The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for southern Africa: Cherri Briggs of Explore, Inc.
Cherri—who splits her time between homes in Zambia and Colorado—has spent the past 25 years combing the African continent to create unique travel experiences: canoeing the Zambezi; galloping on horseback with zebra and giraffe across the Okavango Delta; scuba diving off Mozambique; and exploring the remote corners of Ethiopia, Gabon, Madagascar, Cameroon, and the Congo Basin. She and her trusted deputy, Katie McDonough, ensure that clients—both private travelers and groups—enjoy excellent value and a smart selection of lodges and camps in Southern and East Africa. Cherri serves on the boards of several African conservation organizations, and she selects lodges that support local communities and invest in conservation. In 2013 she was appointed Honorary Consul to the USA by the Zambian government, and in 2014 she became the first non-citizen appointed to the Botswana Tourism Organization.
Camps, Lodges, and Meals
Best-value safari camps
In Kafue National Park—one of the wildest places on earth—both Fig Tree Bush Camp and Busanga Plains Camp offer a no-frills version of the classic African safari. These tiny, 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, lion, cheetah, caracol, 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. Slightly more expensive—and offering more frills—is the beautiful Shumba Lodge, which was recently rebuilt.
Lodges and camps worth the splurge
Luangwa House, in South Luangwa National Park, is a thatched-roof bush villa straight out of an African fairy tale. Its four luxury suites are equally gorgeous; the common areas are cushy and open onto amazing vistas, and the pool is a prime spot for chilling out and watching elephants come to drink. The house has direct private access to the park—which features the highest concentration of leopards in all of Africa. I love to combine Luangwa with Lower Zambezi National Park; it’s a really wonderful contrast to go from dusty game drives to viewing elephants and hippos from a canoe.
Sausage Tree Camp sits on the edge of an oxbow lagoon just off the Zambezi River in the heart of the Lower Zambezi National Park. All seven huge, white tents have great views of the river and its islands, which are frequented by herds of resident elephant and buffalo. The camp was recently entirely rebuilt and features an 80-foot-long lap pool and a lovely dining/bar area. The luxurious suites are well spaced along the water for privacy, and each comes with its own butler, private guide, and vehicle. The camp’s Kigelia House is ideal for families or friends, with two large ensuite 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.
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 spend time with 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 privacy on the lower level, while kids snooze upstairs. Mfuwe is easily paired with a visit to Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, where kids can meet habituated elephants and engage in a whole host of adrenaline-fueled activities.
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 pumpkin-seed garnish.
What to See and Do
The Bangweulu Wetlands, a pristine habitat where rare mammal and bird species 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 Africa’s least visited safari destinations.
Zambia’s wildebeest migration is another well-kept secret: Every November, thousands of animals move across the remote Liuwa Plains, located on the border with Angola. King Lewanika Lodge offers remarkably luxurious lodging in this extremely remote area.
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. You can’t jump in the lake to cool off either, as it is full of massive crocodiles!
Walking with habituated lions: Though it can make for a dramatic photo, this activity is ultimately a conservation no-no. 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 personally 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 tamer (but not entirely risk-free) endeavor, though the robust hippo and croc populations guarantee an adrenaline rush.
Micro-lighting: It’s 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 or view Victoria Falls.
Visit one of our Direct Impact Africa (DIA) 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 doctor). On another trip, a contractor and his family helped one of DIA’s community projects rebuild their chicken coop. We tailor each experience to make it relevant and meaningful. For children we offer age-specific activities, including a day of interactive cross-cultural exchange with local kids—something that Wendy did with her own boys in Zambia.
Prime picnic spot
There’s no more dramatic setting for a picnic than Livingstone Island, perched at the edge of 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 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. Watch a parade of elephants crossing the great Zambezi as you sip your gin-and-tonic or sauv blanc while the sun sets 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 classical music in the background.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.