Zambia – how to plan the perfect safari

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Your guide to everything you need to know about planning your Zambian adventure — from where to go, to how long to spend in each place, and how to tie it all together — whatever your budget and interest. Compiled by Phil Clisby. Picture credit Phil Jeffery, Jeffery & McKeith Safaris

Deep in the Luangwa Valley, we lie in wait, engine switched off. To our right, two buffalo are on the lookout while the rest of the herd seeks cover among the trees. They can smell danger. To our left, three lionesses creep stealthily through the scrub, slowly spreading out, as they ready themselves for a three-pronged attack. One starts to move more quickly, passing directly in front of us. She’s momentarily out in the open but quickly blends back into the undergrowth, unseen. The buffalo sentries stand stock-still, remaining on their guard. Then the other two protagonists make their move. There’s an almighty commotion, dust billows and the herd scatters. The lions have pounced but missed. They retreat with nothing but wounded pride.

Although Zambia is not usually considered a shoestring destination, “there are many options for different types of traveller,” says David Ryan of Rhino Africa, “from adventurous activities to the more secluded spots.” Similar itineraries are available, regardless of budget. What differentiates each, in the main, is accommodation choice and whether you fly in and out or transfer by road.

“When selecting your accommodation,” advises Bill Adams of Safari Consultants, “make sure you visit properties that allow you to try as many activities as you can: enjoy excellent walking opportunities, viewing wildlife from hides, day and night game drives, fishing, boating and canoeing for one of Africa’s best all-round safari experiences.”

As for when to visit, this is dependent on what you wish to see. While September and October are considered the optimum time to visit for unrivalled game viewing, travelling off season (particularly April and May, following the heavy rains) should not be dismissed. Not only is it cheaper to travel, the number of visitors are far fewer and this “enables one to enjoy this beautiful corner of Africa as though it were your own private paradise”, suggests Nick Aslin of Zambian Ground Handlers.

A solid road network means that Zambia is good self-driving and camping territory. However, with the distances involved, this should be considered an “experience choice and not one made for budget purposes,” says Leslie Nevison of Mama Tembo Tours. She highlights the “freedom” it affords, but reasons, “It’s better if you combine camping with lodges, where excellent guides contribute immeasurably to the entire safari experience. Diversity is the key to a great safari.”

Although my few days in South Luangwa National Park, together with my first sighting of the Victoria Falls, comfortably sit in my top five African experiences, I have merely scratched the surface of what Zambia has to offer. To truly get under its skin requires the knowledge of experts. As Sandy Wood of Pulse Africa says: “Having slept in the beds, tasted the coffee and experienced the activities, we can recommend the right place for the right person.” Thus, I asked five leading tour operators to share some specially prepared itineraries to help you plan your adventure in this glorious southern African country.

For adventurers

Recommended by Sandy Wood, Pulse Africa
From coming face to face with wildlife on foot, self-driving and bush camping to canoeing, bungee jumping and whitewater rafting, Zambia is an adventurer’s playground.

Sample itinerary
• Days 1-4  Stay at AVANI Victoria Falls Resort, Livingstone, five minutes’ walk from the Falls. Activities you can undertake include a sunset cruise on the Zambezi; a tour of the Falls from both the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides; a 20-minute scenic helicopter flight; a full-day’s whitewater rafting (unavailable when the flow is too high in April-May); a 111m bungee jump from the Victoria Falls Bridge; and a tandem gorge swing.
• Days 5-7  Air transfer to Kafue National Park, staying at Busanga Bush Camp. Activities include game drives and boating safaris (early in the season). The Busanga Plains teem with birds and antelope and afford pink sunrises and sunsets. Potential sightings include leopard, lion, cheetah, roan antelope and puku; a hot-air balloon ride provides phenomenal panoramas and a different perspective.
• Day 8  Transfer by air to Lusaka before continuing by road to Kiambi Safari Lodge, Lower Zambezi, which boasts breathtaking views over the river.
• Day 9-11  Go on a guided canoe safari along the Zambezi River. Paddle around 15km to the first evening’s campsite on Kakomalala Island. Canoe past hippo, see elephant, buffalo and others come down to drink, and explore the islands and waterways along the route. The second day sees you canoe about 25km, overnighting at Magurumeno or Mtondo islands. The following day, paddle around 25km through the Lower Zambezi floodplain region, camping at Elephant or Nyamangwe islands.
• Day 12  A leisurely 5-7km paddle to the take-out point. You will then be transferred by air to Lusaka.
Price: Mid-range.

TA insider tips
Zambia’s culture “is so often forgotten”, says Leslie Nevison of Mama Tembo Tours (MTT). MTT recommends taking in one of the country’s many festivals, such as Kulamba, held on the last weekend in August. Here, the Chewa chiefs of Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique converge to pay homage to the Chewa King. Pulse Africa suggests a visit to Kawaza, home to the Kunda tribe, as part of a South Luangwa itinerary.

For families

Recommended by David Ryan, Rhino Africa
Zambia is an excellent safari destination for families. Its combination of unsurpassed game viewing, abundance of child-friendly lodges and private houses, easy accessibility and countless adventure activities provide something for everyone.

Sample itinerary
• Days 1-5  On the northern shores of the Zambezi River, the intimate Baines’ River Camp in the Lower Zambezi Valley combines the best of African hospitality with the tranquillity of the unspoilt African bush. Guests can go on either water or land safaris in their search to find hippo and lion.
• Days 5-9  Transfer to the two-bedroomed Robin’s House in South Luangwa. Situated on the banks of the Luangwa River, it offers guests an intimate experience of one of Africa’s last pristine wildlife sanctuaries. Luangwa Safari House is another great spot for families.
Price  Mid-range.

TA insider tip
For an alternative, affordable option in South Luangwa, Pulse Africa suggests staying at the child-friendly Flatdogs Camp.

For wildlife and bird lovers

Recommended by Leslie Nevison, Mama Tembo Tours
Zambia is blessed with some unprecedented game-viewing options. South Luangwa teems with wildlife and is a prime destination to see big cats. The Lower Zambezi comprises 4000sq km of untouched bush, while the vast expanse of Kafue means lodges are fewer and the experience more personal. All three are a birder’s paradise. Those with a larger budget and a desire to delve deeper could look to Zambia’s lesser-known parks, such as Kasanka, renowned for its bat migration in November, and Bangweulu, for its birding.

Sample itinerary
• Days 1-2  Arrive in Livingstone, with an opportunity to visit the Victoria Falls. Several accommodation options are available.
• Day 3  Depart for South Kafue in your private vehicle with a driver-guide. Travel time is three to four hours, game viewing on the way, to Nanzhila Plains Safari Camp. This bush escape boasts a natural waterhole and private hides. Birding is particularly rewarding in the area, where the black-cheeked lovebird is endemic. Option to add an extra night.
• Day 4  Continue the drive northwards to Konkamoya Lodge on the shores of Lake Itezhi-Tezhi.
• Day 5  Explore the area around the lodge and venture into the park itself. As well as elephant, hippo, puku, impala, buffalo, lion and leopard, there have been sightings of wild dogs. Birdlife by the lake is excellent.
• Day 6  Continue into North Kafue, staying at the four-chalet Musekese Camp. Driving time is about four hours. Option to add a few nights at Mawimbi Bush Camp, situated on the Kafue River, which is perfect for canoeing.
• Days 7-8  Although walking safaris are Musekese’s main focus, the camp provides cruises along the Kafue and Lufupa rivers. There is also some world-class fishing here.
• Day 9  Return to Lusaka by road, staying at Mama Tembo Cheza — a private cottage on a 2-hectare wooded plot.
Price  Mid-range.

TA insider tip 
Travel to Kafue, Liuwa Plains or Bangweulu in May and June for the best birding. For a South Luangwa-only option, Safari Consultants advises exploring the park’s northern Nsefu sector — a particularly rich game-viewing area — staying at Mwamba Bush Camp on the Luangwa River for four nights, before transferring to the southern sector.

For hikers

Recommended by Bill Adams, Safari Consultants
Zambia is the home of the walking safari, pioneered by Norman Carr in South Luangwa back in the 1950s. While there are many places now offering on-foot experiences, the Chikoko Trails, which is only accessible to walkers, gives you the sense of feeling very remote. “This is one of the wildest camps you’ll experience in Africa,” says Adams. “It’s raw nature on your doorstep.” North Luangwa, where lion have a reputation for being particularly feisty, is one for the more adventurous walker. But there is little to beat the experience of following lion on foot as they stalk huge buffalo herds.

Sample itinerary
• Day 1-3  After overnighting in Lusaka, fly to Kafue National Park, where you will spend three nights exploring the wilderness, primarily on foot, from Musekese Camp.
• Day 4  Fly to Mfuwe, the gateway to South Luangwa. Transfer north to Tafika Camp.
• Days 5-7  Walk from Tafika to the Chikoko Trails where three nights are spent walking between the Chikoko and Crocodile bushcamps.
• Days 8-10  Walk to the airstrip and connect to Mwaleshi Camp for three nights, from where you will explore North Luangwa on foot.
• Day 11  Return by air to Mfuwe for your scheduled flight to Lusaka and beyond.
Price  Mid-range.

TA insider tip
As an addition to a walking safari in South and North Luangwa, Zambian Ground Handlers suggests spending four nights in the remote, little-visited Luambe National Park, which lies between the two. Luambe Camp provides exclusive access to the region.

For couples

Recommended by Nick Aslin, Zambian Ground Handlers
Zambia is ideal for romantic getaways. There’s an array of private lodges tucked away in secluded parts of some of Africa’s finest national parks, with the chance to enjoy vast wildernesses, sunset river cruises and the magnificent Victoria Falls.

Sample itinerary
• Days 1-3  Arrive into Lusaka and transfer to Mfuwe in South Luangwa. On entering the park, you hug the western bank of the Luangwa River, heading towards Mchenja Bush Camp, taking you through some of the best game-viewing territory in southern Africa. During your stay, you will have ample opportunity to explore the area both on foot and in vehicles.
• Days 4-5  Your home for the next two days is the comfortable Chinzombo Camp, comprising six villas positioned on the Luangwa River. Its contemporary design is something new for Zambia but surely is now the benchmark by which all other camps will be measured.
• Days 6-9  Fly to the Lower Zambezi, where you will stay at Chongwe River Camp, set on the bank of the Zambezi River close to the western edge of the park. You will be able to see game on foot, from vehicles or from the water in boats or canoes.
• Days 9-11  Head to Livingstone to stay at one of Zambia’s most romantic camps. Tongabezi is set on a large bend in the Zambezi River, 20km upstream from the Victoria Falls.
Price  Splurge.

TA insider tip For a more budget option in South Luangwa, Rhino Africa recommends staying at the Nsolo Bush Camp. Positioned on the Luwi River it is one of the remotest camps in the park and a favoured area for lion. This can be combined with a couple of nights at the four-chalet Luwi Bush Camp, with its nearby lagoon. Don’t miss the bush walk from Nsolo to Luwi.

For additional itineraries, visit travelafricamag.com

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