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First-time visitors to Africa tend to gravitate toward well-known destinations like South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania, but in this new travel series, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen sheds light on five of southern Africa’s other great safari destinations, starting with Zambia.
When it comes to an African safari, the destination options are practically endless. Despite that, most visitors, and especially first-time travelers to Africa, usually hit the same old spots in South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania. With good reason—those countries offer fantastic tourism and hospitality infrastructures, some amazing wildlife-viewing opportunities, and are among the easiest places to get to in sub-Saharan Africa whether you are paying for your ticket or using miles.
However, for travelers looking to get off the beaten path and explore some of the continent’s lesser-known regions, the countries of Zambia, Rwanda, Namibia, Malawi and Botswana offer myriad safari options from jungly mountain gorilla habitats to primordial deserts to lakes teeming with fish and wildlife. The only difficult part is deciding which to visit first.
For the first post in this African safari series, we’ll take a look at Zambia, and the diversity of safari experiences it has to offer.
Roughly the same size as France but with a population of just around 14.5 million, Zambia is probably southern Africa’s best-kept secret. Its two major airports—in the capital of Lusaka (LUN) and in Livingstone (LVI) near Victoria Falls—are each about a two-hour flight from Johannesburg (JNB), with fairly frequent connections on South African Airways and Comair-operated British Airways’ subsidiary Kulula.
The first stop nearly every visitor to Zambia makes is Victoria Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world. Its local name is Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders,” and it doesn’t take long to see why; when you walk along the paths facing the precipice, the torrent of the Zambezi River’s cascade creates a fine mist, resulting in myriad rainbows rising from the depths of the chasm.
Rainforests near the river spread out to grassy plains, and there’s plenty of game to see on drives in other parts of the national park. Thrill-seekers can make the swim-hike from Livingstone Island to the Devil’s Pool at the edge of the falls, bungee jump over the river valley, or go whitewater rafting, while those looking for a more sedate adventure can get up close to hippos and crocodiles in a canoe, or take a leisurely sunset cruise along the river, spotting game on both the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides.
Some folks opt to stay right near the falls at the Zambezi Sun or the faux-classic (and corporate-feeling) Royal Livingstone hotels, but about 12 miles upriver are two sister luxury lodges. Tongabezi lies right on the banks of the Zambezi and is currently renovating its riverfront cottages with huge private decks and updated amenities, while its sister property, Sindabezi, is on its own private island.
Farther east along the Zambezi, and just a quick 25-minute flight from Lusaka (you have to take a small chartered plane to one of the small airstrips here) lies one of Zambia’s most beautiful landscapes, Lower Zambezi National Park.
Here, the river is over a mile wide with plenty of oxbow lakes and tributary streams on both the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides. The landscape is truly dramatic, with the Zambezi Escarpment forming a rugged border to the rift valley in which the river lies.
In rainy season, the landscape is unbelievably lush (and mostly impassible from late December through early March, when the camps are closed), while in the dry season, the plains spreading out from the riverbed become golden and sere. Thanks to the river and expansive plains, guests can go on water, vehicle and walking safaris here, a truly special combination. On the river, you can spot hippos and crocodiles aplenty, not to mention tons of birdlife, while on the plains, lions, leopards, hyenas, antelope and elephants abound.
The nice thing here is that the safari camps are few and far between, so you won’t see too many other tourists while you’re out on activities. Among the best options are the side-by-side sister properties, Sausage Tree and Potato Bush Camps, which offer deluxe tent-like accommodations with amenities like private plunge pools and hammocks, open-air (but with a roof!) showers, and gourmet meals, as well as personalized itineraries. Other well-known camps here include Old Mondoro and Chiawa.
South Luangwa National Park and its sister park, North Luangwa, are also well worth a visit. To get here, you need to take one or two flights totaling about 90 minutes from Lusaka ( to Mfuwe and then drive for about an hour (your safari camp should organize an airport pickup). Norman Carr Safaris, the pioneers of the walking safari, offer the best accommodations in South Luangwa, including the luxurious riverfront Chinzombo. Lying on the site of one of Norman Carr’s original camps, the enormous tents here are kitted out with nice touches like explorer-style wood-and-leather desks, huge decks with private plunge pools and lounging areas, and enormous freestanding bathtubs, not to mention plush, mosquito-netted beds.
The park also offers some of the best game viewing in Africa with riverine fauna like crocs and hippos, but also huge herds of elephants, prides of lions, a good number of leopards, zebra, giraffe (including the beautifully patterned Thornicroft species), all kinds of antelope and wildebeest, baboons, hyena and wild dog, mongoose, and numerous birds including magnificent yellow-billed storks. Even better, you are almost guaranteed a walking safari to track game and learn about the local plant-life.
Zambia’s largest (it is about the size of Massachusetts), most isolated, and hence untouched, park is Kafue, right in the center of the country. The park is surrounded by game management areas that mean the wildlife here has generally good protection from outside influences and poaching. The park covers a variety of landscapes including the lush Busanga Plains, a flood area of the Lufapa River, where many of the park’s large game come to graze and hunt. However, animals tend to roam far and wide, so you need to cover a lot of ground to spot everything. If you do, though, you are likely to see lion, leopard, spotted hyena, a few cheetah, and wild dog. This is also a great destination for bird watching thanks to the enormous wetlands.