Southern Africa: Great national parks tour
Southern Africa is home to numerous tourist destinations on many travelers’ bucket lists.
Southern Africa is home to numerous tourist destinations on many travelers’ bucket lists. With such a varied terrain, travelers can explore majestic mountains, verdant valleys, and everything in between, witnessing fauna and flora found nowhere else in the world. It is no wonder then that this region has scores of national parks where visitors can engage in a multitude of activities from going on a photo safari to gliding down a zip line over a canopy of trees, to white-water rafting and watching gorillas in the jungle, to name just a few.
Any trip to Africa is well worth an itinerary that includes more than one country destination, and today we are going to focus on Zambia, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola. All three countries share borders, and all three offer national park adventures to enjoy and remember.
South Luangwa National Park
Safari experts have dubbed South Luangwa National Park as one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world, and not without reason. The concentrations of game around the Luangwa River and its lagoons are among the highest found anywhere in Africa, and the park is famed for its seclusion and natural beauty. The now famous “walking safari” originated here in the early 1950s, and is still one of the finest ways to experience this pristine wilderness first-hand. Night and morning drives are also fascinating.
Lower Zambezi National Park
The beauty of this park lies in its state of absolute wilderness. The park is situated opposite the Mana Pools Reserve in Zimbabwe, which means that the entire area on both sides of the river is a massive wildlife sanctuary. Although the park covers an area of 4,092 square kilometers, most of the game is concentrated along the valley floor. Canoeing trips are offered by the lodges, and river guides will take visitors you down remote channels between the islands where they will have every opportunity for exciting, up-close encounters with game, especially the hippos and elephants.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park is a 7,800 square kilometers and a World Heritage site that lies on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, also referred to simply as Congo. It is the oldest, most beautiful, and most diverse national park on the African continent and boasts savannas, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys, forests, active volcanoes, and the ice fields of the Rwenzori Mountains.
The park provides a home to numerous species of wildlife, including 200 of the world’s critically-endangered mountain gorillas and a small population of eastern lowland gorillas.
For years, the political situation in Congo prevented tourists from visiting Virunga. Now that the Democratic Republic of Congo is ruled by an elected government and is at peace with her neighbors, the park has been re-opened to tourists and the world is re-discovering one of its most treasured places.
With so much diversity in one park, Virunga offers visitors opportunities that can be found in few other places. The three most popular attractions include visiting mountain gorillas in their natural habitat, climbing an active volcano, and climbing the spectacular snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains. As the park continues on the path of stability, more options will become available.
Kahuzi-Biega National Park
A vast area of primary tropical forest dominated by two spectacular extinct volcanoes, Kahuzi and Biega, this park has a diverse and abundant fauna. One of the last groups of eastern lowland (graueri) gorillas (consisting of only some 250 individuals) lives at between 2,100 and 2,400 meters above sea-level.
Straddling the Albertine Rift and the Congo Basin, Kahuzi-Biega National Park is an exceptional habitat for the protection of the rainforest and the eastern lowland gorillas, Gorilla berengei graueri. Extending over 600,000 hectares, dense lowland rainforests as well as Afro-montane forests exist, with bamboo forests and some small areas of sub-alpine prairies and heather on Mounts Kahuzi (3,308 meters) and Biega (2,790 meters).
The park contains flora and fauna of exceptional diversity, making it one of the most important sites in the Rift Albertine Valley, and it is also one of the ecologically-richest regions of Africa and worldwide. In particular, the most important world population of eastern lowland gorillas (or de Grauer), sub-species endemic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and listed under the endangered category on the IUCN Red Data Book, uses the mosaic of habitats found on the property.
Garamba National Park
Garamba National Park, located in the Orientale Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa, was established in 1938. One of Africa’s oldest national parks, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.
Garamba is (or at least was) the home to the world’s last known wild population of Northern White Rhinoceros. Due to poaching of the rhinos within the park, it was added to the list of World Heritage in Danger in 1996. The park is also well known for its African elephant domestication program started in the 1960s, which managed to train tourist-rideable animals from the naturally wild beasts.
Salonga National Park
Salonga National Park is a national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo located in the Congo River basin. It is Africa’s largest tropical rainforest reserve covering about 36,000 square kilometers. Animals in the park include bonobos, Salonga monkeys, Tshuapa red colobus, Congo Peafowl, forest elephants, and African slender-snouted crocodiles. It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. Due to the civil war in the eastern half of the country, it was added to the list of World Heritage in Danger in 1999.
Most of the park is accessible only via river. The southern region inhabited by the Iyaelima people is accessible via the Lokoro, which flows through the center, the Lokolo in the northern part, and Lula in the south. This region has been the location for studies of Bonobos in the wild. There are much higher populations of bonobos near the Iyaelima settlements than elsewhere in the park, apparently because the Iyaelima are playing a strong role in conservation.
The Kissama National Park
This vast park lies 70 kilometers south of Luanda and covers 12,000 square kilometers. The park’s western border is formed by 120 kilometers of breathtakingly beautiful coastline, and on the north and south it is defined by the Cuanza and Longa rivers. Established in 1938, Kissama was initially home to a large variety of species, but their numbers were almost obliterated during the Civil War. In 2001, however, the Kissama Foundation initiated Operation Noah’s Ark to transport large numbers of animals to Kissama from neighboring countries. One of the largest animal transplants in history, this has almost completely restored the park.
Iona National Park
Sprawled over 15,150 square kilometers, this is the largest national park in the country. Bordered to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, it forms part of a continuous block of 1,200 kilometers of protected land together with Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and the Namib Naukluft National Park. There is a variety of desert and semi-desert ecosystems in the Iona National Park, including mobile dunes along the coast, desert grasslands, open woodland, and savannah. Some of the remote desert landscape is a photographer’s dream.
Efforts are underway to replenish the wildlife lost during the Civil War, and today you will see springbok, kudu, ostrich, oryx, and the rare cheetah. The park is known for its unique flora, including the Welwitschia Mirabilis. It also contains incredible rock formations and a varied birdlife. The park is home to many indigenous peoples who have remained isolated from and oblivious to the outside world, and who are described as the most culturally intact on the African continent.
HOW TO GET THERE
Let’s assume you begin your journey in Zambia. The main airport, Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, is in the city of Lusaka and is formerly known as Lusaka International Airport (not to be confused with Lusaka City Airport, which is within the city for small aircraft only). There is a domestic and International terminal with flights from all over the globe on many large carriers including Air Botswana, Air Namibia, Airlink, Emirates, Ethiopian Airlines, Fastjet, Kenya Airways, KLM, Malawi Airlines, South African Airways, South African Express, Angola Airlines, and local airline Proflight Zambia.
Other airports include Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport in Livingstone, Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport in Ndola, Southdowns Airport in Kitwe, Mfuwe International Airport which serves the Luangwa National Parks in the eastern province in Zambia. Although one may also travel between these three countries by bus and by car, most travelers opt to fly.
The Regional Tourism Organization of Southern Africa (RETOSA) is a Southern African Development Community (SADC) institution responsible for tourism growth and development. In part, the aims of RETOSA are to increase tourist arrivals to the region through sustainable development initiatives, improved regional competitiveness, and effective destination marketing. The organization works together with Member States’ tourism ministries, tourism boards, and private sector partners. For more information about RETOSA, go to www.retosa.co.za