Called by some as one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world, South Luangwa is one of Zambia's main draws. This 9,050-sq km park is centered around the Luangwa River and is home to one of Africa's largest concentrations of wildlife.
Thanks to its inaccessible location, South Luangwa manages to combine immense density of wildlife with limited visitor numbers, and it's also one of the few national parks that allow night safaris. However, visitor numbers are steadily marching upwards, and the best time to visit is right now — before it becomes the next Kruger or Serengeti.
South Luangwa is dry woodland, watered by the meandering Luangwa River and its many oxbow lakes. The dominant tree is the mopane, but stately baobabs also dot the landscape here and there. In the dry season, most plants and trees seem to shrivel up and wildlife congregates around watering holes, allowing excellent viewing.
Flora and fauna
Crawshay's zebra, a South Luangwa specialty
Thornicroft's giraffe, also endemic to South Luangwa
South Luangwa is home to a dazzling array of wildlife. You'll see hippos and crocodiles as soon as you cross the bridge over the Luangwa River, and elephants are hard to miss along the river's banks. Thornicraft's giraffe, with white legs and faces, and Crawshay's zebra, without the brownish "shadow-stripe" of common (Burchell's) zebra, are both endemic to the park and easily spotted. Herds of buffalo roam the park, along with several prides of lions. The density of leopards is among the highest in the world, although spotting these nocturnal creatures can be tricky. All sorts of antelopes abound: impala are ubiquitous, the puku — rarely seen outside Zambia — is almost as common and there are plenty of waterbucks and bushbucks too.
South Luangwa is a dream come true for birdwatchers, with over 400 species recorded. Depending on who you ask, the best times to go are November-December (when the rains start), April-May (when they end) or August-September (when the water levels are at their lowest).
The peak travel season is May to October. May to August it's still pleasantly cool and dry. September and October are very hot and the humidity is building up, but these are the best months to spot the game as they gather close to the river and watering holes. November to December is hot and humid and January to April is the rainy (or "green") season, some lodges close during this period, other give reduced rates. The rainy season is the best time to go birdwatching. From March to June is the best time to spot the elusive African wild dog.
There are two major access points for the park: Mfuwe Gate, near the village of Mfuwe and connected by bridge, and the less used Nyamaluma 50 km to the southwest, where a pontoon ferries vehicles across the river.
The nearest airport is in Mfuwe, which offers flights to Lusaka and Livingstone, as well as Lilongwe (Malawi). Note that flight schedules are cut down in the green season. The airport is about 30 minutes away by car from the park entrance, and most lodges offer free transfers.
Mfuwe is 123 km by car from Chipata, nearly 100 km untarred. The untarred road can vary enormously in its state of repair and travel times vary greatly accordingly. In March 2008 the first 60 km from Chipata were in fairly good form as they road had been graded recently by the Chinese. However the last 40 km were bad although the Chinese were reportedly shortly to regrade that section: it's possible to complete the journey in as little as 2 hours in the dry season in a high clearance vehicle (longer if a public vehicle is being used), but travel is more difficult, occasionally even impossible, in the wet season. Trucks ply the road, but can take more than seven very bumpy hours. In March 2008 they journey took 2.5 hours in a high clearance 4x4 private vehicle.
From Chipata, it's 1.5 hours (2-3 hours public transport) to Lilongwe depending on the time it takes to cross the border and 8-10 hours to Lusaka.
There is a rarely used very scenic track from Petauke down the escapement and along the Luangwa northward to Mfuwe, but it's best not attempted unless you're traveling in convoy and can repair any problems that crop up. Expect 8 hours for this unforgettable trip of 180 km.
With a tour group
Kiboko Safaris, Mandala Road 4/278, Old Town, Lilongwe, ☎ +265 1 751226 (firstname.lastname@example.org), . This hotel and travel company based in Lilongwe, Malawi runs reasonably priced all-inclusive tours round-trip from Lilongwe.
Jackalberry Safaris, (email@example.com), . The company runs affordable 3,4 and 5 day all-inclusive tours from Chipata with an interesting range of itineraries that include both game viewing and cultural activities. From $135 pppn.
Land & Lake Safaris, have their office in Old Town, Lilongwe. directions=, (firstname.lastname@example.org), . Land & Lake Safaris offers standard and luxury safari trips to South Luangwa and and is also specialized in tailor made trips in Malawi and Zambia.
Mophy's Budget Safari Tours, ☎ +260 979 392721 (email@example.com), . Mophy's Budget Safari Tours offers transfers from Lilongwe and Chipata and also safari trips to South Luangwa. Generally the cheapest.
As of September 2006, the basic park fee is US$25 per day for non-Zambians. Extra fees are levied for bringing in your own vehicles ($15 foreign reg or 12,500 ZKch for local).
Note: Entry permit is valid for a single calener day (6:00 - 18:00).
Most visitors tour South Luangwa by car, either on safari drives organized by their lodge, or by their own 4WD vehicle. If going on your own, there are plenty of trails but the signposting can be a little haphazard, so pick up a map from the gate.
It is possible to rent 4WD open top Land Cruiser from a local company in Mfuwe (Hardies Engineering, near airport).
During the dry season the water levels in the Luangwa River are too low to permit travel by boat. In the green season, however, some operators arrange canoe safaris, but trying this on your own is not recommended due to the large number of hippos (which capsize canoes) and crocodiles (which attack capsized canoes) in the river.
Independent travel on foot is not permitted, but you can join a walking safari (see next section).
See & Do
Solitary lion on the prowl
The thing to do in South Luangwa is, of course, to go on safari. All lodges organize game drives, where a trained guide takes visitors around by a safari jeep. Safaris are typically arranged at the crack of dawn (wake-up call before 6 AM), in the evening past 4 PM when temperatures have started to cool, and at night after sunset when high-powered spotlights are used to locate nocturnal animals like leopards, hyenas and civets. High-end lodges include drives in the price, but independent travelers pay US$20-25 each if you can rustle up 3-4 others to go.
Some lodges organize walking safaris, where you actually walk through the bush on foot and track animals with the help of a guide — an altogether different experience. Walking safaris can be as short as 4 hours, but multi-day treks where you stay overnight in "bushcamps" (usually far more luxurious than you'd think from the name) are more rewarding. You will not, however, save any money this way: costs are generally US$300-400 per person per day.
At the end of the day, if all that bouncing around in jeeps and/or tramping about the bush has you tired, call Personal Touch (tel. +260 6 246 123, ) to book an on-site massage at your lodgings.
Buy, Eat & Drink
There are no public shops or restaurants in the park itself. Safari lodges usually provide three meals a day.
How Bazaar Shop / Dog and Gat Bar, Flatdogs Camp (on the road to main park entrance). Sundry shop, bar and restaurant. Promises to satisfy enormous appetites, quench unbearable thirsts and guarantee monumental hangovers. Open all day.
In the July-September peak season demand often outstrips supply, so book in as far advance as possible. During the green season, however, many lodges close down and those that are still open can offer steep discounts.
Kaingo Camp, ☎ +260 216 246064, . Overlooking the Luangwa River deep within the prime area of the South Luangwa National Park. Relaxed, personal and friendly atmosphere, offering game-viewing opportunities within an area of beauty and varied terrain.
Unless otherwise noted, all rates below are per person per night and include all meals, two game drives per day, park fees and airport transfers.
Wildlife Camp, firstname.lastname@example.org, ☎ +260 216 246026, . Provides affordable rustic en-suite chalets, a secluded en-suite tented camp, a Bushcamp for overnight walking safaris and a campsite, all situated on the banks of the Luangwa River. Guides lead all the activities and, as they are all Zambian, they give a true insight into their own South Luangwa Park. A full board option is available at $220(peak) and includes accommodation, three hearty meals every day, all game drives or village tours, room cleaning & laundry as well as airport transfers. Open all year.
Kafunta River Lodge, tel. +260-6-246046, . Wonderful safari lodge with friendly service, knowledgeable guides, stunning views of the Luangwa River and the Luangwa Valley. Not only does it have a pool but a natural hot spring tub as well. Kafunta River Lodge has its own pontoon 5 minutes from the lodge taking you to the more remote areas of the park and providing a shortcut to the the main gate 10 km North of the lodge. Rates US$430/300 peak/off-peak.
Mfuwe Lodge, tel. +260-6-245041, . The oldest and largest operation in South Luangwa, running since the 1960s but privatized and completely rebuilt in 1998. The chalets are built in an old-school colonial style looking out onto the lagoons and watering holes, meaning great viewing from your own balcony. Even the bathtubs have views! Excellent location in the heart of the park, but a little impersonal due to the size.
Thornicroft Lodge, . Classically African on the banks of the Luangwa River overlooking the South Luangwa National Park. An intimate lodge with just 9 chalets and a Zambia shaped swimming pool. Rates: $205 low season and $255 high season per person per night including two four hour safaris per full day stayed, breakfast, lunch and dinner and transfers, based on two people sharing.
Mushroom Lodge. Can be found as you enter the main entrance to South Luangwa National Park, travelling 2 kilometres until you see a sign to the right. It is a unique site on the Mfuwe Lagoon inside the South Luangwa Park, and was originally built in the early seventies to accommodate the Head of State and his VIP guests. The main Lodge area boasts an expansive verandah that overlooks the lagoon, meals are taken here. The Mushroom Pub is a great social meeting area. The Lodge features twelve double chalets, each with bathroom en-suite and wireless broadband internet. Each luxury chalet is equipped with twin or double bed options and a spacious lounge complete with mini bar. Tel: +260–216–246-116 or 246-117. Fax: +260–216–245063. Mobile: +260-977-397-900 or +260-977-758-056
Shenton Safaris, . Offers two bush camps and six photographic hides that are used regularly by National Geographic, BBC and Discovery channel for numerous photographic shoots and the making of wildlife documentaries. Visitors in these hides will have a unique up-close-and-personal view into the lives of these animals, enabling you to watch them undisturbed in their natural environment. Tel: +260 216 246064
'Croc Valley Camp',  Experience the South Luangwa in our rustic on-suite chalets on stilts or in our unique luxury safari tents with bush bathroom on the banks of the Luangwa river.Experience the African bush with its daily visitors on your doorstep.Visit the national park in open 4x4 vehicles where our experienced guides will take you to their "special" spots.Feel the adrelanin as you venture into the park on foot.Fullboard option available at $220 or just accommodation at $30 to $55.Seeing and feeling is believing tel +260 216 246074 E mail email@example.com
Croc Valley Camp, email . Nestled on the banks of the Luangwa river, 5 minutes from the main entrance to the park where "the grass is greener on the other side" lies Croc Valley Camp. The campsite is situated under large shady Mahogany trees. Lapa's with power and water points on the river. Our rustic chalets on stilts are unique in their look. Game drives @ $40 and camping at $8.50. Swimming pool bar and restaurant facilities available
Flatdogs Camp, email firstname.lastname@example.org, . Well located right outside Mfuwe Gate. Camping US$5 ($7.50 Nov 2008), basic chalets US$30. Airport transfers an extra US$20, game viewing US$40.
Track and Trail River Camp, , . Located right on the Luangwa River, with the park boundary on the other side of the river. Expect the daily elephant heards outside your window, lion prints outside your tent and hippos keeping you up all night. The 'terrifying at the time' memory of looking UP at the elephants as they tred carefully around your tent throughout the night is definately a once in a lifetime opportunity and not to be missed. The camp features a tidy ablution block, luxury tents, swimming pool, massage room, two storey chalets, shady trees. Each camping spot has electricity, running water and a barbeque. Great meals, friendly service, free airport transfers. Game drives are organised on request; ask for Godfrey! Camping US$10/7.50 in high/low season.
Wildlife Camp (email@example.com)US$10 p.p.p.n. peak season. Offers a scenic site to camp and relax next to the Luangwa river. Swimming pool, bar, electricity and warm showers available. Game drives & Restaurant is optional.
There is also a barebones camp site at the Nyamaluma pontoon, but using it is only practical if you have your own 4WD.
Mobile phones do work in the national park and nearby Mfuwe has GSM. However, all safari lodges and camps, as well as the airport, are set up with a radio system for local communication.
CyberDog Internet Café, Flatdog Camp. Two terminals available at US$1 per 15 minutes. Open from 7AM to 9:30PM.
Even hippos watch out for crocodiles!
Walking in the bush at night is extremely dangerous, and lodges provide escorts to take their guests even around lodge grounds. Hippos, crocodiles, lions and buffalo kill many people every year — although the victims are mostly unfortunate locals, not tourists.
Mfuwe — village just outside the park, with some attractions of minor interest
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