Although the Victoria Falls rightfully hold the place as Zambia’s top destination for travellers to Africa, the country offers much more to see and do. As the Zambezi River plummets over the rock face into Batoka Gorge, it flows eastward. Downstream and much further east it slows and broadens to become the Lower Zambezi – and the source of life for the astonishing array of wildlife in Lower Zambezi National Park.
The Top 10 things to see and do here include:
- Paddle the channels of the Zambezi River with a guide to see wildlife and birds
- Enjoy catch-and-release angling for tigerfish and bream
- Transfer by boat between camps
- Hike to the lovely Chongwe Falls for a picnic
- Set out on a pontoon boat for afternoon tea and sundowners
- Undertake classic game drives to find 57 mammal species
- Set out on foot for guided nature walks
- Spot 391 recorded bird species
- Cultural tours to Goba villages.
- Enjoy lunch on a sandbank in the Zambezi, the cool water lapping your ankles
The park is one of Zambia’s best-kept secrets. While the Falls and the more famous South Luangwa National Park get plenty of attention, Lower Zambezi is a beautiful jewel that is happy to have a lower profile coupled with a temperate climate, plenty of river action and low visitor numbers – with accommodation to match an array of pockets.
How to get there
Fly from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, to Royal or Jeki airstrips. Lusaka is a thriving metropolis of six million people; after about 20 minutes in the air, the roads totally disappears and you fly over thousands of hectares of pristine, protected bush, with nary another plane or building in sight. You can also fly in from Livingstone International Airport, if you are visiting Victoria Falls first.
What to do on the Zambezi
One of the highlights of a safari to Lower Zambezi National Park is ability to enjoy the Zambezi River. Lodges are mostly strung out along the riverbank and you will frequently transfer between camps by boat – look out for elephants, water monitors, hippos and troops of energetic and inquisitive monkeys.
While in camp and depending on each lodge’s facilities, you can take boat cruises for a water safari, indulge in catch-and-release fishing or even enjoy lunch set up in the river – the cool water around your ankles is very refreshing on a hot summer’s day!
The absolutely top thing to do on the river to paddle in a canoe along the channels of the Zambezi (actually, you just sit and enjoy the paradise around you – your guide does all the paddling). This is incredibly relaxing: elephants come down to drink, shy antelope watch you as they quench their thirst, hundreds of white-fronted bee-eaters emerge from their riverbank tunnels in a delightful flourish. The channels are packed with wildlife in the late afternoon and we recommend putting your camera down after 20 minutes and just absorbing the gorgeousness that surrounds you.
What to do on land
Back on dry land, Lower Zambezi National Park keeps the hits coming. Of course, this being safari, there are 4x4 game drives and guided nature walks. Zambian guides are cheerful, love a good joke, generally speak excellent English and enjoy telling you all about Zambia while learning more about your country.
Birders will have a literal field day. Zambia is rapidly gaining a reputation for delivering big ticks and is a great place to visit if you’re a birder but the rest of your party is keener on more traditional safari pursuits. Be on the watch for white-fronted vultures, brown snake eagles, rollers and tropical boeboes among 391 recorded species.
Where to stay
Budget is, of course, always a factor. But a satisfying safari is about so much more than just price. Work with your Africa Safari Expert to decide what kind of experience you want when you’re not out on game drives or on the river.
If you want ‘back to basics’ authenticity…
Head to Old Mondoro. This rustic camp has no Wi-Fi to disrupt evening chats around the campfire or mobile phone reception to distract you from the chorus of frogs and birds that chirp in the channel.
Named after Mondoro, a famous lion that once patrolled the area as his sovereign territory, Old Mondoro harks back to the no-frills safari camps of yesteryear. Regulars swear by it and Old Mondoro has guests who return every year to savour being completely off the grid.
Tents are intimate and practical. Be sure to have at least one soak in the outdoor tub – it’s great fun and no-one can see you, we promise. Old Mondoro is great for returning safari lovers.
If you want a little more luxury…
Pop up the Zambezi River to Old Mondoro’s sister-camp, Chiawa. Chiawa has the same ‘We’re in the bush’ feeling but with welcome extras like a Wi-Fi in the rooms; a riverside, open-air gym (which, in true Chiawa-style, they call a ‘fitness shack’); a sizable swimming pool and an observation deck with a scope for spotting birds and game on the opposite shore.
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The tented suites are far more expansive than at Old Mondoro and have separate toilets, full en suite bathrooms, and large private decks for sunbathing, reading or napping. If you want to splurge or it’s a special occasion, reserve the honeymoon suite, which has its own private pool and living room, and is set well away from the rest of camp on a tributary of the Lower Zambezi.
If you want to be utterly pampered…
Consider time at Sausage Tree Camp. Tents are extremely spacious (the phrase, ‘It’s bigger than my apartment!’ is often heard when guests first arrive) and some have private pools, twin outdoor showers, large decks for yoga and so forth.
The outstanding feature at Sausage Tree is the long infinity pool that overlooks the Zambezi River and is solar heated, making it blissful on those mid-year days when you feel like a swim but the water is usually too chilly. Sausage Tree has solved this dilemma and the result is spectacular indeed.
If you want good, old-fashioned Zambian hospitality…
Check into Chongwe. Chongwe prides itself on being down-to-earth, friendly, comfortable and cheerful. The tents have everything you need, the bathrooms are open-air and the whole camp creates a sense of community as you can easily be in touch with other guests. The views are of the confluence of the Chongwe and Zambezi Rivers, giving you great sightings of hippos, crocodiles and African fish eagles.
A few notches up are Chongwe’s Albida and Cassia Suites. Making the most of the river views, they are luxurious without being over-the-top and afford you little privileges like taking your meals in privacy.
If you want complete privacy and something totally different…
Then look no further than Chongwe River House. This is pure fantasy: the architect was inspired by the Spanish architect Gaudi and the result is ‘Gaudi goes on safari’. There are no straight lines here – every wall is curved, resulting in a house that feels organic and almost alive. Materials are natural and every one of the four double bedrooms opens on to a sunny spot. The pool overlooks the Chongwe River and you have a private guide and game-drive vehicle at your disposal. A fun-loving family or group of friends will have a ball here.
Important to know
- Heavy summer rains mean that the park isn’t traversable for up to six months of the year (usually about November to March). So for half a year, the animals don’t see many people or vehicles at all. This means that, especially from about April when the camps are re-opening, they may either be very shy or skittish. Elephants can be particularly vocal when they are unused to vehicles. If you are used to the very relaxed animals of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, for example, which see vehicles and people all day, this can be quite thrilling.
- The opposite side of the Zambezi River is Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park. A really exciting safari would be to combine the two.
- Lower Zambezi National Park is not a Big 5 area as there are no rhino present. Due to the topography, wildebeest and giraffe are also not found here.
- Zambia has what they call ‘game management areas’ or GMAs that border national parks. Hunting, under strict conditions, is permitted in GMAs. We believe that the more photographic and other safaris visit these areas, the more local communities and the government will appreciate the value of conserving the animals and try to absorb GMAs into the national parks.
- Tsetse fly is present in Zambia. They give painful bites and are attracted to the colours blue and black so please do not pack or wear blue or black clothes (please see here for What to Pack for Safari). Tsetse fly traps consist of black-and-blue cloths impregnated with poison and hung in the bush. As with much in nature, there is an upside to the presence of tsetse fly in Zambia’s national parks: they keep livestock out. Community herders won’t risk their cattle dying of ‘sleeping sickness’ so they don’t encroach on national parks for grazing, minimizing conflict with conservationists.
- Zambian lodges are generally built so that the staff quarters are in very close proximity to the guests’ accommodation. This is an issue of economics and safety but has very little effect on your overall experience.
- If you specifically want tea or coffee with your wake-up call, be sure to ask for it. Many Zambian camps do not automatically serve tea or coffee in the mornings.
- Wi-Fi is present but can be spotty. Lamps are often solar powered – we suggest that you bring a headlamp as tents can be fairly dark at night. A headlamp is also ideal for reading in bed or when packing your bag.
- Bathrooms can be very open-plan and often lead directly off the bedroom, with open showers and toilets. If you need more privacy, be sure to mention this to your Africa Safari Expert so they can ensure that the camp meets your needs.
The beauty of Lower Zambezi National Park is that you can have it all: go walking or game driving in the coolness of the morning, spend the heat of the afternoon on the river and then toast the day under unending stars, perhaps even seeing a shy genet or civet in the distance as you relish another day in beautiful Zambia.