Everything you need to know about your Zambia holiday
Welcome to Discover Africa’s definitive guide to Zambia. From remote wilderness vistas, to the endless variety of safari camps. 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.
Highlights of Zambia
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.
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.
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.
Lower Zambezi National 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.
North and South Luangwa National Parks
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.
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 4x4 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.
Kafue National Park
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.
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. For many, the single most alluring bird resident in Akagera is the shoebill, a 1.5m-tall slate-grey papyrus dweller named for the hefty clog-shaped, hook-tipped bill which it claps together like outsized castanets when agitated. The exact status of the shoebill in Akagera is uncertain, but at last one pair inhabits the papyrus beds fringing Lake Birengero, and is often seen through binoculars from the roads along the western shore.
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 4x4 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.
Sioma Ngwezi and Ngonye Falls National Parks
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 4x4 only, and there are no facilities at all inside the park.
Liuwa Plain National Park
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 4x4 network) are available from the town of Kalabo, south of the park.
Kasanka National Park
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.
Best of Zambia Safari
With some of the wildest and most remote game areas on the continent, and a remarkably low population in a massive country, Zambia has an aura of mystery waiting to be uncovered. …Start your Zambian safari in one of the best parks in Africa. Bordering the Luangwa River, the northern and southern Luangwa National Park contains some of the most breathtaking and untouched wilderness in Africa. During your game drives, you’ll spot impala, puku, waterbuck, giraffe, buffalo, leopard, elephants, hippos and approximately 400 other animal species. Guests will also have the chance to experience walking safari’s, which allows visitors to view elephant, hippo and even lion close-up, under the supervision of knowledgeable armed guides. Your next destination will be one of Zambia’s top safari destinations, the Lower Zambezi National Park, situated along the northern bank of the Zambezi River with Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools nearby. Together, these two parks form an extraordinarily wildlife-rich region that offers a first-class safari experience. Expect day and night game drives, guided nature walks, river cruises and fishing expeditions. The Livingstone at the Victoria Falls (which is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World) offers breathtaking views that are almost too spectacular to describe. Unique attractions on the Zambian side include the Boiling Pot and The Devil’s Pool. Take a walk across the knife-edge bridge for a spectacular view of the eastern cataract and up the main gorge. A walk down the steps to the Boiling Pot provides an interesting view from the base of the falls and the Victoria Falls Bridge spanning the gorge. Travellers will also get the opportunity to enjoy excellent fishing, terrifying bungee jumping and the best commercial whitewater rafting in the world.
The Ultimate Wildlife Odyssey
Go on safari to three Zambian national parks, including the flagship South Luangwa, and end in style with a visit to the remarkable Victoria Falls …Start your Zambian adventure in the country’s flagship national park, the South Luangwa, for a chance to see the Big Five and some pretty riverine scenery too. The park has one of the highest concentrations of wildlife in Africa. Your next stop is the Lower Zambezi National Park on the opposite riverbank to Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools. Still relatively undeveloped, it’s a wilderness where you’ll hear the cry of the African fish eagle and see herds of elephant and buffalo at the river’s edge, and perhaps even lion and leopard. Your final stop is at Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park just outside Livingstone, from where you can experience the impressive Victoria Falls.
Affordable Victoria Falls & Chobe
Visit Livingstone, Zambia, to marvel at the Victoria Falls – or ‘the smoke that thunders’ – before going on safari and a river cruise in Botswana’s Chobe National Park …This journey takes you to the Zambian side of the Victoria Falls to marvel at what is the largest sheet of falling water in the world. After a walking tour of this World Heritage Site, you may decide to challenge yourself to one of the many adrenalin activities for which the area has become famous. From there you travel to Chobe National Park in Botswana. Watch the African sun set, cruise along the Chobe River alongside huge elephant, hippo, buffalo and crocodile, or go on a 4x4 safari in search of lion, cheetah or the beautiful endangered sable antelope with its curved horns.
Best of Luxury Safari
Combine water and wildlife in a journey that takes you from the Victoria Falls to Kafue and South Luangwa national parks – Zambia at its best …Start your journey in Livingstone, exploring the World Heritage Site of the Victoria Falls, where there’s a vast array of optional adventure activities. Then you’ll visit Kafue National Park, established in the 1950s by the legendary Norman Carr. It’s one of the largest national parks in all of Africa, and its diversity of habitats means it’s also home to a great diversity of wildlife. You’ll end your journey in Zambia’s flagship South Luangwa National Park, which is one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world. You might see the Big Five, as well as puku, Thornicroft’s giraffe, Crawshay’s zebra and yellow baboon. The park is especially known for its excellent leopard sightings.
When to visit Zambia?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Travelling to Zambia
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.
- Getting around in Zambia
Broadly speaking, there are three options for travelling in and around Zambia: by fly-in safari direct to your lodge, by road on a 4x4 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 4x4 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 4x4 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 because 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.
- Wildlife in Zambia
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.
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.
- Languages in Zambia
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.
- Is Zambia safe?
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 pickpocketing 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
- Changing money in Zambia
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.
- Shopping in Zambia
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!).
- Getting around in Zambia