Long overlooked in favor of more established safari destinations like South Africa and Tanzania, Zambia remains one of Africa’s unsung treasures. But as I discovered on a visit last January, it’s bound to become one of the continent’s shining stars, with national parks filled with big game—including lions and leopards—and rivers teeming with crocodiles and hippos.
Though there are more flight connections to the country than ever from South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and even Dubai, Zambia maintains its under-the-radar status. But that just means visitors can enjoy world-class wildlife sightings without having to vie with hordes of vehicles, and they can stay in top-tier safari lodges without necessarily paying top dollar. Here’s what to keep in mind when planning your visit.
WHEN TO GO: Like many safari destinations, Zambia has distinct seasons. The dry season, which is prime for wildlife viewing, generally lasts from May to November. Rainy season runs from December to April, and due to weather and access issues, some lodges even close during this time. That said, my own trip there in mid-January was dry as a bone with perfect temperatures in the mid-80s. Daredevils should beware that visits to Devil’s Pool at Victoria Falls (which is accessible only from the Zambian side) are prohibited from mid-January to mid-August, when the water levels are too high.
VISA: Zambia offers visitors landing at Livingstone (renamed Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport) or Lusaka airports a single-country visa good for 90 days.
PACK: Standard safari attire should suffice, including light-colored, long-sleeve shirts and pants and a good hat to protect you from the strong sun. Bring your own cameras but leave the binoculars at home, since most safari camps have extras to lend out to guests. Camps often provide free laundry service, so you might not need more than a change or two of clothes. All the better, since the light aircraft flying between the country’s smaller airports tend to have strict weight limits on luggage.
SLEEP: There’s no shortage of hotels and lodges, ranging from the economical to the extravagant. Pick the national parks you wish to visit and home in on your accommodations from there.
Near Livingstone, the hub for Victoria Falls, Tongabezi is a low-key luxury lodge with activities like sunset cruises and visits to a local school the lodge supports. Sausage Tree Camp in the Lower Zambezi has romantic tent-style accommodations with plunge pools and hammocks, and offers both land- and river-based excursions.
One of the country’s newest safari camps, six-villa Chinzombo sits on a riverfront stretch of South Luangwa National Park on the site of one of wildlife conservation pioneer Norman Carr’s original camps. Those spending a night in the Zambian capital of Lusaka have a fantastic option in the art-filled Latitude 15° hotel, which is part of a burgeoning African boutique-hotel chain.
EXPLORE: The first stop on everyone’s Zambia itinerary tends to be Victoria Falls, or Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means “the smoke that thunders” in the local dialect. Book a tour of Livingstone Island, from which you can swim in the rapids (with help from guides!) to Devil’s Pool at the lip of the falls.
South Luangwa National Park ranks among Africa’s best game-viewing destinations thanks to its concentration of leopards and other big game. The untouched expanses of Lower Zambezi National Park are sandwiched between the rugged Zambezi escarpment and a mile-wide stretch of the Zambezi River. Unique activities there include kayaking among crocodiles and hippos on various tributaries, or even picnicking on a sandbar in the middle of the Zambezi.
SHOP: Like the rustic-chic furnishings at the safari camps? Chances are they were designed and manufactured from local materials by Nzito Furniture, whose Lusaka showroom you can visit and where you can custom-order artisanal pieces for your own home. You can also pick up smaller items like jewelry and dishes sourced from fair-trade workshops in other parts of the country.