Zambia may be becoming increasingly well known, yet the country still retains its essence: that authentic feeling of a wilderness which is wild, beautiful and slightly unpredictable.

Chris McIntyre author of Zambia:The Bradt Guide

Landlocked in the heart of the continent, Zambia is deepest, darkest Africa at its most appealing. Many are drawn initially to the majestic Victoria Falls – both for the spectacle and for the adrenalin sports on the raging Zambezi River below.

Others come for the glory of the country’s national parks: the South Luangwa, the Lower Zambezi and – increasingly – the Kafue. But for seasoned safari goers, Zambia is known as the home of the walking safari. What better way to seek out game than on foot, on the animals’ terms, and with no artificial barriers? 

As if that weren’t enough, Zambia has yet more to offer the adventurous traveller. Canoeing down the languid Lower Zambezi, surrounded by hippos and crocs, you’ll need your wits about you as you take in the scenery.

Diving in Lake Tanganyika will reveal a whole new world of freshwater fish. And for birders, Zambia is one of the strongholds of the prehistoric-looking shoebill, which makes its home deep in the Bangweulu Wetlands. Then to round it all off, how about finishing your trip with a stay in an extraordinary stately home: Shiwa Ng’andu?

Food and drink in Zambia


Zambia’s native cuisine is based on nshima, a cooked porridge made from ground maize. (In Zimbabwe this is called sadza, in South Africa mealie-pap.) Nshima is usually made thin, perhaps with sugar, for breakfast, then eaten thicker – the consistency of mashed potatoes – for lunch and dinner. For these main meals it will normally be accompanied by some spicy relish, perhaps made of meat and tomatoes, or dried fish. Do taste this at some stage when visiting. Safari camps will often prepare it if requested, and it is always available in small restaurants in the towns. Often these will have only three items on the menu: nshima and chicken; nshima and meat; and nshima and fish – and they can be very good.

Camps, hotels and lodges that cater to overseas visitors will serve a very international fare, and the quality of food prepared in the most remote bushcamps amazes visitors. Coming to Zambia on safari your biggest problem with food is likely to be the temptation to eat too much. If you are driving yourself around and plan to cook, then get most of your supplies in Lusaka or one of the larger towns. Supermarkets have revolutionised what’s available, and really have all that you will need. In the smaller towns, supplies are usually limited to products that are popular locally. These include bread, fl our, rice, soups and various tinned vegetables, meats and fish, though locally grown produce such as tomatoes, bananas or sweet potatoes will be available in season. This is fine for nutrition, but you may get bored with the selection in a week or two.



Like most countries in the region, Zambia has two distinct beer types: clear and opaque. Most visitors and more affluent Zambians drink the clear beers, which are similar to European lagers and best served chilled. Mosi, Castle and Carling Black Label are the lagers brewed by South African Breweries’ Zambian subsidiaries. They are widely available and usually good.

Less-affluent Zambians usually opt for some form of the opaque beer (sometimes called chibuku, after the market-leading brand). This is a commercial version of traditional beer, usually brewed from maize and/or sorghum. It’s a sour, porridge-like brew, an acquired taste, and is much cheaper than lager. Locals will sometimes buy a bucket of it, and then pass this around a circle of drinkers. It would be unusual for a visitor to drink this, so try some and amuse your Zambian companions. Remember, though, that traditional opaque beer changes flavour as it ferments and you can often ask for ‘fresh beer’ or ‘strong beer’. If you aren’t sure about the bar’s hygiene standards, stick to the pre-packaged brands of opaque beer like Chibuku, Chinika, Golden, Chipolopolo or Mukango.


Water in the main towns is usually purified, provided there are no shortages of chlorine, breakdowns or other mishaps. The locals drink it, and are used to the relatively innocuous bugs that it may harbour. If you are in the country for a long time, then it may be worth acclimatising yourself to it – though be prepared for some days spent near a toilet. However, if you are in Zambia for just a few weeks, then try to drink only bottled, boiled or treated water in town – otherwise you will get stomach upsets. Bottled water can be bought almost anywhere, although if you want it cold you may often find it’s frozen! Expect to pay around US$0.60/K7 for a half-litre in a supermarket, more in a smaller outlet or garage.

Out in the bush, most of the camps and lodges use water from boreholes. These underground sources vary in quality, but are normally free from bugs so the water is perfectly safe to drink. Sometimes it is sweet, at other times a little alkaline or salty. Ask locally if it is suitable for an unacclimatised visitor to drink, then take their advice.

Health and safety in Zambia


Zambia, like most parts of Africa, is home to several tropical diseases unfamiliar to people living in more temperate and sanitary climates. However, with adequate preparation, and a sensible attitude to malaria prevention, the chances of serious mishap are small. To put this in perspective, your greatest concern after malaria should not be the combined exotica of venomous snakes, stampeding wildlife, gun-happy soldiers or the Ebola virus, but something altogether more mundane: a road accident.

Travel clinics and health information

A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on For other journey preparation information, consult (UK) or (US). Information about various medications may be found on All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.


Zambia is not a dangerous country. If you are travelling on an all-inclusive trip and staying at lodges and hotels, then problems of personal safety are exceedingly rare. There will always be someone on hand to help you. Even if you are travelling on local transport, perhaps on a low budget, you will not be attacked randomly just for the sake of it. A difficult situation is most likely to occur if you have made yourself an obvious target for thieves, perhaps by walking around, or driving an expensive 4×4, in town at night. The answer then is to capitulate completely and give them what they want, and cash in on your travel insurance. Heroics are not a good idea. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office currently advises caution when travelling in rural parts of the country bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), especially after dark, a reflection of ongoing cross-border raids. The advice does not relate to main roads, or to towns along the routes, including those between Kapiri Mposhi and Serenje, Serenje and Mansa, and the main routes through the Copperbelt. However, those proposing to travel north from Ndola to Mufulira should be cautious.

For women travellers, especially those travelling alone, it is doubly important to learn the local attitudes, and how to behave acceptably. This takes some practice, and a certain confidence. You will oft en be the centre of attention but, by developing conversational techniques to avert over-enthusiastic male attention, you should be perfectly safe. Making friends of the local women is one way to help avoid such problems.

Travel and visas in Uganda


Zambia’s visa rules appear, on reading them, to be very complex, so it is probably essential to ask at your nearest Zambian embassy or high commission, as they will know the latest news and how the rules are generally being interpreted.

Most visitors, including nationals of Great Britain and the USA, require a visa to enter Zambia. The current fee is US$50 for single entry and US$80 for a double entry, regardless of nationality. However, those staying for less than 24 hours – for example in transit to Botswana from Livingstone Airport – pay just US$20.

Most visas can be obtained on arrival at border posts (including international airports) on payment of the correct fee in US dollars cash. They are also available overseas from your local Zambian diplomatic mission, but applications for multiple-entry visas (also US$80pp) must be made in advance at the nearest Zambian embassy or high commission. You must have at least six months left on your passport, and at least three blank pages. You may also be asked to show an onward ticket, or at least demonstrate that you can support yourself as you pass through the country (credit cards are invaluable), but this is unusual.

In 2014 it became possible for travellers to both Zambia and Zimbabwe to obtain a dual visa, known as the KAZA Univisa, with 40 countries being eligible to receive one on arrival for a cost of US$50. The visa is available from Livingstone, Lusaka, Harare and Victoria Falls airports, and also from the land borders at Kazungula (with Botswana), and Victoria Falls, although acquiring one is less reliable here. The visa lasts for 30 days, provided that you stay within Zambia and Zimbabwe, and also allows 24 hours in Botswana. The visa was continued after a six-month trial, and has made cross-border travel between the two countries much easier and cheaper, ideal for those who want to see both sides of the Victoria Falls. There are long-term plans to extend it to include all southern African countries.

Getting there and away

By air

However, you get to the subcontinent, if you don’t fly directly to Lusaka then do book your flight to Africa and any scheduled internal links between countries (eg: Nairobi–Lusaka or Johannesburg–Lusaka flights) at the same time. Booking the whole trip together is almost certain to save you money. Sometimes the airline taking you to Africa will have cheap regional flights within Africa; for example Johannesburg–Lusaka with South African Airways is usually much cheaper if booked with a SAA flight from London to Johannesburg, than it is if booked alone. At other times the tour operator you book through will have special deals if you book all the flights with them. And most importantly, if you book all your flights together then you’ll be sure to get connecting ones, so you have the best schedule possible.


Most overland border posts open from about 06.00 to 18.00, although this is less rigidly adhered to at the smaller, more remote posts. The paperwork required can be lengthy and time consuming, so allow plenty of time – and in some cases, such as at Kazungula on the border with Botswana, several hours.

Getting around

By air

For those who want to fly internally in Zambia, the number of possibilities is increasing. Although only Proflight operates a scheduled service, offering internet booking with payment by credit card, several other local companies provide very reliable charters. None of the others is featured on any of the global flight reservations systems, so outside of Zambia (and even inside sometimes) most travel agents won’t have a clue about the intricacies of Zambia’s internal flights. You are strongly advised to book your internal flights through an experienced tour operator, who uses them regularly. (As an aside, this means that if the airline goes bust the tour operator loses money; you don’t.)

By rail

There are two totally separate rail systems in Zambia: ordinary trains and TAZARA (Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority) trains. Zambia’s ordinary rail network was privatised in 2003 and is now run by RSZ (Railway Systems of Zambia) on a 20-year contract – but only now is the system beginning to show indications of improvement. Passenger trains run on only one line, linking Livingstone Lusaka; the journey north to the Copperbelt has for now been discontinued. Once painfully slow, and rarely used by travellers – one local described the journey as ‘like signing a death warrant’ – it is now a weekly overnight service and is relatively competitive with buses on the same route.

In contrast, the TAZARA service is very popular with backpackers. It connects Kapiri Mposhi with the Indian Ocean, at Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. This is a reliable international transport link which normally runs to time and is by far the fastest way between Zambia and Tanzania with the exception of flying.

By bus

Zambia’s local buses are cheap, frequent and a great way to meet local people, although they can also be crowded, uncomfortable and noisy. In other words they are similar to any other local buses in Africa, and travel on them has both its joys and its frustrations. In the main bus stations, there are essentially two different kinds: the smaller minibuses, and the longer, larger ‘normal’ buses. Both will serve the same destinations, but the smaller ones tend to go faster and stop less. They may also be a little more comfortable. Their larger relatives will take longer to fill up before they leave the bus station (because few buses ever leave before they are full), and then go slower and stop at more places. For the smaller, faster buses there is usually a premium of about 20% on top of the price. Be aware, too, that even buses said to be running to a timetable may not depart until they are full, so check carefully what service you can expect – and ideally take a look at the bus on which you’ll be travelling too. A broken windscreen hints at poor overall maintenance.

By car

Driving in Zambia is on the left, based on the UK’s model. However, the standard of driving is generally poor, matched only by the quality of the roads. Most roads in the cities, and the major arteries connecting these, are tar. These vary from silky-smooth recently laid roads, to pot-holed routes that test the driver’s skill at negotiating a ‘slalom course’ of deep holes, whilst avoiding the oncoming traffic that’s doing the same. Inconveniently, the smooth kind of road often changes into the holed variety without warning, so speeding on even the good tar is a dangerous occupation. Hitting a pot-hole at 40–60km/h will probably just blow a tyre; any faster and you risk damaging the suspension, or even rolling the vehicle.

When to visit Zambia


Situated squarely in the tropics, Zambia gets a lot of strong sunlight, though the intense heat normally associated with the tropics is moderated in most places by the country’s altitude and its rainfall. The climate is generally moderate; only in the great valleys does it feel oppressive. It can be summarised broadly into three periods: from December to April it is hot and wet, with torrential downpours often in the late afternoon; from May to August it is dry, and becomes increasingly cool; and from September to November it remains dry, but gets progressively hotter.

This follows a similar pattern to that in most of southern Africa, with rainfall when the sun is near its zenith from November to April. The precise timing and duration of this is determined by the interplay of three airstreams: the moist ‘Congo’ air-mass, the northeastern monsoon winds, and the southeastern trade winds. The water-bearing air is the Congo air-mass, which normally brings rain when it moves south into Zambia from central Africa. This means that the northern areas, around Lakes Tanganyika and Mweru, receive the first rainfall – often in late October or November. This belt of rain will then work south, arriving in southern Zambia by the end of November or the start of December.

As the sun’s intensity reduces, the Congo air-mass moves back north, leaving southern Zambia dry by around late March, and the north by late April or May. Most areas receive their heaviest rainfall in January, though some of the most northerly have two peaks: one in December and one in March. This twin-peak cycle is more characteristic of central and eastern Africa. The heaviest total rainfall is found in the north, and the lightest in the south. It’s worth adding a caveat here. Zambia, as elsewhere, is experiencing fluctuations in its traditional weather patterns, so while the traditional pattern remains a good guide, be prepared for variations from the norm.

When to visit

Dry season

Many of Zambia’s tourists come during the dry season, with the peak being August to early October. Zambia’s small camps and lodges ensure that it never feels busy, even when everywhere is full. Others visit early or late in the season – May to July or November – because the camps are quieter and often costs are lower. The dry season (May to November), when you are unlikely to meet rain and can expect clear blue skies, is the easiest time to travel. It is ideal if this is your first trip to Africa, or if seeing lots of big game is top of your wish list.

June to August are the coolest months, then from September onwards the heat gradually builds up. Note, though, that where the altitude is relatively low – like the Luangwa, the Lower Zambezi Valley or Lake Tanganyika – the temperature is always higher. These places, especially, can get very hot towards the end of October, and occasions of over 40°C in the shade in the middle of the day have earned October the tag of ‘suicide month’ amongst the locals.

November is a variable month, but many days can be cooler than October, as the gathering clouds shield the earth from the sun. On some days these bring welcome showers; on others they simply build, and with them come tension and humidity. It’s always an interesting month.

Wet season

A small but increasing number of visitors come during what’s known as the ‘emerald season’, from December to April. While the likelihood of rain means that this isn’t for everybody, it remains a fascinating time of year to visit. The camps that open then will often be quiet for days. Their rates can be much lower, and they’re often far more flexible about bringing children on safari.

At this time of year, the days can vary enormously from one to the next. Even within a day, skies will often change from sunny to cloudy within minutes and then back again. Downpours are usually heavy and short, and often in the late afternoon. Even in the lower valleys, temperatures are pleasant, rising to only around 30°C, and the nights only slightly cooler (typically down to perhaps 15°C). You will need a good waterproof for the rainy season, but it seldom rains for long enough to really stop you doing anything. Except travelling on bush roads …

What to see and do in Zambia

Kafue National Park

Kafue is a huge national park, two-and-a-half times the size of South Luangwa. Sadly, in the 1980s and early ’90s, few resources were devoted to its upkeep and anti-poaching efforts were left to a couple of dedicated souls from the few safari lodges that remained in the park. Now the situation is better. A steady trickle of visitors, supported by improving infrastructure and access to the park have added weight (and finance) to the on-going effort to build the park back up to its former glory. Even the park’s elephants are visibly recovering (both in number and in terms of losing some of their shyness), although it will be a while before they return to their former strength. It is very heartening to see that the rest of the game is thriving, and occurring in a volume and variety that bodes well for the future.

Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika is one of a series of geologically old lakes that have filled areas of the main East African Rift Valley. Look at a map of Africa and you will see many of these in a ‘string’ down the continent: lakes Malawi, Tanganyika, Kivu, Edward and Albert are some of the larger ones. Zambia just has a small tip of Tanganyika within its borders, but it is of importance to the country. Access to Lake Tanganyika grants Zambia a real port with transport links to a whole side of Tanzania and (during peaceable times) direct access to Burundi. It also makes this one corner of Zambia totally different from the rest of the country, with a mix of peoples and a ‘tropical central Africa’ feel. There are some well-established lakeside lodges, those to the east within striking distance of Kalambo Falls, and two in the vicinity of the little-known but viable Nsumbu National Park.

Liuwa Plain National Park

Liuwa Plain is as wild and remote as virtually any park in Africa; at the right time of year, its game is also as good as most of the best. The cliché ‘best-kept secret’ is applied with nauseating frequency to many places in Africa by copywriters who can’t think of anything original; this is perhaps one of the few places that would deserve it. Liuwa Plain has long been a very special place. It was declared a ‘game reserve’ as early as the 19th century by the king of Barotseland, and subsequently administered by the Litunga, or Lozi king. Traditionally, the park was the Litunga’s private hunting ground, and the people whose villages were located around the land were charged with looking after the animals for him. Then in 1972 it became a national park, and its management was taken over by central government. Although the local people retained utilisation rights of the park, grazing their animals, fishing in the rivers and pools, and harvesting plants for use in traditional crafts, their cultural connection with the land was broken, and poaching became rife. It was not until 2003, when the park was taken over by African Parks and the link with the Litunga reinstated, that the villagers regained stewardship. Now, in addition to their utilisation rights, they run campsites for visitors, and once more have an interest in the preservation of the wildlife.

Lower Zambezi National Park

The Lower Zambezi Valley, from the Kariba Dam to the Mozambique border, has a formidable reputation for big game – leading UNESCO to designate part of the Zimbabwean side as a World Heritage Site. The Lower Zambezi National Park protects a large section of the Zambian side. Across the river, much of the Zimbabwean side is protected by either Mana Pools National Park or various safari areas. This makes for a very large area of the valley devoted to wildlife, and a terrific amount of the bigger game, notably elephants and buffalo, actually cross the river regularly.

Shiwa Ng'andu, Zambia, by Tricia HayneShiwa Ng’andu is a must for those wanting to learn more about Zambia’s history © Tricia Hayne

Shiwa Ng’andu

Before 2001, Shiwa’s only real story – and the only reason to visit – was its history: Gore-Browne and the estate’s past glories. Shiwa had been reduced to a curious anachronism in the African bush. By contrast, Shiwa’s history is now just that: history. A visit here today will look at the past, but also explore the present: Shiwa’s people, its animals and its environment – and how these are developing and changing. At one point during a stay here I saw a young carpenter making one of the internal windows over the courtyard. He was doing a good job, clearly deep in concentration. I asked him if he had also made some of the freshly painted windows on the outside of the house. ‘No,’ he replied, without pausing, ‘my grandfather made those.’ So by all means come to Shiwa to wonder at its past, and the story of Sir Stewart; but expect to leave enthralled by the present – and intrigued by the apparently seamless continuity between the two.

Hippos, Zambia, by Tricia Hayne
Hippos wallowing in a lagoon in South Luangwa © Tricia Hayne

South Luangwa National Park

There are many contenders for the title of Africa’s best game park. The Serengeti, Amboseli, Ngorongoro Crater, Etosha, Kruger, Moremi and Mana Pools would certainly be high on the list. South Luangwa has a better claim than most. Some of these other areas will match its phenomenally high game densities. Many others – the lesser known of Africa’s parks – will have equally few visitors. One or two also allow night drives, which open up a different, nocturnal world to view, allowing leopards to be commonly seen and even watched whilst hunting. However, few have South Luangwa’s high quality of guiding together with its remarkable wildlife spectacles, day and night, in the isolation of a true wilderness. These elements, perhaps, are how the contenders ought to be judged, and on these the South Luangwa Park comes out as one of the highest on the list.

Victoria Falls

The Falls are 1,688m wide and average just over 100m in height. Around 550 million litres (750 million during peak months) cascade over the lip every minute, making this one of the world’s greatest waterfalls. Closer inspection shows that this immense curtain of water is interrupted by gaps, where small islands stand on the lip of the Falls. These effectively split the Falls into smaller waterfalls, which are known as (from west to east) the Devil’s Cataract, the Main Falls, the Horseshoe Falls, the Rainbow Falls and the Eastern Cataract. Around the Falls is a genuinely important and interesting rainforest, with plant species (especially ferns) rarely found elsewhere in Zimbabwe or Zambia. These are sustained by the clouds of spray, which blanket the immediate vicinity of the Falls. You’ll also find various monkeys and baboons here, whilst the lush canopy shelters Livingstone’s lourie amongst other birds.

If you want to view and compare sample itineraries, please see the Zambia safari tours section on SafariBookings. This comparison website lists tours offered by both local and international tour operators.   

Related books

For more information, see our guide to Zambia:

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