Where the hippos sing. A camping safari along the Zambezi River.

"There is a language going on out there – the language of the wild. Roars, snorts, trumpets, squeals, whoops, and chirps all have meaning derived over eons of expression. We have yet to become fluent in the language – and music – of the wild." Boyd Norton
Our tent on a remote island

If there is one sound that I immediately associate with the untamed wilderness of Zambia and Zimbabwe, it is the unmistakable grunt of the hippos that live along the riverbanks. For two weeks, the chorus of hippos was our constant companion as we travelled along the Luangwa and Zambezi rivers. At dawn, their roars and snorts echoed over the water; at dusk, their deep calls lulled us to sleep.

But it wasn’t just the hippos who warmly welcomed us into their home. As we travelled through Zambia and Zimbabwe, we got up close and personal with a bunch of wild residents: mischievous monkeys inviting themselves to dinner, an elephant taking a nap next to our car, lions roaring in the dark as we sat around the fire. What a wild and wonderful journey!


If you are planning a trip to Zambia or Zimbabwe, the best time to visit is during the dry season, which lasts from May to October. We chose to visit in May as the parks tend to be less crowded than in the high season and prices are usually a little lower. However, if you are mainly coming for the wildlife, it may be better to visit a little later in the year. The drier and hotter it gets, the more wildlife congregates along the rivers that flow through the parks. And that makes for excellent wildlife viewing!

Whenever I plan a trip to Africa, there’s no question that I’m going to camp. The sense of freedom and adventure that camping offers is unparalleled, at least in my opinion. During our trip we spent some unforgettable nights at the most remote wilderness campsites. No water, no electricity, just nature and ourselves. In order to be completely self-sufficient, we rented a 4×4 with a roof tent that had enough space to store food and water for a few days. As there are only a few companies in Zambia that hire this type of vehicle, it is advisable to book as early as possible (e.g. Hemingways). We were a bit late and therefore had to rent a car in Lilongwe, Malawi.

Zambia has a wealth of sights to see and visit, so choosing a route was not easy. Given the considerable travel time between destinations, we decided to focus on the eastern region of the country and add Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe to our itinerary. But what looked like a solid plan in theory turned out to be a little more challenging in reality. And that was because of the border crossings. While I had no problems crossing borders with a rental car in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, entering Zambia and Zimbabwe was a different story.

Border crossings

To enter Zimbabwe or Zambia with a rental car, you must first carry the complete vehicle documents, including cross-border permits, Interpol clearance, registration papers, rental agreement, affidavit and so on. When we collected the car from our rental company, we were handed a large folder with many different documents. To this day I have no idea what all these papers were, but they turned out to be very important. So make sure you ask your car hire company to give you all the documents you need to cross the border.

Secondly, once you reach the border, you’ll have to buy a number of things: a temporary import permit, third party insurance, a road toll, a carbon tax and a community levy. The cost of all these things adds up to about $100. If you are entering Zimbabwe in a rented vehicle, you will also need to obtain a CVG (Commercial Vehicle Guarantee), which is issued by a clearing agent at the border. Unfortunately there is no fixed price for the CVG, it is set by the agents themselves. This forced us to negotiate the price with several agents, all of whom seemed to be colluding. As a result, we ended up paying $50 for the CVG, which we later found out should have been no more than $10.

Once you have paid the above fees and presented all the relevant vehicle documents, you are issued with a gate permit and can cross the border. Unfortunately, the process is not very intuitive and we spent a lot of time going from room to room trying to figure out what else needed to be stamped and paid for. In total it took us about 3-4 hours to cross each border! Looking back, I would avoid the border crossings next time, especially if I am only travelling for a few weeks.

South Luangwa National Park

Route: from Lilongwe to South Luangwa National Park
Distance: ca. 300 km
Travel time: ca. 5-6 hours

As our only chance of renting a 4×4 with a roof tent for the dates we wanted was through Land and Lake Safaris in Lilongwe, our journey through Zambia began in Malawi. After collecting our car and still a little groggy from the long flight, we spent the first night at Barefoot Lodge before crossing into Zambia the next day.

Early in the morning we packed our bags and headed for the border, passing through lush green countryside and small villages with fruit stalls lining the roads. We reached the border in just an hour, but the brief glimpse we had left me wishing I had more time to explore Malawi. Next time, I hope.

Thanks to our car hire company, who had arranged for someone at the border to help us with the paperwork, the first border crossing into Zambia was hassle-free. After that, all we had to do was stock up on food, get some cash and buy a SIM card, all of which we did in the town of Chipata. With everything we needed for the coming days, we said goodbye to the bustling city and headed out into the wilderness. The excitement of finally seeing the first animals was almost unbearable!

After a long drive, we finally arrived at Flatdogs Camp – our accommodation for the first two nights – just a stone’s throw from the entrance gate to the South Luangwa National Park. And we got there just in time. The afternoon game drive was about to start and within minutes we swapped our car for the game viewing vehicle. Safari mode: on!

South Luangwa National Park is a beautiful wildlife reserve known for its diverse and abundant wildlife including elephant, lion, hippo and leopard. Its landscape is a mix of riverine habitats, woodlands and floodplains. The Luangwa River, a key feature of the park, meanders through the landscape, providing a lifeline for wildlife and a lush environment along its banks.

If you want to explore the park on your own, you need to buy a permit at the entrance gate. When we visited in May 2023, the fee was $30 per person per day plus $15 per day for the car. Most of the roads through the park are fairly easy to drive (assuming you have a 4×4), so it is not a problem to explore the area on your own. However, as a tourist driving by yourself, you will need to leave the park before dark. To get a chance to see some of the nocturnal animals as well, we took the opportunity to book an afternoon game drive with the lodge. And our decision paid off! On one of the drives we were lucky enough to see a leopard on its nightly patrol, walking in front of the game vehicle for several minutes.

After two nights at Flatdogs Camp, where we enjoyed all the comforts of lodge life, it was time to move on and start our camping adventure. Unfortunately, it is not possible to camp within the park boundaries as most accommodation within the reserve consists of rather expensive lodges. The more affordable options and campsites are outside the park boundaries. This makes little difference to the wildlife you can see as neither the park nor the campsites are fenced in. However, depending on the location of the camp, it may take a little longer to reach the park gate.

There are some nice campsites in the area around the national park. We decided to stay at Wildlife Camp, a campsite beautifully situated on the banks of the Luangwa River and roughly 20-30 minutes from the entrance gate.

We arrived at Wildlife Camp in the afternoon and spent the rest of the day settling in. What I liked most about the camp was that we had a stunning view over the Luangwa River. As we pitched our tent and cooked dinner, we could watch the hippos bathing in the shallow water.

However, as we soon realised, we were not the only ones wachting. A group of vervet monkeys that had gathered around the camp took a keen interest in us. Or rather, in the colourful bundles (= our food) we were carrying from our car to the cooking area. And we completely underestimated their resourcefulness. In an inattentive second, they took advantage of the moment and stole a whole packet of pasta right from under our noses. Cheeky little bastards!

But as it turned out, their victory was very short-lived. It was only a matter of seconds before a troop of baboons came running after the excited vervets, snatched the pasta out of their hands and quickly made off with the loot. Easy come, easy go.

After a meagre dinner, we enjoyed the rest of the evening as the sun set dramatically over the Luangwa River. No more words needed.

Lower ZambeZi National Park

Route: from South Luangwa National Park to Lower Zambezi National Park
Distance: 780 ca. km
Travel time: ca. 14-16 hours

After an amazing three days exploring South Luangwa, it was time to pack our bags and head to our next destination: the Lower Zambezi National Park in the southern part of the country. To get there, we had a very long drive ahead of us. With the only viable option to reach the Lower Zambezi National Park being the Great East Road via Lusaka and Chirundu, the total distance of our journey easily added up to 780 km. While this may not sound too challenging if you’re used to European roads, driving this distance in Africa is a different story. Potholes, trucks, people and animals on the road are the norm, so give yourself plenty of time and avoid driving in the dark. As it took us almost 2 days to cover the distance, we decided to split the drive and spend a night at Bridge Camp near Luangwa. A simple camp, but perfectly adequate for one night.

We arrived in Chirundu in the afternoon of the second day of our journey. A noisy and busy border town where we only stopped briefly to refuel and buy some food. From here, we had to continue on a dirt road that led through several small villages into the park. The further we travelled along the road, the more beautiful and remote the landscape became. And it didn’t take long for me to completely fall in love with the breathtaking scenery that opened up in front of us.

The landscape of the Lower Zambezi National Park is dominated by the impressive Zambezi Escarpment, which rises dramatically from the grassy plains. Giant baobab trees dot the area, and the park’s reddish soil provides a stunning contrast to the lush green acacia trees found throughout the park. The most striking feature, however, is the majestic Zambezi River, which meanders through the landscape and serves as a vital water source for the many elephants and other wildlife that roam the area.

Similar to the South Luangwa National Park, there are no campsites within the park boundaries. Therefore, the only option for overnight accommodation in the park is to book a stay at one of the more expensive lodges. As this was not an option for us, we decided to stay at Mvuu Lodge, a nice lodge and campsite located at the banks of the Zambezi a few kilometres from the entrance gate.

We got up early the next day to arrive at the park gate in the cooler morning hours. The drive from our campsite to the park took about an hour and unexpectedly turned out to be an adventure in itself. We finally saw the first elephants of our Zambia trip and, somewhat unintentionally, found ourselves very close to one of them. As we rounded a corner, a large male elephant in musth* suddenly blocked the road. A bit of a nerve-wracking situation as elephants in musth can sometimes be aggressive. We immediately slammed on the brakes, reversed, and quickly moved the car off the road to make sure we didn’t block the animal’s path. Fortunately, the bull seemed to be in a calm mood. After a quick inspection, he walked past our car and soon disappeared into the bush.

*Musth is a period of heightened reproductive activity in male elephants. During this time male elephants experience increased levels of testosterone, which can lead to changes in their behaviour.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the many little roads that run through the park. Thanks to one of the rangers at the entrance gate, we found a lovely spot right next to the Zambesi River where we stopped for a coffee break. There is no better way to enjoy a sip of coffee with the beautiful Zambezi flowing at your feet and some hippos bathing in it.

As soon as the heat of the day became too much, we headed back to camp. As the drive to the park and back took a total of 2 hours, we booked an afternoon game drive in the nearby Game Management Area instead of going back into the reserve. It was a beautiful drive through a lush green landscape that made me wish we had more time in this incredibly beautiful area. I will definitely be back!

canoeing on the Zambezi river

Ever since I saw a documentary about the Zambezi, canoeing on this river had been at the top of my wish list. And it was finally going to happen.

After two nights in the Lower Zambezi National Park, it was time to explore the area from the water. For two and a half days, we would paddle down the Zambezi, carrying only the bare essentials to spend the nights on remote islands.

Full of anticipation for the adventure ahead, we made our way back to Chirundu, where our canoe tour with Riverhorse Safari was about to begin.

Our expedition group consisted of 7 people in total, 5 participants from different countries and 2 experienced guides. After loading our luggage and camping equipment into the canoes, we were given a safety briefing. As we would be paddling the canoes ourselves, it was important to understand not only how to navigate the boats, but also how to deal with the many hippos and crocodiles that live in the water and along the banks.

Hippos, especially the males, are very territorial creatures so it was important to always give them plenty of space. However, it is not always easy to spot a hippo in the rippling water. More than once we got a little too close, at least for my taste. The crocodiles, on the other hand, were less of a problem, as long as we didn’t capsize the boat or place any part of our bodies in the water. Two things I was keen to avoid, especially considering that the crocodiles in the area can easily reach 4 meters in length…

Why did we do that again? 😉

The answer was easy to find: once we had paddled a few kilometres, we were surrounded by breathtaking scenery and solitude! We passed elephants grazing on the banks and crocodiles basking in the sun, all with the majestic Zambezi Escarpment in the distance. I particularly enjoyed the small river channels lined with reeds and sandy banks. The water was incredibly calm, with only the sounds of birds and our paddles breaking the silence.

Unfortunately, not all of our journey took us through these narrow channels. Most of the time we paddled on the main river where the wind was our constant companion. Dealing with the wind blowing in our direction was a real challenge and there were moments when I just wanted to be back on solid ground. But the beautiful scenery and the chance to see wildlife up close more than made up for it.

Luckily we had plenty of breaks in between where we could just pull the boat ashore and explore the surroundings. During these breaks we came across elephants on foot several times, which was a fantastic experience!

But my favourite parts of the trip were the nights spent on remote islands in the middle of nowhere. In the late afternoon we would pull the canoes ashore to set up our tents. Then we would cook dinner over an open fire and enjoy it under the magnificent night sky. In the morning we would wake up while it was still dark outside and enjoy our first coffee as the sun slowly rose over the Zambezi. It truly doesn’t get any better than that!

Mana pools national park

Route: from Chirundu to Mana Pools National Park
Distance: ca. 110 km
Travel time: ca. 3-4 hours (excluding border crossing)

After completing our canoe trip, we spent another night at the beautiful Woods Camp before heading into Zimbabwe the following day.

We were a little nervous about crossing the border into Zimbabwe as it was the first time we had to do so without the help of our car hire company. As soon as we reached the border and got out of the car, we were surrounded by a bunch of agents who eagerly offered to help us with the paperwork. We politely declined, walked up to the immigration building and found ourselves in what can only be described as chaos, at least from a European perspective. 🙂 I won’t go into the details again, but due to unforeseen circumstances (such as having to negotiate and buy a CVG), it took us almost four hours to cross the border. When we finally set off for the national park, we were a little worried that we wouldn’t get there before dark. While driving at night in Africa is never a good idea, arriving in the dark was particularly bad for the campsite we were heading to: a wild campsite in Mana Pools National Park, famous for its resident prides of lions.

It took us about an hour to get from the border to the park gate. In order to enter the park, however, we first had to drive 20 minutes further south to a Zimparks office in Marongora. Here we had to show our booking confirmation for the campsites to get the permit to enter the park. Once inside, it took us another hour on a rough gravel road to reach our first campsite, Chitake Springs.

On arrival we wasted no time in pitching our tent, lighting a fire and preparing dinner. All the while we kept a close eye on the surrounding bush, knowing that lion sightings were not uncommon at this particular campsite. And it wasn’t long before our first unexpected guests arrived…

To our relief, it was a group of elephants and not lions that approached us in the dry riverbed. They were busy digging for water in the deep sand as we sat just a few metres away, quietly enjoying this unique experience. One by one more elephants joined the scene and as darkness fell the only sound we could hear was their slurping, filling the night.

Almost the only sound, that is. Not long after sunset we heard the first lions roaring in the distance. If you’ve ever had the chance to hear the roar of a wild lion, you’ll understand the feeling it evokes. It’s a primal and awe-inspiring sound that creates a chill of fear and fascination for these magnificent animals. At one point, when a total of three lions joined the symphony, our fear overcame our fascination and we quickly retreated to the safety of our tent. 😉 What an exhilarating and unforgettable experience!

After a good night’s sleep with the sounds of elephants, lions and hyenas close by, we woke up excited to explore Mana Pools National Park. But first it was time for a hearty bush breakfast.

It took us about an hour to drive from Chitake Springs to Nyamepi Camp, our next campsite along the Zambesi River. Nyamepi Camp is not only the official campsite of Mana Pools National Park, but also the place where you have to officially register your stay.

As it was lunchtime and scorching hot, there was no point in exploring the park yet. So we used the time to set up camp and prepare dinner for when we returned from our game drive later that afternoon. And just as we were putting our potatoes on the gas stove, we had our first unexpected visitor…

A few metres away, a large bull elephant was busy feeding on the green leaves of the trees surrounding the camp. He was very relaxed and didn’t seem to mind our presence, so we continued to prepare our dinner. At one point, however, he suddenly stopped eating and started walking directly towards us and our open car. We immediately got up from our chairs, a little intimidated by his incredible size, and positioned ourselves behind our car. The closer he got, the more worried I became about our open boot and all the food we had stored inside. From his perspective, it must have looked like a set dinner table. All he had to do was reach out and grab whatever suited his appetite.

Fortunately, he had no intention of stealing our food, but was far more interested in the trees next to our car. He casually circled our vehicle as we moved to the opposite side, ensuring that the car acted as a friendly barrier between us and our newfound friend.

After happily feasting on the trees for a while, he decided it was time for his afternoon nap. He rested his head against the trunk of a nearby tree, closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. By this time we felt safe enough to leave our hiding place behind the car and save what was left of our potatoes (not much, sadly).

We spent the next half hour peeling our mushy potatoes while sitting next to a dozing elephant. They were the best potatoes I have ever had! 😉

In the afternoon we went on our first game drive in Mana Pools National Park. And I immediately fell in love with this magical landscape. The name ‘Mana’ means ‘four’ in Shona, the local language, and is derived from the four shallow pools that form during the dry season. The Zambezi River is a major source of water for the abundant wildlife and during the dry winter months many animals congregate along its banks. One of the most striking features of the park are the numerous winterthorn trees, which give the landscape an almost fairytale appearance. The pods of the trees are sought after by many animals and if you are lucky you might see an elephant standing on two legs reaching for the delicious treats.

Exploring the park on your own is not a problem and we had a great time driving around in search for wildlife. It’s important to note that night drives are prohibited in the park, so it’s advisable to return to your campsite or lodge before dark. This can be a bit of a challenge, though, as the park takes on a truly magical atmosphere as soon as the sun begins to set. You’ll find it very hard to tear yourself away from it. 🙂

After two nights at Nyamepi Camp with all its amenities, it was time for another exclusive campsite: Mucheni Camp. Similar to Chitake Springs, the long drop toilet that greeted us on arrival was the only sign that we were actually on an official campsite. Otherwise we had the place to ourselves with nothing but the bush around us. We were camping right next to the Zambezi River and our closest neighbours were a bunch of hippos. I still can’t believe how lucky we were to have this beautiful part of the world to ourselves.

Despite spending five nights in Mana Pools National Park, the time went by far too quickly. I could have easily stayed for weeks without feeling bored. Mana Pools was definitely a highlight of my trip and I know I will be back for more.

Unfortunately, all that remained was to drive back to Lusaka, drop off our car and catch our flight home. This last leg wasn’t without its hiccups though. We got stuck at the Zambian border for another four hours and, to add to the adventure, someone stole our car’s side mirror as we navigated the busy streets of Lusaka.

But that’s the thing about adventure – it’s rarely a smooth ride. At no time would I have traded the simplicity of my tent’s thin mattress for a cosy bed, a meagre pasta meal for a fancy five-star dinner, or those nights by the fire with the distant calls of the hippos for anything else along the way.

Goodbye for now, Africa! You will be missed. ♥️

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