At A Glance
- At over 750 000sqkm, Zambia is bigger than Texas!
- The best game-viewing months is the dry season: May to November
- There are 19 parks and reserves to choose from, covering 20% of the country
- Zambia ‘shares’ Victoria Falls with Zimbabwe, with the town of Livingstone 10km away
- The peak rainy season - Jan/Feb - sees many parks close - it’s not the best time to visit!
Zambia Overland Travel
Zambia might not spring immediately to mind as an African overland destination but that’s a good thing: it means that this little-visited country is still off the radar when it comes to tourism, and that makes for a very exciting and genuinely African overland experience.
It’s a country made for overlanding adventures: Zambia has some of the biggest and wildest national parks in Africa, challenging roads and infrastructure, a friendly and curious population and plenty of modern touches too, just to keep things nicely balanced.
And of course, Zambia is home to Victoria Falls – a Zambia Overland travel experience would hardly leave that iconic destination out of an itinerary – which also means that it’s a country well placed to combine with other great overland routes in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and beyond.
Check out our wide range of Zambia Overland tours, browse our Zambia map and start a little background research with our Zambia destination guide.
Parks and Reserves
Nature-lovers will love Zambia: a fifth of the country is set aside for conservation in the form of national parks and reserves, and although Zambia is home to some of Africa’s biggest protected areas, many of its safari destinations are barely visited.
Many of Zambia’s parks have a strong water element to them – hardly surprising considering the country is home to the source of the Zambezi River as well as vast swamps and other river systems – but it does mean, when coupled with Zambia’s poor roads, that many parks are inaccessible during the summer rainy season.
However, overlanders who have got their timing right and have a little luck on their side could be in for a treat. Zambia’s major parks are home to the full range of classic African mammals (though rhinos are virtually gone now) and a stunning bird life (an astonishing 733 species have been recorded). Zambia is particularly famous for large and healthy populations of elephant, lion, hippo, giraffe, buffalo and leopard while the range of antelope species is far greater than her more southerly neighbours.
Mosi Oa Tunya
Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park is situated along the upper reaches of the Zambezi River, stretching from – and including – the Victoria Falls for about 12kms upriver. Much of the park is covered by mopane woodland, riverine forest and stands of rustling ilala palms.
It’s only 66 sq km but it provides a home for numerous antelope, zebra, giraffe and even several introduced white rhino – 2 calves were born in April 2011, taking the population to 7. These are perhaps the only rhinos to be seen in Zambia, as the previously large population was completely wiped out by poachers. Elephants cross the Zambezi in the dry months of August and September from the Zimbabwean side in search of food.
You can drive around the whole park in a couple of hours and as there are no predators, the animals are quite relaxed and easy to spot. The highlight here is the rhino walk. Two groups of eight people are permitted to track rhino by foot each day. You arrive in the park at dawn and, accompanied by an armed ranger, you creep through the bush in single file following the spoor of the rhino.
Zambia’s huge, wild and remote South Luangwa National Park is one of Africa’s best kept secrets. The concentration of game around the Luangwa River and its lagoons is among the most dense in Africa – indeed, there’s such an abundance of animals in this 9 050 sq km park that it could almost be called crowded! The changing seasons add to the park’s richness, as it changes from a dry, brown and pretty much featureless bush in winter to a lush green wonderland in the summer months.
There are over 400 species of bird and 60 types of mammal – the only notable exclusion is the rhino, sadly poached to extinction. Nevertheless, the list includes both familiar faces and rare ones: wildebeest, antelope species and zebra congregate on the open savannah grasslands and are stalked by lion, spotted hyena and African wild dog while endemic sub-species of zebra, giraffe and antelopes will keep the list-compilers happy.
It’s also a place of water: the coffee-and-milk coloured Luangwa River is home to hundreds of crocodiles as well as hippos – often over 100 individuals can be counted in a single pod. Enormous elephants are often seen crossing the river’s sand banks and big herds of buffalo keep the lion population happy.
The now famous ‘walking safari’ originated in this park and it is still one of the finest ways to experience this pristine wilderness first-hand. May to August is perfect weather for walking – dry but cool – but it gets very hot in September and October as the buildup to the rainy season begins. But don’t discount these hot months – animals congregate along the almost dried-up river and remaining waterholes, so these hot dry months are the best for game viewing.
Zambia’s huge size and relatively small population (just over 13 million) means that there’s an awful lot of not much at all. And with 20% of the country set aside as national parks and still further areas reserved for hunting, it’s clear that overlanders won’t be spending much time travelling from one bustling city to another.
That said, there are 2 urban areas that Zambian overlanders are likely to experience – find out more below.
Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, is a sprawling, swollen city that has grown too fast and – to be honest – has little appeal for travellers. It does straddle the Great North Road however – the main highway that runs through the guts of Africa – so you’ll undoubtedly pass through the city en route to or from East Africa and Victoria Falls/Livingstone.
Lusaka didn’t exist before the 20th century and until 1931 when the country’s capital was moved here from Livingstone it was just a small, sleepy agricultural village. There was rapid growth during the 1960s and it’s now a city of two million people and one of the fastest-growing cities in central Africa – indeed, it covers an area of over 70 sq km and since there has been no influx control, the city is bursting at the seams.
But Lusaka is also a city undergoing a face-lift. New modern shopping malls and smart fast food outlets have been built and more are going up; old buildings are being refurbished and the pot holes in the roads are being filled in. Viewed from the villages, Lusaka is the glittering capital and it still persuades rural Zambians to take the bus there in search of jobs and dreams.
The town of Livingstone owes its existence to Victoria Falls. It was named after the missionary and explorer Dr. David Livingstone, the first European to discover, name and tell the rest of world about the mighty waterfall.
Livingstone is a compact town and easy to get around, with a few interesting sights along the main road. These include the Livingstone Museum, which houses memorabilia related to David Livingstone and his exploration of the region in the 1850s, and the Railway Museum. Other local attractions include the Mosi-oa-Tunya (‘smoke that thunders’) National Park, located adjacent to the Victoria Falls.
There are also a whole host of activities on offer that are Victoria Falls related, and many operate from the Zambian side of the Zambezi Bridge. In the Bakota Gorge, you can go white-water rafting and river-boarding on the rapids below the falls, or you can splash around in a powerful jet boat. From the top, you can throw yourself into the gorge on a gorge swing, flying fox or abseil. On the edge of town is the airfield where helicopters and micro-lights depart for scenic flights over the falls.
Once you’ve done all that, you can simply walk over the bridge to Zimbabwe and try the activities on offer on that side. Oh, and don’t forget to bungee jump off the bridge itself on the way. It’s said that the Zambia Railways makes more profit from the bungee jump, whose operators pay them a fee to use the bridge, than they do from the whole Zambia rail network each year.
Zambia’s parks and reserves are predictably full of safari activities – game drives, walking safaris and night drives – but it’s Victoria Falls that you need to go for classic adrenalin adventures. Taking its cue from neighbouring Zimbabwe and its decades-long list of adventure activities, Zambia now offers an extensive range of thrills and spills – and if you can’t find it in Zambia, it’ll be across the river in Zimbabwe.
So you’re on a Zambia overland adventure and you’re not going to do a bungee jump at Vic Falls. Yeah right. The Victoria Falls bungee jump is virtually de rigueur for overlanders, and at 111 metres it is one of the highest bungee jumps in the world.
You’ll be making a leap from the bridge that spans the Bakota gorge in no-man’s-land between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The views are great – if you can focus on them – but little can beat those few exhilarating seconds of free-fall as you plummet towards the swirling waters of the Zambezi River below.
Along with bungee jumping, white water rafting is one of Zambia’s iconic adventure experiences. And unlike the few seconds of thrills that hanging off a rubber rope delivers, white water rafting lasts all day and is considered one of the best commercial rafting experiences in the world.
The adrenaline junkie will get a wild rollercoaster ride on the series of 23 foamy rapids that stretch from the bottom of the Victoria Falls for 22 km. Low water runs from mid August to late December are the most adventurous: the rapids are mostly grade 4 or 5 and all 23 are navigable. One is a monster grade 6 – you’ll have to walk around this bad boy – though keep an eye out for kamikaze kayakers who run the thundering beast alone.
As water levels rise after the rainy season rafting may be put on hold – the volume of water simply covers the rapids. High water runs only traverse rapids 11 to 18 from the beginning of July to mid August, and are unlikely to spill you out the raft though you will get a taste of the action.
An ever-popular activity on the Zambezi River is a canoeing safari on the serene waters of the upper Zambezi River before it takes its plunge over the Victoria Falls.
You won’t get anywhere close to the edge of the falls though: this part of the river has plenty to keep you occupied. Flanked by national parks on both sides of the river, it is a paradise of tucked-away islands, sandbanks, overhanging trees and an extravagant birdlife. Sit back in your comfortable two-man canoe and let the river do all the work: travelling by canoe enables superb game viewing and interaction with the wild at nature’s pace.
There’s a good chance that you’ll see some big stuff too: elephant, buffalo, hippo and crocodile are all common along this part of the Zambezi and the professional guides that accompany every trip will comment on the passing flora and fauna as well as steering you away from potential danger.
Surfers can relax: you might be in the middle of Africa but there’s some gnarly action out there – armed with a wetsuit, life jacket, helmet, fins and a big attitude, you can surf some of the world’s biggest fresh water rapids on a river board … on the Zambezi River.
You’ll be accompanied by guides but the bottom line is that you’ll be taking on the mighty Zambezi on your own board so it goes without saying that you need to be confident and relaxed in water – and a strong swimmer. Basic river-boarding skills are taught in still water before progressing to the crashing rapids. It’s a huge adrenalin rush but there’s time to relax too: boarders can stop at ‘play spots’ along the way to surf and ride whirlpools and eddies.
The best time to go river boarding is during low water season from mid August to late December, when the river is at its wildest. Operators offer half day, full day, or river boarding and rafting combo trips where you get to experience the rapids with both options.
Africa’s first and only jet boat operation is a thrilling adventure on the turbulent waters of the Bakota Gorge, downstream from the Victoria Falls on the Zambian side.
And you’ll be moving: each six-metre jet boat, specially designed to endure the speed and versatility of the ride, has an 8.2 litre Chevy engine with an eye-popping 350 horse power and can carry 11 passengers. It’s one of the world’s most exciting boat rides and powers through the rapids of the mighty Zambezi River. Feel the wind in your hair and the spray in your face as the powerful jet boats speed through rapids, rush past gorge walls and spin on the flat water.
There’s not much to rival the view of the Victoria Falls from the air, especially from April to June when the spray is at its highest and the massive volume of water makes its own spectacular rainbows. These breathtaking flights over the Victoria Falls are often dubbed ‘Flight of the Angels’ after the explorer David Livingstone’s words: “Scenes so beautiful … must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”.
From Livingstone airport there are exciting helicopter flights where you are able to swoop low over the falls and hover for that perfect shot. A trip by micro-light is another alternative, a thrilling way to soak up the views with no glass or aircraft frame between you and Victoria Falls below.
Gorge Swing & Abseil
The Zambezi Swing isn’t a dance: across the top of the Bakota Gorge lies 135 metres of cable which has a sliding pulley system hanging from it. Get tucked into a full body harness, take a running jump from a wooden platform and then it’s a 50 metre plunge before you swing out into the middle of the gorge. The jump ends with several pendulum swings before you are lowered, jelly-kneed, to the ground.
If the swing doesn’t swing you, then the flying fox is an alternative. It’s a cable slide that sends you coasting smoothly across to the other side of the spectacular gorge. Want more? There’s also the 53 metre abseil, facing the cliff as per normal or ‘rap’ jump facing forward.
David Livingstone, the most famous of all Victorian explorers, reached the Upper Zambezi in 1851. He was the first European to see the Victoria Falls, naming them after his Queen. The local Kololo people had named it long ago: Mosi oa Tunya – The Smoke that Thunders but the people who lived right beside it and held it sacred called it Shongwe (rainbow).
After many more explorations of Central Africa, Livingstone died in a village near the southern shore of Zambia’s Bangweulu Swamps in 1873. He was followed by agents of Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company (BSAC) who signed treaties with several African leaders and proceeded to administer the region as Northern Rhodesia. Its capital was the town of Livingstone but in 1935 the seat of government was moved to Lusaka.
Rhodes was an ambitious man and one of his aims was to make Africa British from Cape to Cairo. (Hence the name of Lusaka’s main street, Cairo Rd.) To fund such a project, the BSAC imposed a Hut Tax which ended up financing the Livingstone-Ndola (DRC) railway – those who objected or didn’t pay met with harsh penalties; their huts were torched and their land was handed over to white settlers.
The discovery of copper in the 1920s and 1930s soon made Zambia’s Copperbelt one of the worlds’ most lucrative mining areas. The BSAC, which owned the mineral rights, was to profit handsomely – £83 million by 1963. The mines required a large labour force and by the late 1930s about 4 000 European skilled workers and some 20 000 Zambians worked in the Copperbelt. So many African workers in one place created a unity that cut across tribal boundaries, a sentiment eventually expressed in the state motto, ‘One Zambia, One Nation’. In 1948 the African Mineworkers Union was formed, staging several strikes against unfair taxes, poor working conditions and white monopoly rule. A 58-day strike in 1955 ended with victory for the miners, and the mining companies were forced to move Africans into management.
In 1958 young nationalists formed the United National Independence Party led by Kenneth Kaunda and engaged in a continuous and largely peaceful campaign for independence. Indeed. in 1960 the British Prime Minister Harold McMillan in his famous ‘There is a wind of change blowing through Africa’ speech acknowledged that the days of colonial rule in Africa were coming to an end. Elections were held in Zambia in 1964, and Kuanda became president of a newly independent Zambia. Kaunda remained in office for 27 years, but independence was not a great success story. He controlled a one-party state and his attempts to ‘decolonise’ the economy by nationalising it produced inefficiency and corruption plus a broken Copperbelt. In 1990 there was a series of food riots and an attempted coup, and the demand for change became so urgent that Kaunda had to concede. Free elections were held in 1991. They were won by the newly formed Movement for Multi-party Democracy led by Frederick Chiluba who became Zambia’s second president.
Chiluba didn’t do much better, however. He inherited an empty treasury, a foreign debt of US$7 billion and a country of people who were poorer than they had been at independence in 1964. There was another coup attempt in 1997 and Chiluba declared a state of emergency, throwing numerous opposition leaders and military officers into jail. Then in 2001 Chiluba tried to change the constitution so it allowed him to stand for a third term. The public outcry was immense, and amid increasing allegations of corruption, he agreed to stand down. He named Levy Mwanawasa as his successor who won that year’s elections. In a surprising turn of events, Mwanawasa impressed the country in early 2003 by removing Chiluba’s presidential immunity and bringing him to trial on corruption charges. Mwanawasa died in office in 2008 and Rupiah Banda came to power.
Lion in Bushveld It's always a special experience seeing these big cats.
Zambia Canoe Excursion Whilst enjoying a canoe trip, you may encounter elephants along the river banks.
Impala One of Africa's most common and graceful antelope's.
Elephant Grazing Elephant reached out for some nutritious greens.