South Luangwa National Park, Zambia: The Complete Guide

South Luangwa National Park, Zambia: The Complete Guide
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South Luangwa National Park

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South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

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.

Things to Do

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 birds and wildlife that congregate at the water to drink and to watch hippos and crocodiles making the most of the high water level.

Wildlife

South Luangwa National Park is home to 60 mammal species, including the Big Five. Although rhinos were poached to extinction here in the 1990s, the species was reintroduced to the park a few years later and are heavily protected. It is especially famous for its large herds of elephants and buffalo, and the abundant hippo population living in its lagoons. Lions 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. 

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. 

Where to Camp

If you are looking for a more affordable option, there are private campgrounds outside the park that offer a safe alternative to the traditional safari lodges.

  • Croc Valley: Near Mfuwe Gate, this campground offers sites for tents in addition to their lodges and glamping tents. Campers have access to shady common areas, electricity, a self-catering kitchen, and fire pits.
  • Track & Trail River Camp: This lodge offers fenced-off campsites with running water, electricity, bathrooms, and barbecues in addition to their chalets. There are also high platforms available if you want to pitch your tent high above the ground.
  • Wildlife Camp: With two separate campgrounds in one, there's plenty of room to spread out here and every campsite has running water with hot showers and thatched shelters. You'll also have access to the bar and swimming pool and firewood is available to buy.

Where to Stay Nearby

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.

  • Robin Pope Safaris: This famous safari company runs three lodges: the Tena Tena which has a magnificent tented camp, the private Luangwa Safari House, and Chinzombo, an incredibly luxurious camp with six villas and an infinity pool overlooking the river. 
  • Flatdogs Camp: This camp offers beautifully appointed chalets and safari tents and the two-bedroom Jackalberry Treehouse. This is a popular choice for those in search of something a little more affordable.
  • 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. 

How to Get There

The closest airport to South Luangwa National Park is Mfuwe Airport (MFU), a small 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 rental car.

Tips for Your Visit

  • 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.
  • The hot summer season (November to April) 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. 
  • 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. 
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South Luangwa National Park, Zambia: The Complete Guide