Ahh, South Luangwa….where to start. As my favourite safari destination on the planet I think of South Luangwa, Zambia in an almost romanticized way that renders me near incapable of being objective. This is one of those parks that makes even the most ardent and frequent safari-goer sit back and just say ‘wow’. Many now label South Luangwa’s 9,000 square kilometers as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, reserve on earth. Naturally, one would think this level of majestic fame would come with a significantly large number of seasonal tourists. Fortunately for its safari worshipers, South Luangwa reveals its secrets to a much smaller number of visitors each year (for reasons I’ll explain below).
Once you’ve battled twenty other vehicles for a prime position like you’re in a shopping mall parking lot on Sunday, just to get a sneak peak of a lion in the Ngorongoro Crater, you might be asking yourself if there’s an alternative safari experience out there. Surely there is a safari experience that doesn’t require National Geographic style dedication a la 3 months in a mosquito infested tent behind your tripod but also doesn’t make you feel like you’ve somehow flown 12+ hours only to arrive at Disney’s Animal Kingdom adventure? I give you South Luangwa, Zambia.
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Wildlife – 4.5*
Put simply, South Luangwa has one of the highest concentrations of wildlife anywhere in Africa; 60 species of animal and 400 different bird species. The only reason I didn’t give it the full 5-stars for wildlife is because the park doesn’t have rhino (black or white) which, for people to whom this matters, means you can’t go home boasting about how you saw all of the ‘Big 5’. This really doesn’t matter considering South Luangwa has some of the highest densities of nearly everything else. Elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo are all commonly spotted (in fact elephant and buffalo are often seen in ridiculous numbers). Other commonly spotted wildlife includes hippo, hyena, crocodile and an abundance of antelope varieties. Two of Luangwa’s specialties are the Crawshay’s zebra and the Thornicroft giraffe, both of which are endemic to Luangwa and easily spotted. The Cookson’s Wildebeest is also endemic to the park but more often spotted in North Luangwa (which is even more remote). Wild dogs and cheetah are both spotted in the park but with less frequency. If you’re looking to maximise wildlife viewing opportunities, then the best time to visit South Luangwa is during its dry season from July-November.
Scenery – 4*
Imagine the Lion King….that’s basically South Luangwa. Sweeping plains dotted by baobab and mopane trees and intersected by the Luangwa river. In the dry season, only the small watering holes remain which draws animals to their banks and provides dramatic wildlife moments. Luangwa is one of the most visually stunning safaris out there and provides the true feeling of a remote bush safari. As with almost everywhere in Africa, the sunrises and sunsets represent focal points of your day. Find a sweeping vista, set up the tripod and you won’t be disappointed in the results!
Accommodation – 4*
Outside the park, predominantly in Mfuwe, there is an abundance of accommodation to suit any budget. In fact, unlike some other big parks across Eastern and Southern Africa, South Luangwa really does cater for the budget traveler. However, if you’re looking to stay within the park boundary then you’re going to have to pay a higher price. I was fortunate enough to spend some time staying at Mfuwe Lodge (http://bushcampcompany.com/mfuwe-lodge-index.php) which operates the lodge itself as well as some really remote bush camps that provide a true wilderness adventure. Even better, if you stay at Mfuwe Lodge between late-October and mid-December, then you’ll get to witness one of the most remarkable wildlife encounters. Picture this, you’re sitting in the reception area of the lodge (maybe sipping a G&T) when into the lodge meanders an elephant, then another one, and another one. Nope, you’re not hallucinating. During the migration season, elephants traipse through the reception area of the lodge to get to wild mango trees inside the lodge grounds (check out their website for photos). I realise this sounds like a paid endorsement of Mfuwe Lodge, but it truly isn’t (but hey, hit me up next time Mfuwe!). I actually just really enjoyed staying there!
Access – 3*
Luangwa’s high concentration of wildlife is, in part, due to its remoteness (i.e. inaccessibility). It’s both a blessing and a curse. The closest international airport is Lilongwe, Malawi; about a four hour drive plus a border crossing. If you’re doing the drive from Lusaka, Zambia then it’s about 8.5 hours on tarred, but pot-holed roads (I can attest to the fact that the drive from Lusaka is arduous and tiring and it’s probably worth stopping overnight at Chipata to refuel). The good news is that the last 100km from Chipata to Mfuwe is now tarred, which means you can cover it in a couple of hours! Once you’re at the park, you can enjoy game drives (which you can organize easily through your accommodation) or you can self-drive if you’re in a 4×4.
Don’t like the idea of self-driving? You have a few options. The first is to fly in to Mfuwe Airport from Lilongwe (chartered) or Lusaka (twice-daily scheduled in the high season). This is, for obvious reasons, the most expensive option and probably won’t appeal to the budget-conscious amongst us. If you’re flying from Lusaka then check out the Pro-Flight website for the cheapest deals (http://proflight-zambia.com/).
The cost-conscious option is to use public buses originating from the center of Lilongwe or Lusaka. Either journey will need to be separated in to two parts; the first getting you to Chipata and the second leg from Chipata to Mfuwe. You’ll need to be in Chipata by late morning to make the connection work or otherwise overnight in Chipata (my recommendation would be to stay at Mamarulas if you need to overnight). Whilst cheap, catching the bus is best kept as a last resort. It’s uncomfortable, cramped, hot and not the safest method (the axles on some of the buses seem so bent that the bus appears to come at you sideways down the road at 100mph).
The final option is to join a tour, particularly from Lilongwe. My advice would be to check out the Kiboko Safari’s website (www.kiboko-safaris.com). They offer trips of multiple lengths at great value and have their own camp outside the main gate of the park – they’re also pretty responsive by email and facebook which is more than you can say for many local travel operators.
Safari ‘X’ Factor – 5*
An abundance of wildlife, stunning scenery, and a smorgasbord of accommodation options mean I give the overall experience of South Luangwa 5 full stars! What adds to the experience is the number of ways you can experience the park. Not only can you enjoy a traditional game drive; South Luangwa was also one of the pioneers of the walking safari; in the wet season you can enjoy a guided canoe safari (you have to have a guide due to croc and hippo danger); and you can also enjoy night drives where your chances of spotting leopard grows by the minute. I’m starting to feel like I should work for the Zambian Tourist Board!
Park Maps: These will be especially useful if you are self-driving because the park isn’t very well signposted. I have a pretty decent sense of direction, and even I got lost a couple times (no matter, adds to the fun!). You can pick up maps at the main gate in Mfuwe before you enter the park.
Mfuwe: If you’re staying in Mfuwe rather than one of the more expensive options inside the park, then just bear in mind that Mfuwe is a very small town. So, don’t expect a big party atmosphere or much to do outside of the park. A quiet night in with a cup of cocoa is more likely.