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Field Notes from Zambia

Updated: Jul 2

Canoe safari on the Lower Zambezi from Chiawa Camp

In May I had the pleasure to spend a week in Zambia, exploring two incredible national parks. Zambia is not typically at the top of most traveler's lists and remains relatively unknown to travelers from the USA as a premier safari location. However, I have a feeling that will begin to change as more and more people begin to discover what this safe and picturesque country has to offer. And as the costs of more well-known safari destinations continue to reach new heights, Zambia offers excellent value for those daring to be Outliers. 

Most travelers I came across in Zambia had been on safari multiple times and to multiple African countries, however they continued to return to Zambia. Why? The National Parks are huge, and the number of visitors is a fraction of other countries. This provides a more intimate encounter with nature and a true wilderness experience, something that true safari lovers come to really appreciate. Wildlife here tends to be in smaller groupings compared to other locations, however sightings are still abundant. There’s also a “wildness” about the destination and the experience that harkens back to what safari purists enjoy about going on safari. There are no fences hemming the wildlife in as in some of the South African game reserves, which heightens the sense of adventure and rawness of the wildlife viewing experience.  All in all, this is a place I think many from the USA would appreciate discovering on their 1st trip to Africa and not their 3rd or 4th. As one repeat traveler to Zambia told me “Don’t spoil the secret!”To this I must say, “Sorry!”

Lower Zambezi National Park:

My first stop was Lower Zambezi National Park, a massive 4000+ sq. kilometer (1544 sq. miles) wildlife haven (2.5x the size of the Maasai Mara in Kenya with a tiny fraction of the camps). After the Zambezi River flows over the Victoria Falls, it travels north into Lake Kariba and then continues into the Zambezi valley, forming the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Mountainous escarpments hem the valley in and during the dry season (May-November) wildlife flocks to the water’s edge to quench their thirst. A series of safari camps and lodges are well spaced out on the river from west to east, offering game drives in the park, walking safaris and my personal favorite – canoe safaris. Gently and silently floating down river channels, accompanied only by the sounds of nature, was my top safari experience on this trip. Baboons and impala lined the water’s edge and elephants brought their young down to drink. Malachite and Pied King Fisher swooped and struck the water for fish as the sun slowly sank on the horizon and the ambient light warmed to a honey orange glow. Magical, epic, enchanting… any of those words simply don’t suffice. Just another day in Africa’s Eden. 

Breakfast at Time + Tide Chinzombo Camp

South Luangwa National Park:

My next stop, and a place I’d been pining over for several years, was South Luangwa National Park; a staggering 9,050 sq. kilometers (3,494 sq. miles) of riverine ecosystem and a wildlife haven only accessed by a handful of safari camps and lodges. The Luangwa River is undammed and flows naturally from the northeast, meandering its way and creating oxbow lakes and replenishing the soils, spawning lush vegetation and forest groves. Similar to the Lower Zambezi, during the dry season months (May-November) wildlife migrate into the area to take advantage of the permanent waters and its tributaries. Again, wildlife is not fenced in and roams freely. What’s so fascinating about a thriving and wild ecosystem is how it evolves and changes. Lion prides grow, expand their territories, get into fights, disband and reunite. Same for other predators, such as leopards and African wild dog. From year to year and season to season, the drama of the bush is an endless soap opera which is fascinating to behold and a reminder of the ephemeral nature of life. 

Photos from Sungani Lodge, an exceptional family-owned tented camp in a remote corner of the South Luangwa

The South Luangwa has made a name for itself as a walking safari destination. While this is definitely worth doing and one of the BEST places to do it, it’s certainly not the only way to enjoy the area. What is important to know is that walks in the S. Luangwa are proper safari walks. Many safari locations advertise walks but mute them to short ambles to identify scat and vegetation. This is primarily due to the training and expertise of the guides. Walking to actually find wildlife, or to trek between camps, takes considerable skill and safety precaution. So, if you’ve ever tried a game walk and weren’t impressed - you’ve not been to the South Luangwa.

Sunset from the deck at Sungani

The park is so massive that you could easily spend your time at 2 or 3 different locations. Some of the properties have more remote “bushcamps”, which are seasonal camps located in remote areas of the park. It’s well worth it to spend the time to get out to the bush camps, not just for the remote African experience but also to expand your chances for wildlife encounters. 

Thinking this sounds too rustic? Don’t worry, camps and lodges in both National Parks span the spectrum. I stayed in some incredible properties that were operating at the caliber of the finest camps I’ve experienced in Botswana and South Africa. While Covid was a devastating blow to tourism, many of the properties used the down time to retrofit their infrastructure or launch completely new ventures so that the caliber available in Zambia is truly top notch.

Getting Around: Lusaka is the capitol city and a laid back and easy destination to get in and out of. They’ve recently built a new international terminal which is really nice. Proflight is the local carrier that offers scheduled flights to all the safari destinations on either larger 30-passenger Jetstream’s or smaller Cessna Caravans. For groups, charter flights can be a convenient way to move around and avoid returning to Lusaka. 

Essentials for Safari: 

  • 10x40 good quality binoculars with body strap

  • Quality camera with at least 400mm zoom: This is one place where you will get serious FOMO if enjoy taking photos and show up with only your camera phone. 

  • Quick dry long sleeve sun shirts

  • Quick dry long pants

  • Shorts

  • Buff or wrap/scarf

  • Warm layer for chilly mornings or evenings (depending on season)

  • Wide brim hat or ball cap

  • Sunglasses 

  • Insect repellent and sunscreen: Insects are light, but if you’re the type of person who bugs love to bite (like me), insect repellent on the ankles in the evening is must. 

Zambia is for anyone who wants to escape to the heart of Africa's Eden and discover true wilderness

Who is Zambia For? Anyone who enjoys more exclusive and remote wildlife experiences. Especially good for active travelers that want to try a bush walk or canoe safari, but not limiting if you don’t or can’t do those activities. Families with teens or above would be a good fit, but not great for younger families which need additional entertainment options or need to be in fenced properties. 

Next places I want to Visit in Zambia: Kafue National Park

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