Ben Nelson reflects on his first self-drive safari in Zambia
I've been fortunate enough to self-drive all over Africa; an ongoing mission which will never be complete. I find it hard to believe that I've been doing it for over 10-years - the time has flown by.
I learn so much every time I reach a new destination - whether it be a region or a country - and from there, my interest in that destination explodes. I become transfixed. I believe self-driving has this effect. You become the explorer and your connection with that country becomes something much more profound.
I'm not against flying into lodges; I quite like this too, and we can arrange this for you. However, I think it's fair to say that you can't fly into two lodges and say you've seen a country. I digress, what did I think of my Zambia Self-Drive?
What did I expect?
I knew that Zambia was home to some of Africa's best and lesser travelled National Parks; South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi most notably. These excited me. In South Luangwa I was due to stay at some new remote campsites that we had heard of, and visit a selection of Robin Pope and Norman Carr camps. I couldn't wait.
Robin Pope and Norman Carr are companies respectfully named after their founders, who pioneered the safari experience in this region and reimagined the walking safari. They are safari heroes in this part of the world.
What I had been told - but didn't quite comprehend - was that you had a few long drives between the National Parks and that I would have to stay at a few properties and treat them as pitstops. No problem I thought, I would get those out of the way and enjoy the highlights. Easy.
What did I discover?
It's hard to put this in order, but
1) Traversing across the country is a real pleasure and a highlight
What I loved about this is that it gives you a chance to see Zambia as it is, away from tourism. You get to drive through real villages and towns and see how the residents of Zambia live their daily lives. Children are walking to school, locals are hard at work, some locals are not at work etc. Some areas are harsh, others inspiring, some fascinating, but what it is, is real. I would choose to see these areas rather than not now, every time.
2) The remote campsites in Zambia are some of Africa's best
Wow! We use a vast network of campsites in Southern & Eastern Africa - I would challenge anyone to name more - and these sites would be in my top 10. They are located in unbelievable locations which boast incredible views, and most importantly, you have them exclusively to yourself. Just you and the African bush. They also have excellent facilities.
3) Robin Pope Safaris and Norman Carr are excellent operators
They live up to their reputation. The walking activities on offer are top-level, and their guides are some of the best I've experienced in Africa. Everything is so creative and well done here, and the camps themselves - in terms of design - are fantastic; they blend right into the natural environment.
4) Chongwe in Lower Zambezi is a must
It's easy to name fantastic luxury lodges, Africa is full of them. However there are a few that stick out and Chongwe is one of them.
5) It rivals any destination as a wildlife haven
The wildlife viewing here is fantastic. You will see everything. South Luangwa is particular good and is also known as the home of the leopard.
6) Kafue, North Luangwa and Kasanka are all worthy inclusions in your itinerary
All unique and only by travelling all of them are you having the complete Zambian safari. North Luangwa pictured below.
7) Don't forget the Victoria Falls
The Victoria Falls warrants it's position as one of the worlds natural wonders. The volume of water crashing over the side is astonishing (at the right time of year); earning them the nickname 'Mosi-oa-Tunya', which means 'The Smoke that Thunders'. If you haven't seen them, you really should.
Where do I start and finish my trip?
We have some fantastic itinerary suggestions. They are all a little different and can start and finish in various combinations of Victoria Falls, Lusaka and Lilongwe (in Malawi).
It's hard to say which combo is best. I'm a big fan of Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River, so would probably opt to start in Livingstone. I also really like finishing in Malawi on the shores of Lake Malawi or on my favourite island; Mumbo (pictured below), so perhaps I would finish here. This is probably the perfect route if time and budget allow.
Should you be pushed for time, Lusaka allows you to shave a few days off your itinerary, which is sometimes logical. Flights into Lusaka might also suit some people better.
Whatever you choose will be good.
When would I recommend travelling?
High Season - beginning of July to the end of October. Zambia is a very seasonal country and road conditions change quickly when it rains so I would ensure the conditions are perfect.
Be sure to give yourself time
My advice, if you go, give yourself enough time. It's a big country and you would need at least three weeks to see a good portion of what's on offer. I would also implore you to stay in both the exclusive campsites and the lodges mentioned above; it makes an incredibly balanced and rewarding trip.
See some of our sample Zambia itineraries
The below are high-season from prices. Tailor-made itineraries available.