Slow Travel in Zambia

Written by: Jack Bonham

Slow travel, as most of you have learned, is more about the way of traveling rather than the destination. In approaching our trips, most of us slow travelers think as much about the surroundings in which we will be living and how we can interact with the locals as we do about the grand sites we’ll visit. We’ve learned that ten years down the road our memories won’t be filled with cathedrals or museums, but chance encounters at a cafe or on a subway, or sitting at the beach. We enjoy the independence of setting our own schedules and calling our own shots.

Mother and child

With that in mind, I’d like to share some slow travelers experience in the “Dark Continent.” Traveling in Africa presents some unique challenges. If you choose to approach it the same way you might approach a trip to Italy or France or Switzerland, be prepared for frustration, excitement, and something new everywhere you look. Throw away your Swiss watches – type “A” personalities need not apply.

We traveled to Zambia in the summer of 2004 to visit our son who is in the Peace Corps there. Most folks going to Africa choose either Kenya or South Africa, but I would suggest you look a little harder at your options. Most African nations have a thriving tourist economy and welcome you and your money. Some, a bit more off the beaten path, offer good value for money, have a different variety of animals, are negotiable in their prices, and work harder for you. Zambia, Namibia, and Botswana all have stable governments, English as their first language and wonderful wildlife.

About Zambia

We felt very safe in Zambia. Zambians are a friendly, open, and attractive people. There are certainly areas of Lusaka that we were told to avoid, but we spent very little time in the city. Zambia is politically stable, unlike some of its neighbors such as Congo and Zimbabwe. It was a British colony and has been independent since 1963, and therefore the official language is English, which everyone speaks to one degree or another. All Zambians who have been to school (and that’s most adults) speak at least some English.

Statistics regarding poverty and disease frighten many people from Africa, which is sad. You know that most of the people are poor, you know that there is a high incidence of disease, but what you see is people going about their daily lives, doing the best they can. High rates of poverty and high rates of crime do not necessarily go hand in hand. You do not see illness, nor do people openly discuss HIV/AIDS. One of the best things that developed countries can do to improve the condition of Africa is to engage in commerce and we think travel and tourism is one of the most fun ways to spend money! Tourism is critical to local employment and the local economy.

Zambia Walking Safaris

Zambia was beautiful, and because it exists on a relatively high plateau, it doesn’t suffer quite the same degree of oppressive heat. The allure of Africa for most people is the safari and Zambia is wonderful in this regard; Zambia is one of the few African countries that allow walking safaris.

The days are typically like this:

  • You wake up early, have a light breakfast and then go for a leisurely walk for several hours, accompanied by your guide and an armed ranger from the park service.
  • Then you return to camp for a wonderful lunch and a snooze, reading, letter writing, etc.
  • In the late afternoon you take a driving safari, stop about sundown for a refreshment and then drive for a while in the dark. This opens a whole different world of nocturnal animals.
  • About 8pm you return to camp for a wonderful dinner.

At many Zambian safari camps you have a guide for your family only. He’ll go on your schedule and will linger as long as you like or search to find a particular bird or animal that you’d like to see. To become a certified guide requires many years apprenticeship and course work and the guides know everything from animals and plants to the night constellations. The walking safaris are amazing and allow you to see the small wonders of Africa.

Planning Our Trip to Zambia

Like a typical European vacation, after we decided where we were going and approximately when, I began to explore the Internet, purchase maps, look into hotels, car rentals, drive times, etc. Communication to Africa can be a real challenge for a couple of reasons. Many places are not particularly familiar with selling directly to the end-user as opposed to a travel agent. Internet and phone service can be sporadic to many areas, and Africans tend to be less obsessed with immediate communication and response time. So it can be difficult to nail down the arrangements in the degree of detail that I want prior to flying half way round the world. Relax. As my son said many times – it’s Zambian time where an hour can have anywhere from 85 to 237 minutes.

So we started by making a few initial contacts on our own and after we had decided our preliminary itinerary and had some negotiations under way, we were directed to a wonderful agent in Zambia. We found that in the end, she was able to negotiate better deals for us than we could on our own. She also was helpful in calculating drive times and a realistic itinerary.

We rented a Toyota Landcruiser and did most of our travel by road although we did take a small plane to our camp in the South Luangwa National Park. Zambia has very few roads so, with the exception of Lusaka, the capital, it’s pretty difficult to get lost.

The "Great" East Road

The “Great” East Road

We spent several nights on the Zambezi river in a fishing lodge, several nights in Livingstone at Victoria Falls, and about a week in the Park. We also spent two days and a night in my son’s village sleeping in his mud hut. Yes, it does help to have someone there who is a local, but I’ll give you some contacts that can arrange for a local guide or accommodations later in this article.

We traveled in June, which was very pleasant. It gets really hot in our fall months and then the rainy or green season is from about December through April. This is supposedly a wonderful time to visit. Although some camps are inaccessible, the ones that are open have fantastic rates and you’ll get lots of personal attention. Migrating birds and the “birthing” season make this a great time to go.

Bushcamps, Safari in the South Luangwa National Park

Our safari time was spent in the South Luangwa National Park. Zambia has a higher percentage of its land in National Park than any African country and they seem to have a good working relationship with private operators who provide accommodation within the parks.

We stayed at Bushcamps, which has a main lodge with 30 or 40 units, a pool, and also has five separate bush camps. The individual units at the main Mfuwe Lodge surround a watering hole, so you can actually take a bath and watch the elephants as you relax in the tub. Each bush camp has about four or five permanent huts or tents that each have two beds. Our group of five visited two camps and had the camps to ourselves.

The Deck of our Cabin in Chamilandu Camp

The deck of our cabin in Chamilandu Camp

Serving us were a young British camp manager, our guide, a park scout, an apprentice guide, and a couple of cooks and housekeepers. We had no electricity, but there was hot and cold running water and flush toilets. The food was absolutely amazing and all prepared on/in a wood burning stove. Bread, pastries, salads, and desserts were wonderful, made even more so by the surroundings and after a good day of exercise.

Redcliff Zambezi Lodge, on the Zambezi River

We also spent several days fishing on the Zambezi River at the Red Cliff Lodge not too far from my son’s village. A pleasant South African couple, several fishing guides, and their group of friendly terriers run Red Cliff Lodge. Even if you’re not a fisherman, you can go out on the river and see the beautiful red sandstone cliffs and the wildlife. Crocodiles and hippos are everywhere and we also saw elephants, baboons, bush and waterbuck, many beautiful birds and heard lions. You could hike to a local village or just sit by the river and read. Again, no electricity, but modern plumbing.

Zambezi Waterfront Lodge, near Victoria Falls and Livingstone

The last major focus was Victoria Falls and the town of Livingstone. Livingstone is a small city with a number of restaurants and shops and modern conveniences – ATM’s, Internet cafes, etc.

We stayed at the Waterfront Lodge on the Zambezi River which is more of a traditional hotel setting, although the rooms are scattered about the grounds in separate buildings. There is a bar, restaurant, and an activities office to set you up for a variety of things for the tame and the thrill seekers alike. My boys, 18 and 24, opted for bungee jumping, my wife and sister-in-law for an elephant back safari, and I opted for holding the camera while my kids took the plunge from the bridge over the Zambezi. We had hoped to white water raft as a group, but there was too much water and rafting was closed.

Victoria Falls are truly breathtaking. You can take a “wet walk” where for a nominal fee you can rent a poncho to protect you from the spray on the hike. There are many other trails in this national park area, also, to give you a drier look at the falls.

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

Safari Prices

There are all types of African safaris and all ranges of prices. Talk honestly to your travel agent about the type of accommodations you want and the price you can afford to pay.

You may choose to stay in a small inn or hotel or glorified camp ground where there are small chalets and usually a pool, restaurant, and bar on site and where you may arrange for game drives and activities a la carte. Or you may opt for a safari company that will take care of absolutely everything. Your prices include meals, guides, laundry, inter-country transportation, game drives – everything you need, except excess liquor, and modest tips. Or you may put together a combination of the two so you can spend a day or two around Victoria Falls and perhaps five to seven days at one of the many national parks.

Pricing for the places we stayed

  • For Bushcamps, the up-market safari in the South Luangwa National Park, we negotiated a rate of $180 per person per day. Sounds like a lot, but you spend virtually no other money while you’re there.
  • Redcliff Zambezi Lodge on the Zambezi River was about $110 per person all included. Redcliff doesn’t do game drives as it is accessible only by boat, but you do have the option of fishing or boating as much as you’d like and some hikes through the trails along the river and seeing lots of wildlife from the water.
  • The Zambezi Waterfront Lodge on the Zambezi River was about $80 per room, all food and activities a la carte.

Practical Notes

Money: ATM’s are available in all towns as well as in banks. Lodges and hotels typically take US Dollars, Euros, GBP, and Zambian Kwacha. Don’t get caught with leftover Kwacha. It is virtually unredeemable at any exchange outside the country. Credit cards are universally accepted. Cryptocurrency is being developed in Africa as we speak. They’re looking to launch a program in 2024. Visit Crypto Chart Price for more info.

Medical: Visit a travel specialist several months before you leave. He will recommend immunizations for typhoid, hepatitis, and prescribe antimalarials. He’ll likely send you with some antibiotics for diarrhea and suggest you buy some Imodium. Otherwise, normal travel precautions – cooked food, bottled water, canned sodas, or beer or wine. We had no health problems aside from a little sunburn. You are near the Equator.

Visas: Can be arranged on entry to the country at the airport. Your travel agent may arrange for them at no charge.

It’s impossible to give enough detail to be useful in a brief article, but I want to encourage those of you who have an interest in Africa to do some exploring. It is different but not scary. It stimulates and challenges you in many ways; sights, sounds, smells – everywhere you turn you see something you’ve never seen before. It’s impossible to visit sub-Saharan Africa and not be impressed by its natural beauty and not to think of the bigger issues of poverty, conservation, and the comparison of our lifestyles. It was a beautiful and intriguing place and we’re eager to return.

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