Zambia – Safaris – five takeaways

Many tourists only associate Zambia with Victoria Falls, and that’s exactly what makes Zambia safaris so attractive, there are no crowds! We visited three safari destinations in Zambia: the Lower Zambezi National Park, Kafue National Park and the South Luangua National Park.  (click here to read our post on choosing a safari destination).

Most tourists on safari will fly into Lusaka International airport, and then take a small plane to an airstrip near their lodge. We did not fly, and we describe our adventure below.

Although Zambia is a premiere safari destination, there are other destinations in Africa you should also be look at, as they all offer unique experiences: Botswana (see our post), Zimbabwe (see our post), South Africa (see our post), Kenya (see our post) and Tanzania (see our post).

It is crooked wood that shows the best sculptor. African proverb

Lower Zambezi National Park

In landlocked Zambia, road distances are great, road conditions are not so great, and border crossings are prone to ‘problems’. As mentioned above, most tourists travel by plane between Zambian safari destinations, and we certainly could have flown to the Lower Zambezi National Park, either via Lusaka or Mfuwe to the Jeki airfield.

Since we were coming from Mana Pools, just across the river in Zimbabwe, we decided instead to take a boat. On the map it looked like we should have been able to take a short boat ride directly across the narrow river between these two destinations, but in reality we had to first cross into Zambia at an official border crossing (Chirundu). This adds about 3 to 4 hours on the river plus about one hour by road. So ours was not the most direct route but we thought it would be more interesting than taking multiple flights, and it was.

From Mana Pools, we first went upriver on the Zambezi in a fast skiff for an hour to the border towns of Chirundu (both towns on each side of the border are called Chirundu), and then crossed by road over the Chirundu Bridge at the Zimbabwe Zambia border, and then again downriver on the Zambia side of the Zambezi. It made for a pleasant day, both with cruising on the Zambezi river and driving through small villages dotting the river on the Zambian side. (click here to read our post on Zimbabwe).

Witnessing  life along the Zambezi River was most interesting:  villagers washing their clothes, the lone fisherman, the pods of hippos popping up and submerging out of sight.  Plus the road transfer was very scenic, with small villages here and there.

With climate change, parts of the Zambezi River are becoming increasingly shallow, especially during dry season.  Our trip to Zambia was in October (dry season) and the Zambezi river was so shallow that our boat had to continuously zigzag across the river every few minutes to avoid running aground on the sand bars. This zig-zagging added over an hour to the duration of the boat ride.

Actually, the river was so low we were unable to make the trip to our lodge, and staff from one of the other lodges on the river were contacted to help with our transfer, which was a very nice touch. Eventually we arrived at Anabezi Camp, our lodging for the next few days.

The Lower Zambezi National Park in southern Zambia covers an area of 4092 square kilometers and is one of Zambia’s premier safari destinations.  Most of the game is concentrated along the river and even though the rhino population has been completely wiped out due to poaching, the region is still abundant with populations of buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard and hyena.

Anabezi Camp is a comfortable luxury tented camp complete with outdoor plunge pool.  The staff were well experienced, competent and pleasant, and meals were above average.  The land safaris were in four seater jeeps and wildlife sightings were abundant with daily sightings of leopards, lions and buffalo. 

A canoe trip on the Lower Zambezi River is tricky for photography: photo options are abundant but expensive cameras are iffy because the canoes are not that stable, and a hippo encounter is always a possibility. Besides the endless hippos to photograph, there are numerous elephants, zebras, impala, buffalo, kudu, waterbuck, and you can also spot baboons and crocodiles loitering on the river banks.  This section of the Zambezi River is flanked by National Parks on both sides.  Our guide planned a route to dodge the hippos while canoeing. We had only one close encounter… and although they are herbivores, they kill more humans annually in Africa than any of the “big 5”.

South Luangwa National Park

We left the Lower Zambezi flying on a small plane from Jeki airfield to Mfuwe and stayed at the Mfuwe Lodge overnight. This lodge is a popular choice for those going on to the camps, and is a meeting point for guides and guests and for recharging with a proper shower before setting out for the bush camps.  The next morning we were on a game drive transfer to the Kuyenda Bushcamp in South Luangwa. The bush camp experience is a way to connect with the environment in a more intimate manner than the lodge or luxury camp. 

Most  bush camps have outdoor bathrooms and although private, they are nevertheless in the bush where you may have monkeys swinging in the trees above you while you wash or use the toilet.  Sometimes a shower has to be ordered in advance to ensure hot water, almost all are bucket showers. Bush camps have no air conditioning, and as seen in the picture above, there is only chicken wire for window covering.

Meals usually include delicious local cuisine, and are served outside under a canopy or tent. The only place to rest midday is your non A/C’ed room which hopefully (but not always) has mosquito netting around the bed. Kuyenda Bush Camp also has excellent walking safaris, a great way to get some exercise and discover local flora. All of these ‘hardships’ ensure an intimate experience with nature. 

We found two days at our bush camp is just enough time; one night is not enough but three nights are too much, especially if bucket showers are not your thing.  Of course, some people we have met on our travels only stay at bush camps — the more rugged the better.  Some lodges let you pre-order liquor of your choice (they only had very limited wine and beer). Most bush camps are quite small and only accommodate a limited number of guests, which makes the long evenings a pleasant opportunity to talk with people from around the globe.

Remote safari locations are well worth the extra time, money and effort required to get there as the game viewing is a more intimate, authentic experience.  Note that many ‘remote’ areas will have different levels of accommodation, not only bush camps. It is a common misconception that a bush camp will result in better game viewing; in our view the attraction of staying at a bush camp is more about the experience of the camp itself versus a luxury lodge. But unless you are an avid camper or outdoors person, you may want to forgo the ‘bush camp’ experience on your first safari trip.

Kafue National Park

From Mfuwe airport we took a flight to Lusaka and then on to Kafue National Park, another one of Zambia’s iconic parks.  It is located in one of Zambia’s remote areas called Busanga Plains. Our air transfer was with SkyTrails, and we squeezed into a tiny plane which barely fit the two of us (plus our carry on bags).

Busanga Plains is off the beaten path, and located in the north of Zambia’s Kafue National Park.  This was a very rewarding and authentic wildlife experience, and if you want to see lions, this place delivers with abundance.  The Plains undergo regular flooding during the rainy season but during the dry season they are somewhat similar to the savanna grasslands of the Serengeti, with vast open views. 

This region is usually chosen by second and third time Africa travelers, as it is more remote than most and not easily accessible.  Because of the vastness of the terrain, the drive from the lodge to animal sightings is much longer than most other places.  Also, accommodation choices are limited but the reward is low density tourism, something hard to come by as safari goers have increased over the years. 

We stayed at Shumba Camp, a luxury tented camp with six units raised on wooden platforms.  Each tent has indoor and outdoor showers and uninterrupted views over the plains.  The large outdoor fire pit area is great for star gazing and morning breakfast. 

Beside the huge lion population, the plains are home to hundreds of red lechwe, puku and other prey for the predators.

One of the more memorable experiences at this location was witnessing a stray lioness try to intrude on a pride feasting on a fresh warthog. Seven lions including the male viciously defended their dinner from this lone lioness for over an hour, until they let her slink away. Our guide told us this lioness was originally from the defending pride and the only reason they didn’t kill her was that they knew her. She held her ground well, and the resulting cat fight was a sight to behold.

Another memorable experience was seeing our first Pangolin (below), which one of our guides spotted around the lodge grounds at night. It is quite rare, and almost a mythical creature, as everyone has heard of it but few have seen one. It eats ants and termites, and is the only mammal with scales (keratin).

We found a pride with a playful cub who was utterly irresistible.  We followed the pride for hours and never tired of taking photos of that cub.

Vultures play an important role in the ecosystem by eating carcasses that would otherwise rot and spread disease. They have a very interesting pecking order from different species as well as between members of the same species. The Lappet-faced is  the most powerful and aggressive of African vultures and is first in line as its large beak is able to rip through the toughest hide, thereby opening up the stomach so that the other vultures can get in.

Five Mondisti Zambia Safari Trip Tips

  1. If you want a more remote and unique safari experience, Zambia should be on your list.
  2. Busanga Plains in Kafue is one of the best safari experiences in Africa, on par with Kenya’s Masai Mara or Tanzania’s Serengeti.
  3. If you choose to stay at a bush camp, two days is ideal unless you are a camper and love the ruggedness of the great outdoors.
  4. You do not have to stay at a rugged bush camp to experience remoteness and unique wildlife; there are remote luxury tented camp options.
  5. Zambia is definitely worth the extra time and cost to get there.