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Zambia: Insider’s Guide

by Cherri Briggs | May 16, 2019

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, who has homes in both Botswana and Zambia—where she knows everyone who’s anyone, including all the government VIPs —has spent the past 25 years creating unique African travel experiences that include canoeing the Zambezi River, running with zebra and giraffe on horseback across the Okavango Delta, and exploring remote corners of Africa including Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan. She books directly with service providers, cutting out middlemen to ensure that her clients get the best value and the smartest selection of lodges and camps. Cherri has worked in conservation for decades, has served on the boards of African conservation organizations, and works only with lodges that follow the best sustainability 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.

Trips start at $1,200 per day for two travelers in low season and $1,600 per day for two travelers in high season.

Camps, Lodges, and Meals

Best-value safari camps
In Kafue National Park—one of the wildest places left on the planet—Fig Tree Bush Camp and Busanga Plains Camp each offer a no-frills version of the classic African safari. These tiny and remote camps have just four tents each. The spectacular open grasslands and wetlands of Busanga Plains are a photographer’s paradise, with frequent visits from buffalo, antelope, puku, lechwe, sitatunga, and the usual predators, including lion, cheetah, and servil. Leave your taste for fancy food and wine at home and experience the genuine Africa of Hemingway days, at a very reasonable price.

Elephants, Luangwa Safari house, Zambia

Luangwa Safari House, Zambia. Photography by Robin Pope Safaris

Lodges and camps worth the splurge
I am definitely biased, as I have a home just upstream, but I would say that Sausage Tree Camp takes the prize when it comes to a beautiful location. The lodge sits on the edge of an oxbow lagoon just off the Zambezi River in the heart of the Lower Zambezi National Park. Seven huge white tents all have views of the river and its islands frequented by masses of resident elephant, hippo, and buffalo. The camp was entirely rebuilt in 2018 and features an 80-foot-long lap pool, dining area, bar, and lounge areas. The luxury suites are well spaced along the water for privacy, and each comes with its own private guide and vehicle. Kigelia House is ideal for families or close friends, with its two large en-suite bedrooms located on either side of a spacious living area, private deck, and pool. Your guide accompanies you both on land (walking safaris and game drives) and on the river where you can canoe, explore by boat, or try your luck hooking the prized tiger fish, the strongest fighting fish in the world.

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; the common areas are cushy and open onto amazing vistas, while the pool is a prime spot for chilling out and watching elephants. The house has direct private access to the park—which has the highest concentration of leopards in Africa—and an exclusive game-drive area for a real sense of the wild.

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 Bangweulu 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. The brand-new Shoebill Island Camp is an intimate oasis on a small piece of high ground within the massive wetlands. With only four tents and views across the floodplain, the birding and game viewing here is exceptional. Scheduled charter flights make the area much more accessible than in days past, but this is still one of the least visited safari destinations in Africa.

Zambia’s only game migration is another well-kept secret: Every November, thousands of wildebeest move across the remote Liuwa Plains, located on the border with Angola. King Lewanika Lodge offers remarkably luxurious lodging in this extremely remote area.

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 downright 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 our 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 pediatrician traveler wanted to work with local midwives, we brought nine of them to a clinic where the pediatrician spent two days teaching 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 kids.

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 takes just moments on arrival. You 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 counters 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 are 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.

Reviews

Such a special, meaningful day…

Deborah Wente | April 29, 2019

We really enjoyed Ethiopia

Robin Louis | December 6, 2018

I would never have been able to...

Dan Foreman | November 7, 2018
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