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Zambia: Insider’s Guide

Cherri Briggs | October 22, 2014

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for southern Africa: Cherri Briggs of Explore.

Trusted Travel Expert
Cherri Briggs

Cherri has had an appetite for adventure and a love of wild places since she was a child riding horses and hunting rattlesnakes on a remote cattle ranch in Nevada. She founded Explore Inc. in 1992 to offer unique African travel experiences that include canoeing Zambia’s Lower Zambezi River, volunteering at a community project in Zimbabwe (both easily combined on a single trip to the two countries), and running with zebra and giraffe on horseback across Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Cherri has homes in Botswana, Zambia, and Colorado and a deep first-person knowledge of even remote corners of southern Africa. She books directly with service providers, cutting out middlemen to ensure that her clients get great value and that Explore has complete control of itineraries, from beginning to end. Cherri has worked in conservation for decades and has served on the boards of several African conservation organizations. She works only with lodges that practice the best conservation practices and support local communities. In 2013 she was appointed Honorary Consul to the USA by the Government of Zambia, and in 2014 she became the first non-citizen to be appointed to the Botswana Tourism Organization.

Travel arrangements start at $800 per day for two travelers. This is the minimum you should expect to pay.

Camps, Lodges, and Meals

Best-value safari camp
Amanzi Bush Camp in the Lower Zambezi has just opened its four spacious and beautiful accommodations in the most remote part of the Zambezi National Park, near Mozambique. Now is the time to book, while special opening rates are in effect and before people find out about this amazing new camp. The camp is especially well-suited to small groups or families, as you can have the entire place to yourself.

Elephants, Luangwa Safari house, Zambia

Luangwa Safari House, Zambia. Photography by Robin Pope Safaris

Lodges and camps worth the splurge
Luangwa House in South Luangwa National Park is an awesome thatched-roof bush villa that looks straight out of an African fairy tale. Its four luxury suites are all equally gorgeous, and the common areas are cushy and open onto amazing vistas, while the pool is a prime spot for elephant viewing. The house has direct private access to the park and an exclusive game drive area for a real and absolutely exclusive sense of the wild.

Baines’ River Camp offers eight gorgeous suites set on the banks of the Lower Zambezi, just outside the national park. Its fishing guides are the best in the business and—with amenities like cappuccino and air-conditioning—it’s easily the most luxurious lodge in Zambia. Baines can also organize an easy transfer across the Zambezi to Zimbabwe’s Lake Kariba, where their new luxe houseboat, the Matusadona, is moored. It’s the ultimate way to end a long safari: You can read, watch wildlife on the shore, fish, or just relax on your own private yacht.

Best lodge for families
Mfuwe Lodge in the South Luangwa National Park has a huge pool, great game viewing from the massive deck, and a very lively family scene that draws both international visitors and a loyal expat clientele. The guides have loads of experience handling kids and know how to keep game drives fun and engaging. There’s also a wonderful “interactive” buffet that allows kids to design their own pizzas and other dishes, and opportunities for young guests to meet and interact with village kids in a meaningful way. The game viewing never disappoints (there are leopards and lions everywhere!) and the spacious two-story family rooms allow parents to relax in luxurious privacy on the lower level, while kids sleep upstairs. Mfuwe is easily paired with a visit to Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, where kids can ride elephants and engage in a whole host of adrenaline-fueled activities.

Must-have dish
Nshima, a sort of paste made from white cornmeal, is the local staple served with local sautéed spinach, onion, tomato, and spices. I love the dried and crushed cucumber seed garnish. For more intrepid types, mopane worms are delicious when served fried and salted. (They’re best enjoyed in the dim light, where the eyes aren’t quite as noticeable.)

What to See and Do

Don’t miss
The Bangeula Wetlands, a pristine habitat where rare mammal and bird species still thrive. Highlights include the black lechwe antelope, almost never seen outside this area, and the extremely rare shoebill, a fascinating giant bird that reminds me of the extinct dodo. I recommend that travelers stay at one of the lodges in the nearby Kasanka National Park or book a private mobile safari, as accommodations near the wetlands are lacking. Like Bangeula, Zambia’s only migration is a very well-kept secret: Every November, thousands of wildebeest move across the remote Liuwa Plains, located on the border with Angola. Both destinations are far from the crowds, well off the track, and not easily accessed—but worth it!

Don’t bother
Visiting the town of Siavonga on Lake Kariba. It was vibrant in the 80s, and though it remains a draw for tourists, the town has slipped and the accommodations are down right depressing. The lake on the Zambian side is also disappointing: It’s hard to access wildlife areas due to lack of infrastructure, and the waters are often too busy with fishermen and speedboats. You can’t jump in to cool off either, as it is full of massive crocodiles! On the Zimbabwean side, though, the lake borders Matusahonha National Park, one of that country’s most remote parks, and one that teems with wildlife.

Walking with habituated lions: Though it can admittedly make for dramatic-looking photos, this activity is ultimately irresponsible from a conservation standpoint. Where do hundreds of lions that have been raised to have no fear of humans go after they are too old (and dangerous) to pose for a picture? I don’t believe they’re released into the wild, as many operators claim, and so I counsel people to stay away.

Best for thrill-seekers
Whitewater rafting on the Zambezi from Livingstone ranks as number-one in my book of hair-raising adventures! Grade 5 rapids at every turn give even the most experienced rafter a thrill a minute, with lots of unplanned swimming sessions! This is a serious high-adrenaline pursuit and comes with a fair amount of risk.

For those less inclined to danger, canoeing the Lower Zambezi is a less risky endeavor, though the robust hippo and croc populations guarantee an adrenaline rush.

Micro-lighting: Its safe (neither of the two operators in Livingstone has had an accident in over 15 years) and way more thrilling than a helicopter to see wildlife from John Coppinger’s camp in Luangwa or to fly over Victoria Falls.

Bragging rights
Visit one of Explore’s Direct Impact Africa projects in the Lower Zambezi/Chiawa area, where we organize highly personalized experiences tailor-made to the interests and expertise of our clients and guarantee a meaningful, authentic exchange with local people. For instance, when a female pediatrician traveler wanted to work with local midwives, we brought nine village midwives to the local clinic where the pediatrician worked with them for two days to teach them advanced techniques for dealing with troubled births. (A month later, a newborn was saved using the skills imparted by the pediatrician). We can also plan a day of interactive cross-cultural exchange between your children and local children.

Prime picnic spot
There’s no more dramatic setting for a picnic than Livingstone Island, perched high atop Victoria Falls. You can even swim up to the edge of the falls when the water is low (from late September through October) for an exhilarating paddle and absolutely awesome pics.

Best spot for a sundowner
As David Livingstone wrote in his journal, “At 6 o’clock the sundowner ritual begins. . . . This is a time-honored social routine. . . . Groups of up to a couple of a dozen would visit each other for a drink, to gossip and exchange news.” This tradition lives on to this day, with a seemingly infinitude variety of great sundowner spots throughout Zambia.

My favorite “wild spot” is a small white dab of sand in the middle of the river in the heart of the Lower Zambezi National Park. You arrive by boat, and your cocktails and appetizers are set up on a white linen table. Then you watch the parade of elephants crossing the great Zambezi as you sip your gin-and-tonic or sauvignon blanc while the sun sets over the escarpment and hippos grunt contentedly in the background. It’s the best!

The Sunset Bar at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, in Livingstone, is a more civilized venue, where you can see and hear the spray from Victoria Falls as you sip Champagne accompanied by baroque music in the background.

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Best Times to Go

Mid-April through June, when the rainy season has ended and the country is lush and the temperature pleasant. Note that wildlife viewing during this time is good but not as intense as later in the season, when it is very dry.

August and September are not as beautiful: The leaves have fallen and the landscape is somewhat barren. The upside is that the wildlife concentrate in larger groups at the water holes and streams, so game viewing is at its best.

Worst Times to Go

October and November are boiling hot and so uncomfortable that we call this “suicide time” (which says it all). In fact, most good lodges close from early November through mid-April due to rains and mosquitoes.

July is freezing! I avoid southern Africa in July, as it’s just too darn cold, particularly on the Zambezi and in the water by Victoria Falls.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

To see Victoria Falls only from the Zambian side. About three-quarters of the falls are on the Zimbabwe side, so you must cross over the Zambezi River in Livingstone to the Zimbabwe side to fully appreciate their spectacle. (By late September there is almost no water going over the falls on the Zambian side.) And don’t bother to rent an umbrella at the entry gate to the falls: The water comes at you from all sides, so you’ll get soaked no matter what.

Instagram Moment

Sunset from a boat or canoe on the Lower Zambezi River, where you’re likely to see elephants drinking or even swimming across the river in the orange glow of dusk. Breathtaking!

Perfect Souvenir

Chitenges, the brilliantly colored printed fabric that villagers wear sarong-style. About $10 each; mix and match for your summer picnic table. I like to buy mine at Tribal Textiles in Luangwa, which works with local communities and also sells beautiful table and bed covers that last forever.

Must-Have Apps

Sasol eBirds of Southern Africa has more than 600 birds and bird calls and makes bird spotting instantly entertaining even for a novice.

Arm your iPad with Night Sky to identify all the new constellations you’ll see sparkling in the Southern Hemisphere sky.

Tipping Tips

Tipping practices vary greatly. We give exact tipping advice for all transfers and lodges and guides, but the average ranges from $20 to $50 per day per vehicle for guides and from $5 to $10 per guest per day for staff tip boxes.

Airport Intel

Don’t buy your visa in advance: it just takes moments on arrival. You do need to pay local departure taxes for most internal private charter flights (except Proflight, which includes the fee). This is easily paid at the well-marked counter in all airports. Don’t overpack. You will be fined on internal flights if you are over weight limits. If you have a private charter, find out how many seats in the plane you chartered. Luggage limits can be severe and you may want to get a five-seater rather than a four-seater if you have a lot of heavy camera gear or big bags. Bring your yellow fever certificate! You won’t be permitted to enter the country without it. Finally, use the airport ATM to withdraw local currency (kwacha), which is greatly appreciated when tipping.

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Lauren Mescon | September 12, 2017

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Claudia Downey | September 9, 2017

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Jon Senkowsky | June 9, 2017
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