Kafue - which is located in Zambia, is one of the world’s largest National Parks. It covers an area of around 8,600 square miles (22,400 km2), and is larger than a number of countries including eSwatini (formally Swaziland), Slovenia, the Gambia and Qatar. It is situated in the western part of Zambia, and is about a 3 hour drive from the capital of Lusaka.
Not only is Kafue impressive by its sheer size it has a fascinating diversity of habitats within its boundaries. There are dense forests, green and grassy savannah, mopane woodlands and the huge Busanga floodplains covering 290 square miles (750 sq km). All of which attract a wide variety of wildlife. There are also 3 major rivers within the park: the Kafue, Lunga and Lupufu all lead into the Itehzi Tehzi Dam which is situated in the south area of the park. This allows for both land and water safari activities to be conducted in this fascinating area, which increases the chance of sighting many different types of animal.
With such diverse ecology it comes as no surprise that Kafue has the highest recorded number of species of any park within Zambia. The ‘safari stalwarts’ of elephants, hippo, crocodile, lions, leopard, warthog are there in strong numbers. In addition Kafue has Africa’s highest concentration of wild-dogs, and is also arguably the best place in Zambia to see the majestic cheetah. For those looking for more specialised finds there are over 400 species of bird including barbets, lovebirds, cranes, pelicans and the ever colourful bee-eaters. It is also possible to see the largest selection of antelope anywhere in Africa, with species including the defassa waterbuck, hartebeest, roan, sitatunga, kudu, puku, impala and the very rare yellow-backed duiker and the red lechwe.
It therefore came as quite a shock to me that this park isn’t more popular as a key safari destination. When I speak to people about visiting Zambia most are interested in South Luangwa ‘for the leopards’, and Livingstone for Victoria Falls. In fact most haven’t even heard of Kafue. However, this is something I strongly believe will change in 2018 and beyond.
Kafue is an extremely accessible park during dry season (June-October). You can get easy road transfers from both Livingstone (3 hours to Dundunwezi Gate) and Lusaka (3 hours to Nalusanga Gate). The roads are predominantly tarred and in good condition, and transfers can usually be arranged through your accommodation provider or your tour operator. Due to the quality of the roads self-drive is also an option on these routes. There is also a good flight network in place across Zambia which means you can access Kafue from a variety of destinations across Zambia with both Pro-flight or Mahogony Air. The only downside at present is that unless it is an expensive charter flight you will need to go via Lusaka, which does add to the transfer times.
There are a limited number of lodges open outside of dry season. However, you should note that if you do go outside of dry season that game drives will likely be restricted during this period as large areas of the park are simply not accessible by vehicle. I speak from experience as in April 2018 our group (of professional tour operators and guides nonetheless) got stuck in the mud for nearly two hours, literally 20m off the tarmac road. We had to wait patiently until a local farmer could come and rescue us with his tractor! Needless to say there was a lot of tutting and eye-rolling……and a fair bit of laughter!
Places to stay
As with most national parks there are a wide variety of places to stay in Kafue that meet with all budgets and traveller styles. Whether you are looking to get right back to nature in a remote basic bush camp, take in the sights and sounds of Kafue from a more comfortable permanent tented camp, or want to splash out on a fully serviced luxury lodge then there is something to meet your needs.
If you are looking for a mid-range lodge then you are likely to pay around £250-£400 per person per night. This will in most cases include all meals and game activities such as safari drives and walks. When I visited in April 2018 I stayed at Mukambi Safari Lodge, which falls into this category. Mukambi is commonly referred to as ‘The Gateway to The Kafue National Park’, and is centrally located, right on the banks of the beautiful Kafue River. I absolutely loved my time at this lodge, and would certainly recommend it to visitors to the region. The lodge is in beautiful surrounds with the luxury tents looking straight out onto the river. My luxury tented room had a balcony with an outside bath facing the Kafue River. Taking a soak under the clear night sky, whilst listening to the sounds of hippo, baboons and lion truly made for an unforgettable experience. All activities are included at this lodge, although what you will be able to do will depend on the time of year you visit. I visited at the tail-end of wet season so only limited game drive routes were open, and there was no opportunity for a game walk as large areas of the park were still too wet. However, tiger fishing and a sunset river cruise were on offer for something a little different. Despite the limited routes available for our game drives we managed to see a pack of wild-dogs eating an impala, and two mating lions…grunts and all! Whilst back at the lodge, the whole atmosphere just encouraged relaxation. There is an infinity pool overlooking the river, large open-air lounge areas to chill-out, plus a library if you are looking to catch-up on some reading. There were also regular wildlife sightings as the lodge is completely unfenced. In terms of value for money I really believe that Mukambi met all of my wants and needs during my 3 night stay.
During my time in Kafue I also got to visit the beautiful Ila Safari Lodge, that has 10 state of the art luxury safari tents each perched on their own deck reaching out over the banks of the Kafue River. Ila Safari Lodge is a high-end lodge that prides itself on being committed to eco-friendly policies and practices, and they strive to operate in the most sustainable way. The lodge is 100% solar powered, although there are back-up generators in an emergency. They have created a community workshop to allow stunning artwork to be created from recycled materials, there is a community farm where almost all of the vegetables used at the lodge are sourced from and they support local conservation and community development projects. Perhaps the most exciting though is that Ila Lodge operate an eBoat on the Kafue, and eQuad-bikes on Likoma Island. They also have Zambia’s first electrical game drive vehicle for a much quieter (an environmentally friendly) game drive experience. This lodge truly offers a luxury safari experience, whilst committing to a sustainable future for locals, wildlife and the environment.
Why should I visit?
Even though Kafue is one of the largest National Parks in Africa it has often been overlooked as a safari destination. The result is that most of it is in pristine condition, and is one of the few places left that where it still feels old-school wild. The safari drives here feel remote and the amount of wildlife around is outstanding. This coupled with the passion of the lodge owners, and the quality of the guides makes for an excellent safari experience.
Kafue National Park offers a couple of options that will suit individuals who are looking for a various length of trip. If you only have a week then I would recommend a combination of a lodge along Kafue River followed by a stay in the Busanga Floodplains. If you don't want to spend all your time on safari then a couple of nights at Victoria Falls (Livingstone) followed by a safari stay in Kafue offers a wider range of experiences. If you have 10-14 days then I would recommend either a combination of Livingstone, Kafue, Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa or Livingstone, Kafue and then a week in Malawi! To be honest there are plenty of route options available, both in Zambia and neighbouring countries. The real question is simply what do you want to experience – because Zambia is waiting to respond.