Our Favorite Places to Visit on a Safari to Zambia and Zimbabwe
By Philip Briggs | Updated June 14, 2021
Less celebrated than the likes of Tanzania and Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe rank among the most rewarding of African safari destinations. The two countries have much in common in terms of landscapes, and they share a similar colonial history, having been governed jointly as Northern and Southern Rhodesia. Today, the best-known feature of both Zambia and Zimbabwe is the mighty Zambezi River, which flows eastward along their shared border for almost 500 miles, via the world-famous Victoria Falls, the vast Lake Kariba, and the wildlife-rich Lower Zambezi and Mana Pools National Parks, before it finally crosses into Mozambique to empty into the Indian Ocean.
A bucket-list staple that almost every visitor to Zambia or Zimbabwe includes on their itinerary, Victoria Falls is a truly thrilling and unique phenomenon. Formed by the Zambezi as it crashes over a sheer 350ft escarpment, this spectacular waterfall is more than a mile wide when the river is in full flow, and its roaring head of spray is sometimes visible for 30 miles around. Sensational viewpoints over the jungle-fringed waterfall can be found on both sides of the river, and other attractions include whitewater rafting in the narrow gorge below the falls, canoeing along the more sedate stretch of river above it, and guided walking safaris in riverside Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.
The world’s most voluminous manmade reservoir, 170-mile long Lake Kariba owes its existence to a 420-ft-high hydroelectric dam built in the 1950s. The dam’s construction is famously associated with Operation Noah, a wildlife rescue operation that involved the relocation of 6,000 animals from the flooding Zambezi Valley into the hills of Zimbabwe’s Matusadona National Park, now one of the region’s best off-the-beaten-track Big Five safari destinations. Kariba is renowned among serious anglers for its giant tigerfish and a popular way to explore it is a houseboat stay.
Mana Pools and Lower Zambezi National Parks
This unusually multifaceted pair of national parks stands on opposite sides of a mesmerizing stretch of the Zambezi downstream of Lake Kariba. Whichever side of the border you choose, a highlight of a visit to Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools or Zambia’s Lower Zambezi is the opportunity to explore the river by canoe; dodging hippos, enjoying the prolific birdlife, and looking out for elephants, lions, and other members of the Big Five. Mana Pools is the only African safari destination with comparably dense wildlife populations where visitors are permitted to walk freely, while night drives in Lower Zambezi come with a great chance of leopard encounters.
Great Zimbabwe National Monument
Southern Africa’s most compelling archaeological attraction, Great Zimbabwe is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that incorporates the extensive ruins of a stone city that supported up to 10,000 people in its medieval prime. You don’t need to be a history buff to appreciate the grandeur and beauty of the so-called Great Enclosure, whose patterned stone walls and conical tower date back to the 14th century. For those who enjoy a bit of a scramble, it’s fun to explore fortifications and passages of the sprawling royal compound known as the Hill Ruins. A site museum displays artifacts emphasizing the city’s medieval trade links – Persian pottery shards, writing set from China, brass ornaments from India, coins minted on the coast of Tanzania – as well as replicas of the so-called Zimbabwe birds, a set of eagle-like soapstone sculptures emblematic of the site and its ruling dynasty.
Flowed through by the Luangwa River, this untrammeled southern extension of the Great Rift Valley is renowned for offering excellent walking safaris in pristine Big Five territory. Pioneered in the 1950s by the conservationist Norman Carr, guided walking safaris in the 3,490-square-mile South Luangwa National Park offer a great opportunity to see elephants, buffalo, and lions on foot. Even more remote and wild is North Luangwa National Park, the last Zambian stronghold for the endangered black rhino. A feature of Luangwa is rewarding night drives which routinely yield close-up sightings of leopards and other nocturnal creatures such as genet, civet, porcupine, and lesser bushbaby.
Hwange National Park
Bordering Botswana to the south of Victoria Falls, the 5,657-square-mile Hwange is Zimbabwe’s largest conservation area and premier Big Five safari destination. The park’s most prominent attraction is its elephant population, which might peak at 75,000 in the dry season, but decreases during the rains when some of the herds disperse into Botswana. Other wildlife likely to be seen includes lion, cheetah, spotted hyena, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, eland, and sable antelope. The developed part of Hwange around Main Camp is well-suited to self-drive visits, but the park also incorporates several private concessions where all-inclusive luxury safaris expose you to Africa at its most primal.
Kafue National Park
Ranked among Africa’s three largest national parks, Kafue extends over an incredible 8,600 square miles of Brachystegia woodland and supports the continent’s greatest mammal diversity. Much of the park is rather dry and wildlife tends to be sparse, the main exception being Busanga Floodplain, where scintillating dry-season game viewing includes cheetahs and black-maned lions that thrive on a rare diversity of antelope (greater kudu, sitatunga, eland, oribi, roan, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, blue wildebeest, red lechwe, and puku). Another highlight of Kafue is boat safaris on the Lufupa and Lunga Rivers.
Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands
Largely ignored by the mainstream safari industry, Zimbabwe’s Mozambican border area is notable for its sensational mountain scenery, refreshingly temperate climate and ample opportunities for hikes and day walks. Nyanga National Park, at one time the personal property of Cecil John Rhodes, protects a surreal moonscape of immense onion peel granite domes. Several localized birds can be seen in the nearby Chirinda Forest Reserve, which is regarded to be Africa’s most southerly true rainforest, while the highland meadows and waterfalls of the Chimanimani Mountains are a hiker’s paradise.
One of Africa’s largest wetlands, the swamps and open waters of Bangweulu – a local name meaning ‘where the water and sky meet’ – extend across 3,800 square miles of Zambia’s remote Northern Province. Home to a wide variety of mammals and water-associated birds, Bangweulu is the last stronghold of the black lechwe, a handsome semi-aquatic antelope endemic to Zambia. Striking birds include wattled crane, grey crowned crane, and saddle-billed stork, but Bangweulu is best known in ornithological circles is the only place in southern Africa where you’re might see the magnificent marsh-dwelling shoebill.
Matobo National Park
Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its spectacular granite rockscapes and wealth of prehistoric rock art, Matobo is home to Zimbabwe’s densest leopard population and plentiful white rhinos. Its best-known landmark is Malindidzimu Hill, a vast whaleback held sacred by the local Ndebele people, despite being the burial place of their colonial subjugator Cecil John Rhodes. Key rock art sites include White Rhino Shelter, whose monochrome outlines of animals include both African rhino species, and Nswatugi Cave, which is dominated by two depictions of running giraffes.