If there is one thing that isn’t short, it is national parks in Zambia. Home to a staggering 21 parks (the newest of which is Lusaka, gazetted in 2015), visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to game-viewing, birdwatching and safari opportunities.
If you’re planning a trip and are feeling overwhelmed about which parks to choose, don’t panic. Whether you’re interested in birds, the Big Five or the best safari lodges, these are the best national parks in Zambia.
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1. South Luangwa National Park
#1 Best National Park In Zambia
South Luangwa National Park is Zambia’s most-visited park. This is because four of the Big Five are easily seen here: lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo (only rhino is missing). That makes it a real treat if it’s your first safari. But the high standard of guiding makes the park a favourite with repeat visitors too.
You can’t miss seeing big herds of elephant and buffalo in South Luangwa, and probably some lion and leopard too. There are plenty of other animals too. Some of them you won’t see anywhere else except in Zambia: Thornicroft’s giraffe, Crawshay’s zebra and Cookson’s wildebeest.
South Luangwa is one of the most beautiful parks in southern Africa, especially when the late-afternoon light reflects off the Luangwa River. Locally known as ‘The Valley’, the terrain is a mix of mopane and miombo woodland, acacia shrub, grassland savannah and riverine forest. A walking safari will give you time to really appreciate it.
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2. Kafue National Park
#2 Best National Park In Zambia
Kafue National Park is one of the largest parks in Africa. Although the park is very accessible on a good road from Lusaka, it feels remote and wild. The animals can be quite shy, but you’ll still see loads of wildlife. Four of the Big Five can be found, only rhino is missing.
Kafue has a lot of wildlife. Elephants tend to be shy, but are common. Lion and leopard are easily spotted as well. What makes Kafue a great destination, though, is its wealth of antelope species. Huge herds of red lechwe – in the thousands – can be found in the swamps. Puku, greater kudu, oribi and waterbuck are all common, and the rare roan antelope is present in very sizable herds as well.
The Kafue River and the streams that flow into it are lined with forest and make for a beautiful view on a boat cruise. Away from the rivers, there are patches of miombo woodland and swamps. The vast Busanga Plains area in the far north of the park. You can’t explore these floodplains in the Wet season, but for the rest of the year, you can enjoy the wildlife here.
3. Lower Zambezi National Park
#3 Best National Park In Zambia
The park is set in the Zambezi Valley, on the northern bank of the mighty Zambezi The wildlife is plentiful, with four of the Big Five easily spotted (rhino is absent). The real attraction is canoeing on the river. There is nowhere else where you can see such variety and sheer numbers of animals from this exciting vantage point.
Buffalo and elephant are abundant and spend time on the small islands and sandbanks in the river. The park is home to some impressive tuskers and big herds regularly cross the river. Lion and leopard are easily spotted and you might come across a wild dog as well. For those paddling, most memorable are the thousands of hippo that inhabit the river channels and the enormous crocs lying on the banks.
The park’s main feature is one of Africa’s most famous rivers – the Zambezi. The northern boundary of the park is the Muchinga escarpment, which forms an impressive backdrop to the river in the valley. Sandy flats, mopane woodland and acacia shrubs fringe the waterways. Leadwood’s, figs and ebonies are just some of the beautiful trees that dot the landscape.
4. Blue Lagoon National Park
#4 Best National Park In Zambia
This Park is an undiscovered gem. The vast plains are spectacular in the dry season and transform completely from a dry grass flatland to a watery wonderland in the wet season, as the flats fill with water and the migratory birds arrive from far and wide.
Until recently, this park was not open to the public as it fell under the preserve of the Defence Ministry. It was established more than 40 years ago by the Critchley’s, a retired colonel from the British Army and his wife Erica – an environmentally oriented farming family who then sold it to the National Parks Department. Their farmhouse still exists which is now the Park reception. A little further on are two old chalets and two new chalets available for accommodation.
Blue Lagoon lies only 120kms west of Lusaka on the Kafue Flats and the vast floodplain attracts thousands of Kafue lechwe, zebra, sitatunga, some buffalo and numerous waterbirds. The plains are fringed with acacia woodland. This park is a birdwatchers dream. The abundance and variety are astounding and the fact that it has not been opened up until recently and is still undeveloped makes it one of those last untouched places left in Africa.
5. Kasanka National Park
#5 Best National Park In Zambia
Despite what most people think, Africa’s largest wildlife migration does not take place on the savanna of the Serengeti and Masai Mara. Instead, it takes place in the skies over the Congo and Zambia when more than 10 million straw-coloured fruit bats make their way to Kasanka National Park between October and December.
There are plenty of viewpoints throughout the park, ranging from hides (wooden platforms built in trees) to public viewing areas. According to Taylor, hides are limited in number and mainly used by lodge guests who are accompanied by a knowledgeable guide.
The public viewpoints are open areas where people can sit on benches and have unobstructed views of the bats as they start to fly off to feed. While hides give visitors a view of the bats as they emerge, Taylor says the public viewpoints are better for witnessing the sheer scale of the migration.
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6. Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park
#6 Best National Park In Zambia
Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park has two parts: the Victoria Falls World Heritage National Monument Site and Mosi-oa-Tunya Game Park. The falls are deservedly one of Africa’s top attractions. The game park is a small wildlife sanctuary and might be worth a visit if you have a few hours to spare.
The tiny park offers a good introduction to Zambia’s wildlife. There are elephant, buffalo, giraffe and zebra, as well as many of the common antelope species. Some white rhino has been re-introduced and started breeding successfully. Guided walks to see them are available. There are no large predators.
The park is situated along the bank of the upper Zambezi – one of Africa’s most impressive rivers. It includes the Victoria Falls and stretches to 12km upstream above the falls. The scenic highlight is obviously the waterfall itself. The drive along the river offers stunning views of this mighty waterway, especially in the early morning, when a thick carpet of mist hangs above the water.
7. Lochinvar National Park
#7 Best National Park In Zambia
The park lies in an area known as the Kafue Flats – a vast 4000 square kilometre floodplain of the Kafue River, regarded as one of Africa’s most significant wetlands. With the rains from December to March come the migrant birds from the north, and the complement of water birds includes pelican, flamingos (greater and lesser), great snipe and marsh warbler.
Lochinvar is also home to an abundance of Kafue lechwe, an amphibious antelope that wades or swims through the Chunga Lagoon during the wet season. In the northern section of the Kafue Flats floodplain, there are literally thousands of these beautiful beasts – a vacation highlight. As the floods of the wetlands recede herds move further north on to the grassy plains where they feed on grasses at the water’s edge.
The grasslands are the habitat of the blue wildebeest, zebra, kudu and buffalo, but most predators have been wiped out from the area. Lochinvar is not about viewing larger mammals. Rather it is the exceptional beauty of the park and the incredible access to birdlife that draws safari groups here.
8. Luambe National Park
#8 Best National Park In Zambia
Luambe is a small National Park located between North and South Luangwa National Parks. There is only one camp and so the whole experience is extremely remote and private. Since falling under new investment with a strong focus on conservation, game viewing has yielded fantastic results and the incredible hippo population is something to experience. A very doable 3,5 hr drive from South Luangwa but also subject to seasonality.
Although the lion and leopard numbers are not as high here as in South Luangwa, they are still very much around and regularly captured on the camera traps. Elephant and buffalo are also available and sighted on a regular basis although still very much treated as a worthy sighting!
The hippos of Luambe are unreal – up to 700 hippos congregate in the deep pool that runs below Luambe Camp. Their interaction and behaviour can keep you entertained for hours!
9. Lukusuzi National Park
#9 Best National Park In Zambia
Located on the eastern escarpment of the Luangwa Valley, between the North and South Luangwa Parks. To date, this park has had no development or even management and the status of the game is uncertain. There are apparently plans in the pipeline for its privatisation.
For the curious 4×4 adventurer, it can be approached from the Chipata / Lundazi road, where a poor dirt track to the west traverses the park and connects up with the South Park border road. Not advisable in the wet season. Game scouts do man the gate and may be able to give advice on the condition of the road.
10. Liuwa National Park
#10 Best National Park In Zambia
Once the hunting ground of the King of Barotseland, Liuwa Plains remains wild and exclusive, underpinned by a truly remote setting. Barely a decade ago, Liuwa was almost entirely expedition territory, requiring at least two sturdy 4WD vehicles – and the know-how to drive them. Mobile safaris were in on the act, but for others, the park was almost off-limits.
Now, with a permanent lodge, a trickle of new visitors can share in the secret. Transferred by helicopter from the outpost airstrip at Kalabo, they find themselves in a traditional yet luxurious safari environment where few outsiders have trod. Wide, open grasslands define this isolated park, stretching to the horizon across some 3,660km2, the view broken only by the occasional tree-island.
As the rains build towards the end of each year, shoots of new grass attract herbivores in their thousands, making Liuwa home to one of the largest annual gatherings of wildebeest in Africa.
11. North Luangwa National Park
#11 Best National Park In Zambia
North Luangwa is the little-visited sister park of the more popular and accessible South Luangwa National Park. It’s mostly a walking destination with a huge wilderness appeal. The habitat and wildlife are similar to South Luangwa, but animals are less habituated. All the Big Five can be found, with black rhino protected in a largely protected sanctuary.
The wildlife is similar to what you can see in South Luangwa. All the Big Five are present and can be encountered, although black rhino is held in a sanctuary for the time being. The rare, endemic Cookson’s wildebeest is more common here than in its sister park, and the giraffe is absent. Lion and buffalo are regularly seen, as are big herds of eland and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest.
North Luangwa is part of the southern extension of Africa’s Great Rift. The Luangwa river acts as the eastern boundary, but the Mwaleshi River is the lifeline of the park. Mopane and miombo woodland, acacia shrub, grassland savannah and riverine forest are some of the habitats that make up this lush valley. The Muchinga escarpment is a prominent landmark.
12. Nsumbu National Park
#12 Best National Park In Zambia
Lying on the southern shores of Lake Tanganyika in the Northern most tip of Zambia, Nsumbu National Park covers an area of just over 2000 square kilometres. It includes 100kms of some of the most pristine shores of this vast Lake. Its beauty ranges from sandy beaches, vertical cliffs, rocky coves and natural bays to the rugged hills and deep valleys of the interior. The Lufubu River winds its way through the Park and pours into Lake Tanganyika.
The western boundary of Nsumbu National Park, or Sumbu as it is called locally, is buffered by Tondwa Game Management Area, an IUCN Category VIII Multiple Use Management Area of 54,000 ha. The much larger Kaputa Game Management Area (360,000 ha) is also contiguous with the National Park to the north-west and south-west, and therefore the National Park completely surrounds Tondwa. Nsumbu National Park and the two Game Management Areas thus form important parts of a network of Protected Areas in Zambia.
The Park is dissected from west to east by the sizeable and perennial Lufubu River, which also demarcates the eastern boundary of the Park up to the river’s discharge into Lake Tanganyika. Nkamba and Chisala Rivers are ephemeral and smaller than the Lufubu, draining Tondwa Swamp into Nkamba and Sumbu Bays respectively, the former through an attractive valley with abundant wildlife. Much of the park is covered by combretum thicket, but along the lakeshore, there are many strangler figs and candelabra trees along with the strange and interesting boulders balanced on top of one another.
13. Sioma Ngwezi National Park
#13 Best National Park In Zambia
Sioma Ngwezi National Park is mainly covered by Kalahari woodland. It is the third-largest Park in Zambia covering a total area of more than 5000 km2. The Park has been heavily poached, but the situation is improving and wildlife is recovering.
As an example elephants are returning to the Park, seen at the southeast border where elephants have re-established an old migration route, now very visible with several tracks in a corridor extending over more than one kilometre. In the Park, the wildest game associated with the African bush may be encountered although up to now in fairly low numbers.
According to wildlife scouts from the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA), the Park holds a huge variety of game species such as elephant, lion, leopard, hyena, cheetah, wild dog, giraffe, eland, sable, roan, tsessebe, zebra, impala, kudu, duiker, buffalo, hippo, crocodile and sitatunga as well as a great number of birds.
Game drives, game walks and bird watching excursions are offered from Sioma Camp. Tiger fishing in the Zambezi River presents a challenge for sport anglers from all over the world. The main natural attraction in the area is the Sioma (or Ngonye), Falls.
The Falls, although not nearly as spectacular as Victoria Falls, do however impress visitors as they are quite extensive. In the dry season, you can get up close and even take a swim in one of the rock pools. The local people belong to the Lozi tribe who are ruled by the Barotse Royal Establishment, representing one of the richest cultures in Zambia. This also expands into neighbouring countries.