The EA guide to Zambia safaris
We’ve been singing the praises of Zambia for years. Quite simply, it’s one of Africa’s finest safari holiday destinations.
So why do we love Zambia safari holidays so much? There’s a small safari community in Zambia, which means the experience is intimate and personal. Our favourite properties are owner-run, authentic accommodations located in the very best wilderness areas, guaranteeing great wildlife sightings and impressive wilderness, and exceptional guides to lead the way.
On a Zambia safari holiday you’ll explore breathtaking scenery, from dense forests, wild rivers and sweeping plains to impressive waterfalls and plateaus. This is also the home of the original walking safari, and it would be a crime to go on a Zambia safari and not get out into the bush on foot. With the very best river guides in all of Africa, you also must explore the Lower Zambezi on a canoeing safari or boating safari.
There are 20 national parks that are home to exceptional wilderness and wildlife. This includes the South Luangwa National Park, home of the Zambia walking safari, and the Lower Zambezi National Park, where you can experience the ultimate water safari. Kafue National Park, the largest national park in the country, boasts vast landscapes, hot-air balloon safaris and the only chance to spot to stumble upon cheetah in Zambia. Little-known Kasanka National Park is home to an extraordinary event – a massive bat migration involving 10 million fruit bats in just one hectare of forest, while Liuwa Plain National Park, a remote and vast wilderness area with great wildlife sightings including the second-largest wildebeest migration in Africa, wins the off-the-beaten-track title.
These are just a few of the fantastic parks in Zambia offering up an enviable range of safari activities and wildlife viewing opportunities that will stay with you forever.
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The best time to safari in Zambia
Depending on what you wish to see and do in Zambia, the ‘best time to visit’ varies. It has a sub-tropical climate with a wet and dry season. The wet season typically runs from December to April and is not ideal for game viewing as many roads become impassable and some areas close down as water levels restrict wildlife viewing. However, if your dream is to see Victoria Falls in peak thunder mode, then the best time of year to visit is definitely towards the end of the wet season, specifically between March and May, when the volume of water plunging off its cliffs should be at its maximum. The rainy season is also the best time for birders.
If a classic Zambia safari is what you’re after, we recommend going during the dry season (late May to early October) – and especially between June and August – when the weather’s a bit cooler, and the game viewing is exceptional. This is when animals are likely to congregate around waterholes, making them easier to spot.
Wildlife in Zambia
You can see all of the Big Five in Zambia, but not everywhere. Rhino are extremely rare and you’ll only see them (if you’re lucky) in Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls (white rhino) and North Luangwa National Parks (black rhino). Elephant, lion and buffalo are common in a number of parks, while Kafue, South Luangwa and the Lower Zambezi national parks are well-known for leopard sightings. You might struggle to see wild dog and cheetah, but most other “high-profile” animals are relatively easy to see. Interesting endemic species to look out for include the Thornicroft’s giraffe, Crawshay’s zebra, Cookson’s wildebeest and the Kafue and black lechwe (types of antelope). Africa’s second-largest wildebeest migration takes places in Liuwa Plain National Park every November, while from October to December in Kasanka National Park you can witness the fruit bat migration when some 10 million fruit bats take to the skies. With so many rivers and lakes Zambia also offers brilliant fishing (it’s famous for its tigerish) and plenty of opportunities to spot hippo and crocodile.
One of the most iconic, awe-inspiring sights in all of Africa would have to be Victoria Falls. Known locally as “The Smoke that Thunders”, this UNESCO World Heritage site straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia and is one of the most popular tourist spots on the entire continent. Here, people can visit this special site – one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World – and witness, in peak season, the phenomenal sight of more than five hundred million cubic metres of water plummeting over its edge every minute.
Victoria Falls is accessible from both Zimbabwe and Zambia, but it’s only in Zambia – and only during the dry season – that you can go swimming in the “Devil’s Pool”. Accessible only when the water levels start to drop, this natural rock pool is perched on the very tip of the falls on the Zambian side. Adventure-seeking guests can swim in the pool – but only during a portion of the dry season.
You can see Victoria Falls from the colonial town of Livingstone, just a stone’s throw away. Named after the famous explorer, it was established in 1905 but these days is the main hub for visitors to Victoria Falls in Zambia. It’s also the base for adventure activities including whitewater rafting, boat cruises, horse riding and elephant safaris.
Livingstone adjoins Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, which stretches up the Zambian side of the Falls. It’s only 66 square kilometres in size, but in this national park you can take a leisurely game drive along the river’s edge and see a variety of plains game like zebra, giraffe, warthog plus birds and smaller animals. Elephants cross the Zambezi freely, another exciting Zambia holiday highlight. There are no predators here so wildlife is relaxed, giving you great photographic safari opportunities.
The best time to visit Victoria Falls on the Zambian side, if you want to see them at their most impressive, is at the end of the rainy season, from March to May. During this time the Zambezi River is in what they call “full flood” and the Falls thunder over the cliffs, throwing up spray that saturates onlookers. If you want a Victoria Falls holiday with high water levels and loads of spray and noise, this is the time to come! For more opportunities to approach the Falls, less mist (and therefore clearer photographs), and the chance to swim in the Devil’s Pool, October and November are your best bet. They mark the tail end of the dry season when the Falls are at their lowest flow.
South Luangwa National Park
The South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia is one of our all-time favourite national parks in Africa, and for good reason – it’s home to exceptional wildlife and wilderness, brilliant owner-run properties and great guiding.
The now-famous “walking safari” originated here. It’s still one of the most fulfilling ways to experience Africa’s pristine wilderness up-close. The emphasis is on the senses because you’re out there on foot, walking with wildlife, and can see, hear, smell and touch everything around you. Actually, we recommend you don’t touch everything you see on a walking safari! Accommodation is best when it supports this experience, and there are fantastic eco-friendly camps with open-sided tents and wonderful settings.
The South Luangwa National Park is the ultimate walking safari destination, so if you’re the adventurous type this might just be your safari style. Beyond walking, game drives and mountain biking will give you different wildlife safari perspectives.
The landscape itself is dominated by the Luangwa River, which is the lifeblood of this 9,000-plus-square-kilometre national park, snaking through grassy savannahs and dramatic woodland. The river and its oxbow lagoons nurture fantastic concentrations of wildlife, drawing the animals to its edges to drink. Hippo and crocodile populations are impressive, and you’re bound to see large numbers of elephant and lion. As well as 60 different animal species the park plays host to more than 400 bird species, including water-loving storks, herons and cranes. No wonder it’s considered one of Africa’s finest wildlife sanctuaries.
The dry season usually begins in April, and only gets hotter right up until October: be prepared for hot days, and chilly nights. It’s during this time that game concentrations are at their highest. The wet season runs from November to March – during this time the bush will transform into a lush green jungle. However most lodges will shut down during his time, as roads become treacherous and game viewing is poor.
Kafue National Park
Located in the centre of western Zambia, Kafue is one of the oldest national parks in the country and, at 22,400 square kilometres, the country’s largest game reserve. Wildlife safaris here are truly exceptional. Rolling granite hills open up onto picturesque valleys, and there’s an extraordinary density of wildlife, including more than 150 recorded mammal species. With conservation efforts taking a strong hold to ensure the protection of the different species, you’re certain to see some impressive sightings, including massive herds of buffalo and elephant and, if you’re lucky, rare antelope species like the sable and sitatunga. Predators are here, too, in decent numbers, particularly lion and leopard – indeed, this is one of the best places on the continent to see leopard. The park is also known for wild dogs, and a sighting of these predators in action will elevate any safari to epic status.
As well as game drives, walking safaris in Kafue are a must as you immerse yourself in the bush and learn about the flora and fauna. It’s also a bird lover’s paradise with more than 400 species recorded. Canoe and boating safaris in Kafue will get you close to marauding crocodiles and massive pods of hippo, and if fishing safaris interest you, you can even attempt to land a bream here. A highlight of any trip to Kafue National Park is an early morning flight on a hot-air balloon. Witnessing wildlife from this magical aerial perspective is definitely something to put on your Zambia Safari wish list.
Kafue National Park is easily accessible from both Lusaka and Livingstone, which means you can arrive in this wilderness paradise within a matter of hours. Despite this, it remains relatively unexplored and you can head out on a game drive and not see a single other vehicle while on the lookout for the park’s wonderful resident animals.
Dry season generally runs from June to October, which is a great time to visit if you’re after extensive game viewing – the animals come out to drink and are easily spotted among the dry shrub. But don’t let this put you visiting during the wet season when the wilderness becomes lush and green, and the park is transformed into a beautiful oasis, and land and water safaris abound. Just be aware that many of the camps close during the wetter months.
Lower Zambezi National Park
Despite being just a quick light aircraft flight from Zambia’s capital Lusaka, the Lower Zambezi National Park is still considered a bit “off the beaten track”. But that’s the beauty of this region in the eastern part of Zambia: its remoteness. You’ll be hard-pressed to come across other safari-goers when you visit this beautiful park, and having it all to yourself on a game drive is a distinct possibility – combined with breathtaking landscapes and wildlife, it’s the dream safari scenario.
Founded in 1983, this beautiful national park covers an area of 4,092 square kilometres. It boasts the most picturesque riverside setting, along the northwestern bank of the Zambezi River. As well as the river, the rugged and diverse landscape also features woodland savannahs, riverine forests, broad floodplains and hills that form the spectacular Zambezi escarpment. Wildlife viewing is top-notch here, and nothing is more impressive than seeing an enormous herd of elephant – sometimes up to 100 strong – at the river’s edge. Hippo, leopard, lion and buffalo also gather regularly, and there are more than 400 bird species to be spotted in the region. There are no fences in the Lower Zambezi National Park, so the wildlife can roam free in this mesmerising wilderness.
Safari activities are as diverse as the landscapes here, and you can get close to the abundant wildlife on 4×4 game drives and walking safaris, and roam in and out of the waterways on canoeing and boating safaris. As most wildlife congregates around the river, particularly during dry season, drifting silently past the riverbank in a canoe or on board a boat offers the ultimate wildlife-viewing experience and a way to see this magical world – not to mention Africa’s legendary sunsets – from a whole new vantage point. A canoeing safari on the Lower Zambezi is a real highlight and not to be missed. The Zambezi River is also famous for its tigerfish, so avid anglers will relish the chance to cast a line and try their luck.
The Lower Zambezi is a seasonal safari destination. If game viewing is what you’re after, then travelling during the drier cooler months will be your best bet, between May and September. Alternatively if grappling with the famous tigerfish in the Zambezi River is your dream activity, then we recommend September to October. During the wet season between October and April the region is transformed into a lush oasis. Many of the properties close for the wet season.
Liuwa Plain National Park
In the far west of Zambia sits this remote park boasting huge rewards for those who make the effort to explore it as part of a safari holiday. As the name indicates, expect never-ending plains where wildlife wanders freely – everything from blue wildebeest, African wild dog and lion to endless bird species. Wildebeest migrate in October and November, arriving in their thousands from Angola just before the rains come. This also brings the predators, who follow the wildebeest, hunting their young. The landscapes in Liuwa Plain National Park feature colours that dance with the change of seasons – it’s no wonder this has become a photography safari paradise. And with just a handful of properties in Liuwa Plains, it really is a getaway off the beaten safari track.
Luambe National Park
Located in the Eastern Province of Zambia, Luambe National Park is, at just 254 square kilometres, one of the country’s tiniest safari regions. It’s also one of the oldest conservation areas in Zambia. Elephant, lion, leopard and all the typical large herbivores and carnivores call Luambe home, as well as more than 200 bird species.
The park is impassable during the rainy season and can only be accessed in the dry season, between May and October. During this time, in the company of great guides, you can enjoy game drives and walking safaris through woodlands and plains; watch massive hippo pods in the pools of Luangwa River; and search for nocturnal species at night. A great bonus of a safari holiday in Luambe National Park is that it’s less-crowded than its more famous neighbours.
Kasanka National Park
The Kasanka National Park is located in the Serenje District of Zambia’s Central Province. It’s a tiny area, just 450 square kilometres in size, but it’s bursting at the seams with rivers, lakes, wetlands, forests, meadows and lagoons. While you won’t see the large herds of animals you can see in other parks, it is supremely pretty and ideal for birding – birding safaris are ideal during the wet months, from November to March, when migrants arrive in huge numbers. Game viewing is the opposite, so dry months of May to October. Fishing safaris here are also fantastic, with tigerfish, bream and barbel all possible catches of the day in the Luwombwa River.
Kasanka National Park is most famous for its incredible bat migration, when around 10 million fruit bats come to roost in the Mushitu swamp forest every November and December before heading off towards the Congo once the fruit supply is exhausted. If you’re lucky enough to witness this extraordinary sight, you’ll never forget it.
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