SOUTH LUANGWA NATIONAL PARK
Experts have dubbed South Luangwa to be one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world and not without reason. The concentration of animals around the Luangwa River, and its oxbow lagoons, is among the most intense in Africa.
The Luangwa River is the most intact major river system in Africa and is the life-blood of this 9 050km2 / 5 623mi² park. It protects a wide variety of wildlife, birds and vegetation. The now famous ‘walking safari’ originated in South Luangwa and is still one of the finest ways to experience Africa’s pristine wilderness first-hand. The changing seasons add to its richness, ranging from dry, bare bush in the winter (April to October) to a lush, green wonderland in the summer months (November to March). There are 60 different animal species and over 400 different bird species in South Luangwa National Park. The only notable exception is the rhino, sadly poached to extinction.
With about 400 of Zambia’s 732 species of birds appearing in the park, including 39 birds of prey and 47 migrant species over summer, there is plenty for the birdwatcher to spot, whatever the season.
An interest in the vegetation of Zambia will enhance your experience of the bush. Some magnificent trees and plants grow in the Luangwa Valley and it certainly adds to the richness of your experience to be able to recognise the different tree species and to discover exotic wildflowers.
Among the more common trees in the valley are the mopane, leadwood, winterthorn, ivory palm, marula and the magnificent tamarind tree. There are some incredible baobab specimens and a few large ebony forests to admire.
- Area: 9 050km² / 5 623mi²
- Founded in: 1972
- Provinces: Northern, Eastern and Central Zambia
- Co-ordinates: 12.9410° S, 31.9045° E
Seasonal changes are very pronounced in Luangwa. The dry season begins in April and intensifies through to October, the hottest month, when game concentrations are at their height close to remaining sources of water. Warm sunny days and chilly nights typify the dry winter months of May to August.
The wet season begins in November as the leaves turn green, and the dry bleak terrain becomes lush and verdant. The rainy season lasts up until the end of March and the migrant birds arrive in droves. Each lodge stays open for as long as access is possible, depending on its location in the area. There are several lodges that remain open all year in the central area of the park.
Mfuwe International Airport is the hub for air travel.
Proflight Zambia flies to South Luangwa from Lusaka all year (frequencies increase in high season). Charter planes also offer seat rates to South Luangwa. All lodges do transfers to and from the airport.
South Luangwa can be approached from three directions. The usual route is from Chipata. This is a good road if a little corrugated and the 123km / 76mi drive takes about two hours to Mfuwe, just outside the park. If travelling in a robust 4×4 from Lusaka, it is possible to take a short cut from the Great East Road at Petauke, up alongside the Luangwa River to Mfuwe. This should only be attempted well into the dry season and if you are a very competent and experienced driver.
The northern access is from Mpika on the Great North Road or Lundazi, near Zambia’s eastern border with Malawi. Just below Mpika, there is a road running down the Munyamadzi Corridor between North and South Luangwa Parks. It is passable but is generally only open between August and October. It should only be attempted in 4WD and preferably with two extra vehicles in convoy is a long way away. The mountain pass down the escarpment is quite formidable, very rocky and bumpy but the view over this, the tail end of the Great Rift Valley, is spectacular.
If you’re staying at one of the valley’s lodges, the safari guides will ensure you have every opportunity to see all that it has to offer of its wildlife, birds and varying vegetation and habitats.
Although South Luangwa is only about half the size of other southern African heavyweights like the Kruger National Park in South Africa or Etosha National Park in Namibia, in terms of density of big game it’s top of the pile. Aptly named the Valley of the Leopard, it’s said that if you go to South Luangwa and don’t see leopard you need your eyes tested! The incredibly diverse landscapes range from dense forests of mopane trees and the leopard’s favourite sausage trees, to wide open savanna punctuated only by the occasional lonely baobab, all hugged by the wide and winding Luangwa River.
TIPS FOR DRIVING YOUR OWN VEHICLE
If you’re in your own vehicle, get a map at the entrance and follow the loop roads graded in the park, past dambos bursting with hippos, crowned cranes, grazing antelope and scurrying baboons. Further out on the plains you’re bound to see the large elephant herds, reaching up to 70 in number. Buffalo are abundant and spread throughout the valley.
The hippopotamus is one animal you won’t miss. As you cross over the bridge into the park there are usually between 30 and 70 hippos lounging in the river below and most of the dambos and lagoons will reveal many more. There are estimated to be about 50 hippos per kilometre / half-mile stretch of the Luangwa River!
Zebra can be seen running in small herds of about a dozen. The difference between Zambia’s zebras and those in the south and east of Africa are in the stripes: here they are evenly spaced as opposed to broad light stripes with a faint shadow stripe in-between.
The park has 14 different antelope species, most of which are easily seen on game and night drives. Watch out for the elusive bushbuck, preferring to inhabit densely covered areas. The common duiker is not that common near the Luangwa River but inhabits the backcountry of the Luangwa Valley. The largest of the antelope is the eland, usually near the Nsefu sector. The most numerous antelope is the impala: these gregarious animals can be seen in herds all over. They are not to be confused with the puku, which is of similar size but a much fluffier buck with a rich orange coat and as prolific.
Perhaps the most beautiful antelope is the kudu, with its majestic spiral horns and delicate face. Although fairly common, they’re not always easy to find due to their retiring habits and preference for dense bush. Reedbuck, roan, sable, hartebeest, grysbok, klipspringer and oribi are all here but not prolific in the central tourist area. They tend to stay deeper in the remote parts towards the Muchinga escarpment.
Birdwatching is superb in the valley. Near the end of the dry season, when the river and oxbow lagoons begin to recede, hundreds of large waterbirds can be seen wading through the shallows. The red-faced yellow-billed storks move along with their beaks open underwater, disturbing the muddy liquid with their feet until the fish flop into their mouths. The pelicans tend to operate in lines abreast, driving the fish before them into shallows before scooping them up into their beak pouches. The striking saddle-billed stork makes quick darting movements into the water. Then there are the marabou storks, great white egrets, black-headed herons, open-billed storks and the stately goliath heron that can stand in the same position for hours before pouncing. Of the most beautiful are the elegant crowned cranes, with their golden tufts congregating in large flocks at the salt pans.
Around the same time, just before the rains set in, in November, the palearctic migrants from northern Europe and the intra-African migrants arrive to exploit the feeding opportunities that the warm rainy season brings. These include the red-chested cuckoo, white storks, European swallows, swifts, hobbies and bee-eaters, as well as birds of prey such as the Steppe eagles and Steppe buzzards that come all the way from Russia. A special sight is the hundreds of brightly coloured carmine bee-eaters nesting in the steep sandy banks of the river.
The ever-present sounds of the birds in the valley can take some getting used to. An early caller is the ground hornbill, looking like a well-dressed turkey, but emitting the sound of a deep bass drum. Also to be heard is the melodious Heuglin’s robin, the shrill cry of the fish eagle, all set to the background cooing of doves.
ACCOMMODATION IN SOUTH LUANGWA
There is a wide range of accommodation from which to enjoy all that this incredible park has to offer. Most of the accommodation is found along the Luangwa river’s edge, so you can see hippos, crocodiles, elephants and more without even having to leave the comfort of the deck. In fact, the park’s elephants, hippos, giraffes, vervet monkeys, baboons, bushbuck and more are often even known to wander around within the grounds of the unfenced lodges, adding to the already unique and truly wild African experience that is the order of the day anywhere around here.
NB Please note that “Rates From” could be fully inclusive (may include activities such as game drives and walking trails for example) on some listings and not on others. Contact the establishment you are interested in for specific rates.
WHAT TO DO IN SOUTH LUANGWA NATIONAL PARK
South Luangwa National Park has one of the largest concentrations of wildlife in Southern Africa and few tourists relative to its size. The ‘walking safari’ was made famous in this park and is still a captivating way to explore the landscape. It is a lush, green woodland in the summer months, affording good birding but harder to spot the animals, and bone-dry in the winter bringing the wildlife to the river’s edge and the low grasses make for better game viewing.
Here are some of the activities on offer:
Mobile walking safaris You will be accompanied by a guide as you walk from one overnight camp to another deep in the heart of the park, along the river banks, exploring areas where there are no roads so you are unlikely to see anything but wildlife. This park is one of the best known for these types of safaris.
Birding safaris There is a vast array of birds in the park. A birding safari is usually accompanied by an ornithologist or an expert birding guide. Bird lovers appreciate the time to listen to bird song, twitters, and calls, while still enjoying the opportunity of seeing large game.
Boat safaris The South Luangwa River offers a spectacle of wildlife to view safely from the comfort of your boat. The river is best navigated in the rainy season when it is fuller. The scenery is lush and verdant, and hippos and crocodiles are everywhere. Elephants will be common too but most of the other animals will not need to come to the river in the wet season so the focus will be on the experience itself more than game viewing. Most safari operators combine boating and walking.
The Bush-Spa In the heart of the South Luangwa National Park is a true bush spa, sure to bring tranquillity and rejuvenation. The therapists use treatments based on traditional therapeutic ingredients as well as treatments like using coffee to exfoliate before a deep cleanse with marula and then moisturising with sausage tree or baobab masks. Relax in the Jacuzzi or enjoy a reflexology massage, all in the picturesque African bush.
Kawaza Village Just outside the park is Kawaza village, home to the Kunda tribe. Here you will be able to experience the culture of the local people as well as the opportunity to stay in a simple African thatched hut. The village is a past winner of the prestigious British Guild of Travel Writers’ Silver Otter Award for the ‘Best Overseas Tourism Project’.
Tribal Textiles boasts a large, colourful retail outlet and workshop, located on the road between Mfuwe International Airport and the national park. It’s the perfect place to pick up a special souvenir of time spent in the South Luangwa or shop for gifts for all the family.
ACTIVITIES AT LODGES AND CAMPS
Your accommodation choices in South Luangwa National Park are plentiful, with options ranging from tented camps to luxury safari lodges. Here are some the activities that lodges and camps offer:
Game drives Many of the lodges offer morning and afternoon game drives. Morning drives usually start before sunrise, allowing you to take in the best of the early game viewing. The afternoon drives often continue after slightly dark to try and spot some of the park’s night-time inhabitants. Guides have a curfew and so drives will be back at the lodge in time for supper.
Night drives This is an opportunity to enjoy the nocturnal creatures of the park after the sun has set.
Nature walks You have the opportunity to enjoy the bush on foot, usually for a few hours at a time. A qualified walking guide and armed ranger will accompany you and make sure of your safety during your excursion.
Local village visits If you are interested in the culture and heritage of the land, a visit to one of the villages will definitely give you more insight.
Photographic safaris There is no better way to get your best wildlife shots than out on a photographic safari.
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