks and scavengers. Both predators and prey stay close to the rivers and lion sightings are more common as their range decreases and their movements become more predictable. By the end of September hot days can easily reach 35°C, with nightly lows of between 15°C and 20°C.
In Liuwa Plain National Park the first wildebeest appear in September, though in nothing like the enormous herds of late October and November. Along the upper Zambezi River, nearby, the fishing remains excellent, but the hotter days can be a challenge under the fierce African sun. The growing heat aside, September is still prime fishing season across Zambia and most lodges have swimming pools for guests to cool off in. A houseboat on Lake Kariba makes a wonderful base for fishing and out in the deeper water you can swim (at your own risk), away from the crocs and hippos.
Despite the hot afternoons, early mornings remain cool, and September is still a good month for a walking safari. The lush April vegetation is a thing of the past, replaced with vast golden grasslands that glow in the dawn light. In the Lower Zambezi and Luangwa valleys the thick mopane forests burst with vivid yellows and reds, their leaves falling completely by the end of the month. It’s a beautiful period in these low-lying valleys, before the scorching October heat arrives in full force.
September is an exciting time for white-water rafting on the Zambezi River and the full set of rapids can be run from just below Victoria Falls. While the falls themselves are less spectacular than in the preceding months, in early September there should still be some flow over the entire width. It’s an ideal time for a swim in the stunningly-situated Devil’s Pool. With a guide, the adventurous can take a plunge right on the falls’ edge, with incredible views down into the gorge.
October is peak safari season in Zambia – but it’s hot! Known locally as ‘suicide month’ the relentless heat hits the low-lying regions hardest, especially the Luangwa and Zambezi valleys where temperatures in the shade can reach well above 40°C. This includes Livingstone and Victoria Falls where white-water rafting is no longer just about the world-class rapids, for many it’s simply a great way to cool down. A stint on Lake Kariba is ideal at this time of year. It’s arguably the best month to catch giant tigerfish and in the deeper waters it’s also safe to swim.
It may be relatively safe out deep, but the shoreline can appear especially treacherous. October is the start of the crocodile nesting season and it’s an excellent time to see them out of the water. As even the bigger rivers begin to dry out, thousands of hippos are forced into the ever-shrinking pools. In some places, many hundreds are crammed cheek-to-jowl and, grumpy to begin with, their constant jostling and roaring fights can be quite a sight.
The permanent water is where all the action takes place and on the riverbanks you’ll see large, mixed groups of herbivores alongside giant herds of buffalo and thirsty elephant. October is also a great month to see lions – they’re never far from the water and in the heat of the day they’ll loll around in the shade for hours.
In Liuwa Plain National Park the wildebeest are gathering, and by the end of the month their numbers may be many thousand strong. In November and December, they’ll move down out of the plains in what is Africa’s second largest wildebeest migration. The migration itself is dictated by the start of the rains further north so the exact timings vary year to year. In wet years, parts of Zambia will get a first sprinkling of rain at the end of October, but it’s rarely more than a shower and does little to diminish the heat.
October is a mixed time to visit Victoria Falls. It’s great for white-water rafting and the Devil’s Pool, but the flow over the falls is nearing its lowest ebb and there may be no water at all on the Zambian side. October lacks the mist and thunderous roar of April and May, but the views into the gorge are still beautiful and worth seeing. If you’re visiting in October, it’s a good idea to plan a daytrip across to the Zimbabwean side where there’s usually still good flow at this time of year.
November is the spring ‘shoulder’ season in Zambia when many lodges offer reduced rates or close completely, mostly on account of the unpredictable weather. Nobody knows exactly when the rains will begin, but they usually start in the north of Zambia first, then slowly move south over the course of the month. Lodges with fly-in access are more likely to stay open, but even some of these shut down for the wet season. As soon as the rains set in most dirt roads become impassable and lodges replying on road transfers generally close by mid-November at the latest.
Before the first rains fall it stays extremely hot across the county, with temperatures hovering around 40°C. The afternoon thunderstorms bring welcome relief, but you can still expect daily highs between 30°C and 35°C. Gradually the spring rains revitalise the land – the baobabs begin to flower and fresh leaves bud on the mopane trees. By the end of the month new-born calves and lambs appear, and migrant birds arrive back in numbers, sporting their bright breeding plumage.
In Zambia, November is perhaps best known for its two great wildlife extravaganzas. In the far west, Liuwa Plain National Park hosts Africa’s second largest wildebeest migration as up to 40000 blue wildebeest move south in search of fresh grazing. The exact timing depends on when the rains begin further north, but it’s usually sometime in mid to late November.
Then to the east, in Kasanka National Park, November is the best month to witness the annual fruit bat migration. Billed ‘Africa’s greatest mammal migration,’ an estimated 10 million bats take to the evening skies from late October to early December, an incredible swarming mass of bodies – each with wingspans of over half a metre.
Both of these amazing spectacles can be experienced on self-drive or guided/fly-in safaris. Neither are easy to reach by road however, and road conditions deteriorate rapidly from the end of the month. November is a risky month to self-drive anywhere in Zambia. And those driving to Liuwa Plain in particular should ideally travel in convoy.
Visitors to Victoria Falls may be disappointed in November. The white-water rafting is excellent, but except for a trickle on the Zimbabwean side, there may be no flow at all over the falls. This is a good time to explore the top of the falls, with guided walks to Livingstone Island and swimming in the Devil’s Pool. Below the falls, the cliffs of Batoka Gorge are exposed and breath-taking, but there’s none of the pounding, mighty roar, and the drenching mists of March, April and May.
December is the start of Zambia’s rainy season – generally cooler than the previous few months, but nevertheless still hot and humid. Expect daytime averages of roughly 30°C and nights down to only around 20°C. Rainstorms can be fierce, with heavy downpours rapidly turning the dirt roads to mud. Camps and lodges without fly-in access close completely and many close anyway due to flooding. Few safari operators continue through the wet season, but those that do stay open usually offer lower rates. It can still be a rewarding time to visit, especially for bird lovers, as the migrant species return in full force and the breeding season begins in earnest across the dambos and swamps.
Besides the excellent birdlife, December is a great month for grazers and their new-borns. The resurgent grasses provide much needed sustenance and the rapidly greening plains are covered with antelope. Elephant and buffalo, however, are harder to see as they disperse from the rivers into the scrubland and forest.
There’s a ban on all river fishing in Zambia from December to March, but this doesn’t apply on Lake Tanganyika or Lake Kariba where you can fish year-round. It can be a spectacular time to rent a houseboat on Lake Kariba – the still lake waters reflecting towering thunderheads while lighting flashes and the hippos grumble and moan.
In Victoria Falls, December is still great for white-water rafting as the water levels are low enough to run the full rapids from below the falls. The falls themselves, however, are at their lowest flow, and there may be no water at all on the Zambian side. Guided tours to Livingstone Island and the Devil’s Pool are open in December, but make sure you plan a trip across to Zimbabwe where there’s always some water cascading into the gorge.
There are a couple of different options for accommodation in Livingstone Zambia for a Zambia Safari, but it would be recommended to stay in a hotel or lodge. Examples of this include; Victoria Falls Waterfront, Ngoma Zanga Lodge, Okavango Lodge and much more.
The Busanga Plains are located in the northwestern part of Zambia's Kafue National Park, which is one of the continent's largest protected areas.
Safari/bucket showers are common in mobile or tented camps where there is no permanent plumbing. They are an effective yet environmentally friendly way to shower where water is at a premium and provide plenty of hot water to wash comfortably.
Generally, there is an en-suite private shower stall within your tent with a “rainfall” style shower head at which you can control the water flow. Outside the tent, there is a large waterproof bag or bucket which is filled with about 10 to 15 litres (5 US gallons) of hot water before being raised with a pully/rope system to either connect to the shower pipe or fill a cistern.
The water is delivered at the ideal temperature so it is best to use it as soon as it arrives. Staff typically fill the showers at a pre-arranged time of day, or you simply need to give them a few minutes notice so they can get it ready.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, you should be up to date on routine vaccinations while travelling to any destination.
Some vaccines may also be required for travel - such as Routine vaccines that make sure you are up-to-date on routine vaccines before every trip. These vaccines include the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine and your yearly flu shot.
However, you will need to take Hepatitis A - CDC recommends this vaccine because you can get hepatitis through contaminated food or water in Zambia, regardless of where you are eating or staying. You will also need to take prescription medicine before, during and after your trip to prevent malaria.
Your doctor can help you decide which medicine is right for you and also talk to you about other steps you can take to prevent malaria. Travellers can get typhoid through contaminated food or water in Zambia. CDC recommends this vaccine for most travellers, especially if you are staying with friends or relatives, visiting smaller cities or rural areas.
Zambia has a number of superb luxury tented camps and lodges, located in some of the most remote, unspoiled wildlife areas in Africa. Private, all-inclusive luxury packages are available from between $600 and $1200 a day, which is good value compared with luxury safaris in Botswana and South Africa. At the lower end of this rather wide price range, the quality is still of a very high standard and it’s this, along with its exceptional wildlife and relatively quiet national parks, that makes Zambia an extremely competitive luxury safari destination.
Most of Zambia’s luxury lodges are concentrated in South Luangwa National Park and in the Lower Zambezi National Park, along the banks of the Zambezi River. Lodges along the Zambezi offer unforgettable canoe safaris and sunset boast cruises, with excellent bird life and large populations of elephant, buffalo and hippo. South Luangwa National Park is famous for its walking safaris and wilderness trails, with all of the Big Five, except rhino, in abundance.
For more affordable luxury, try Victoria Falls and Kafue National Park, or for the ultimate in exclusivity head northwest to Liuwa Plain National Park for Africa’s second largest wildebeest migration. Liuwa Plain has only one permanent camp inside the park, offering one of the most luxurious private lodge experiences in Zambia.
Zambia offers the best value for money in its midrange and more luxurious deals, with all-inclusive safaris often significantly cheaper than equivalent packages elsewhere in Africa. Equivalence is difficult to measure of course, but the quality and exclusivity of Zambia’s midrange camps and lodges is hard to beat. All-inclusive safaris are also the easiest way to see Zambia’s most pristine wilderness areas and enjoy some of the best wildlife-viewing conditions in Southern Africa.
At the lower end of the price range, you’ll find short, fully-catered camping safaris from between $175 and $200 a day, providing you’re willing to join a group. Tours usually run from Lusaka or Livingstone with a few days in Kafue and/or one of the other nearby parks. Short safaris like this can be an excellent add-on to a more budget-conscious holiday, while longer, fully-catered safaris are also available from $1200 to $1800 a week depending on the number of lodge nights and activities included. Self-catering, private houses are also an option, usually located in wonderful game-viewing areas. Prices can vary wildly, however – anything from $400 to $4000 a night. This can still represent good value for families and groups of six or more, although food and wildlife activities are usually not included.
More exclusive, private safari packages start at around $350 a day and these will probably also include a few nights of comfortable, full-catered camping. Budget $450 to $600 a day for private, all-inclusive lodge or tented camp deals, and in this bracket, you can expect very high-quality guiding, exclusive, pristine wilderness areas and lodge and tented camp accommodation at near-luxury standards.
Zambia offers excellent value on exclusive safaris and wildlife activities, but budget travelers will struggle to make the most of what’s available. In part this is because many of Zambia’s best wilderness areas are extremely hard to reach, with wonderfully isolated lodges that are therefore also very expensive to run. Just getting to these areas can hit the budget hard, with long 4×4 transfers or charter flights required. Staying close to Livingston and/or Lusaka will reduce costs, but limits your options to the immediate area.
Renting a camping-equipped 4×4 is certainly the most affordable way to explore Zambia properly, especially if you’re travelling in a small group. With four people in a vehicle you can expect to spend around $120 a person a day, including fuel, camping, park fees and food. Be aware, however, that Zambian roads can be challenging and some previous 4×4 experience is highly recommended.
On a very tight budget, your best bet is to base yourself in Livingstone and take advantage of the excellent adventure and safari options nearby. These can be pricey too, with a Victoria Falls bungee jump at $160 a person and white-water rafting at $130 a day. A double room at a backpackers starts at around $45 a night so If you’re just passing through Zambia you’ll probably spend around $50 a day on basic accommodation, food, drinks and public transport. This can easily become $150 a day with a guided safari and a few adventure activities thrown in.
Zambia’s village communities hold centuries of traditional wisdom to stop you in your tracks, but it’s Mother Nature’s ‘Smoke that Thunders’ (known as Victoria Falls to most) that steals the show as Zambia’s standout attraction. Thrilling safari activities play worthy supporting roles to Victoria Falls show-stopping spectacle.
Zambia is home to what is arguably the best white water river on earth. From the start of your adventure beneath Victoria Falls, this is a trip with it all. Great fun, warm white water rapids, stunning beaches to camp on, Zambia is so much more than a natural wonder and a river. You’ll see incredible wildlife during your holiday, sometimes even from your hotel.
Combine rivers reflecting sunrise, crashing waterfalls and an animal populated wilderness, for an unforgettable active holiday in Zambia. To follow nature’s path on foot is an experience as special as the diverse landscape you’ll explore. You will be mesmerised by the slower pace of life that flows in line with the rise and fall of the great Zambezi River, and awestruck by the raging rapids of Victoria Falls.
White River Rafting
Batoka Gorge is considered to be one of the best stretches of commercially run river in the world and provides one of the most intense sensory thrills fathomable. It has twenty three whitewater rapids and striking scenery deep within the sheer black cliffs which afford the adrenaline junkie a wild roller-coaster ride along a route carved over millenia by the Great Zambezi.
When the river is high, from March to July, only the last 13 rapids can be attempted. As the water subsides, from June to February, all 23 are navigable.
Expert tour operators ensure a safe and highly enjoyable experience for clients.
On reaching the base of the gorge, you have the choice of walking out or being hauled back up. The walk up has been designed as an integral part of the day’s activities. A gentle slope with plenty of rest stops has been chosen. It is a pretty walk, especially when all the trees are in leaf during the wetter summer season from November to March.
These activities are operated on a spectacular site above rapid number 7. You will freefall for about 50 metres before swinging out into the middle of the gorge. After several pendulum swings you will then be lowered to the ground where you can take a track back up to the top of the gorge. This can also be done as a tandem.
If you want to try a change from the more traditional abseiling, then you can also try rap jumping, where you descend the rock face facing the ground and keep pushing off from the rock face as you head towards the bottom of the gorge.
For the more adventurous, it’s possible to experience river boarding on the great Zambezi. Armed with a body board a wetsuit, a life jacket, helmet and fins, you will embark on a river journey playing in the currents, charging the rapids and surfing some of the world’s biggest freshwater standing waves.
The most notable difference between river surfing and rafting is that you are entirely responsible for managing your own vessel on the river. Instructors teach and guide you, but in the end it’s you taking on the rapids.
For true adventure, a self-drive 4×4 safari through Zambia is guaranteed to thrill. It’s best done well into the dry season (mid-June to October) when tracks inside the national parks are at their driest and there’s less chance of getting stuck. Even then, thorough preparation, good backup (minimum two vehicles) and some previous African 4×4 experience are essential.
Zambia is one of Southern Africa’s most challenging off-road destinations and you’ll need to be entirely self-sufficient. Essentials include a good map, a GPS with up-to-date software Tracks4Africa is best), vehicle-recovery equipment, spare tyres, a compressor, extra fuel, food, medical supplies and a satellite phone for emergencies.
If you’re keen on self-driving, but feel a little daunted, hop-in guides are sometimes available from camps inside Zambia’s national parks. For around $50 a day a guide can provide not only route and road advice, but also local wildlife and bird expertise. It’s a great way to heighten the experience, save time and reduce stress, especially for less-experienced drivers. For multi-day trips, guides normally bring their own tents and food. They can be hired via reputable in-country safari operators, but be sure to check availability well in advance.
The most popular, and probably the easiest, 4×4 route is up from Livingstone/Lusaka into the Luangwa Valley. The road from Lusaka is tarred (though badly potholed in places) and the network of tracks inside South Luangwa National Park is manageable, even for relatively inexperienced drivers. Campsites for self-drivers are all outside the park so head for Mfuwe Bridge and take day trips from there. From South Luangwa, the more intrepid can head even further north and explore the network of more demanding dirt tracks that cross North Luangwa National Park. The remote wilderness, abundance of game and lack of other travellers means you’ll likely have excellent wildlife sightings entirely to yourself.
Kafue National Park is another popular option for self-drive safaris. A tar road from Lusaka provides good access to Hook Bridge Gate and in the dry season the internal network of roads is extensive and very productive for spotting wildlife.
Western Zambia and the area around the upper Zambezi River is one of the more adventurous regions for experienced drivers. New tar roads have made access to parks such as Liuwa Plain easier, but there’s still a large network of sandy tracks on either side of the Zambezi River that feel utterly remote and will test your navigation skills. Along the river, a smattering of tiger fishing camps with good facilities complete a truly wild experience. Some even offer multi-day river safaris up through the Barotse Floodplain to the Angolan border. For those who love being out on the water, a guided river-whacking adventure, with wild camping along the Zambezi River, is the kind of experience that will live on in the memory for a lifetime.
Zambia is the ideal destination for a birding safari – one of the rarest birds in Africa, the Shoebill is found there. With over 700 species found throughout the diverse ecosystems, Zambia is a hot birding location and one of the best times for birding is just before the summer rains arrive when the local population is increased by the arrival of many migrant species.
Most of the avifauna is found on the Central African Plateau as this region has a diversity of ecosystems. There are several hotspots, including Bangweulu Swamps, Lochinvar National Park, Bangweulu Swamps, the South Luangwa National Park and Kafue. Another great spot with a dam that attracts a wide array of species, is the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage.
A canoeing safari offers a unique way to spot birds in Zambia. Drift down the river with binoculars and a checklist in hand. Lots of excellent game sightings too. Choose from a tranquil upper Zambezi cruise just above the Victoria Falls, or for a wilder adventure paddle down the lower Zambezi with game parks close by.
Lochinvar National Park is a small 450km2 game park on the Kafue floodplains which has 428 known species.
Most of the game lodges in Zambia have expert guides who are skilled bird spotters and who will be happy to take you on walks or drives through the bush.
Lochinvar National Park
The Lochinvar National Park is reputedly one of the best places in the world to see water birds in great concentrations. Thousands arrive during the summer months when the rains occur. Although the park is accessible there are no serviced campsites, so you need to be completely self-reliant.
It is a good place to see the endangered Wattle Crane, Greater and Lesser Flamingos and watch the daring acrobatics of the African Skimmers. There are numerous species of duck, including the Whistling Duck and Fulvous duck. Additionally, there are many species of waders to delight as well.
It’s not just waterfowl that birders can look forward to as the park is home to over 50 species of raptors including Black Sparrow hawks and Peregrine falcons. Keep an eye open for the Narina Trogon and yellow throated Sandgrouse.
South Luangwa National Park
Perhaps a more accessible region for excellent birding is the South Luangwa National Park, which is home to around 400 species of the 732 species found in Zambia. Birding here is at its best at the end of the dry season when the lagoons begin to recede.
The best time to visit is during the wet season in summer between November and March.
Zambia is an incredible country to photograph, with its stunning wilderness landscapes, superb birdlife and some of the best opportunities for up-close wildlife interactions in Africa. Every corner of the country has something to offer, but two experiences in particular stand out. In late winter, ideally just before the rains begin in November, keen photographers should head to Liuwa Plain National Park where tens of thousands of blue wildebeest gather in what is the second largest wildebeest migration in Africa (after the Serengeti). Then, for something truly unique, try a wet season photographic safari to the Luangwa Valley and explore the swollen Luangwa floodplain by boat, drifting across the mirror-like waters through a dreamscape wilderness of half-submerged trees.
Of these two photo safari options, Liuwa Plain is perhaps the trickier to undertake. If you’re self-driving, then some prior 4×4 experience is essential and it’s best to travel in convoy, especially if you’re going for the wildebeest migration which coincides so closely with the onset of the summer rains. It’s difficult to time the journey with precision and if the rains begin early local rivers can flood quickly, turning roads to mud and making driving near impossible.
Unless you’re very experienced it’s best to join an organised tour. Dedicated photographic safaris are available, specifically aimed at capturing the wildebeest. There’s also a single high-end luxury lodge in Liuwa Plain National Park where guests can fly in and photograph the region on private game drives. Liuwa Plain is a fantastic birding destination year-round, but the coming rains signal the return of migrant species and the wet season is the best time to photograph them in their breeding plumage.
The best way to reach the Luangwa Valley during the wet season is by air, although road transfers from Lusaka to South Luangwa’s Mfuwe Gate are still possible even during the rains. Both regular and dedicated photographic safaris are available, but a boat-based photo safari is not to be missed if you love unusual landscapes and birds. There’s also the opportunity to photograph other iconic African species in a rarely-seen environment. This period in Zambia is commonly referred to as the ‘emerald season’ and it’s unrecognisable from the desiccated wilderness most see when they visit the country in winter. These exclusive rainy-season experiences aren’t cheap, but package rates are far lower than during the July to October peak. March and early April are the best emerald season months, when the floodwaters are at their highest and the afternoon storms less severe.
Just about every kind of holiday in Zambia is intrinsically relaxing – there’s something especially rejuvenating about spending time in such wild, pristine wilderness. That said, there’s perhaps nothing more quintessentially relaxing than a fishing holiday, and a fishing holiday on a fully-catered houseboat is hard to beat. Whether to fish or not is completely up to you of course. You could just as easily sip cocktails on the deck, watching the fish eagles fish instead, in between more drinks and naps. Lake Kariba is a wonderful place to unwind like this, and the sleepy town of Siavonga is where most of Zambia’s houseboat fleet is based.
Many of Lake Kariba’s houseboats operate from the Zimbabwean side – Kariba town itself is the focal point for houseboat adventures. The lake is enormous and big enough to accommodate hundreds of vessels without feeling crowded, but the Zambian side is certainly the least busy, with even less chance of seeing other boats as you cruise. On multi-day voyages, you’ll explore the lake’s many inlets, then drift out towards the centre to take in the vast scale. Hippos and crocodiles are common along the lake shore, but they rarely venture out to disturb the deeper waters.
Smaller launches can be towed behind the main houseboat allowing anglers to search out fishing spots more easily. There’s good fishing on Lake Kariba throughout the year, but locals say that months containing the letter ‘r’ are best for tigerfish. September and October are particularly good for tigers and the season continues throughout the summer months when fishing on Zambia’s rivers is banned. Most operators will provide fishing gear and bait, but you’ll need to check carefully when booking and place any orders in advance.
Houseboat holidays are ideal for larger groups, with most offering cabin berths for between 10 and 30 people. They always come fully crewed and fishing guides can be arranged. It’s up to you whether you’d like to self-cater or hire a chef.
Dotted around the lake are also a number of excellent, laid back fishing lodges – another very tranquil option if you’re not in a group. Again, fishing is not compulsory and you can always relax by the pool or take a sunset cruise. But do try and get out on the water at some point during your stay and let some of Kariba’s magic sooth of your tensions away.
Zambia’s tented camps and lodges are growing in stature. They may not yet be as well-known as those in neighbouring Botswana and South Africa, but they offer excellent value and are ideal for couples and honeymooners looking for an all-inclusive romantic break. Zambia has a reputation for smaller, more intimate camps and lodges. These are often owner-run, with attentive, friendly guides and staff who have a reputation for being both supremely knowledgeable about the local fauna and flora, and extremely accommodating to guests. Many of Zambia’s best intimate lodges are also situated in the most pristine corners of the country. These stunning, hard-to-reach wildlife areas are often empty of other visitors, with no access for day trippers and no other camps or lodges for miles around.
Spending time in such magnificent, unspoilt wilderness is the sort of romantic experience that feels like a dream. Think of elephants sauntering past your flung-back chalet windows, and outdoor sunset baths overlooking the African plains. Of course, it’s also the sort of experience that comes at a price – expect to pay anything from $600 to over $1000 a person a night for the most exclusive tented camps and lodges. This will usually include park fees, all meals, alcoholic beverages, wildlife excursions, activities and transfers. For an all-inclusive luxury safari, this is very competitively priced for the region, especially considering that Zambia offers some of the very best wildlife viewing in Africa. For that once-in-a-lifetime experience with a loved one, Zambia is an underrated delight that still feels very much like Africa’s best-kept secret.
To top it all off, be sure to include a few days at Victoria Falls – one of Africa’s great highlights and arguably the most impressive waterfall in the world. The falls are at their most inspiring from March to June when the flow of water is at its greatest and huge plumes of mist and spray pour up into the skies. If you live in the region, it makes an excellent spontaneous break. Local carriers offer frequent flight specials to Livingstone and last minute package deals, many aimed specifically at couples, are also regularly available. Whether it’s a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River, a walk through the evergreen forests of Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, or a helicopter flip over Victoria Falls, a romantic holiday to one of Africa’s most legendary landmarks is one that will not disappoint.
For a more active holiday, try a walking safari. Zambia is arguably the best country in Africa for guided game walks and is widely recognised for its enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable field guides. Now widespread throughout Southern Africa’s major parks, the concept was first introduced in the Luangwa Valley, which remains the county’s top walking safari destination. Luangwa’s walking safaris are small scale and extremely popular. So popular, in fact, that some trails book out far in advance. You’ll need to start planning up to two years ahead of time if you want to experience the best trails in peak season.
Walking safaris come in various forms, the most strenuous being multi-day, mobile safaris, where you’ll hike from temporary camp to temporary camp, covering eight to 12km each day. The pace is generally slow and steady, with plenty of breaks to appreciate the surroundings. It’s far more active than sitting in a vehicle, but the idea is to take things slowly and really get closer to nature. Zambia’s guides will turn every tiny detail into a captivating story – from the barest hint of an animal’s paw print to the tiny flowers and insects buzzing by. Encountering predators on foot is extremely rare, but there’s a huge thrill just knowing they’re around. There’s always some danger with being out in such wild country on foot, but with such experienced guides the risks are very low.
North and South Luangwa, the Lower Zambezi and Kafue National Parks all offer excellent walking safaris and June to September is the best time to go. October is prime game-viewing season, but it can be too hot for comfortable walking, except perhaps in the very early morning. If you like the idea of a walking safari, but not a multi-day hike, then shorter day and half-day excursions are also available (in fact they’re the norm). These are often the highlight of any safari in Zambia – definitely not to be missed if the opportunity arises!
For an even wilder active holiday consider a guided canoe safari on the lower Zambezi River. Again, half and full-day options are available from most camps in the region, or you can paddle the entire length of the Lower Zambezi National Park, finishing up on the Mozambique border. As with the multi-day walking safaris, these canoe safaris are not meant to be overly strenuous. If a head-wind kicks up it can indeed be heavy going, but the route is always run downstream and not intended to be a workout. Again, there are risks involved, this time mostly from grumpy hippos. It’s definitely one for the more adventurous as you’ll be carrying your own gear and camping wild the riverbank each night. This is one of the wildest stretches of river in Africa and big game sightings are virtually guaranteed.
Because of its relative late start in the global safari market, Zambia is perfectly positioned to offer couples the kind of unique experiences that its neighbours cannot. Many of its lodges, hotels and tented camps are small, intimate and owner run, which means there is healthy competition and a real commitment to giving guests a once-in-a-lifetime, truly memorable experience. Finding the best region in Zambia for a couples’ vacation depends largely on your budget. For remote exclusivity, wildlife destinations such as Liuwa Plain National Park on the Barotse Floodplain and South Luangwa National Park in the Luangwa Valley offer the kind of all-inclusive, fly-in safaris befitting a Hollywood-style honeymoon. Generally, the more central parks such as Kafue National Park and Lower Zambezi National Park have a broader range of accommodation to suit couples looking for a more affordable break. Then there are the Upper and Lower Zambezi valleys where close proximity to airports in Livingstone and Lusaka make destinations such as Victoria Falls and Lake Kariba great for couples and honeymooners looking for a short holiday.
For couples who love wildlife holidays, Zambia offers something truly unique. Towards the end of the rainy season, as the rivers swell to bursting and turn much of the landscape into inaccessible wetland, a handful of lodges remain open, offering guests the chance to fly in and experience a safari by boat. Certain lodges in Liuwa Plain and South Luangwa National Park are best known for these ‘Emerald Season,’ experiences. Floating through extraordinary scenes of submerged trees, beneath dense, green canopies alive with birds, makes for a romantic vacation unrivalled anywhere else in the world.
More affordable safaris and some of the best dry-season game viewing in Zambia can be found inside the Lower Zambezi National Park, where 4×4 self-drive travellers are welcome and the scope of accommodation includes budget lodges, luxury tented camps and campsites. Of course, no couples’ holiday is complete without a visit to Victoria Falls. The go-to African destination for romance has it all – sunset cruises on the Zambezi River, the wild rush of water over Mosi-oa-Tunya’s misty walkways and a range of all-inclusive holiday packages for a wide range of budgets.
Because Zambia’s lodges, hotels and tented camps are usually smaller and more intimate than those of its neighbors, they also tend to get booked up quicker. Book at least six months in advance to avoid disappointment, and a year in advance if possible. Ensure you have up-to-date health and travel insurance and vaccination certificates. Guests should consider their choice of clothing too. Revealing items, such as very short shorts and short skirts, can cause offence and are generally frowned upon. Homosexuality is illegal in Zambia and public displays of affection (whether same sex or heterosexual) may also cause tension, although it should be noted that within the confines of lodges and hotels these attitudes are more relaxed. While rates are generally given as per person sharing, some lodges will offer special couples’ rates for extended stays. It’s important to ask whether these include Zambia’s compulsory bed levy, which is from $10 a person a day and can add up quickly if not included in the price.
The last 10 years has seen a marked rise in family-friendly safaris in Zambia, with reduced prices for children and more activities geared towards kids and young adults. Not all lodges allow children, however, and some have age restrictions of eight or 12. Families in general, and especially those with very young children, can find excellent value and flexibility in Zambia’s growing selection of exclusive-use safari houses. These can be found throughout the country, but especially in the prime wildlife regions around the Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa National Parks.
The upper Zambezi Valley – Livingstone, Victoria Falls and surrounds – is also well-suited for a family holiday. Several tour operators, lodges and hotels have facilities and itineraries that cater for all ages. As Zambia’s tourism hub, Livingstone has a variety of half-day and day tours with relatively short transit times that give families some flexibility when choosing what to do each day.
All of Zambia’s major parks offer excellent wildlife and nature, so choose a destination based on a lodge or hotel’s family policy rather than focussing on a specific region. The Lower Zambezi and Luangwa Valley offer the widest range of family-friendly accommodation, with everything from low-key camps and private houses to very high-end luxury lodges.
For families with teenagers (and older) Zambia has great potential for a truly memorable holiday. White water rafting down the Zambezi River, bungee jumping from Victoria Falls Bridge, and abseiling into the Bakota Gorge are the sort of activities where bragging rights and family bonding come guaranteed. For the younger ones, a half-day tour of Victoria Falls or a visit to the Victoria Falls Snake Park or Crocodile Ranch top the list of highlights in and around Livingstone.
Zambia also boasts some of the best walking safaris in Africa, in fact, it’s in the Luangwa Valley where the concept of walking safaris first began. Zambia’s award-winning guides undergo rigorous testing, and many are specifically trained to guide young adults. Walking through the bush with some of the world’s best safari guides can be the perfect recreation for inquiring young minds, although it should be noted that national parks do not allow children under 12 to join a walking (or canoeing) safari. Various camps also impose their own, higher, age limits so it’s important check with your hotel, lodge or tented camp operator before you book.
Make sure that your family’s immunisations are up to date, especially those for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), tetanus, polio, diphtheria, hepatitis A and typhoid. Immunisation against rabies, hepatitis B, and TB are also recommended. Zambia is a malaria area so you’ll need to consult with your doctor on the available prophylaxis options for children.
Note that some lodges that do allow families also insist that those travelling with children (under eight mostly) should reserve a private vehicle and/or guide for game drives. Make sure you’re absolutely clear on all aspects of your accommodation’s family policy before you make a booking.
Although it may not be the most prolific period for wildlife sightings, families should also consider visiting Zambia in the shoulder- or off-seasons – April, May and November. Lodges are generally quieter then, and thus often more amenable to hosting younger children. Rates are also lower out of season and family discounts are more frequently available.
As Zambia’s road and transport infrastructure continues to develop, even its more remote regions will become exciting options for solo travellers. For the time being, however, the country’s more isolated corners are best explored in company, and ideally with an extra vehicle as backup if you’re planning to self-drive. In general, solo travellers will have the best experience by basing themselves in more populated regions where there’s good infrastructure, a host of established tour operators and a community of fellow travellers to meet and team up with. Livingstone delivers best on all of these. Its proximity to Victoria Falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park
Kafue National Park and even Lake Kariba mean that a holiday centred in Zambia’s southernmost town is still the best option for those going at it alone. Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, is the other good alternative. Many group tours start in Lusaka and you’ll find a number of trusted operators offering safaris and adventure holidays in the country’s central and northern regions, especially to Lower Zambezi National Park, Lake Kariba and South Luangwa National Park.
Visiting Victoria Falls itself is a must. The walkways through Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, which borders the falls and the stretch of the Zambezi River above them, are safe, fun and easy to navigate alone. Further options for solo travellers include a sunset cruise, kayaking, the famous Victoria Falls bungee jump, white-water rafting, or tiger fishing on the Zambezi River. Although the Zambezi flows through six countries, here – above Victoria Falls – is where travellers can experience Africa’s ‘River of Life’ at its finest and most spectacular.
North of the falls, Kafue National Park is great for wildlife-lovers and can be visited by joining a two- or three-day group tour from Livingstone. More adventurous solo travellers can head further afield to the Barotse Floodplain and Ngonye Falls on four- or five-day tiger fishing safaris. Almost equidistant from Lusaka and Livingstone, Lake Kariba is another top highlight, with everything from water sports to Big Five game viewing on offer.
Solo self-driving is not recommended in Zambia. While the country is relatively safe and its people among the friendliest on the continent, the lack of infrastructure outside its built-up areas makes it extremely risky to travel alone. As a solo traveller, your safest (and certainly most affordable) option is to join one of the many group safaris offered by private tour operators. These usually start and end in Livingstone or Lusaka and everything from budget camping to more luxurious group adventures are available. Ensure you have up-to-date health and travel insurance and vaccination certificates.
English is widely spoken in Zambia but learning a little about the local customs and attitudes is always appreciated and will also help keep you from becoming a target for thieves and swindlers. These are not a major problem in Zambia, but be especially careful and attentive in tourist hotspots. It’s best not to walk alone at night, especially in the larger towns, and during the day move confidently and purposefully. Take particular care when drawing money and don’t carry more than you need with you on the streets.
Although not entirely unique to Zambia, the country stands apart from others in the region in that the majority of its lodges and bush camps are owner-run. This tends to create a more personal experience – a homely kind of service that draws people back again and again. There are a number of luxury lodges to choose from, but also a good selection of smaller, eco-conscious operators. These offer low-density tourism at a slight premium, but with the benefit of having the spectacular, remote wilderness almost entirely to yourself. Private, exclusive-use houses can also be found, stunningly situated in pristine, isolated areas and complete with cooks, carers and expert guides.
These exclusive homes, as well as many of Zambia’s private safari camps, are also very often family-friendly, many offering guides that have specific experience with children and young-adults. This can turn a family safari into a fantastic learning experience for all, although it should be noted that kids under 12 are not allowed on walking safaris in any of Zambia’s national parks.
But it’s the sheer remoteness of Zambia’s many wonderful wilderness regions that makes it such an excellent and repeatable safari destination. There are few places left in the world where such wild, solitary experiences are still possible and this, together with its quality camps, passionate guides and rare wildlife, is what consistently pulls visitors back for more.
Zambia is perhaps Southern Africa’s best kept secret, although in recent years it’s a secret that’s increasingly being told. For a long time, Botswana and South Africa have been the region’s most popular wildlife and safari destinations, but Zambia is fast emerging as an excellent alternative and indeed, for some experiences, there’s no better place to travel.
Zambia has 20 national parks of various sizes with roughly a third of the country protected within wildlife management areas of one form or another. A few of these parks, South Luangwa and Kafue in particular, are considered to be some of the best places in Africa to do a walking safari, not only for their fantastic wildlife and pristine, unfenced wilderness, but especially for the quality of their guides. Zambian field guides are recognised as some of the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable in the world, winning guiding awards and accolades year after year.
The rare black lechwe
And they have plenty to be enthusiastic about as Zambia isn’t just somewhere to tick off the Big Five. For one thing, rhino are almost non-existent in Zambia’s major parks, but more than that it’s the rare species and remarkable migrations that make a holiday to Zambia so special. As the first summer rains fall in early November, thousands of blue wildebeest congregate in Liuwa Plain National Park for Africa’s second largest wildebeest migration (after the Serengeti). At the same time, some 850km to the northeast, up to 10 million fruit bats can be seen swarming across the skies of Kasanka National Park, and the very rare black lechwe antelope can be spotted in the water courses nearby.
But it’s Zambia’s two ‘most unique’ attractions that are also its most famous. Both are shared along the border with Zimbabwe and both are the biggest of their kind in the world. In full flood, Victoria Falls boasts Earth’s largest sheet of falling water and, downstream, Lake Kariba is the world’s largest man-made dam by volume. Both offer superb adventurous, and more sedate activities as well, from white water rafting, bungee jumping and skydiving to canoe safaris, fishing and houseboat cruises.
The choice depends entirely on the type of holiday you prefer.
When choosing between a Zambia Safari and Botswana Safari, it is clear that both are incredibly protected and have outstanding wildlife and national parks, but each is tailored to a very different style of traveller.
Botswana is possibly the best self-drive safari destination in Southern Africa, with decent connecting roads, plentiful wildlife, plenty of inexpensive campsites, and an effective bureaucracy that makes camp and national park bookings pretty simple with a little practice.
A Botswana safari can also be considered one of the most luxurious safari destinations in Africa, with many first-rate luxury lodges, most especially in and around the Okavango Delta.
Though Botswana caters to both confident self-drive 4×4 explorers and well-heeled safari-goers, quality mid-range and more affordable luxury accommodation can be difficult to come by.
When comparing Zambia vs Botswana in this category, Zambia has much more to offer, with outstanding luxury experiences that are often half the price of comparable lodges in Botswana and private, exclusive-use houses and smaller eco-lodges that offer great value, especially for families and larger groups.
Zambia’s poorer-quality highways and more difficult-to-access wilderness areas make self-drive travellers’ lives much more difficult.
Many who accept the conditions are rewarded with some of Africa’s finest nature and desert views, but self-drive visitors are few and far between.
When comparing Zambia vs Botswana, this low-density exclusivity separates a Zambian safari as the perfect location for a luxury safari experience that won’t break the bank.
Zambia and Namibia are two of Southern Africa’s best safari destinations, but in many ways, they couldn’t be more different. Both have vast, isolated wilderness areas where intrepid travellers can find themselves entirely alone. But where Zambia offers a more traditional safari experience of lush, sprawling parks and abundant wildlife, Namibia is far more desolate, with breath-taking desert views and wildlife confined to a few key areas.
Both Zambia and Namibia have excellent luxury lodges and cater very well for high-end travellers. If you’re on a budget, however, Namibia is more affordable, mostly because of its more developed road and camping infrastructure, which makes self-drive holidays easier.
Driving in Zambia can be a challenge, especially during the summer rains when many roads become impassable. This keeps visitor numbers low, even in the best wildlife viewing areas, an ideal setting for Zambia’s smaller, owner-run bush camps, which can then offer exclusive wildlife experiences at excellent value for money.
Namibia is perfect if you love the thought of being completely independent, adore isolation and stunning views, and are more focused on the wilderness than the wildlife. Zambia, however, has some of the best game viewing and guided safaris in Southern Africa, a chance to see rare and iconic species far from any crowds, and the opportunity for action and adventure on the Zambezi River – a flight over Victoria Falls or a cruise on Lake Kariba.
Technically Zambia has all the Big Five, but rhino are extremely rare and confined to the Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) and North Luangwa National Parks. Elephant, buffalo and lion are common across multiple parks however, and Kafue, South Luangwa and the Lower Zambezi are all well-known for leopard.
Look beyond the Big Five and you’ll find Zambia full of fascinating rare and endemic species such as black lechwe, Crawshay’s zebra and Thornicroft’s giraffe. Liuwa Plain National Park hosts Africa’s second largest wildebeest migration in November each year, and Kasanka National Park’s 10 million fruit bats take to the skies from October to December.
One of nature’s toughest predators, crocodiles abound in Zambia’s many lakes
Zambia is one of the wettest countries in Southern Africa and the rivers and lakes offer excellent fishing alongside thriving populations of hippo and crocodile. The Zambezi River is famous for its tigerfish and numerous fishing lodges can be found all along its length.
May to October is the best time for wildlife viewing when the weather is drier and the vegetation at its thinnest. This makes the animals easier to spot and the lower winter temperatures are also more pleasant. By mid-October, however, it’s already getting very hot and when the rains arrive in November they can make the roads in the more isolated regions completely impassable. For this reason, many camps close their operations completely between December and March, with April, May and November considered the lower-rate, shoulder season.
The Black-cheeked love bird | Credit: William and Nancy Johnston
There are so many ways to experience Zambia that an entire book would be required for an exhaustive pre-holiday checklist. If you’re on an all-inclusive fly-in safari, for example, then just about every need will be thoroughly taken care of, from food to flight transfers to emergency evacuation services. Not so at all if you’re planning a self-drive safari. Zambia is perhaps the most challenging country to self-drive in Southern Africa and should only be considered if you have prior 4×4 experience.
There is, however, some information that pertains to all visitors. Travel documents (passports and immunisations) must be up-to-date and travel insurance is essential and required for entry into the country (you can also buy it at the border). Besides the usual narcotics, explosives and pornography, palm tree products and henna are also banned. Electronic items should be listed (with serial numbers) and declared upon entry. It’s a rarely enforced regulation, but a spot check could create unnecessary problems and delays.
Tap water, while drunk without trouble by locals, has a tendency to upset travellers’ stomachs so it’s best to buy bottled water to be safe. Very importantly, Zambia’s top lodges and destinations fill up quickly, especially in peak season. Book well in advance to avoid disappointment (up to two years in some cases). As a general rule, it’s always best to get up-to-date information from your hotel or lodge a few weeks before you travel. For more information, the Zambia Tourism Board (+260-211-229-087, zambiatourism.com) and the Zambian Department of National Parks and Wildlife (+260-211-278-129, +260-211-278-482) are good resources, although you might need several attempts to get through.
Zambia’s visa regulations are fairly complex and change regularly, but broadly speaking there are three main categories. Firstly, those who are exempt from needing a visa at all (South African citizens for example), then those who can purchase a visa on arrival, and finally those nationals who need to apply for and obtain a visa before they travel.
North American and most European nationals fall into the second group and can purchase a $50 single entry or $80 double entry visa on arrival. Both are valid for 90 days, but the double entry can be used twice within that period. In the past, this was particularly useful for a trip to the Zimbabwean side of Victoria Falls, but after being introduced, then cancelled, and now apparently reinstated, the KAZA Univisa is now best for that purpose. Available on arrival at the Livingstone and Kazungula border posts, and also at Livingstone and Lusaka airports, the KAZA allows multiple access between Zambia and Zimbabwe (as well as day trips into Botswana). It costs $50 and is valid for 30 days.
All visitors requiring a visa will need to provide details of their stay in Zambia (lodge or hotel name, booking dates and telephone numbers) and produce a valid passport with no fewer than six months before expiry. You’ll also need at least three blank pages. Further details about the KAZA Univisa, which may well be cancelled again by the time you read this, can be found at zambiaimmigration.gov.zm. Visit zambiatourism.com/travel-info/visa-information for a full list of visa-exempt countries if you do need to apply in advance, online visa applications can be made at evisa.zambiaimmigration.gov.zm.
Zambia’s Kenneth Kuanda International Airport is set to be remodelled in the near future
Zambia is best accessed via its two major airports – Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka and Harry Mwaanga International Airport in Livingstone. There are also a number of land border posts with neighbouring countries: Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
Travellers arriving by vehicle will likely cross at one of the three most popular land borders: Kazangula from Botswana, Victoria Falls Bridge from Zimbabwe, or Katima Mulilo from Namibia. These points of entry are all on well-established routes that connect Zambia to other major safari destinations in Southern Africa. They can be a bit chaotic, especially the border with Zimbabwe, although day-trippers at Victoria Falls are usually processed quickly. The Kazangula border currently involves a ferry across the Zambezi River and depending how busy it is, the process can take all day. A new bridge is set to open in 2019 and this should drastically speed up the process.
Flying to Zambia is easy, though not cheap, with good international deals usually available to Johannesburg, Dubai, Addis Ababa or Windhoek, then relatively expensive connecting flights from there. Flights from Europe are significantly cheaper than from the Americas and usually have shorter layovers. The more affordable flights can have very long connections. Expect to pay anything from $800 from Europe and $1200 from North America and up to twice that for minimum travel times.
Zambian self-drive adventures may become tricky during the rainy season
Broadly speaking, there are three options for travelling in and around Zambia: by fly-in safari direct to your lodge, by road on a 4×4 self-drive or transfer, or rather less efficiently, by public transport.
While it can be fun, and is definitely the most affordable option, public transport in Zambia is unreliable and slow, and you’ll certainly miss out on valuable safari time. Road and air transfers are far quicker and more efficient, and most of Zambia’s main camps and lodges offer one or both when conditions allow. Camps in extremely remote areas may only be accessible by air and others that offer a choice during the dry season (May to November) usually get completely cut off by the summer rains. If these stay open at all, it’s for fly-in safaris only, although you’ll often find good deals and even free flights during this less popular period (December to April).
Flights are obviously the most expensive transfer option, but they’re also the quickest and by far the most comfortable. Zambia’s dirt roads are rough even when they’re dry and road transfers to the major parks from Livingston and Lusaka can take many hours.
Self-driving in Zambia can be daunting for first-timers. Even along its major arteries, road conditions range from immaculate to appalling, often with little warning. Off-road driving can be some of the most challenging in Southern Africa and in summer the rains make most roads impassable, regardless of your vehicle or 4×4 skills. From June to November, however, and with a little patience, experience and some local knowledge, driving in Zambia needn’t be as daunting as it first seems. Exploring Zambia in a 4×4 is one of Africa’s great experiences and there’s nothing quite like the sense of achievement of arriving at a lodge or tented camp after a long, challenging day. If you do plan to self-drive keep these points in mind:
Don’t drive after dark at all. Zambia’s roads are shared by livestock, people, bicycles and vehicles, the latter with a seemingly wanton disregard for headlights
The general speed limit is 100km/h in open areas and 50km/h in towns. Keep a sharp eye out for these signs. Police tend to set up camp just behind them
Look out for speed humps. Almost all major towns have a set on their outskirts. They may look small but they are nasty and will damage your vehicle if taken at speed
Keep an eye out for branches in the road. They signal that a vehicle has broken down ahead and you should slow down
The currency in Zambia is the kwacha (K). Official regulations state that all payments within the country must be made in kwacha, but US dollars are widely accepted by many of the larger hotels, lodges and tour operators. Indeed, prices for visas at the border, import taxes, and national park fees are all quoted in US dollars, which confuses the matter even more. If you’re on an all-inclusive safari most expenses will be taken care of anyway, and any tips or sundries can be paid for in dollars. If you’re self-driving, then carry enough cash in both currencies. Purchasing fuel is almost always a cash-only transaction, and often only payable in kwacha.
Credit and debit cards (Visa more so than MasterCard) are accepted at prominent stores, major supermarkets and large hotels, although these facilities become significantly less common when you leave Lusaka and Livingstone. Similarly, ATMs are widespread in urban centres but increasingly less frequent (and less reliable) in the country’s interior. Very few places accept travellers’ cheques or American Express so it’s best to avoid those two options entirely. As with most African countries, cash is king and if you’re carrying US dollars, smaller denominations are preferable ($1, $5, $10 and $20 bills). Larger notes are the most commonly forged and, as a result, vendors are suspicious of them. Be sure to inform your bank of your travel plans so that your card is not blocked due to suspected fraud. If you’re bringing cash into Zambia, any amount over $5000 must be declared on arrival.
On the whole, Zambia is a safe country and locals are generally very welcoming and friendly towards visitors. That said, it’s still very poor and there’s a moderate risk of pick-pocketing and opportunistic theft in busy urban areas. With a few simple precautions and some local knowledge, you can minimise the risks to almost zero. Violent crime is extremely unlikely and if you’re on an all-inclusive safari, staying in lodges and hotels, then you have essentially no cause for concern.
If you are on the streets, especially in busy, touristy areas such as around Victoria Falls, follow these general rules to avoid becoming an obvious target:
Don’t carry expensive items out in the open (cameras, mobile phones etc.) and avoid excessive, flashy jewellery
If you’re carrying cash, keep a small, daily amount separate. Don’t pull out your entire wad of notes for every small payment
Avoid walking alone in touristy areas, and never walk alone at night
Move with confidence and don’t act lost – even if you are! Head for somewhere that looks reputable and ask for directions
If you have a vehicle, don’t leave valuables visible on the seats and don’t leave it unattended at all if you have equipment strapped to the outside
Don’t park at night on urban streets – always find safe, secure parking when you’re within city limits
If, for any reason, you do find yourself a victim, the best course of action is to hand over your possessions. Contact your lodge, guide or tour operator immediately and get their assistance and advice in reporting the matter to the police.
The lodges in Zambia are extremely accommodating – of guests’ specific needs and Western customs in general. Courtesy is expected, but nothing unusual there, and beyond that visitors will rarely notice if any cultural norms are being stretched. Homosexuality is illegal in Zambia, although the law is rarely enforced. Most lodges won’t have any problem with same-sex guests booking a double room, but it’s worth being upfront about your requirements to avoid any misunderstandings.
Official Zambian regulations stipulate that children under 12 years old may not participate in walking or canoe safaris and some lodges impose higher the age restrictions for their own safety reasons. Each lodge and safari operator has specific rules for children so be sure to check carefully with each before you book.
Less of a rule and more something to be aware of is how lodges handle the daily park fees payable to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. Fees differ between international residents, SADC citizens and locals, and while they’re almost always incorporated into the cost of all-inclusive stays, they may be charged as an additional expense for those arriving in their own vehicle.
If you’re flying directly into a lodge on a transfer, it’s important to note that most chartered flights have a maximum luggage allowance. 12kg per person is the normal limit, and for light aircraft flights only soft bags are allowed. Soft bags are important because of the small packing space available. A large, tough, dustproof duffle bag usually works very well.
Basic rules for game drives follow the same standards as the rest of Africa – don’t get out the vehicle unless instructed, and don’t disturb the animals. Specific lodge or safari rules will be thoroughly explained by your guide. They’re never draconian and always have guest safety in mind.
Zambia’s lodges serve excellent Western-style food, with a few local delicacies thrown in for the adventurous. Meats include local game, beef, chicken and freshwater fish along with rice, potatoes, salad, fruit and vegetables.
Outside the camps and lodges, Zambia’s staple food is nshima – a thick maize-based starch most often served with red meat, chicken or fish, and accompanied with side of relish. You’ll find it in most smaller restaurants and it’s delicious. Definitely worth trying at least once.
Tipping is not compulsory but always appreciated. Although when and how to do so can be tricky. At a local eatery it’s not expected, but at more upmarket restaurants you can tip 10% for good service. At camps and lodges, tipping guides is the norm, but different establishments handle the tipping process differently. Some expect you to tip staff directly, while others implement a tip box which is then split between all. Many camps also exclude guides and spotters from the communal tip box, assuming that guides will be tipped individually after each activity.
As with most things in Zambia, asking what the policy is ahead of time is the best way to avoid misunderstandings. As a general rule, tip guides for their efforts at the end of your stay (not after each activity) and if there’s no communal tip box then tip the camp staff separately (assuming you feel the service has been worth it!). Between $5 and $10 is generous per activity, and around the same rate per day is a good tip for staff.
Zambia contains a rich mix of cultures with nuances and social norms that differ between regions. Practically speaking, however, there are just a handful of social conventions that you need to be aware of and a friendly attitude and a dose of deference will smooth out most faux pas.
The first thing to note is that Zambia is relatively conservative and predominantly Christian, and many views and attitudes reflect this. Homosexuality is illegal and although it’s overlooked within the confines most lodges, open displays of same-sex affection can theoretically land you in prison. Even public affection between heterosexual couples is frowned upon and revealing clothing of any kind (including shorts for men) is considered improper. Keep your clothing choices sensible and practical, and avoid camo and military fatigues. These in particular are not considered appropriate civilian attire.
Interactions between Zambians are unhurried and courteous. If you need assistance, or are asking for directions, be sure to greet the person first. Politeness and genuine interest will get you far in Zambia. Ask how people are doing first, and don’t jump right in with questions.
In Lusaka and Livingstone, you’ll find almost everything that’s available in western shopping centres, save perhaps for bespoke clothing brands. There are large supermarkets, pharmacies, fashion retailers and well-known fast food outlets, and a growing number of well-stocked strip malls are also popping up along the highways. Smaller Asian-owned corner stores sell everything from electronics to exotic spices. These are the main source of supplies outside the urban areas and are common throughout the country.
There are also a significant number of designer curio stores near major attractions and inside the airports. These often contain items (especially carvings) imported from Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Favour locally made souvenirs instead and you’ll also be contributing to the livelihood of Zambia’s home-grown carvers, weavers and clothing-makers. Their quality of workmanship is generally outstanding, and the best deals can be found in markets away from the tourist attractions.
Bargaining is an innate part of the purchasing process and paying about half of the initial asking price is usually a reasonable deal. You can also purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from markets (they’re sometimes better than those found in supermarkets) but exercise caution with raw meats. These are often kept out in the open and are susceptible to the elements (and flies!).
The first thing to do when preparing for Zambia is to book an appointment with a local travel clinic and go and speak to a doctor. The internet is full of African health and safety horror stories, but for safari holidays the risks are generally very low and/or easily manageable. If you’re at all concerned, speak to a professional. They’re likely to advise you to get your immunisations up to date and will be able to prescribe appropriate anti-malarial drugs. They’ll also have the latest information on the yellow fever vaccine. Regulations are constantly changing and have relaxed somewhat in recent years.
If you have any allergies or require chronic medication, then be sure to bring it with you. If it’s anything exotic, then also check whether it’s legal in Zambia or you might run into trouble at customs. Finally, make sure you have comprehensive travel insurance that includes full evacuation and repatriation cover. Familiarise yourself with all the small print, and the procedures to follow should the worst happen.
The most common vaccinations for Zambia are against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), tetanus, diphtheria, polio, typhoid and hepatitis A. Check the latest regarding the yellow fever vaccine and, if it’s required, don’t lose the little yellow booklet that comes with it. Regulations have relaxed recently, but that yellow booklet has been something of a passport in the region. Not having one can stop your holiday in its tracks, especially if you plan to visit other countries in Southern Africa.
A vaccination against rabies is also recommended, and the course lasts at least three weeks so can’t be left to the last minute. The waterborne bilharzia parasite is common along Zambia’s lake shores and although there’s no vaccine, it’s easy to test for and treat once you get back home. It’s a sensible post-holiday precaution if you’ve been canoeing or fishing on Zambian waters.
By far the biggest health risk in Zambia is malaria. There are various preventive prophylaxis treatments available and some should be taken a few weeks and others a few days before arrival. Consult your doctor or a local travel clinic well before your departure.
Many safari operators include emergency medical insurance in their rates, but this may only cover the immediate situation and exclude further treatment and/or repatriation. In any event, it’s essential to be fully insured, especially if you’re headed into Zambia’s more remote regions. Every travel insurance policy is different so make sure you know how yours operates. Some policies will expect you to pay up front and seek reimbursement later, others have ties with Zambia’s private hospitals and direct payments are possible.
Speciality Emergency Services (SES) is Zambia’s main country-wide emergency medical support service and your best option if you need urgent assistance. They also offer short-term medical and evacuation insurance if you’ve concerned with the cover offered by your main provider. Their local emergency number is 737, or dial +260962740300 or +260977770302 from outside the country. ses-zambia.com.
Zambia has very limited mobile-network cover outside the major centres. Safari camps and lodges will always have a means of contacting emergency services, but if you’re self-driving to remote areas, a satellite phone is highly recommended.
Zambia’s public healthcare system is very basic by first-world standards and suffers from inadequate funding and a lack of infrastructure and facilities, especially in rural areas. There are good private hospitals in Livingstone and Lusaka and if you have any kind of medical emergency you’ll be transferred there as soon as possible. For very serious or on-going treatment, patients may require evacuation to South Africa which has the best medical facilities in the region. Treatment and evacuation costs are expensive, however, so comprehensive healthcare insurance is essential.
For less serious medical issues, pharmacies can be found in the major cities, but are extremely scarce in rural areas. Even in the cities, the range of drugs and supplies can be limited and very few are open on Sundays. Ensure you have a comprehensive first-aid kit before travelling into remote areas.
Comprehensive medical insurance is essential for holidays to Zambia. It should include cover for emergency evacuation and private hospitalisation within Zambia, transfers for specialist treatment in neighbouring countries and, ultimately, repatriation. Make sure you’re covered for safari activities and close wildlife encounters, and any other adventure activities you plan on doing. Walking and canoeing safaris usually require special cover. Bungee jumping and white water rafting almost certainly will.
Before you travel, check with your insurance provider on how their claims process works. They may pay medical costs upfront or expect you to pay the initial costs and seek reimbursement later. Familiarise yourself with the exact documents they require from hospitals and emergency services and, if you’re expected to pay initial costs, then carry a credit card with sufficient funds.
Many lodges and safari operators include emergency evacuation insurance in their rates. If they don’t or you’re not completely satisfied with your level of cover, you can purchase additional emergency evacuation insurance from Speciality Emergency Services (SES), Zambia’s main country-wide emergency medical support service. ses-zambia.com
Multiple ethnicity in Zambia mean a plethora of languages and dialects
Zambia’s official language is English, but there are more than 70 different languages and dialects spoken throughout the country. Almost everyone will speak or understand some English and most Zambians living in the urban centres speak it fluently.
Signs and official documentation are almost always in English and/or Bemba and Nyanja, the country’s two most widely spoken local languages. Bemba is spoken by more than two million Zambians and is used frequently in education and administration. Nyanja, a Bantu language spoken by approximately one million Zambians, is also prominent in major centres, especially Lusaka and Livingstone.
Nyanja is the official language of the police and also spoken in neighbouring Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique. Tonga is spoken by about 11% of the population, and is commonly used in the media.
Other major languages include Lozi (about 500000 speakers), Tumbuka (about 400000 speakers), Nsenga (about 300000 speakers), Lunda (about 200000 speakers) and Luvale (also about 200000 speakers). Luyana, Mambwe-Lungu, Mashi, Mbunda, Nkoya-Mbwela, Luchazi, and Nyika make up the rest of Zambia’s main languages, spoken by various groups across the country.