Zambia is emerging as one of Africa's top safari destinations, and it's not hard to see why. The country has fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities, expert guides and (crowd-free) wide open spaces. Kafue National Park in the west of the country is Tamara Hinson's top pick for a Zambia safari experience; read on to find out why.
The Kafue has great green credentials
Feeling guilty about the long haul flight you'll take to get to this wildlife-filled corner of Africa? A visit to Kafue National Park is a great way to offset some of that guilt. This park has some of the world's greenest safari lodges, including Ila Safari Lodge, a riverside paradise where you'll find Zambia's first electric Land Rover, plus an electric boat. The so-called E-Boat eliminates nasty emissions and allows guests to admire the wildlife in awed silence.
The dock at Ila Safari Lodge © Tamara Hinson
The landscape is spectacular
You don't have to be a budding David Bailey to bag a fantastic photograph of the Kafue's scenery, which is almost as spectacular as the wildlife. If you thought the African bush was all about dry, arid grasslands, this visit will prove you wrong. In the north of the park you'll find vast floodplains and rolling hills, dotted with date palms and sausage trees, while the central area is known for its prehistoric granite rock formations, surrounded by thick tracts of forest. The south has lush green plains, as well as the beautiful Lake Itezhi-Tezhi.
Enjoy the world's coolest balloon ride
Don’t panic if you haven’t got a head for heights – we’re not talking about the kind of balloon ride where you'll have to risk life and limb by dangling out of the basket, SLR in hand, to get a half-decent picture of an ant-sized elephant. The balloon ride in question, operated by Namib Air and Wilderness Safaris, is over the wildlife-filled Busanga Plains, and pilots fly close to the ground. It's highly likely you'll spend much of the time just a few metres above the locals – the park's grunting wildebeests, the basking lions and the ridiculously cute hippos, enjoying a skin-softening soak in Busanga Plains' lily pad-filled lagoons.
Hot air balloon ride over the Busanga Plains © Tamara Hinson
A Zambia safari is worth the investment
OK, safaris aren't cheap, but they are definitely worth the expense. There might well be wild animals at your local zoo but it's hardly the same. At Kafue, it's almost certain a decent chunk of the cost of your trip will go towards local good causes. For example, stay at Jeffery and McKeith Safaris' camps and you'll be supporting the founders' (Philip Jeffery and Tyrone McKeith) conservation efforts, which include creating buffer zones to protect wildlife. Visit the Busanga Plains Bush Camp and you’ll be helping fund their conservation initiatives, whether it's the monitoring of local carnivores or groundbreaking research into human-elephant conflict.
Help with conservation efforts and stay in a room with a view at Busanga © Busanga Wilderness Safaris
The wildlife is second to none
The wildlife viewing opportunities on a Zambia safari are some of the best in Africa, thanks largely to increased protection offered by the Zambian Wildlife Authority. In recent years, poaching has declined and wildlife numbers are up. A visit to the Kafue isn't about ticking off the big five – it's about the sheer diversity. For example, the park has more species of ungulates (hoofed mammals) than any African park south of the Congo Basin. It's also one of best places in Zambia to spot cheetahs. Other lesser-known creatures regularly spotted include pangolins, civets, caracals, bush babies, honey badgers and sitatungas. The best bit? The Kafue's sheer size means that you're unlikely to spot other vehicles during game drives.
Lions are just one of the many animals that can be spotted on a Zambia safari © Busanga Wilderness Safaris
You can take a walking safari
The entire concept of walking safaris originated in Zambia, and for many of its visitors, this type of safari, and the experts who lead them, are the biggest draw. The vast expanses of untouched bush make it a great destination to explore on foot, and the flora and fauna are pretty spectacular too. Kaingu Safari Lodge – one of the most popular camps in Kafue National Park – is one of several brilliant bases for walking safaris. Guides will point out some of the park's weird and wonderful species, such as the cactus-like euphorbia tree, before leading guests to what might just be the world's most spectacular sun downer spot – the top of enormous Mpamba Rock.
There's more than just mammals
Trust us – you don't have to be a twitcher to appreciate the Kafue's diversity when it comes to birdlife. 495 species are known to exist within the park (although there are many more yet to spot), thanks largely to the wide variety of landscapes, from dambos and rivers to wetlands, floodplains and grasslands. Species to look out for include the incredibly rare African finfoot (famous for its bright orange feet), the endangered white-backed vulture and Chaplin’s barbet – the country's only native bird species, hence the recent decision to rename it the Zambian barbet.
The grey crowned crane is just one of 495 known bird species at Kafue National Park © Busanga Wilderness Safaris
See painted wolves and warthogs
The Kafue is one of the best places to spot two of Africa’s cutest species. Let’s start with painted wolves, who you may recognise from the recent David Attenborough documentary, Dynasties. Not to be confused with hyenas, these cartoon-like (but incredibly feisty) canines are known for their super-sized satellite dish-like ears. Sadly, they're experiencing a rather tough time, for various reasons, including poaching and human overpopulation, but they’re regularly spotted in the Kafue. Fans of Pumbaa from the Lion King (the live-action remake of which is due out next year) should keep an eye out for troops of warthogs rampaging through the bush. They're impossible to miss, thanks to their twitching antenna-like tails, used to warn family members of impending danger.
Painted wolves scoping out the landscape © Busanga Wildnerness Safaris
Top image: Hippo in Kafue National Park © Busanga Wilderness Safaris