There are so many countries to choose from when planning your much anticipated trip to Africa but many still choose to take the well trodden tourist routes of South Africa,Kenya or Tanzania as opposed to really going and experiencing something unique and truly African.
I think it comes down to the wanting to just tick things off a common list, instead of really focusing on the actual adventure or experience that you could have. This often leaves travelers with the feeling they are just part of the tourist crowd and wishing they had planned things differently.
This begs the question: What type of traveler are you?
Do you want the adventure of taking a month off and self driving and going where many don’t? Catching a bus, ferry or taking that charter flight, immersing yourself in the local culture and choosing the more extreme mode of transport for the experiences you will gain? Do you purposely choose activities where the funds are used to conserve wildlife and not just for your own personal gratification?
Or are you the other type who wants to see it from inside the glass windows of a big 4X4 truck with other travelers so you feel completely safe and contained? Planning only a week or 2 to try and see multiple countries? Do you care about the animals you see and their future or do you just want a picture to show off to family and friends?
Many I find are the latter which comes as a surprise to most, especially as the thought of Africa is meant to inspire more than that. I find that sometimes taking a small risk like driving yourself even though you don’t know the exact route or kilometers to your destination or taking the slightly harder way like a 6 hour local bus or the more expensive charter flight to a remote place will leave you with the memories you will cherish for a lifetime, not just a year or two. Those who take the well traveled ways are often the first to leave with regrets and start trying to save to come back again for a do over.
Africa is a large continent so its best to choose one country and just go for it. Most activities are basically the same throughout many different countries but are over-developed and “zoo-like” with no passion for the animals themselves. I have been on many a safari drive in South Africa where there are more than 10 vehicles packed with tourists all parked around 1 lion and a million camera flashes going off. The trip to the local village is pretty much staged where they change out of a Nike shirt and into local attire when they are notified you are coming. This to me is not seeing the real Africa at all.
So in saying this, I have decided to write about a few things about the greatly unknown and under appreciated Zambia, often seen as the ‘expensive’ country (which is not really the case, it just depends on how you do it) or ‘under-developed’ as it has a lesser tourist trail than its sibling countries like South Africa or Tanzania because there are fewer fancy shopping malls or less overland companies running their packed trucks of travelers on their set routes. Zambia has everything and more for the African traveler and its time the rest of the world took notice of this quiet, stable and unassuming country – known as the friendliest country in Africa.
1. Really immerse yourself in the culture -Eat local once in a while
I know, I know, You don’t want food poisoning on your trip of a lifetime but sometimes us tourists just take things way to far and we actually miss out on the full experience of Africa due to our fears.
I LOVE local Zambian food and will often find a (clean) little local restaurant or roadside stall to stop and find something delicious. You are not only embracing the local food culture but you are also directly supporting the community. A huge favorite of Zambians is Curried Village Chicken and Nshima. This is served with a tomato and onion relish and a green spinach looking vegetable called ‘rape’.
This is generally a good one to choose as there are many chickens running around out there and they slaughter them on the day so the risk of any bacteria is reduced. Its is served on a plate with a generous serving of Nshima, which is ground dried corn / maize which when boiled with water becomes thick. You then use balls of this to mop up your curry and vegetables, and eating with your hands is a must. Everyone will look at you sideways and make fun of you if you don’t!
Some great vegetarian options are Ifisashi- pumpkin leaves with ground nuts and also local beans cooked in tomato.
Another good roadside snack is just the barbecued mealies (corn), cooked on a open fire on the imbola (small round metal BBQ made from old fuel drums), you cant go wrong. For about 40 cents a piece they will fill you up for a meal and is a great healthy snack on the go.
2. Why drive it when you can walk it! Walking Safaris in South Luangwa National Park
South Luangwa is a very popular National Park in Zambia but there are ways to do your safari without joining the multitudes of other tourists out there. A great way to do this is on foot. Get out there and feel the grass under your boots and walk the winding game trails, you will without a doubt see more, hear more and feel more than you would in a noisy vehicle.
Watch as you guide comes to a halt and tells you to be quiet as he scouts ahead, your excitement grows as he says a lion on the path. Your senses heighten, in a vehicle animals don’t recognize you as another animal but on foot, they know exactly what you are. Its primal, darn exciting and also you learn the ways on the bush from real experts. You become part of it, not just a spectator.
There are quite a few companies out there so do your research to choose the best one for you, mostly operating between the months of June – October. Do note that it gets really hot in late September / October and the grass can be quite long in the earlier months so the best time to plan your safari would be July/August if you are flexible.
A few suggestions: Robin Pope Safaris & Remote Africa Safaris.
3. Snorkel in the pristine waters of Lake Tanganyika and visit a REAL remote fishing village
Brave your fears of crocodiles and hippos to see this amazing natural wonder (there is in actuality very little risk of seeing these animals outside the Nsumbu National Park).
This place may be a little harder to get to but is well worth the effort. You can get there a few ways: By bus and ferry for the budget traveler, self drive the northern circuit (see this blog for some great ideas), self drive to Mpulungu Harbor and catch a boat transfer or take the easy way and get a private charter plane.
Lake Tanganyika is an African Great Lake. It is the second oldest freshwater lake in the world, the second largest by volume, and the second deepest after Lake Baikal in Siberia. It is the world’s longest freshwater lake. The lake is divided among four countries – Tanzania, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Burundi, and Zambia. The water flows into the Congo River system and ultimately into the Atlantic Ocean. The pristine blue waters are teeming with fish and its almost guaranteed you will not see another tourist while here.
The lifestyle of the lake inhabitants has changed little over the centuries while the influence of Arabia can be seen in the design of the wooden boats and dhows which ply this ancient trade route. Tradition is still strong in lakeside villages, where fishing is the way of life and respect for the Spirit of the Lake observed.
This is a great place to visit a local fishing village, Ndole Bay Lodge offers a free tour to the tiny villages of either Chibonsolo or Kamimono, where there is only access by foot or boat and almost never visited by westerners so you can witness perfectly preserved local lake culture. Watch the kids run around and look at you in complete wonder (and often fear!) as you become the most exciting part of the week for them. Ask the men how they fish and make their boats, and ask the women about the multiple wives system and how they all get along. Afterwards you can donate to the headman, school or local clinic to make a small but needed difference.
Although Zambia can only claim 7% of the lake’s surface area, Nsumbu National Park encompasses some 100 kilometres of the lake’s most pristine shoreline. Every conceivable shoreline is represented within Zambian waters.
A few Tanganyika facts:
- Lake Tanganyika is the largest rift lake in Africa lying in the Western Rift of the Great Rift Valley. Extending over 650 km in a North/South direction and averaging over 50km wide, Lake Tanganyika has the second highest volume of fresh water in the world (after Baikal), is the longest freshwater lake in the world, and at 1400m deep it is the second deepest in the world.
- The Lake covers 32,900km2 area, with 1,828km of shoreline. Much of the coastline consists of high escarpments dropping directly into the lake interspersed with vast headlands and long pristine beaches.
- Water clarity averages around 15 meters visibility and water temperature is around 26 degrees Celcius. Biology With such a variety of habitats and conditions Tanganyika truly comes into its own regarding diversity of life.
Ninety eight percent of the lakes cichlids and almost all its molluscs and crustaceans are endemic.
- More than 2000 plant and animal species live in the lake and about 600 of these exist nowhere outside the Lake Tanganyika watershed.
- Much of the biomass in the lake is made up of pelagic fish species from the genus Stolothrissa (kapenta) and Lates (Nile perch) both of which make up a significant part of the commercial and sports fishery of the lake. Fish from the group known as Cichlids are the real evolutionary wonders of Tanganyika.
- Varying in size, shape, colour and behaviour; with over three hundred endemic species, they form the centre of delight for fish enthusiasts.
- Also endemic to Tanganyika are two fully aquatic water snakes, one of which is the Storm’s water Cobra.
For ways to get there and more information on snorkel trips and more visit Ndole Bay Lodge.
4. See the annual spectacular Fruit Bat migration
Not only can you go on game drives here but you can witness an awe inspiring event of the millions of bats travelling between Zambia and Congo, this is the largest mammal migration in the world.
Between October and December each year, about 10 million straw coloured fruit bats descend into a tiny patch of evergreen swamp forest inside Kasanka National Park, Northern Zambia. This natural phenomenon, unique only to Kasanka lends itself to some truly astonishing birdlife sightings set against a backdrop of incredible scenic surrounds and dramatic skies.
There have been many documentaries about this event but nothing really compares to seeing it yourself. Another great self driving destination but you can contact Skytrails for charters if you prefer.
Learn how you can witness this event by visiting Kasanka National Park
5. Visit the Chimfunshi Chimp Orphanage and learn more about our closest animal relatives
About a 3-4 hour drive from Ndola, Chimfunshi is one of the oldest and largest chimpanzee reserves in the world and is internationally recognized as such. But that wasn’t always the case; the founders David and Sheila Siddle used to be smiled at for their unorthodox methods to adopt and nurse orphaned and injured chimpanzees.
The Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage is sheltering 120 chimpanzees at the moment at the Project Area and Orphanage. At the Project Area, nearly 100 chimpanzees live in four separate communities in enclosures measuring between 19 and 77 hectares each. Chimpanzees from all over the world are rescued from poachers and amusement parks and brought to the Orphanage at Chimfunshi. Most of them are injured and traumatised and need intensive care. As soon as they are in good health, they are carefully integrated into one of the chimpanzee families.
The Chimfunshi property encompasses more than 4200 hectares. In addition to providing the chimpanzees with forested enclosures, part of this land is dedicated to five villages where the Chimfunshi staff and their family live, a school, a clinic and the Education Centre. The Education Centre is an important research centre for international primatologists and students, and, as the name implies, provides chimpanzee education to visiting school groups and tourists. This is also the site of accommodations for visitors.
Most of the chimpanzees live in four large, forested. Each of these enclosures possesses a building with six to eight spacious cages, which are used exclusively for feeding, observing chimpanzee health, and providing medical care when necessary. This ensures that each chimpanzee, even the weakest, is provided with enough food. The large enclosures are guarded at all times, in order to be able to react to every irregularity immediately. Unlike many other sanctuaries, the chimpanzees at Chimfunshi come inside only once mid-day and sleep outside as wild chimpanzees do, building nests in the trees at night.
New chimpanzees are nursed to health and then carefully integrated into one of the existing families. At Chimfunshi, care is taken to provide the chimpanzees with as much freedom and protection as possible, while providing as species-typical environment as possible.
Since the chimpanzees at Chimfunshi did not grow up in the wild and chimpanzees typically learn how to survive by spending time with their mothers others in their community, it is difficult to return them to the wild.
Chimfunshi is located in a forest habitat similar to the wild habitat of chimpanzees, but chimpanzees are not indigenous to Zambia and release locally is unlikely. (However, other sanctuaries in countries where chimpanzees are native have made some first successful attempts at reintroducing chimpanzees to the wild.)Therefore, Chimfunshi’s strategy is to give rescued chimpanzees an opportunity to live chimpanzee-typical lives in by integrating them into existing families.
Apart from chimpanzees, other rescued animals such as parrots, antelopes, owls, buzzards, and many more live at Chimfunshi. In addition, Chimfunshi is recognized as an “Important Bird Area” (IBA #22) and close to the Orphanage is one of the most interesting and attractive bird watching areas worldwide.
The name “Chimfunshi” means “place that holds water” in Bemba, one of the Zambian languages – and not without reason. The nearby Kafue river floods large parts of the grasslands and bush area every year during the rainy season. At that time, a vehicle with 4-wheel drive is essential for use of the roads.
Chimfunshi combines the protection of a species and social and educational projects in a unique way: Chimfunshi employs and feeds 70 families – about 300 people, 150 of whom are children. Chimfunshi also has a school for about 80 children and provides basic medical care.
Chimfunshi permanently employs 60 people, who live in five villages that are located on site. More than 60% of the Zambian population lives below poverty level. Considering this, Chimfunshi is an important local employer that offers residents work as animal keepers, technical staff and service staff. Chimfunshi also contributes the local economy by purchasing food for the chimpanzees from local farmers.
In addition to the construction of houses for staff members and several wells that ensure the supply of fresh drinking water, clothing, toys, and educational material are regularly provided to the community. Another important project is the development and expansion of a health clinic.
Find out more or how to visit here Chimfunshi
6. Visit the Elephant Orphanage and get up close and personal with these baby gentle giants
Seeing the elephants in the wild in South Luwangwa National Park is indeed amazing but there is also another way to get up and close with these animals for a good cause that have been affected by poaching and human wildlife conflicts. When getting so close to these animals you can feel the emotional intelligence they have, they play like children and show love with contact.
Baby Elephants are often the victims of these conflicts and find themselves without a family. Through their partnership with Game Rangers International, a non-profit conservation organisation, Lilayi Lodge, located on the outskirts of Lusaka, is giving them a home and a family at the Lilayi Elephant Nursery with the hope of re-introducing them to the wild. The reintroduction to the wild is the most important part to consider here so you know its not just a money making ploy for tourism purposes.
These baby elephants are fed a milk formula every 3 hours. The lunch time feeding can be viewed daily by the public between 11h30 – 13h00 from the viewing platform located near the entrance to the Lilayi Game Park. There is a small fee charged for this activity which is a donation towards the project.
If you stay at Lilayi Lodge you have the unique opportunity to go behind the scenes and get a first hand look at the project as well as contribute to the conservation efforts by assisting the elephant keepers in caring for these baby Elephants. The charge for this unique experience goes 100% towards the project and wildlife conservation in Zambia.
See more here: Lilayi Experiences
7. Walk to the second highest Falls in Africa – Kalambo Falls
At 221m in height Kalambo Falls is twice as high as Victoria Falls, and the second-highest single-drop waterfall in Africa (the highest being Tugela Falls in South Africa). From spectacular viewpoints near the top of the falls, you can see the Kalambo River plummeting off a steep V-shaped cliff cut into the Rift Valley escarpment down into a deep valley, which then winds towards Lake Tanganyika.
This is also the site where the earliest known evidence that man used fire was found.
You can organise a local boat to take you to the village from Mpulungu Harbour on Lake Tanganyika and find a local guide there to take you up. Note it takes about 1.5 hours to get to the top (3 hours round trip) and good physical fitness to get up there. Make sure to take drinking water and wear good walking shoes.
8. Witness the annual Kuomboka Ceremony
This is a unique and colorful ceremony held in Zambia. Kuomboka is a word in the Lozi language; it literally means ‘to get out of water’. In today’s Zambia it is applied to a traditional ceremony that takes place at the end of the rain season (April) in Mongu, when the upper Zambezi River floods the plains of the Western Province. The festival celebrates the move of the Litunga, king of the Lozi people, from his compound at Lealui in the Barotse Floodplain of the Zambezi River to Limulunga on higher ground.
The ceremony is preceded by heavy drumming of the royal Maoma drums, which echoes around the royal capital the day before Kuomboka, announcing the event.
The King’s state barge is called Nalikwanda and is painted black and white, like Zambia’s coat of arms. On the barge is a replica of a huge black elephant, the ears of which can be moved from inside the barge. There is also a fire on board, the smoke from which tells the people that the king is alive and well.
For his wife there is a second barge. This one has a huge cattle egret (Nalwange) on top. The wings move like the ears of the elephant, up and down.
This is a whole day affair so be prepared that it will take you from the morning to afternoon/evening to experience the whole thing. There are several buses going from Lusaka to Mongu, but get your ticket a few days in advance, as the buses might be very full right before the day of the Kuomboka. Mongu is a very small town with one hotel in the harbor, and a couple of more simpler guest houses, so book early as you may miss out.
Find out what time the boats leave from the harbor. Be there in time, as the boats will quickly get booked and full and be sure to pick a boat with a reliable engine.
I hope these suggestions help you to get more out of your next African holiday and help you see the real Africa!