African Safari Expert, Anza Snyman, wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Zambia. Her previous safaris in Botswana and the Kruger National Park had set the bar high – how would Zambia compare? After all, it is a country that has only recently returned to the international safari scene and many people would struggle to find it on a map, let alone name its national parks and reserves.
The clear skies of early winter saw Anza flying into Lusaka, the country’s capital city, to discover Zambia for herself. ‘There’s no need to stay in the city,’ she explains, ‘but you will use it as a travel hub – fly in, connect with another plane and fly out.’ And it was at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport that Anza noticed for the first time one of the things that most impressed her about the country: the sheer friendliness of Zambians.
‘If you’re on safari, the ground support for travellers is amazing,’ she said. ‘We were greeted with big smiles before we’d got through customs. They told us where to queue and collected our luggage – it was one of the easiest airport arrivals ever - there’s even free Wi-Fi!’
Transferring to a smaller charter plane, Anza settled back to watch thatched villages pass below as she flew to the Lower Zambezi National Park. It’s only a 40-minute flight from Lusaka but this unspoilt stretch of Zambezi riverfront with its wooded hinterland is a pristine wilderness and prime big-game country.
Chongwe River Camp, set on the confluence of the Zambezi and Chongwe Rivers, was also on Anza's itinerary in the Lower Zambezi. Eager to start exploring, Anza began her safari with an afternoon game drive, and by the time she returned to camp for sundowners, she had seen lions and elephants plus so many birds she couldn’t remember them all! The Lower Zambezi is known for its water-based activities, so the next morning Anza went fishing with a guide in the comfort of a motor boat and, before long, she was reeling in a silvery bream caught on a rod and line.
‘It was my first ever catch,’ Anza beamed, ‘and how many places in the world can you go fishing and watch elephants swimming past, their trunks sticking up like snorkels?’ Most camps on the Zambezi offer an excellent range of water activities, Anza loved the canoe excursions. She spent several happy hours discovering the Zambezi up close - with a little zing of adrenalin every time the canoe convoy floated past pods of hippos or log-like crocodiles. After a morning spent paddling, the afternoon river cruise offered an ideal way to relax - sipping cocktails and saluting the sinking sun.
‘I’d recommend the Lower Zambezi to anyone interested in mixing land and water game viewing’, she said. ‘My itinerary included luxurious Chongwe River Camp, which is a bit grander and has accommodation ranging from walk-in tents to exclusive suites complete with butler service. I also loved Old Mondoro on the other side of the park, which offered a different landscape and game-viewing.’
With the sound of African fish eagles still ringing in her ears, Anza hopped on a flight back to Lusaka, where she changed aircraft for her charter flight to the Luangwa River Valley. Before long she was sipping a welcome drink at Mchenja Bush Camp, set on the banks of the Luangwa in Zambia’s premier reserve: the South Luangwa National Park.
The adventure started before she reached Mchenja: ‘Driving to camp from the airstrip, we passed through tiny villages along the way, passing chickens and goats, with kids waving and yelling hello. We were able to stop and go shopping for the sort of handmade crafts and original artwork that you pay a fortune for in curio shops. It's a lot more satisfying to buy direct from the artist and it’s fun to interact with the locals too.'
*Since Anza’s trip, travellers now have the option to fly direct from the Lower Zambezi to South Luangwa.*
Retail therapy aside, Anza quickly realised that the South Luangwa was the real deal: ‘Now this is safari country! The South Luangwa is huge and wild - I don’t think I’ve seen so many animals in one place before’. During Zambia’s long, dry winter, Luangwa’s wildlife concentrates around the bends of the river and the emphasis here is on early morning nature walks balanced by afternoon and early evening game drives. You can even walk from camp to camp, having your luggage delivered separately by vehicle.
‘Okay, I admit it, I was nervous about going on a walking safari at first,’ said Anza, ‘We’d already seen lion and leopard, plus loads of elephant and buffalo, but once I was out there, I felt completely safe. Our guide and armed game scout were super-professional and their tracking skills quite amazing. They would tell us the story of the animal tracks and I found the complete immersion in the sights, smells and sounds of the African bush an unforgettable experience.’
Zambia pioneered walking safaris and is home to some of Africa's most respected guides and trackers. It takes an intimate understanding of the wilderness and the creatures that call it home to read and interpret tracks and signs on foot, and a huge amount of practice and skill to keep a group of city-slickers safe and relaxed in big game country.
Luangwa’s more luxurious lodges such as Chinzombo tend to be located on the borders of the park while the more rugged bush camps are set deep inside. The bush camps take a little getting used to at first. According to Anza: ‘They look quite spartan when you arrive but actually you have everything you need to be comfortable. The bed is as good as you’ll get in a 5-star hotel and there are electric lights and battery charging points. But yes, I was afraid of the frogs in my bathroom at first! When I left though, I quite missed them.’
Anza left behind Luangwa’s frogs for Zambia’s final showstopper – Victoria Falls. And in early June the world wonder was in the mood to impress. Still swollen with summer’s floodwaters, the waterfall was in full flow - a postcard perfect, thundering spectacle - and Anza was treated to the best views of the season.
‘The Livingstone Island tour was about the most awesome thing I’ve done in my travels,’ she declared. ‘A boat takes you to this scrap of land set right on the edge of the falls. You are surrounded by rushing water and billowing spray, inches from the drop-off and suddenly someone hands you a lunch plate and a glass of wine – it’s surreal and absolutely brilliant!’
It was the first time Anza experienced Victoria Falls from the Zambian side and judged the views to be just as impressive as those from the more famous Zimbabwean side.
She thought the accommodation was better placed too. Zambia’s colonial-style lodges and tented camps are strung out along the Zambezi River, giving them an advantage over Zimbabwe’s hotels, which tend to be set in the town of Victoria Falls itself. The Zambezi River is easier to access from the Zambian side (‘you must go on a Zambezi sunset cruise once in your life!’), the lodges are quieter and more secluded, and there’s more of a wilderness feel – so much so that several lodges have their lawns mown by passing zebra! There are some excellent honeymoon hideaways (Tongabezi and Sindabezi were her favourites) as well as family friendly lodges like Toka Leya and Sussi and Chuma. The palatial Royal Livingstone is perfect for discerning travellers – Anza maintains its service is as good as any she has experienced in her world travels.
So how does an African Safari Expert like Anza score Zambia? She is quick to answer: ‘Overall, Zambia is as good a game viewing destination as top destinations like Botswana and the Kruger. I’d combine the water-based activities of the Lower Zambezi with the land-based game viewing of the South Luangwa, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the thrills of Luangwa’s extended walking safaris. Finishing off an adventure in Victoria Falls is a great bonus as long as travellers know when best to go to see the falls at their most spectacular.’
Sound travel advice, especially with Zambia’s more remote and wild reserves beginning to open up, you'll be spoilt for choice when planning a Zamibian safari. Anza is already researching her return visit - her eye is on the Kafue National Park's teeming floodplains and prides of big cats, as well as the unspoilt North Luangwa and its remote bush camps. It's a strong testament to any destination when a well travelled safari expert starts planning a return journey as soon as she gets home!
*Since her trip, Thorntree River Lodge has opened - and we love it!*