At over 200 square miles of pristine wilderness, and with 4 of the Big 5 present, it’s hard to fathom why the Zambezi National Park in Zimbabwe isn’t on more tourist radars – especially when you consider that it’s literally on the doorstep of three international airports and one of Africa’s most popular tourist destinations, Victoria Falls. In large part the absence of tourist crowds is because of the popularity of the country’s more famous safari destinations: Hwange National Park and Mana Pools National Park. Sure, they may have greater quantities of game, but you shouldn’t ignore Zambezi National Park’s stunning scenery and relative dearth of crowds. A day trip and sundowners by the mighty Zambezi River can be the highlight of any trip to Zimbabwe!
Take Photos Leave Footprints Ratings: Zambezi National Park
Wildlife – 3.5*
While the Zambezi National Park may not have quite the rich abundance of wildlife of the more popular of Zimbabwe’s parks, Hwange and Mana Pools, I’m of the opinion that it’s a park often mistakenly overlooked by tourists visiting the adjacent Victoria Falls. After all, this is a park that boasts 4 of the Big 5:
- I’d wager that there are very few visitors to the park that will leave without spotting elephant, such are their numbers. Nothing is more pleasing than sitting having a picnic sundowner along the Zambezi riverfront drive section of the park whilst watching a herd of elephant take their evening bath. It’s one of the quintessential sights in the Zambezi National Park!
- Buffalo are seen frequently, especially in large herds on the dry river bed vleis of the Chamabonda game drive trail south of the Kazungula road.
- Lion are occasionally spotted – more frequently by those that stay in one of the park’s platform hides overnight (again in the Chamabonda section of the park) – see below in the accommodation section for more details.
- Leopard, as always, are a harder find due to their elusive nature, but are still present in decent numbers.
- Rhino, both black and white, are sadly absent given the country’s devastating history of rhino horn poaching.
Outside of the Big 5, the park’s northern border is marked by the mighty Zambezi river. This ensures that most visitor’s taking the River Drive route through the park will have the chance to spot the park’s abundant hippo population. Both sections of the park (Chamabonda and River Drive) also play host to an abundance of giraffe, zebra, and hyena. Wildebeest and Wild Dog are less commonly spotted but present. Eland and Sable Antelope are most commonly found in the Chamabonda section of the park (along with jackals). As always, there is an abundance of antelope species throughout the entire park, including waterbuck, bushbuck, grysbok and impala.
To put all of this information into context, on my last full-day game drive through the park I spent the morning self-driving the River Drive and the afternoon on a guided safari on the Chamabonda Trail (permits cover both trails). In the morning we saw elephant, giraffe, zebra, waterbuck, bushbuck, kudu, hippo, warthog and baboon. In the afternoon we saw elephant, eland, jackal, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, kudu, grysbok, baboon and sable. Friends then stayed overnight on the first hide platform on the Chamabonda trail and saw a pride of lion and a whole host of hyena. Not a bad effort for a single day even though the volume of game is significantly lower than both Hwange and Mana Pools.
Scenery – 4.5*
The Zambezi National park is incredibly scenic and is a park that has two very distinct areas:
The Zambezi River drive, the much longer of the two game drive trails, extends the length of the park’s northern border along the Zambezi River. The stunning river views, with its banks shaded by riverine and mopane forest (sometimes punctuated by the odd Baobab Tree) makes for some phenomenal photography opportunities. Many of these views can be enjoyed from various picnic spots that are dotted along the river at regular intervals.
South of the Kazangula Road is the Chamabonda Game Trail. Considering you’re still in the same national park, the Chamabonda route has a significantly different feel to the Zambezi drive and is scenically worlds apart. Once through an initial phase of Mopane forest the trail opens out on to a long dried out river bed known as a vlei, that look somewhat like a much smaller version of the plains you’d more commonly see in East Africa. These plains make for great game viewing as you’re able to see much further distances with the naked eye.
Accommodation – 4.5*
Given the number of visitors visiting Victoria Falls, and the park’s unusual proximity to two major tourist centers (Victoria Falls Town in Zimbabwe and Livingstone in Zambia), the Zambezi National Park is excellently served when it comes to accommodation.
Inside the park itself is a mixture of low-end government-run lodges and bush camps together with high-end private lodges and tented camps. In theory, this sounds like a good mix of options to suit all budgets. However, the government-run accommodation has seen very little maintenance and, in some cases, is essentially all but uninhabitable. One exception to this, and something worth considering, is a night in one of the two viewing platform hides in the Chamabonda Game Trail section of the park. These open-sided hides are protected by fencing but allow unhindered 360-degree views across the plains and pumped waterholes that draw
wildlife throughout the night. If you’re interested in booking one of the hides then make sure to check out the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority website which allows advance reservations. Alternatively, you can book the hides upon arrival at the park gate. Not many tourists seem to know about them, so at the moment they seem to be bookable at fairly short notice.
If you’re looking for something a little more luxurious inside the park then I would consider checking out Victoria Falls River Lodge, Matetsi River Lodge, or Imbabala Safari Lodge. Outside of the park, there is a hole raft of accommodation options available in Victoria Falls Town (a mere 5km from the main Gate to the park). The options in Victoria Falls Town also cover all price points. This also means that you’ll be perfectly placed to visit the falls themselves and have access to all of the restaurant and shopping options the town has to offer.
Access – 4*
The area is served by two international airports; Victoria Falls Airport on the Zimbabwe side, which will have you almost landing in the park alongside the elephants, and Livingstone International Airport (also known by its new, less catchy, name which is Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport) which is a short hop away across Victoria Falls Bridge in Zambia. It’s also worth noting that Chobe National Park in Botswana (served by Maun International Airport) is also only an hours’ drive away on the Kazangula Road and border post.
Once you’re in the area then the park can be explored in several ways. You can self-drive (although a 4WD is almost a necessity) or (and more advisable for most) you can book a safari in a game vehicle with a guide. If you want to see the park from the water, then book a river boat cruise or canoe safari along the Zambezi and you’ll likely spot hippo and elephant (the best time for a river boat cruise is as a sundowner). Walking safaris into the park can also be arranged, particularly for those keen to get a ground level experience. Finally, horse-back safaris will offer you the chance to track elephant and buffalo in relative silence – a unique experience to say the least!
To get a better idea of your options check out Wild Horizons and Shearwater as two of the many tour operators in the area – alternatively most hotels can arrange safaris. At this point you’re probably wondering why I assigned the park 4* instead of 5*, right? It’s true, in terms of access to the park and the number of options available to explore it, the Zambezi National Park really should get a 5* rating. However, the park has one big problem – a lack of high-quality roads, tracks, and trails within the park itself. As I mentioned earlier in this post, the park is restricted to two main trails, the Zambezi River Drive and the Chamabonda Game Trail. Although the Zambezi River Drive has some loops that take you slightly deeper into the park, there remains vast swathes of the park’s interior that are essentially unexplorable. In addition, both trails can become so tricky to drive after rain that the park is forced to close altogether. For these two reasons, I have knocked a full star off the park’s access rating.
Safari ‘X’ Factor – 3.5*
Whilst the wildlife in Zambezi national park may not be as prolific in number and diversity as the likes of “nearby” Hwange, it has the upper hand in several ways, most notably in terms of accommodation and access. In fact, one could argue that the park is one of, if not the, most accessible parks in Africa with 3 international airports within an hour’s drive of the main gate.
However, despite the park’s significant size, the in-park access roads and government-run accommodation options remain largely underdeveloped and lack proper maintenance. In my opinion this is a real missed opportunity that can prevent visitors from spending more time in the park and exploring deep into its interior. All said, if you’re staying in Victoria Falls or nearby Livingstone, Zambia then you should commit at least one day of your itinerary to visiting Zambezi National Park. The scenery and absence of large crowds make the park an enjoyable and relaxing experience mere minutes from the hustle and bustle of Victoria Falls Town!
More than Wildlife: If you want more info on Victoria Falls Town and other activities in the area then make sure you check out m the Zimbabwe Section of the Site.
When to Visit: Put simply, there are so many different things to factor in to the equation. The first of these is if you’re in the area solely to visit Zambezi National Park (which is unlikely). In the unlikely event that is your sole purpose then wildlife is always best viewed during the dry season which is from June until October. If, however, you also plan to visit Victoria Falls then you have some other considerations to take into account. For example, you can only visit Devil’s Pool between late August and early January and the Falls are at their roaring best in the wet season between November and March. My ‘official’ recommendation is visit in early September because I’m of the belief that Devil’s Pool makes the falls more of an experience and there’s still more than enough water coming from the falls to get you misty wet before you even see them. In addition, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be staying in Victoria Falls for any more than 5-6 days and will instead travel on elsewhere for safari (to Hwange or Mana Pools, for example). That being the case, you’ll want to be traveling during the dry season to maximize wildlife watching opportunities on safari.
Fees and Permits: Park permits can be purchased and paid for at the park’s main gate. For more information on the attest park fees check out the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority website. Just make sure that you arrive at the gate with at least some Zimbabwe Bond (the local currency) as at least a portion of the fees will be payable in that.