South Luangwa National Park, Zambia: The Complete Guide

South Luangwa National Park, Zambia: The Complete Guide
••• Elephants Crossing the Luangwa River. Nigel Pavitt/ Getty Images  

Established as a National Park in 1972, South Luangwa National Park is located in eastern Zambia, at the tail end of Africa's Great Rift Valley. Famous for its walking safaris, the 9,059-square-kilometer nature area is sustained by the Luangwa River, which winds its way through the middle of the park leaving a spectacular escarpment and a wealth of lagoons and ox-bow lakes in its wake. This lush landscape supports one of the greatest concentrations of wildlife in Africa, and as such South Luangwa National Park has become the safari destination of choice for those in the know.

 

Wildlife of South Luangwa

South Luangwa National Park is home to 60 mammal species, including four of the Big Five (unfortunately, rhino were poached to extinction here over 20 years ago). It is especially famous for its large herds of elephant and buffalo; and for the abundant hippo population living in its lagoons. Lion are also relatively common, and South Luangwa is often cited as one of the best places in Southern Africa to spot the elusive leopard. There is more to South Luangwa than these safari icons, however. It is also home to the endangered African wild dog, 14 species of antelope and endemic subspecies including the Thornicroft's giraffe and Crawshay's zebra. 

Birding in South Luangwa

The park is also especially well-known as a birding destination. Over 400 avian species (more than half of those recorded in Zambia) have been spotted within its boundaries. As well as the usual birds of Southern and East Africa, the park provides a resting place for seasonal migrants from as far afield as Europe and Asia.

Highlights include the near-threatened African skimmer; the incredibly elusive Pel's fishing owl and the great flocks of ruby-colored Southern carmine bee-eaters that nest in the park's sandy river banks. South Luangwa is also home to no fewer than 39 raptor species, including four species of vulnerable or endangered vulture.

 

Activities in the Park

South Luangwa National Park is considered the birthplace of the walking safari, which was first introduced by iconic safari operators like Norman Carr and Robin Pope. Now, nearly every lodge and camp in the park offers this incredible experience, which allows you to get up close to the animals of the bush in a way that simply isn't possible in a vehicle. Traveling through the valley's lush landscapes on foot also means that you have time to stop and appreciate the smaller things - from exotic insects, to animal tracks and rare flora. Walking safaris can last anywhere from a few hours to several days, and are always accompanied by an armed scout and expert guide. 

Traditional game drives are also popular, and all visitors should book at least one night drive. After dark, a completely different set of nocturnal animals comes out to play, ranging from adorable bushbabies to the undisputed king of the night, the leopard. Specialist birding itineraries are popular in the green season (from November to February), when the abundance of insects brought out by the summer rains attracts hundreds of palearctic migrant species. Summer is also prime time for boat safaris - a wonderfully tranquil way to observe the bird and wildlife that congregates at the water to drink, and to watch hippos and crocodiles making the most of the high water level.

 

Where to Stay

Whatever your preference or budget, visitors to South Luangwa National Park are spoiled for choice in terms of accommodation. Most lodges and camps are located along the edges of the Luangwa River, offering spectacular views of the water (and the animals that come there to drink). Some of the best camps include those run by South Luangwa pioneers Robin Pope Safaris and Norman Carr Safaris. The former company has six luxurious accommodation options in or near the park, including magnificent tented camp Tena Tena and private Luangwa Safari House. The jewel in Norman Carr's portfolio is Chinzombo, an incredibly luxurious camp with six villas and an infinity pool overlooking the river. 

Flatdogs Camp (with its beautifully appointed chalets, safari tents and exclusive Jackalberry Treehouse) is a popular choice for those in search of something a little more affordable.

Those on a tight budget should consider a stay at Marula Lodge, a backpacker-friendly accommodation option located five minutes from the park's main gate. Room choices range from permanent tents and a shared dormitory to affordable ensuite chalets, while the optional full board rate includes all meals and two safaris on every full day for a very reasonable fee. Alternatively, you can save money by making the most of the self-catering kitchen instead. 

When to Go

South Luangwa National Park is a year-round destination with pros and cons for every season. Generally, the dry winter months (May to October) are considered the best time for game-viewing, because animals congregate at the river and waterholes and are therefore easier to spot. Daytime temperatures are cooler and more pleasant for walking safaris; while insects are at a minimum. However, the hot summer season (November to April) also has plenty of benefits for those that don't mind high temperatures and the occasional afternoon downpour. Birdlife is better at this time of year, the park's scenery is breathtakingly green and prices are often cheaper. 

Note: Malaria is a risk throughout the year, but especially in summer. Make sure to take precautions to avoid the disease, including taking anti-malaria prophylactics. 

Getting There

The closest airport to South Luangwa National Park is Mfuwe Airport (MFU), a small domestic gateway with connecting flights to Lusaka, Livingstone and Lilongwe. Most visitors fly into Mfuwe, where they are collected by a representative from their lodge or camp for the 30-minute drive to the park itself. It is also possible to get to the park by hire car, or even by public transport. For the latter, take the daily minibus from Chipata city to Mfuwe town and connect with your lodge transfer there. 

Rates

Zambian CitizensK41.70 per person per day
Residents/ SADC Nationals$20 per person per day
Internationals$25 per person per day