The Lower Zambezi is located in Southern Zambia, although, looking at a map of Zambia I would describe it as being a little South Easterly as it borders with Zimbabwe. I definitely risked crocodile infested waters to hop onto Zimbabwean land for a few minutes!
If you know something about Africa, then you have probably heard of the Zambezi River; the fourth longest river in Africa and the largest river that flows into the Indian Ocean. Knowing myself, you geography nerds are lapping up these geographical facts right now! It wasn’t until 1983 that the Lower Zambezi was declared a national park, having previously been a private game reserve to the then President of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda. Imagine having all those elephants, crocodiles, and hippos all to yourself; oh wait…go in the rainy season like us and you might just have a game drive experience where you don’t see anyone for 21 hours! More on that chaotic anecdote to come later.
Travelling to the Lower Zambezi
So how to reach the Lower Zambezi. Not quite knowing where you readers are coming from and what your budgets are I will outline below a few different ways to get to the Lower Zambezi, including our own journey.
We live in Kitwe, a relatively small city (by Western standards) in the Copperbelt region of Zambia. A quick search on Google Maps suggests that it’s just an 8h48m journey from Kitwe, and that may be the case (plus allow a couple of hours for Lusaka traffic, and trucks on the one lane road from the Copperbelt to Lusaka) if you have your own vehicle, but you are looking at a lot longer journey if you want to save some money and utilise the bus service. Below was our travel itinerary with prices.
Bus from Kitwe to Lusaka (k170/pp) ($7.50)
Bus from Lusaka to Chirundu (k90/pp) ($4)
Taxi from Chirundu to Nsofu Lodge (k300) ($13.30)
We started off at 5.30am in the morning and arrived the same day at 6.30pm. Now having got used to the efficiency of the high speed train service in China, I forgot just how the rest of the world doesn’t always adhere to time schedules, so there were a few delays in places and we waited nearly 2 hours for the bus to become full from Lusaka to Chirundu before we could set off. Now Chirundu is the border town near Zimbabwe, and the last place you’ll find big shops before you hit very rural Zambian countryside. It is also important to note that most lodges are located somewhere between Chirundu and the National Park, which is a 4hr 30min journey on slow gravel, pot holed filled roads, so do not expect to be moving super-fast.
Now I will by no means claim to be the most frugal traveller, my brother certainly affords that accolade, having slept in bivvy bags with no tent in the mountains and finding lunch in bins; but this next option would never be something I would try, because for me it would feel too far out of my budget, especially as I would prefer to save money on transportation, in order to be able to spend the money on say an excursion or another small trip. But I understand people who are coming from outside of Zambia and do not have the time luxury of living in this beautiful country would find this next option a very feasible one.
From Lusaka to the Lower Zambezi you can also take a flight, where your chosen lodge will often have organised a pick-up service to take you to your lodge. There are two commercial air strips in the Lower Zambezi, Jeki and Royal Airstrips. I imagine an incredible experience in itself, seeing the splendid views of the Lower Zambezi. I can’t speak from personal experience, but I do own a DJI Mini 2 Drone so have been a bird in the sky many times, and the views are simply breath-taking. There are twice daily flights with Proflight departing Lusaka at 12h00 and 15h50 taking just 35 minutes. Current prices suggestions are $389/pp return or ZK7064. Ouch! Nearly the entire cost of our 4 day to the Lower Zambezi. I do however understand that it might not be desirable for some travellers to travel by Zambian mini bus, as they are pretty cramped and do not accommodate for a lot of luggage.
It is obviously also possible to travel by car or rented vehicle, which you can pick up in Lusaka, this obviously gives you a lot more flexibility and freedom to your schedule. From Lusaka to Chirundu it is about a 2h40min drive, and a very beautiful winding road with rolling hills. The road from Lusaka to Chirundu, is by Zambian standards pretty good, although there are at peak times a lot of trucks going to the border towns and through to Zimbabwe, so travel safe and beware of overtaking cars.
When should I visit the Lower Zambezi?
If you are coming to the Lower Zambezi from abroad, then you are probably travelling in the dry season between the middle of March and the middle of November. If you’re coming in the dry season you will have no problems on the roads, or finding accommodation that is open, everything will be in full flare.
We did however come in the middle of the rainy season. We did this for a number of reasons. Firstly I was itching to explore, and wasn’t going to be waiting until the full swing of the dry season to see some wildlife. Secondly there are some very big discounts in rainy season, especially for Zambian nations and even for people like myself (a student visa holder/resident). This was my biggest draw, I knew there would be some disadvantages but a much cheaper trip was good for me. People suggest going in the dry season because the wildlife viewing is better, beaue the land is drier, the animals are much more likely to congregate around the Zambezi River and its plains, and there are less shrubbery for the animals to hide, making it easier for you to spot big game. However the chances of seeing some animals such as leopards is higher in the rainy season.
My overall advice to tourists coming from outside of Zambia would be to maximise the awesomeness of your trip and come in the dry season. But for expats, or Zambians I would still encourage a trip in the wet season, but preferable at the start of the season.
I cannot write this post without giving a warning about our terrible safari experience with Nsofu Lodge. To cut a 21 hour dramatic safari story short, the people the lodge used for the safari were a disaster. They allowed us to go out in rainy season with a Land Cruiser whose 4 wheel drive wasn’t working. Consequentially we got stuck for 5 hours in the middle of the bush and then got stuck a further 2 times, both at night in the pitch dark, with no protection against predators. It was a disaster. When we were travelling back home after the second breakdown, we were going up an incline, and the driver was so bad/it was so slippery that I was all but hurled from the cruiser and smashed my lip on the bar in front, causing a bleeding lip (I thought I’d lost my front teeth). So yes very bad. I blame Nsofu Lodge for not subcontracting out their safaris to a good company, and that company for not maintaining the vehicles. When on safari with a lodge, you expect all the troubles of finding a good safari to be already dealt with, this was a stress and a pressure. Worst of all was that we hardly saw any animals, like literally one elephants thats all. I was extremely disappointed and somewhat traumatised from this experience.
Nsofu Safari Lodge
In the rainy season many, actually I would say most of the lodges shut. Therefore options for affordable but still lovely lodges are not abundant. That’s why I settled on Nsofu. Nsofu in Bemba means elephant, so there was me hoping there would be one to greet us at the entrance!
Wow! So after the stress and disappointment of the game drive the day before, the river safari was something else. It was so refreshing to be catching the breeze on the Zambezi River, whilst keeping our eyes peeled for any sign of movement. And there sure were plenty of signs of wildlife. Twitching hippo ears littered the water’s surface, whilst crocodile eyes winked menacingly from the grassy water. Birds flew in flocks and there was even the lucky sighting of some elephants, buffalos and on land hippos speeding heavy footed to the waters depth. We took our time meandering up past countless pods of hippos through the middle of the Zambezi River which is also the border with Zimbabwe. It was fun having a quick look on Google Maps to see whether we were in Zambia or Zimbabwe, whether those hippos were Zambian hippos or they had dual citizenship! Our guide from Nsofu Safari Lodge was great, he was very knowledgeable about the wildlife, and every question I asked (and there were a lot) he was able to answer, which led to a great understanding about the rivers wildlife. It was funny, that every time we saw a crocodile, the guide would approach with great ease, whereas we would be up for the distance viewing! The guide was very willing to stop anywhere we wanted too, and as we passed a banana plantation I couldn’t resist getting the drone high in the sky. So, a boat with a canvas ceiling and two very comfortable armed chairs, with a bucket of Mosi beers and cold Coca Cola’s between us was the perfect way to cruise down the Zambezi River. And at just ZK350 ($19)/pp really a great experience for the money.
Safari game drive ZK3000/pp ($132)
River safari cruise (2hours) ZK350 ($15)
Weeknight lodge accommodation per room ZK1000 ($45)
Camping tent and bedding ZK400/pp ($17)
Highly recommend Lower Zambezi, it seems beautiful!
Really do not recommend Nsofu Lodge and their safari’s unless they get their act together and provide better safari experiences.