Our Hidden Gems of Zambia
Thirty years ago there were virtually no safaris in Zambia; now it’s a well-trodden travel destination, mostly thanks to its classic combination of Victoria Falls with the Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa national parks.
And why not? Thundering Victoria Falls is rightly a world wonder while the two national parks are famous for their big game viewing. There is, accordingly, a wide range of accommodation in these destinations, and the Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa are now firmly on the international safari map.
But where does that leave the traveller looking for a more off-the-beaten-path safari experience? Those who want something a bit different, perhaps unique, and definitely without any crowds.
Good news: a land famous for its mineral wealth, Zambia has also dedicated an astonishing 40% of its land area to nature conservation in some form or another: let’s open Zambia’s natural treasure box and find those hidden gems.
💎 North Luangwa National Park
The other half of the South Luangwa once had a reputation for poaching which is perhaps why it was never much developed or marketed for tourism. But poaching is now almost non-existent which leaves a thriving natural ecosystem without the oversupply of lodges and visitors. Indeed, such is the health of the North Luangwa that black rhinos have been reintroduced, making it the only Big Five destination in Zambia; the park also home to African wild dogs, its rivers are full of hippo and crocodile, and the bird list is long and diverse.
The North Luangwa is classic safari country and best explored with a combination of 4X4 drives and guided walking safaris; Zambian guides are among the most highly trained in Africa and the on-foot experience is highly recommended. Go during the May – November dry season; it’s coolest and driest between June and August but you’ll see the best wildlife in September and October.
💎 Kasanka National Park
Lying in the Congo Basin, one of Zambia’s smallest national parks is home to one of nature’s biggest secrets: the largest mammal migration on the planet. Towards the end of each year, around ten million fruit bats arrive, all converging on a single patch of swampy forest in the park. It’s one of the last great displays of abundant wildlife and it takes place in a lush, green landscape at the interface between Africa’s grassy savannahs and its rainforests.
Run privately with all profits returning to the park and local community, Kasanka can be explored from a handful of comfortable lodges on foot, by canoe and even mountain bike as well as by the more familiar 4X4 vehicle. Visit between July and October for the driest weather and best wildlife viewing but you’ll need to book between October and December for the bats: mid-November is the peak of the migration.
💎 Bangweulu Wetlands
The name says it all: this sprawling ecosystem of rivers and floodplains is one of Africa’s most important wetlands and home to great herds of antelope and their main predator – cheetah – as well as buffalo, hippo and hyena.
Once heavily poached, Bangweulu is now a community-owned and managed reserve which has resulted in a win-win relationship between local villages and the surrounding wildlife. Lying in northern Zambia, it’s a destination easiest to visit during the May to October dry season which works well with a safari in Luangwa for example but bird watchers will relish the January to April summer months. This is when migrant birds arrive and the list tops out at over 400 species; Bangweulu’s most famous bird – the prehistoric-looking Shoebill stork – is resident all year.
💎 Liuwa Plains National Park
Back in the 1990s the number of annual visitors to Liuwa Plains could be counted on one hand. Not because there is nothing there – Liuwa Plains is home to Africa’s second biggest wildebeest migration – but because it was so remote. And although there is now a handful of lodges and operators at Liuwa, it still remains one of Africa’s last hidden gems.
Tucked away in western Zambia, Liuwa Plains is a vast grassland studded with antelope, riven by small rivers and flooded in the later summer months – January to April; this is the time to go for the best birdwatching but Liuwa Plains is driest and most accessible between May and October; the park’s biggest event, however, takes place in November and December when tens of thousands of wildebeest converge on the grasslands for their calving season, attracting predatory lions and spotted hyenas.