Our African Safari in Zambia

Male Leopard in South Luangwa National Park.

Male leopard in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. We spent more than an hour one morning with him and his mate. We were the only people there. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

So, you want to go on safari in Africa. But where?

To say that the continent is vast is a gross understatement. Africa holds more than 20 percent of the Earth’s total land mass. Only Asia outstrips it in size, at 30 percent. In comparison, North America is third, with 16 percent, while Europe is sixth, with just under 7 percent of the world’s land.

Kenya, the Serengeti, the Masai Mara, Mount Kilamanjaro, and Victoria Falls rate as some best-known parts of the continent, but it also makes them some of the most heavily traveled.

I knew one thing.

I did NOT want to spend the money to go to Africa and feel like I was on some domestic game drive in the United States.

ten vehicles and tourists follow a lion in Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania.

Ngorongoro crater, Tanzania. A herd of cars and tourists follow a lion. This is NOT WHAT I WANTED! Photograph from Shutterstock.

Choosing Zambia and Robin Pope Safaris

I was fortunate to know a couple who have traveled many, many times to multiple parts of Africa. Bob and Andrea both recommended we look at Robin Pope Safaris in Zambia for our first trip. I’d subscribed to Robin Pope’s It’s Monday Newsletter several years ago, and have been regularly entertained with their photographs and stories.

Getting our business wasn’t a slam dunk for Robin Pope though — whenever I go someplace new, I do a LOT of research.

Yellow baboon mother and baby near a lagoon, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.

Yellow baboon mother and baby spend the late afternoon with their troop near a lagoon. Photograph, Ann Fisher

When my sister and I started discussing this safari trip we did homework on Abercrombie and Kent, Tauck, Smithsonian Journeys, National Geographic travel, and several African safari operators, one of which was Robin Pope. We read about Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Zambia.

In the end, we chose to book with Robin Pope based on the kind of experience we wanted to have: high end, very small and personal groups, and the kinds of animals we were likely to see — and — for what we found to be competitive price, based on the level of service and accommodations.

If you are thinking about a safari, I’d recommend the same process. Do some reading, watch documentaries of different parts of Africa, make a list of animals that are must-sees for you, choose several potential countries that match your desires, and then dig into the range of tours that are out there. Decide on your budget and trip length. See what fits with your budget and your priorities — and as we all know, this is a very individual thing. Several of our camp hosts also recommended reading the web forum Safari Talk as a much better place to read safari reviews than Trip Advisor.

If you’re looking for the best safari companies in Africa, it’s not unusual that Americans look for either American or at least European tour companies, just out of a sense of comfort. The reality, though, is that you’re going to find the best safaris through local operators — and that’s what the big companies are doing. They put together experiences with local companies, repackage them, and charge you a higher price.

This blog article is the second post of a five part series on our experience on safari in Zambia, and I shall do my best to give you a complete overview of our trip. The first part of the series was Preparing for an African Safari.

Zambia is a landlocked country in southern Africa. Once a colony of the United Kingdom known as Northern Rhodesia, Zambia gained its independence in 1964. Image: Harve Pino, 123RF Stock Photos.

Our Safari Itinerary

Robin Pope  has a list of standard safari packages that should please a wide range of plans. You’ll find thirty-five different options that give lots of combinations — time in the South Luangwa National Park, visits to Victoria Falls, combination safari-beach getaways, and special focuses like honeymoon or family-oriented safaris. They put together a custom itinerary for us. We decided we wanted to stay in the South Luangwa National Park for our entire trip — to focus completely on maximum time with the animals there.

Our itinerary:

The RPS camps each have an outstanding video that will give you a very accurate view of the feel of that camp. You’ll find it on the right on each camp page — see the red arrow.

Our first camp — Tena Tena

Our first home in Zambia was Tena Tena, the flagship camp of the Robin Pope company. Roughly translated, it means “temporary home.”

We arrived around 7:00 p.m. from the small airport in Mfuwe, and were greeted  by our camp hostess, Shannon, with warm cloths to clean off the dust from the road. We stopped at our tents before heading to the bar for a drink and orientation. Of course, it was completely dark. June is winter in Zambia, and the sun goes down around 5:20. We saw our tent-rooms by lamp-light and then one of the night watchmen walked us over to the bar.

Your home at Tena Tena. Photo courtesy of Robin Pope.

Your home at Tena Tena. Photo courtesy of Robin Pope.

Daily Schedule:

  • 5:30 a.m. Wake up knock at your tent flap 🙂
  • 5:45 a.m. Breakfast
  • 6:15 – 6:30 – Leave for morning game drive
  • 8:30 – 8:45 – Stop for morning tea
  • 10:30 Arrive back in camp
  • 11:30 a.m. Lunch
  • Siesta
  • 3:30 p.m. Tea
  • 4:00 p.m. Afternoon game drive
  • Stop at a beautiful location, enjoy sundowners
  • Night game drive
  • Arrive back in camp in time to freshen up, normally 7:15 – 7:30, and go for a drink
  • 8:00 p.m. Dinner

Tena is on the banks of the Luangwa River in an area with multiple hippo pods — and man, do they talk!

When we first arrived, there were so many LOUD noises. We were exhausted from two days of traveling, it was dark, and we were constantly thinking, “what is that?!” and “What was THAT??” The night was full of hippo calls, and then came the lion later, not long after we’d gone to bed.

Hippo Vocalization – hit play!

Frog in the Tena Tena bathroom

This little frog shared our bathroom at Tena Tena. Photograph, Ann Fisher

After one day, we were used to it, and the sounds became a normal part of life, no longer alarming.

We loved our tented homes at Tena Tena. The bathrooms are outdoors, surrounded by a wall that varies in height, and covered by a draped mesh top. There is a lot of space between the tents, and the brush around you creates plenty of privacy. You will have a few bathroom visitors: tree frogs and a preying mantis came to see us.

There are only six tents, which means that the camp has a maximum capacity of 12 people. Small, private, and personal are all good words to describe Tena Tena.

Bathrooms at Robin Pope Safaris Tena Tena camp

My sister, god bless her, captured the bathroom at Tena — wonderful experience, private, yet outdoors. You do need to be okay with a few visitors! You’re looking out of the tent at the sink area, then you can see the sink and the edge of the tent, and then the toilet. The shower is out there, of course, as well. Photographs, Carolyn Fisher.

The design work at Tena is stunning. Natural wood, bark intact, edges the undulating plaster walls. Fabric for bed covers and cushions is cotton or wool in natural colors of dusty greens, greys, creams accented with bright splashes of burnt orange or blue for contrast.

Each afternoon, guests gathered at the bar for tea before heading out on the afternoon game drive. Don’t worry coffee drinkers — which would be me! There’s plenty of good French press coffee as well! As we visited with other guests, our guides would prepare the kit for the game drive: the all important question, “What would you like for sundowners?”

My sister Carolyn and daughter Cat enjoy a cup of coffee before heading out on the afternoon game drive. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Stopping for mid-morning tea (or coffee) break. The Toyota Landcruisers used for the game drives were tough but comfortable.

If you have four people in your group, you will always have your own vehicle. There were three of us in our party, and over twelve days, we had other people join us on just four game drives. Almost all of the RPS game drive vehicles are roofless Toyota Landcruisers. The seats are comfortable, and always covered with a clean fleece blanket. Roofless vehicles — this is VERY important. No photographer wants to have a vehicle roof screwing up shots.

Animals that we saw on the Tena game drives: Many, many impala, puku, elephants, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, hyena, several types of mongoose, African water buffalo. So many different kinds of birds, I can’t list them all! Big cats: Lion — two evening sightings, and leopard — both by day and at night — this was in just two days of drives at Tena Tena. Over the whole twelve day trip, we saw lions and leopards many times over!

And the biggest thing of all, the most important thing to me, is what we didn’t see. We didn’t see many people, at all. It started in Africa for us: we have fallen in love with safaris — hopelessly, amazingly.

I’ll end here with a video overview of our time at Tena Tena. It was magical!

Nsefu pride of lions on a night game drive from the camp at Tena Tena. South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

On one of our night game drives at Tena Tena, we ran across six members of the Nsefu pride of lions. Amazing to be so close to these mighty cats! Photograph, Ann Fisher

This is the first in a multi-article series on our safari in Zambia. Find the second part, Walking Safari: Day One, here:


38 Comments on Our African Safari in Zambia

  1. What a wonderful article and some fantastic photos. The first one of the Leopard is NatGeo worthy. 😉 I am really hoping to go to Africa next year. My plan is to spend at least 6 weeks visiting a few different countries.


    • Mike, thank you. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you and an African trip. I’ve fallen in love with safari life, and can hardly wait to return.


  2. mycountryepoque // August 11, 2017 at 11:20 am // Reply

    Ann I love the research you made. Thank you for that. And since I am scared of wild animals, I still want to go out there one day and spend time seeing them for myself. Thank your for the good read

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my goodness – this quite literally looks like my dream! I’ve been waiting to go on a safari so I can do it right – i love all the research you put into it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow this safari looks awesome! Your research certainly paid off. The tents and grounds look beautiful and well designed, and sounds like you were able to see so much of the amazing wildlife there. Would love to do this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Every one of the Robin Pope camps we stayed in was stunning — we really fell in love with the beauty of the tents and chalets. Attention to detail and perfect service are the hallmarks of this company. There really isn’t anything I would change.


  5. What a wicked experience! Tena Tena looks like a gorgeous tent. What time did you sleep if you woke at 5? We’ve been looking into safaris for a few years now and have finally decided on Tanzania for next February. Can’t wait to see what’s in store!


    • Ivy, I’m so happy for you that you’re heading to Tazania — VERY exciting. In terms of bedtime, no one stayed up very late. Dinner was at 8:00 each evening, and some people would hang out and have an after-dinner drink. Typically, everyone was back in their tents by 10:00 p.m. — for us, it was often a little before 10:00, although I’d often stay up and read or write for awhile.


  6. I just played the clip of the hippo noises, and my husband was like, what IS that? Haha. So funny. Zambia hadn’t really been on my radar before, but I can see that it looks like a beautiful place. Love your hardcore research skills! If you’re traveling for that much money and for so long, it definitely pays off to research it all until your fingers go numb. Nice photographs and writing (yet again)!


  7. I’d love to experience authentic African safari tour like this one! Hopefully one day soon!


  8. Going to Africa is not cheap so I would do exactly the same – do a lot of research and make sure I choose the best operators to engage with, based on quality of service and value. I think you made the right choice with Robin Pope – your accommodation is luxurious and comfortable. I see that you had long days but the activities were nicely spaced out throughout the day!


    • The days did start SUPER early, and I have to admit, I got tired of getting up a little after 5:00 a.m.. BUT — the morning light was definitely worth the effort.


  9. jenruizwriter // July 29, 2017 at 9:58 pm // Reply

    I didn’t think I’d ever meet anyone who researched more before a trip than me, but I stand corrected! I like to travel the local, less tourist-filled route too. So lucky you saw a herd of lions! What an unforgettable trip!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The time we invested doing our homework certainly paid off. One interesting note: all of the other guests were SO surprised that we’d found Robin Pope and headed to South Luangwa on our very FIRST safari. It seems most people wind up with RPS only after spending time in Africa and hearing about it from other folks — very word of mouth.


  10. You made such a good point. I wouldn’t want to feel like I was on a domestic game drive, either, so I really appreciate learning about this outfit.


    • The only problem is now I want to return to Africa, and I’m not sure where to choose next — since I want to avoid the overcrowded parks and countries. I think it’s going to take some work to find another location and company that will live up to this first experience.


  11. I love how much research you put into every adventure. You have a knack for finding the wheat in a mountain of chaff. It would have been so hard for us to spend the entire vacation at one location. I can see why you did. You get to spend a lot more time in nature and less time wasted on travel days. I seems like a logical choice but it would be so hard not to run around and try to see it “all”.


    • I think the temptation is ALWAYS to try to cram as much as we possibly can on trips — particularly trips abroad, which are expensive — we want to get out “money’s worth.” I certainly have that problem. I am really happy that we resisted the urge on this trip. I was really pleased with the itinerary.


  12. This is absolutely 100% how I want to do a safari – thanks for doing all the research for me! The tents look amazing, glamping is my kind of camping and the night drives are really interesting, I do see a lot of photos from night events, you got great shots!


  13. OMG THIS LOOKS AMAZING. This is exactly the type of trip I would want to do also. The kind you described at the beginning looks horrible how they all follow the lions. Makes me sad. Your experience sounded great. Thanks for the tips!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it makes me sad, too. After dreaming about places like Kenya all of my life, the idea of a traffic-jam of safari vehicles makes me want to cry.


  14. mycountryepoque // July 21, 2017 at 9:48 pm // Reply

    Very interesting and beautiful adventure. Zambia is a beautiful country, one of the best in the African Continent. The big cats are beautiful, but I would be scared of them. They look very dangerous, don’t they! Thank you Ann for posting. Have a wonderful Sunday.


    • They are dangerous, but they see the vehicle as a very big single entity that they have no desire to tangle with, so it’s not as risky as one might think.


      • mycountryepoque // July 22, 2017 at 11:10 am //

        Hi Ann, great to read from you. I am glad the animals did not touch you since they are not interested with the vehicles. Thank you for being here. I am hoping your Sunday will be great!


      • Great to hear from you also, and it’s still Saturday here — which is going well :-). It did take some getting used to, especially when the leopards walked right passed the vehicle several times. And the lions! They were so close.


  15. Great photos as always; engaging story; and the video was off the chain! I can’t believe that was a newbie effort! I also liked how video and audio were integrated in this piece. Well done! That was a trip to envy!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Loved the entire post, the hippo sounds, and the video was simply splendid. I can’t believe that was a newbie effort. Great photos as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks — I have a LOT more great photos than video, Alison. Like anything, it just takes time to get good at it. But — there is more video to come with the next posts :-).


  17. For someone new to video you did a heck of a great job!


  18. Oh my gosh! What a stunning trip! Thank you so much for sharing it with us! I have always wanted to go on a safari. Now I know when it’s time for me to plan, I will be back to your post!


    • I wish I’d gone to Africa sooner — and now that I’ve been, my comfort at trying different trips at different levels has increased. I’m looking at a wide range of possibilities for my next trip, but probably two years down the road.


  19. Very nice description and pictures, sounds like you loved it!! And great video, especially seeing the big cats from 2:13 until the end.


    • Thank you, Paul — since I’m new to video, it’s a challenge editing :-). And we did love it — I wish we were still there!


4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Walking Safari: Day One – Ann Cavitt Fisher
  2. Walking Safari: Day One – Ann Cavitt Fisher
  3. Our African Safari in Zambia — Ann Cavitt Fisher – Harryson Chitapu
  4. 2017 NATJA Gold and Bronze Award Winning Articles on AnnCavittFisher.com – Ann Cavitt Fisher

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