Classic big game, charismatic guides & characterful camps - there are a whole raft of reasons for including the Luangwa on a family safari.
Perhaps uniquely, being on safari can be equally rewarding to a toddler as an octogenarian - and if they happen to know each other offers an enormously bonding and memorable experience. What's more, Zambia excels in delivering authentic safaris. All ages can delight in the sights, but to make a family safari a success we reckon that there are 4 key elements to address – the game, the camps, the guide and how benign or otherwise the environment is:
This is perhaps the easy bit - for a family safari we recommend that you go somewhere where the star members of the cast are pretty accessible. Lion, leopard, giraffe, hippo and buffalo all occur in very good numbers in the South Luangwa National Park - and because it is wooded and the river meanders you have to look for the game, and the more you look the more you are likely to see – which makes it a very proactive activity.
There is a lot of choice out there and that choice is imperative. While all the camps may look generally alike (they are all about game-viewing right?) there is often a large, yet subtle, difference in who they are attracting. Pitching-up with an enthusiastic ten-year old with an an enormous appetite for life and accompanying energy, in a place where the focus (sorry) is on Zen-like-patience-photography will go down like a lead-balloon.
Fortunately, the Luangwa has some incredible family-friendly camps, where kids are not just welcomed but actively entertained. Most will have a swimming pool where everyone can cool-off and burn-up some energy plus a menu to suit all tastes and sizes. Another option is one of the Safari Houses which have been specifically designed with families in mind (although can work really well for a group of adults) with lots of places to hang-out, play games and have, relatively, solid walls – the only caveat here being that they are massively oversubscribed during the holidays and so forward planning is absolutely essential. The normal means of game-viewing in the Luangwa is in an open 4x4 jeep with raised seats for good visibility - and there is also the option to go out at night and look for some of the nocturnal beasts - walking safaris are restricted to 12 year olds and older.
Zambian guides have a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation for being amongst the best in the business - and by best we don’t just mean encyclopedic knowledge and a pair of razor-sharp eye; rather, probably more importantly, an ability to engage with their guests, keep it fun and work out what everybody wants to see and do - being reactive rather than a one-size-fits-all dry monotone. Luangwa guides will keep your safari safe and fun – exhibiting tolerance, patience and humour while directing proceedings with a quiet authority.
Yomping-up sand-dunes for hours on end in pursuit of a desert adapted specialist you’ve long lusted after may test the patience of your nearest and dearest - and so it is important to be cognizant of what the environment will be like – how hot and humid will it be? what are the bugs like? – are we are going to end up burnt and bitten?
The Luangwa in the early dry season (see when to visit ) is a surprisingly benign environment – pleasantly cool mornings and evenings (it never dips below 10˚C) with a midday maximum in the mid-high twenties makes it a pleasant place to be out and about in. As it is the austral winter it is the time when insect activity is at its least, while mosquitoes and tsetse flies do naturally occur in Luangwa (and most wild places in Zambia) it is likely that you’ll be more surprised by how little you are bugged by them, than how much. Sensible precautions are of course recommended (sleeping under the ubiquitous nets), covering up and taking prophylaxis.
When to visit?
The dry season in the Luangwa runs from the beginning of April until the end of October. While it is possible to visit the wild bits of Zambia in the rainy (correction, Emerald) season it is more of an esoteric choice and perhaps better suited to those in pursuit of our feathered friends.
It becomes progressively hotter and drier as the season goes on and the established wisdom is the later the better as the thirsty game gets more and more concentrated around the last remaining water sources. We do not entirely follow this logic as:
1/. you can see all the animals in a much more aesthetically pleasing (ie not parched) environment at any point in the dry season
2/. the late dry season temperatures are significant (maximum 40˚C+ and not dipping below 20˚C at night).
From a family with school or college aged kids the Easter holidays and all of the northern summer holidays work well.
Where to combine it with?
The Victoria Falls is a fun spot for families – with a load of high adrenalin activities on offer as well as the more sedate. The Lower Zambezi brings in boat based game-viewing and tiger-fish fishing (for any age) as well as canoeing for teenagers and older. It is also possible to go much further afield – such as Cape Town or Zanzibar Island if you are looking for something completely different.
A pair of binoculars apiece for everyone – they need not cost a fortune but will help enormously keeping everyone actively engaged – and consider having exclusive use of a jeep for your group.