Just like a winter season ski resort in Switzerland, the Zambian Safari operators in the South Luangwa and the Lower Zambezi National Park regions have a clear on and off season. Both the South Luangwa River and the Lower Zambezi River swell dramatically during the summer rains and so most of the camps on the banks of the rivers close down for the wet rainy months.
Some of these camps are rustic bush camps made out of simple constructions by local builders who make clever use of thatch, wood and reeds. In this case the staff can literally dismantle the camp, take away all the furnishings and tented aspects of the construction, and rebuild it the following season. Other camps are cleverly built (up on stilts for example) to withstand the rising flood water.
We’ve compiled a short guide to the seasons of Zambia, which includes when to go, what to expect and which ones are our favourites.
The rainiest time in the country is during the period spanning December through to March, when most of the camps are closed, and camp owners tend to take their vacations. Camps such as Chiawa, Old Mondoro and the Remote Africa camps are all closed. For the camps that remain open, this increasingly popular-to-visit time is known as Zambia’s ‘Emerald Season’ as the surroundings take on a lush green appearance, and the light is perfect for photography. This is also the time when the rain and the high water levels make many of the unsurfaced roads completely impassable.
In the north, you’ll find that the rains tend to come much earlier and stay for longer. This is a good time to visit Mfuwe Lodge in the South Luangwa, which remains open all year-round. Four of the Bushcamps Camps remain open into the early rains however – Zungulila, Chindeni, Bilimungwe and Kapamba – offering remarkable Emerald Season safaris. You will see the Luangwa River in all its glory and can go on walking safaris and game drives for a lower rate. When the last month of the rainy season rolls around, the camps are already being rebuilt for the season ahead.
By the time April arrives, the rains should have stopped around most of the country, and the bush starts to dry out. With the landscape still fresh and green, camps open for business once again. The temperatures also begin to drop, especially at night. The days are wonderfully warm, though, and perfect for the wildlife sightings that are becoming more frequent. This is the perfect time for day trips to places such as the Bangwuelu Swamps (by private plane) to see the elusive shoebill storks.
The peak season in the region is July to September, when it’s a superb time to visit Zambia! The weather is at its finest, game viewing is excellent, and unsurprisingly the camps are at their fullest. July is the perfect month for walking safaris as the temperatures are at their most tolerable. Because the window for safaris is so small, tours and accommodation tend to get booked out well in advance, so we advise booking early to avoid disappointment.
Another great time for game watching is from October to December. The hot temperatures leave much to be desired, though, and safaris in this period are not for the faint-hearted! The intense heat makes for great sightings as animals tend to keep close to water sources, but often eliminates the option of walking safaris. The Luangwa and Lower Zambezi regions really come into their own as they have rivers as their central attractions. Towards the end of October, the rains begin to fall sporadically, marking the arrival of the wet season and in November, many of the bigger camps have already closed.
South Luangwa National Park
The South Luangwa National Park is a region of unspoilt wilderness and supreme beauty. Known to contain the most varied diversity of animals on our planet, it is easy to see why this park is one of the natural jewels in Zambia’s crown. Centred around the Luangwa River with its oxbow lagoons, the natural ebb and flow of the flooding river makes this park difficult to access by road and thus the perfect sanctuary for wildlife to flourish. With over 450 species of birds, this is a birders paradise! Game such as buffalo, elephant, hippos, giraffe, lion and leopards are plentiful. Experts have dubbed the South Luangwa area as one of the most incredible wildlife sanctuaries on the planet and amongst the most intense in Africa!
The famous walking safaris of Zambia were pioneered here, which to this day remains one of the finest ways to experience this continents pristine beauty and wilderness first-hand. The changing seasons just add to the park’s allure ranging from the dry, stark bushveld in the winter to the green, lush wonderland in the summer.
Lower Zambezi National Park
The splendour of the Lower Zambezi National Park lies in its raw, wild state. Although the variety of animals is not as great as in the South Luangwa National Park, the opportunity to see big game crossing the Zambezi channels is superb.
The park lies opposite the well-known Mana Pools Reserve in Zimbabwe, creating a wildlife sanctuary on both sides of the Zambezi River. Acting as a physical barrier to the parks animal species, an escarpment runs along the northern part of the park. Here enormous herds of elephant, some numbering up to a 100, can be seen at the river’s edge. Lions, buffalo and waterbuck, are also common here, as well as leopards and the fish eagle.
Here are some of our best-loved seasonal camps of Zambia:
1. Kuyenda Bushcamp
The Kuyenda Bushcamp is located on the Manzi River and is an oasis set in the Luangwa River Valley. This bush camp aims to offer guests an authentic bush experience and is comparatively more rustic than some of the other camps in the area. It has a great charm though with its traditional thatched dwellings and intimate campfire atmosphere.
Kuyenda is a prime example of adapting to the seasons – the camp is completely dismantled when the high season finishes, in preparation for the rains. Once the rains are over, though, the grass, reeds and poles are put back in place once again to set up this popular camp.
Kuyenda Bushcamp Camp is designed to blend in with natural surroundings and to reflect the original bush camp concept.
2. Chamilandu Bushcamp
Hugging the banks of the South Luangwa River, Chamilandu Bushcamp is one of Zambia’s prime river locations. With four-poster beds in stilted thatch bungalows, Chamilandu offers guests a luxurious experience. The camp is well-known for its exclusivity with only three ‘suites’ in the entire camp, meaning you are bound to have an intimate bush experience regardless of what time of the year you visit.
Chamilandu, as with most camps in the region, is open between June and November, which is prime walking safari season. Even when you’re not on a drive or walking in the surrounding grasslands you are bound to see many animals. Chamilandu’s charm lies in the fact that it’s so close to the action, you can literally see game drinking at the river bank while sipping a hot coffee in your bed or enjoying a sundowner from your bathtub.
3. Mwaleshi Camp
Situated in the lesser travelled North Luangwa National Park, Mwaleshi Camp may just be one of the region’s most prized secrets. Walking safaris are the name of the game at Mwaleshi, which prides itself in offering guests only the most professional and authentic of game experiences.
Safari lovers (especially those who love walking) will have no shortage of game sightings, and the chances of seeing a pack of hyena on the scavenge or a herd of buffalo on the move is quite high.
If properly timed, your safari in Zambia is certain to be one of the most memorable experiences in your life. When the combination of the right weather, the migratory patterns of game in the region and the availability of camps align, it makes for a magical vacation. That said, heading to Zambia on the outskirts of the busy season has its perks as well – it all depends on what you are looking for.