If this were a marriage, Zambia’s half-centenary as an independent country in October 2014 would be its golden anniversary. Arguably, ‘copper’ might be more appropriate, after the shimmering metal that brought post-independence riches to this deeply traditional society at the heart of sub-Saharan Africa. To mark the occasion we asked Chris McIntyre and Tricia Hayne – who have both travelled extensively around the country over many years – to put together 50 attractions that would appeal to the traveller, from the attention-grabbing must-sees to some more offbeat gems.
Livingstone memorial –
That Livingstone lost his heart to Zambia is more than poetic licence, for this is exactly where it is buried – in the depths of the bush near the small village of Chitambo. Make the effort to pay your respects and your photos are likely to be bombed by the local youngsters – who certainly liven up the rather dull stone column.
Victoria Falls – The Zambezi in dominant mood is not to be missed. At its most impressive, around March or April, the sheer power of this mesmerising curtain of water is breathtaking – and at that time of year you can be sure of a drenching from Knife Edge Bridge, Zambia’s closest viewpoint. Rainbows form in the spray, often in concentric circles: one, two or even three. And at full moon you might be rewarded with a lunar rainbow. Enchanting.
Namakabwa Island –
Livingstone’s first close-up of the Falls was from a canoe hauled up on Namakabwa (or Livingstone) Island, where today’s visitors can share his vertiginous view over the edge, or even risk a dip in the Devil’s Pool on the very brink of the Falls.
Flight of the Angels –
When Livingstone first encountered the Falls in 1855, with expectations already running high, he was not disappointed: ‘…scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’, he exclaimed in his diary. To be up there with the angels, take a flight over the Falls by helicopter or microlight. From the air, the true grandeur of nature becomes apparent: the massive breadth of the river, dotted with bare rocks and sparsely vegetated islands; the constantly changing colours and textures of the water; the great fissure gouged into the rock that is the Batoka Gorge, where the river gathers speed as it plunges into the abyss.
Adrenalin sports –
Down at water level, the thrills of Victoria Falls get altogether more adrenalin-fuelled, culminating in bungee jumping from the historic 111m bridge that joins Zambia and Zimbabwe, and whitewater rafting far below. Definitely not for the faint-hearted!
River cruise –
Drink in one hand, binoculars in the other, river below: a leisurely cruise gives you time to observe elephants on the islands of the Zambezi, and countless water birds.
Royal Livingstone Express
Drawn by a lovingly restored steam loco dating back to the 1920s, the gleaming wooden carriages transport guests into a world of unashamed luxury, offering 5-star food and service courtesy of the Royal Livingstone Hotel, as the train chugs at close of day towards Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.
Showcasing the skills of local carvers and basket weavers from the Western Province, as well as imports from other African countries, Livingstone’s craft markets are a must. Be prepared to bargain – hard. It’s an expected part of the ritual, and adds to the enjoyment of the final purchase.
Elephant, lion, leopard and giraffe are on most first-time visitors’ wish lists, and Zambia’s top national parks rarely disappoint. Less visible are cheetah, wild dog and buffalo, but choose wisely and you could be lucky. Several endemic subspecies add to the mix, including Cookson’s wildebeest in North Luangwa NP, and Thornicroft’s giraffe, Crawshay’s zebra and the black lechwe, whose stronghold is the marshy Bangweulu. Sadly, the rhinoceros was poached to local extinction in the 1980s, but black rhinos have been reintroduced to the North Luangwa NP, and white rhino into Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, near Livingstone.
Zambia’s national parks may have wildlife in abundance, but delete any image you may have of nose-to-tail vehicles doing the safari circuit. Picture instead a remote waterhole, its edges fresh with the dung of zebra, their stripes highlighted in the evening sun. Few, if any, other vehicles. Only the sounds of the bush… Zambia offers safaris for many budgets, but Longleat it is not – and in many places, exclusivity is pretty well guaranteed.
Some of the continent’s best guides come from Zambia. Many – particularly in the South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi parks – are trained to the exceptionally high standards exacted by the lodge owners and a tough set of exams. This usually ensures that visitors go away not just with great photos and memories but also with a deeper understanding of the environment.
South Luangwa National Park
Teeming with big game, and dotted with both classy safari lodges and a fair few budget options, the South Luangwa is Zambia’s flagship national park – and the only one to be accessible during the rains. For most, though, its greatest appeal is at the height of the dry season, when animals congregate in huge numbers along the Luangwa River.
The modern take on safari accommodation raises luxury to a new level, from the contemporary style of Chindeni Camp, in the South Luangwa, to the park’s latest in safari chic, the opulent new Chinzombo. Each enormous suite features a huge bathtub, private plunge pool and sunken lounge, while the latest ‘evening-breeze’ technology cools the bed as you drift off.
Dubbed ‘emerald’ by the marketing guys, the rainy season is one of plenty. The grass is lush and green, antelope drop their young, birds are out in force, many in full breeding plumage – and there are river trips on the Luangwa. Moderate temperatures and generally lower rates add to the appeal.
Pioneered in the Luangwa Valley, walking safaris here remain alongside the best. Under the watchful eye of experienced, specially trained guides and accompanied by an armed game scout, it’s by turns interesting, liberating and, with your senses alert for the slightest movement, exhilarating, not to mention decidedly addictive. Best between June and September, when the grass is low and the temperatures moderate.
North Luangwa National Park
Few people make it to the remote North Luangwa, but those who do are rewarded by walking safaris in pristine wilderness. At the deceptively simple Mwaleshi Camp you’ll spend most of your time exploring on foot, sometimes even fording the shallow river. Forged into my memory is a lion, staring unblinkingly into my eyes from the opposite bank…
Lower Zambezi National Park
While each of Zambia’s national parks has a river at its heart, the Lower Zambezi stands out, not just for the wildlife that depend on it but for the activities available on the Zambezi itself. River cruises, birdwatching trips, fishing and canoeing – all are offered by the handful of small, exclusive camps, together with game drives and walks, of course. Expect elephant, lion, leopard and much more. But lots of vehicles? No.
If you throw up your hands in horror at the mere mention of a tent, think again: Zambia has some pretty luxurious tented lodges that bear no comparison with camping. One such is Chiawa Lodge, set in natural bush on the banks of the Lower Zambezi. Sleep in four-poster beds in large, walk-in tents whose en suite bathrooms have hot running water, plumbed-in showers and flushing toilets. Breakfast around the fire before heading out on safari, chat around the bar in the evening, and dine in splendour beneath the stars.
The standard of food at safari lodges is a constant source of admiration. Even the most remote of bushcamps can rustle up homemade bread and cakes from an underground oven, while at the smartest establishments you can expect cuisine of a standard comparable with a good Western restaurant. Occasionally, too, you’ll be treated to an evening of traditional Zambian food.
Unusually for African national parks, Zambia permits night drives conducted with a guide, and the rewards can be considerable. Leopard, of course, are the big attraction, but how often have you seen a porcupine, or the ghostly stripes of a civet by moonlight, or even an aardvark? Even the trees reflect back their bounty in the light of a torch: perhaps the huge eyes of a giant eagle owl, or the bright dots that give away the nocturnal bushbaby.
Think night drives, think leopard. Not that you can’t see leopard during the day – you can; they’re often spotted posing in the branches of a tree – but to witness these lissom creatures hunting is to witness feline cunning honed to perfection.
All manner of places dub themselves ‘bush camps’, but the term is usually synonymous with somewhere small, remote and very simple, with minimal environmental footprint (but rarely minimal cost). Expect structures of canvas or reeds, mud floors covered with rush matting, and paraffin lighting – though you won’t be roughing it. Comfortable beds, freshly prepared meals and excellent guiding are the order of the day, as typified at Mwamba and Chikoko Trails camps in the South Luangwa, or Busanga Plains Camp in the Kafue.
Many lodges offer family tents with adjoining rooms, or even family suites, but the standout option is a dedicated safari house, complete with host, cook, guide, vehicle and usually a swimming pool. The best – such as Robin’s House in the South Luangwa, or Chongwe River House in the Lower Zambezi – are extraordinary homes-from-home with all mod cons, and a safari take. All you have to do is supply the family.
As the rains start in November, tens of thousands of blue wildebeest, and no few zebra, congregate on the little-known Liuwa Plains in search of fresh grazing. It’s a spectacle rarely witnessed, for access is difficult, but Robin Pope Safaris run specialist tours for this and for the superb birding.
For the adventurous and experienced few, a self-drive safari is the ultimate. Sticking to the South Luangwa, it’s fairly straightforward, camping in well-equipped sites and driving at least in part along well-maintained roads. Away from the main arteries, the road network deteriorates, often to little more than bush or sand tracks, and river crossings on flat pontoons add to the entertainment. And while campsites may be up to the mark in the Luangwa or Kafue, elsewhere you’ll be lucky to get a water tap. Don’t even think about it without a well-equipped vehicle, a decent bird book and a lot of patience.
Kafue National Park
Split in two by the main road west from Lusaka, Zambia’s largest national park combines both easy-access safaris and – on the Busanga Plains – some of the most isolated. Influenced by the Kafue River and its tributary the Lufupa, the mood of the park can be very variable, from game-rich plains to an elephant stronghold; from cheerful river cruises to intimate birdwatching trips; from top notch lodges to simple campsites. Though it’s partly about budget, it’s also about location and personality – so seek advice and choose wisely.
Hot air ballooning
In the soft light of dawn on the Busanga Plains, the hazy colours of a hot-air balloon drift high over plains fringed with miniature trees, criss-crossed with narrow channels and dotted with tiny giraffe, elephant and hippo. Wilderness Safaris’ camps will even reward your early start with a champagne breakfast.
Kafue elephant orphanage
‘Rescue, rehabilitate and release’ – that’s the aim of the orphanage. It’s definitely not hands-on; you get to watch through a screen as the elephants come ‘home’ for lunch, but the antics of the little ones, and their interaction with their elders, are hard to resist.
Birds, birds and more birds
Straddling the ornithological divide between
southern and central Africa, Zambia boasts birds from both sides. Specials are the endemic Chaplin’s barbet, alongside the near-endemic black-cheeked lovebird on Nanzhila Plain, as well as colourful offerings such as Schalow’s turaco and the carmine bee-eater. But the star of the show is the ungainly shoebill, which breeds in the Bangweulu Swamps. If you’re serious about finding it, be prepared to leave your boat and hike through the boggy shallows.
Chiroptophobes look away: each November, some five million straw-coloured fruit bats descend on Kasanka National Park to roost in the evergreen swamp forest. Watch from a hide as they soar into the air at nightfall, seeking out the evening’s fruitfest.
Canoeing on the Zambezi
Canoeing opens a view onto a peaceful world where the soft, rhythmic splashing of your paddles is broken only by the alarm call of a pied kingfisher, the whoosh of wings of an African skimmer, or the grunt of a hippo. Aforesaid hippos – and crocs – are a potential hazard for canoeists, which is why you’ll have a highly trained and experienced guide with you.
Fishing for tigerfish
If tigerfish are the ultimate prize of many a keen angler, the Zambezi is the place to try your luck for this notoriously feisty species. Take to the water on the Lower Zambezi, or head for a specialist fishing camp in the heart of Barotseland.
Dug-out canoes provide the means of fishing for many villagers as they set out on rivers great and small. Fishermen use conical basket traps on the Zambezi floodplains, or spears on Liuwa Plains. At night specialist kapenta fishermen stake out the waters of lakes Tanganyika and Kariba under bright arc lights.
Staff at safari lodges often welcome the chance to show tourists round their villages, introducing them to members of the community and perhaps popping into the local school or church. More focused are cultural villages such as Kawaza in the South Luangwa, or Chiawa Cultural Village in the Lower Zambezi, set up to encourage visitors to learn a little about the local way of life. Either way, any fees paid will go into community coffers.
Colourful cotton throws, tablecloths, cushions, curtains, bags, sarongs. The colours are bright, the fabric tough: what will you do with yours?
When the Zambezi floods across the plains of western Zambia, the traditional court of the Lozi king, the Litunga, is moved with great ceremony to higher land. Massive war drums summon villagers to the court at Lealui, where the Litunga boards the distinctive black-and-white royal barge, propelled by 96 polers in traditional festive attire. The date, around Easter, isn’t fixed – and if there’s not enough water, the court stays put.
Chinyingi Mission bridge
High above the churning Zambezi, the Chinyingi suspension bridge was the work of one Brother Crispin, an Italian monk who determined to provide a safe river crossing for villagers coming to the mission hospital. Traversing the swaying 1m-wide metal bridge is not just a thrill in itself, it also highlights the difficulties faced by people divided by the river.
No visit to Zambia should be complete without a stately home. Yes, a stately home: for that is the feel of Shiwa Ng’andu, built after World War I by Sir Stewart Gore-Brown. His aim – to create an estate that nurtured the local people – was realised through skills training, the construction of houses for his workers, and of schools and hospitals, as well as his own mansion. Today Sir Stewart’s grandson and his wife have taken over the estate – complete with a working farm, game ranch, stables, lake and historical archives – and once again it is thriving. Visitors can stay in the quirky old manor house and immerse themselves in the past or the present. Just be warned – you’ll want to stay longer than you thought.
Wallow in hot springs
Even on the warmest days, the hot springs at Kapishya, near Shiwa Ng’andu, can be immensely appealing. Tropical vegetation provides plenty of shade; all you have to do is relax.
Lusaka is hardly a tourist hotspot, but if you’ve time to spare, check out (with a friend) the huge and chaotic nearby market, drop into the genuinely interesting National Museum, and round it off with a pepper steak at Marlin’s.
Wildlife, waterfalls, dramatic landscapes, colourful fabrics and festivals, all vie for the photographer’s lens. Guides are often trained to position vehicles for the best light, and at Kaingo Camp in the South Luangwa there are special hides for photographers – superb for close-ups of hippo, elephant or carmine bee-eaters.
Fast-flowing rivers and geological faults – it’s a winning combination for lovers of waterfalls, and Zambia has them aplenty. Seek out lesser-known gems such as the Ngonye Falls, where you can be massaged by the water in the shallows above. Or head to the Kalambo Falls on the Tanzanian border, a stupendous 221m drop over the edge of the African Rift Valley. And further south, on the Kalungwishi River, there’s the startlingly picturesque Kabwelume Falls, a cascade in three parts that combine in aquatic harmony.
Few can resist the magic of the sun sinking below the horizon, its reflection spreading over the surface of a river, a giraffe backlit against the sky. The locations are many, the experience ever-changing.
When the controversial Kariba Dam was opened in 1959 the waters of the Zambezi flooded the immense Zambezi valley, drowning trees and displacing both people and wildlife. As if in serried memorial, tree skeletons still stand guard over the erstwhile land, now the domain of houseboats and fishermen.
The softest of soft sand characterises the lakeshores of Kariba, Bangweulu, and Tanganyika in the far north – as well as the banks of the Zambezi in the Western Province. Mind you, crocs and hippos put paid to swimming, except on Lake Tanganyika, and even there you need to check very, very carefully where it’s safe.
Even more unexpected is the opportunity to scuba dive, but at Ndole Bay you’ll find a fully fledged PADI resort. Dive into a world of freshwater fish (at least 82 of them endemic to Zambia) or dispense with the scuba kit and head out with a snorkel and mask: those fish are seen at their best in bright sunlight.