South Luangwa National Park in Eastern Zambia is (in my view!) the best destination for an Africa Safari! An old haunt of mine and a magical place, it is still untouched by mass tourism and a place where you can feel, smell and touch Africa.
Although not Zambia’s biggest park (that title goes to Kafue which is about the size of Wales!), South Luangwa is the most popular and rightly so. The wildlife here is prolific and the scenery varied, plus it’s easy to get to as there are daily scheduled flights from Lusaka. Mfuwe is the main ‘town’ (just a village really!) where there are a few market stalls and shops, communication centres and of course, the airport. The main park gate is about a 30 minute drive down a mainly tarmac road from the airport (I say mainly as the rains each year seem to wash parts of it away and move it!). Surrounding the park on the Mfuwe side is an area known as the GMA (Game Management Area) which acts as a buffer zone between the park and it’s wildlife and the neighbouring village communities. There are no fences around South Luangwa, the Luangwa River being the natural boundary. The lodges and camps that are in the GMA frequently have wildlife surrounding them, particularly at night and in the dry season when the river is low and large herds of elephant move into camps to feed on the fruiting trees while you sleep – don’t be surprised if you feel the walls or thatched roof shaking at night or hear loud rumblings outside your room in the night, don’t worry the elephants won’t take any notice of you. I remember once finding my shower room unusually dark in the morning and seeing an elephant’s eye squashed up close to the porthole window blocking out the light – looking in at me as she tried to up-end my plumbing pipes in search of water!
The Luangwa Valley is at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley of Africa as it reaches a fork, one way into Zambia and the other through to Mozambique. The eco-system blends with that of the Nyika Highlands and Vwaza Marsh in neighbouring Malawi and is flanked to the north by the Michinga Escarpment, blocking the way out of the valley and keeping the wildlife in. North Luangwa is remote and accesed by bush airstrips and adventurous drivers, there are a handful of small rustic walking camps here which only open in the dry season.
Much of the wildlife of the valley migrates around it’s vast woodlands and hills, particularly the endangered Wild Dogs who have been researched in South Luangwa for over a decade now. Studies show their populations have increased over the years, but packs are always on the move and as they grow the split and form new packs too. Some of the packs which you may be lucky to see on your safari are around the Luwi and Kapamba areas of the park. At the end of the dry season in October (suicide month as it’s locally known due to the oppresive heat!) when the waterholes and rivers are all but dry, the game viewing is spectacular as massive ‘heaps’ of hippo pile up in the remaining pools, huge flocks of wading birds and storks feed from the drying waters and the elephant families join forces in search of water and food, making herds of over a 100 strong in places. Out on the plains vast herds of buffalo congregate and the predators stalk in the cool of the early mornings and evenings.
South Luangwa has more concentration of Leopard than anywhere else in Africa and it’s also one of the few places in Africa where you can regularly enjoy night drives. Leaving your lodge late afternoon (after a plate of cakes and tea!) you’ll head out on a game drive or walk, stop at a scenic spot for ‘sundowners’ and as the sun says goodbye for the day, the spotlight comes on and you drive for another couple of hours observing the noctural life of the valley. Leopards are often seen at night as are other predators such as Hyaena, Jackal and the smaller species such as Mongoose, Civet, Serval Cat and Genets. Valley specials include the Pel’s Fishing Owl, sometime seen also at night. There are some endemic sub-species found nowhere else but Luangwa and these include the Crayshaw’s Zebra and the Thornicroft Giraffe.
Luangwa was the birthplace of the Walking Safaris which have made Zambia famous. Back in the 1940s and 1950s pioneering guides and poachers turned rangers, concentrated on preserving the wildlife of Luangwa and the first safari camps were set up. To this day the families of some of these early ‘founders’ of the Lungwa walking safaris continue the traditions with their safari companies now world famous. The guiding in Zambia and particularly in South Luangwa is one of it’s biggest attractions. On foot in Zambia with a local, expert guide pointing out all the tracks and signs, plants and birds and all the time keeping an eye and ear on the wind direction and changes in animal behaviour that can indicate the presence of predators is a fabulous safari experience, never to be forgotten. This is also a great place for family safaris with child friendly lodges and safari houses for groups and large families, plus the guides are great with children and there are a lot of cultural aspects to South Luangwa too, visiting the schools and villages outside the park.
Although there are some camps in Luangwa that open all year, the short dry season means that the remote bush camps can only operate (June – October) this contributes to expensive accommodtion choices. Most of the bush camps are a good few hours drive from the main gate and with only 4-5 rooms mostly, the logistics of getting supplies in and out, fresh food daily and providing top rate hosting and guiding comes at a price, but believe me it’s worth every penny!
The short rains usually arrive in November, breaking the heat and giving life back to the parched ground … the green shoots quickly make their way through the ground the rivers swell and lagoons fill again and lots of baby mammals appear. The Impala are usually the first to start giving birth (and are said to actually hold onto their young and wait for the rains!), followed by cute little warthogs. Through December it can still be rainy but hot and then from around mid January the main rains usually start to fall. It can stay wet until April usually, although it tends to fall in tropical storms with the sun burning through in between times! From mid January to the end of March ‘River Journeys’ are a fabulous way to enjoy South Luangwa in the ‘Emerald Season’. This is the only time of year to enjoy boat safaris on the Luangwa river – one of the most amazing experiences is to float into the ebony groves to the north of Mfuwe. From May, bush camps start opening up and the main walking mobiles operate from June.
So – a quick summary of the safari operators in South Luangwa and the choice of camps. The best thing is to give me a ring as you can see I can talk forever about Zambia! The main operators who all have a ‘main camp’ in the Mfuwe area are Robin Pope Safaris and Norman Carr Safaris. The Bushcamp Company use Mfuwe Lodge as their base (an all year lodge just inside the park) for their fabulous walking bush camps down in the south – Kuyenda, Bilimungwe, Chamilandu, Zungalila, Chendeni and Kapamba. RPS are based at Nkwali Camp and operate walking mobiles in the far north of the park and two seasonal camps at Nsefu and Tena Tena. They also organise trips and overnights to Kawaza Village, a cultural project where you can spend time with the local people. Norman Carr Safaris is still run by the famous pioneer’s family at Kapani Lodge and has a selection of bush camps, tented and rustic chalets to the north of Mfuwe at Luwi, Nsolo, Kakuli and Mchenja. Shenton Safaris are personal favourites of mine with their two seasonal camps, Kaingo on the Luangwa River and Mwamba Camp just inland. The area around Shenton’s camps is prolific in Leopard and Lion and being specialist photographers themselves, they have several amazing hides you can spend time in near the camps. Remote Africa Safaris operate in the far north of South Luangwa, another family run long standing operation run by the Coppingers at Tafika Camp. From here you can take a microlight flight over Luangwa for a birds eye view of the terrain and the wildlife. They also have a couple of walking trails camps in the far north deep in the bush. South of the Mfuwe area is Kafunta River Lodge, open all year and in a great location offering fabulous value for money, they also run Island Bush Camp, a few hours to the south in a quiet and pretty part of the park. Further south are the camps of Wilderness Safaris which include walking trains and the wonderful Kalamu Star Beds. Sanctuary Lodges run the old ‘Presidential’ Lodge at Chichele and the gorgeous ’boutique style’ camp at Puku Ridge. They also now offer fabulous bush camping and walking at Zebra Plains Camp. There are also a handful of campsites and budget lodges (such as Wildlife Camp and Flat Dogs) in the Mfuwe area, so group adventure tours of South Luangwa are also possible. Check the African Offers page for some long stay rates and specials from camps in South Luangwa.
South Luangwa is an ideal safari destination for first timers or Africa Addicts, there are style of lodges and camps to suit all and is a fabulous option for a Natural History Holiday. It combines well with some beach time on Lake Malawi too and there are fabulous honeymoon options – have a look at the African Honeymoons page for more ideas. Please get in touch to discuss your requirements for the perfect African Safari to South Luangwa in Zambia.