By Audley Zambia specialist Russell
The wild and remote nature of Zambia’s parks, which are serviced by small camps with an extremely high quality of guiding, give you an exclusive insight into this wonderfully untamed country.
There are three main national parks to choose from for a luxury holiday in Zambia - South Luangwa, Kafue, and the Lower Zambezi - each offering prolific game and a different experience and range of activities, from walking safaris to hot air balloon trips.
It's a good idea to spend three days in each area, possibly visiting two different camps in the South Luangwa. If you only have one week, I suggest focusing on one park. In ten days you could visit two parks or journey into more remote areas.
Top luxury experiences and highlights in Zambia
Take a walking safari in South Luangwa
Walking safari in South Luangwa National Park
Spreading across a rift valley with the hills of the Muchinga Escarpment to the west and the winding Luangwa River to the east, South Luangwa National Park is Zambia's premier game viewing park. This is where walking safaris were first pioneered over 50 years ago.
Although the focus of a walking safari is to learn about smaller creatures, you often step in to thrilling encounters with big game too along the way. On one walking safari, we rounded a bend to find a huge herd of buffalo in a waterhole right in front of us. It was such a vivid experience: the noises, the smells, the heat. You just don't get the same proximity on a game drive.
Walking safaris are available across the country, but South Luangwa is really the best place to try them as the short vegetation doesn’t restrict your view of the game. The guides are highly qualified and will teach you how to track animals, and soon have you identifying the signal calls of squirrels, baboons and monkeys, which indicates that game is close by.
South Luangwa is one hour’s light aircraft flight from the international airport at Lusaka.
Luxury accommodation in South Luangwa
Chinzombo Camp in South Luangwa National Park
Most lodges in South Luangwa are built on the river's edge, in front of wildlife action such as hippo wallowing and elephant wading. The most luxurious lodge is Chinzombo Safari Camp, with six huge, indulgent villas featuring private plunge pools, spacious decks and roll top baths. There are enough guides here to ensure that game drives are either on a private basis or with a maximum of four guests in each vehicle.
If you decide to stay three or four nights in the South Luangwa, at Chinzombo or more rustic bushcamps run by the same team, you can opt to spend a night sleeping out under the stars. Your guide will set up camp on a dry river bed, light a fire to cook dinner and you can then settle down with just a mosquito net between you and the stars.
Staying in a private house is another good option for a luxury safari in Zambia. One of the most impressive properties is Luangwa Safari House, a spacious, open-fronted thatched house loaded with character, which is regularly recognised in the Safari Awards. It has four gorgeous en suite rooms, its own pool, a sunken hide and a dedicated guide to take you on game drives and show you the wildlife of the park.
Hot air balloon across the Busanga Plains
Hot air balloon trip over the Busanga Plains
Kafue National Park is a huge, untamed wilderness with big herds of game. In the immense Busanga Plains to the north you might spot cheetah stalking through the stubbly grass and prides of lion relaxing along the branches of fig trees.
A memorable way to see Busanga is from a hot air balloon on a ride at sunrise. The vast plains are laid bare below you and the wildlife continues to graze or hunt undisturbed. The experience is topped off with a champagne breakfast on landing.
Kafue is an hour’s light aircraft flight, or five hours’ drive, from Lusaka. Balloon flights are only available from August until October from either Shumba or Busanga Bush Camp. The Busanga Plains are seasonal floodplains and are only accessible from June to October.
Luxury accommodation in Kafue
Shumba Camp in the Kafue National Park
The Busanga Plains host just three safari camps. Set on a tiny palm tree island in the Busanga Plains, Shumba Camp is a chic, sophisticated property with just six elegant rooms offering panoramic views over the plains.
The well-spaced rooms are linked by wooden walkways, often used as lookouts by lion, and feature sliding glass doors, gleaming copper washbasins and huge indoor and outdoor showers. There's also a pool and a large deck where you can enjoy dinner around the fire, followed by uninterrupted stargazing.
Watch elephant swimming across the river in the Lower Zambezi
Elephant in the Lower Zambezi National Park
The Zambezi Escarpment makes a grand backdrop for the Lower Zambezi National Park, to the east of Lusaka. The wide open river attracts hippo, buffalo, impala and large prides of lion as well as significant numbers of elephant, which you will often see swimming across the raging river to feed on grassy islands.
The Lower Zambezi is reached by a half hour light aircraft flight from Lusaka.
Luxury accommodation in the Lower Zambezi
Sausage Tree Camp in the Lower Zambezi National Park
For me, one of the finest accommodation options in the Lower Zambezi, Sausage Tree is a luxurious tented camp with stylish Bedouin tents featuring huge four-poster beds, teak furniture and antique telephones (to call the bar). Each room is assigned a dedicated guide for private game drives and a valet. The two suites and family house have private plunge pools, though there is also a 25m (82ft) main pool.
Alternatively, Chongwe River House is a riverside property built on flowing organic designs. Booked on a private basis, it has four huge bedrooms and is luxuriously kitted out. There's a grass terrace for moonlit dinners and a private guide, boat and vehicles at your disposal.
Take a helicopter flight over Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls or Mosi-oa-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders)
A trip to Victoria Falls is a great way to unwind before or after a busy safari schedule. A helicopter flight over the falls offers views of the water plummeting into the gorges as they zig-zag across the plateau, generating continual clouds of mist in the air.
The falls are especially powerful between March and June when they are in full water, but this generates obscuring plumes of spray. I find June to late August a better time to visit, when the water levels have dropped slightly but the falls are still dramatic and you can appreciate them in clear view.
You can also take a microlight flight or a sunset river cruise or could easily spend a day meandering along the walkways around the falls.
Another fantastic experience is to swim in the natural pools at the head of the falls, which is possible only when the water is low, from about August onwards. Devil's Pool is the most impressive, reached by walking along the edge of the falls. From here, you can jump in and peer over the edge at the thundering water below.
This activity, which you embark on only under the watchful instruction of a guide, is available when the water levels are right, and opening dates are never set in stone. I wouldn’t say it’s for the faint-hearted, but the photograph opportunities of the falls from this vantage are among the best you’ll get.
Luxury accommodation around Victoria Falls
Zebra grazing in front of the Royal Livingstone Hotel
Right by the falls, the Royal Livingstone is a grand old hotel with plenty of colonial charm. You'll be treated to a complementary hand massage and a cocktail on arrival and can look over the falls as you enjoy the hotel's afternoon tea on the terrace. I recommend staying in a glass fronted corner room for the views of the falls and added private butler service.
Upstream from Victoria Falls, Tongabezi offers luxurious thatched riverside cottages and individually styled houses. These exclusive residences are chic but quirky, and come with a personal valet. Service is exemplary - you'll find a hot bath run for you when you return from exploring, glorious food, and the option to dine privately on a candlelit pontoon in the river.
Extending your luxury safari to Zambia
Pumulani Lodge sits on the shore of Lake Malawi
Zambia combines very well with a trip to Lake Malawi, just an hour's flight away. This massive freshwater lake is fringed with golden beaches and you can snorkel, dive, sail or kayak in the clear waters or borrow bicycles and ride around the local villages.
The luxurious Pumulani is set high up on a hillside and has stylish, modern rooms, a beautiful pool and a private beach. Alternatively, unspoilt Likoma Island is home to Kaya Mawa, a gloriously relaxed retreat with just 12 sophisticated rooms and cottages.
A note on booking
If you wish to stay in a private house, book well in advance, up to 12 months for peak season (mid-July to the end of September).