South Luangwa National Park
Eastern Zambia : South Luangwa National Park
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
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).
See also: African flora and fauna
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.
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
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 24 hours from entry time
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
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.
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.
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.
Bushcamps are scattered throughout the camp, but are generally accessible only on exclusive safari tours costing US$300-400 per night. The largest operators are Robin Pope Safaris, Norman Carr Safaris and Kafunta Safaris.
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.
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.