Considered a hidden gem for safari lovers, Zambia might not be first on your bucket list, but it definitely should be.
Whether you listen to hundreds of hippos honking at the shores of the Luangwa River or look up from the base of the magnificent Victoria Falls, it is impossible to not be thrilled by the natural beauty of Zambia. This is one of the most biodiverse countries in Africa and one of the easiest to travel around. Additionally, with 21 national parks to choose from, excellent safari experiences all over the country, and off-the-beaten-path getaways waiting for you, Zambia is a fresh take on Africa.
With so many options where to go, planning the perfect safari trip or selecting the best national park to visit can feel a bit overwhelming. From its size, variety of activities, or accessibility, travelers should consider many different factors before going there.
But don’t worry. I prepared a list of the best national parks in Zambia and what you need to know about them.
Lower Zambezi National Park
Elephant herds bathing at the Zambezi river, perfect postcard-like pink sunsets, and magical starry nights, where galaxies and planets are visible with the naked eye. Lower Zambezi National Park is pure beauty in the middle of the wilderness.
This is one of the best national parks in Zambia for wildlife and a perfect getaway to get a first glimpse of the natural beauty Zambia has to offer. Expect to see hippos, elephants, and crocs in hundreds along the river. At the same time, those who adventure themselves into the deep jungle of the park can encounter multiple types of antelopes, buffalos, elephants, and more elusive mammals such as leopards or lions.
How to get there
Depending on what you want to see and where you want to go, planning a trip to Lower Zambezi National Park can be as straightforward or as complicated as you want it to be. While the heart of the national park is only accessible by flight (around 200 USD each way) – or a multi-combination of 4×4 cars, boats, and safari cars – most travelers prefer to avoid all of that and simply stay at the edge of the national park in the towns of Chiawa or Chirundu.
These towns are accessible from Lusaka by 4×4 vehicles in just 3-5 hours (200 USD per transfer for up to 4 people), and they serve as the perfect gateway to the park. From here, travelers can book activities such as canoeing, river cruising, and day trips inside the Lower Zambezi (around 150 USD per day).
Since prices increase significantly once you are inside the park, staying in these towns is probably your best alternative if you want to taste this national park and not necessarily dig deep into your pocket.
Best activity to do – Canoeing at Lower Zambezi
This is one of the most relaxing, but at the same time thrilling, activities you can do inside a safari park. It is extreme to imagine hippos and crocodiles swimming around you, elephants or buffalos bathing just meters away from you.
But don’t worry. Even though this looks like an unnecessary risk to take, canoeing at the Lower Zambezi is one of the safest and most rewarding activities inside the park if you carefully listen to the necessary precautions.
Canoeing tours can also go as long as you want them to be. From half-day tours with a guided paddling in a particular area (around 60 USD) to four or five multi-day trips navigating entire sections of Lower Zambezi National Park (200 USD upwards per night).
Lower Zambezi in a nutshell
Lower Zambezi is the perfect park for those who don’t know exactly what they want to do in Zambia but definitely want to see wildlife. It offers an excellent variety of activities, and you can quickly adapt your budget depending on what you are looking for. It is also one of the most accessible national parks in Zambia and one of the easiest to move around.
Multiple-day tours to Lower Zambezi can go as cheap as 200 USD a night, and with some organization, you can easily combine them with other parks and destinations.
I calculated how much a 4-day trip to Lower Zambezi would cost if I planned everything independently. Curiously, working with a tour operator was cheaper and way more convenient.
While lodging and transportation were less expensive when booked independently, all other activities and things to do at Lower Zambezi were way more expensive.
Surprisingly, renting a car and self-drive to Chiawa was also not as cheap as I thought. 4×4 rentals start at 200 USD per day, and it ended up way more affordable to just get a guide and book a transfer.
South Luangwa National Park
While some call it a little paradise in Zambia, for me, it is the place to experience raw nature at its best. From the multiple herds of elephants passing next to our vehicles to the dramas of witnessing lions and wild dogs hunting in the middle of the day. This is the national park that left me more than once speechless, and even though I only saw a tiny section of it, I know I will come back one day.
How to get there
While traveling overland is possible, the driving distances from Lusaka are simply too long and exhausting. The most convenient way is to take a flight with ProFlight Zambia (150-200 USD per flight) and schedule all your activities from the nearby town of Mfuwe.
Mfuwe is the gateway to South Luangwa. You can arrange everything you need and plan where you want to go and what you want to do.
Most lodges can arrange all transfers in and out of the national park, so if you are not traveling independently and with your own vehicle, all transportation can easily be arranged for you.
Best activity to do – Walking safari
The best activity you can do in South Luangwa is a walking safari. For this activity, you will be with a ranger and explore a section of the national park on foot. Here, you will have close encounters with antelopes, giraffes, elephants, and big cats if you are lucky enough.
Sounds scary, but it shouldn’t be. Rangers know precisely where to go and how to behave in a complicated situation. Furthermore, you will have the opportunity to learn more about minor species that are not visible from a safari car and know more about tracking, safety, and animal behavior.
Walking safaris can be as short as a 3-hour activity (60 USD) and can be as demanding and long as you want them to be.
Want more? Walking camping safaris is one of the preferred multi-day activities inside South Luangwa. During this kind of experience, you would cover different sections of South Luangwa and camp in another place in the middle of the park every night. Unfortunately, walking camping safaris are pretty expensive (prices starting at 2500 USD for 4-5 nights). Still, this is probably one of the most memorable activities to do in Africa.
South Luangwa in a nutshell
According to everyone I talked to, South Luangwa is the best national park in Zambia to see wildlife. Here is normal to see four of the big five in a single day, and the chances of encountering leopards are also exceptionally high.
It’s true. Visiting South Luangwa is not as affordable as everyone would like. Still, the quality of the experience makes every cent worth it.
Kafue National Park
As big as Rwanda and Burundi, Kafue National Park is massive, unexplored, and magical. From the epic Busanga Plains in the north to the dense forest landscape of the south, this is a national park that travelers would need an entire lifetime to explore thoroughly.
And while Kafue has not gotten the recognition it deserves, travelers who embark on an adventure here will always want to come back. With more than 150 different species, endless corners to discover, and familiar sights with hundreds of animals in a single spot, it is easy to understand why safari experts put Kafue National Park on their personal bucket lists.
How to get there
Whether you come from Lusaka or Livingstone (Zambia’s two most famous cities), accessing certain areas of Kafue is easy and straightforward. On the one hand, the central part of Kafue is just a 3-hour drive from Lusaka, while the southern part of the park is just 2.5 hours away from Livingstone.
Travelers can stay at the many lodges between Ngoma and Itezhi tezhi or go deep inside the park and spend their nights in tented camps.
Best activity to do is – A self-drive safari.
Unlike South Luangwa or Lower Zambezi, where self-drive means making your game drive more complicated, experts consider Kafue National Park an excellent destination for those who want to get behind the wheel.
Moving around independently is not as complicated as in other places. If you don’t have much experience driving off-road, Kafue is an excellent introduction if you want to get into that.
Wildlife encounters are unfortunately not as many as in South Luangwa or Lower Zambezi. However, the variety of fun and adventurous activities is still there. From the rapids in the southern part of the park to hiking activities and relaxing cruise tours.
Kafue in a nutshell
Overshadowed by its more minor brothers, Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa, indeed, Kafue National Park won’t offer the same animal encounters that these two other national parks offer. However, those looking for a different kind of adventure, and feel that game drives are not the priority during a trip to Zambia, might find Kafue a more refreshing destination, with fewer tourists, better prices, and more accessibility.
However, considering that places like the Busanga Plains in the north part of the park have such a big reputation for safari lovers, prices for accommodation in this part of the park easily range between 450 and 1000 USD a night – some of the most expensive in Zambia.
Mosi oa Tunya National Park
After visiting South Luangwa, Mosi oa Tunya firstly felt to me like the most boring national park in Zambia. The number of antelopes was minimal, and there were no big cats inside. However, after I encountered on foot a white rhino for the first time, I noticed I had no idea what I was talking about and realized in a second how special Mosi oa Tunya is.
This might not be the biggest, the best, or the most biodiverse national park in Zambia. However, it is the only place in Zambia where travelers can do a walking safari and encounter a crash of four or five rhinos just meters away from you.
How to get there
This is probably the most accessible national park in Zambia. Travelers can reach Mosi oa Tunya National Park with almost every motorized vehicle. It is located on the outskirts of Livingstone, which makes it very useful for travelers who want to combine it with a visit to Victoria Falls.
Day visits can be organized within hours at any lodge in Livingstone, and most lodges even have their own safari vehicles that will take you there on an afternoon.
The best activity to do – Walking safari with rhinos
With only a few white rhinos in the country and a long and sad history of rhino poaching, Zambia takes today’s rhino protection very seriously. Most Zambian rhinos (if not all) are being protected 24/7 by rangers, and nobody can approach them without permission.
Fortunately, to promote conservation and collect more money to protect these giants, Mosi oa Tunya offers travelers the activity of walking close to them.
During this 2 hour activity, travelers will first do a short game drive inside Mosi oa Tunya National Park, and then at some point, rangers will give the guide their location. Once you find the rangers, you will hear a short briefing on how to behave with the rhino, and you will walk with the ranger and spend 5-10 minutes with them.
Since these are wild animals, you will always have to keep a distance of 40-50 meters. In these few minutes, you can see how they relax, eat and sometimes play with each other.
This was one of the highlights of my trip to Zambia, and even though Mosi oa Tunya didn’t impress me as much as the other parks I visited, nothing can be compared to walking next to a rhino.
Mosi oa Tunya in a nutshell
This is not a national park to plan a multi-day trip and several game drives per day, as one single drive is enough to get a good idea of the park. Mosi oa Tunya is a place to visit only once and have the chance to do the walking safari.
Luckily, Mosi oa Tunya won’t be expensive at all. A game drive (25 USD) and a walking safari (30 USD) are pretty affordable, and you can simply stay in Livingstone according to your budget.
Unlike the other places on this list, you should not plan around Mosi oa Tunya, but simply adapt Mosi oa Tunya to your itinerary.
Keep in mind
Most national parks are usually closed between November and April. This is the rainy season in Zambia, and most areas inside the national parks become completely inaccessible. Before you book your trip to Zambia, inform yourself about the conditions of the places you want to visit.
I booked my trip to Zambia with Ntanda Ventures. They not only took care of helping me choosing the perfect route, but also in booking, preparing and guiding me during my stay in this country.