Zambia Trip Report: Wild and Authentic South Luangwa National Park

2018-07-02T19:55:42-05:00January 5th, 2018|

July 2012, SouthLuangwa National Park, Zambia
By Tad Bradley

The wild and remote game parks of Zambia feel like stepping back in time to the Africa of yesterday. The African bush experience here is quite simply magical and unique. Many travelers only know Zambia as the home of Victoria Falls and spend a few nights as an extension to a South Africa itinerary or prior to departing for the Okavango Delta in Botswana. This leaves the other spectacular Zambian national parks – South LuangwaKafue and Lower Zambezi – largely untouched and undiscovered by mass tourism. In July, I spent four days exploring South Luangwa and I was blown away – a truly wild and authentic African safari experience. In this first post in a series on South Luangwa, I’ll give an overview of the park, the walking safari experience, wildlife and travel logistics. Contact me or the team at New Frontiers Tours with any questions or for more information on this amazing destination!

Overview of South Luangwa 

(click map below for a larger view)

South Luangwa is the premier game viewing park in Zambia and one of the most majestic in Africa. Compared to Kafue and Lower Zambezi, it is more developed in terms of number of camps but that is all relative as the camps are thinly spread over a massive area. This is the birthplace of the walking safari, pioneered by legendary guides and conservationists Norman Carr and Robin Pope. It is often part of a Vic Falls – Lower Zambezi – South Luangwa circuit and this combination offers a wide variety of active safari experiences from water-based canoe safaris and walking or mountain biking safaris to micro-light flights and bungee jumping over Victoria Falls.

All South Luangwa safaris begin at Mfuwe International Airport where you’ll be met by and transferred to your lodge/camp, most of which are no more than a 30-45 minute drive away. The park is bordered in the east for most of its length by the Luangwa River and most camps are found near the river, either just outside the park on the river or on the eastern side inside the reserve. South Luangwa’s options for accommodations have grown (and grown up!) in recent years and most people prefer to stay in the park which allows for deeper explorations into South Luangwa.

Lodges and camps are generally broken into the southern, central and northern sectors. Many safari operators have a more “traditional” lodge in the central sector (Mfuwe gate area) of the park which acts as a kind of home base, and then number of more remote bush camps, mobile camps or smaller lodges located in the southern or northern sectors of the park. Only a few of the lodges have air conditioning and (small) pools and none of the bushcamps offer either. The central sector attracts the most vehicle traffic due to the number of lodges located near the main gate, both inside and outside the park. This isn’t to say the area is like the Maasai Mara with lines of 10-15 mini-buses around one sighting. Far, far from it. Park regulations only allow three vehicles per sighting and the rangers do a good job of keeping proper separation. I was only really bothered by other vehicles at night, where the spotlights are a clear giveaway that you’re not the only Land Rover looking for that lion or leopard! The southern and northern sectors of the park are essentially devoid of traffic and you’re unlikely to encounter any other vehicles except as you depart camp with your fellow guests in another Landy!

Three nights is really a minimum for a South Luangwa safari, with four or six nights split between two camps ideal. If paxarrive late into Mfuwe, one night at one of these centrally located lodges (such as Nkwali or Mfuwe Lodge) is a good idea. It can take 2 -3 hours (or more depending on the game viewing) to reach the more remote camps in the norther or southern sections of the reserve.

Walking Safaris

In South Luangwa, it really is all about the walking safari experience. While taking nothing away from the Okavango Delta in Botswana, South Luangwa is on another level in terms of a “wild” and authentic African-bush experience. If you have active clients, the walking here is truly unmatched. This is THE place for walking experiences and it adds such a unique dimension to a safari. There is nothing like beginning the day on a walk in Africa – the chill of the morning air; the sweet, earthy and pungent smell of the bush; the morning sun glinting off the dewy grass. While a game drive is about those exciting moments of adrenaline while searching for big game, a walking safari is focused on the small things and simply soaking in the sensual nature of being on foot in the bush. And you’ll learn more than you ever thought was possible about all kinds of poop!

Walk begin early in the morning, just after sunrise and generally last around 4 hours, with a mid-morning coffee/tea break somewhere with a nice view. Somehow coffee just tastes better while watching kudu graze or hippos wallow! While all camps offer these morning walks, there are also several itineraries dedicated solely to walking, either as a mobile option, or between very remote bush camps in a certain area. Guests can walk between several of the Bushcamp Company camps in the southern part of the park and Robin Pope Safaris has two walking itineraries in the north staying in simple mobile camps for a flexible number of nights. Be aware that while the walking mobile camps offer unparalleled game encounters and are fully catered (with quite extraordinary food despite how remote you are!), the accommodations are simple – very simple – and are usually rudimentary reed and thatch semi permanent constructions with bucket showers. It is recommended that pax start with these simple camps and end with a camp that offers some pampering at the end.

The Wildlife

The variety of game in South Luangwa is outstanding, though you shouldn’t expect to see huge herds like in the Serengeti or to encounter the Big Five in an hour’s drive like in Kruger. The experience here is more subtle though certainly as rewarding. South Luangwa is known as a great destination for leopard and on our first evening game drive in the park, we encountered a beautiful leopard in the road just outside camp. He calmly sat in the middle of the road for a good five minutes before moving on. What an experience, quietly communing with such an elegant animal. Little did we know that this was just one of several leopards we’d encounter in our four days in South Luangwa. If fact, later that evening, we saw our second leopard quite by accident when when we startled a giant eagle owl (the largest African owl – a fairly rare sight!) coming around a corner and he flew in the direction of the leopard who was perched in the crook of a nearby tree. In our four days in the park, we saw four adult leopards and two adorable cubs; two lions mating and several other pairs; several civets and genets; and a plethora of hippos, crocks, elephants, Thornicroft’s giraffes (check out the white socks!) and Crawshay’s zebra, both endemic to this area. Wild dog are also often seen, but unfortunately not by us this time! The birdlife is also superb, with over 400 species of birds spotted in the park including Carmine Bee-eaters, Malachite Kingfishers, Lilac-breasted Rollers, Bateleur Eagles, Saddle-billed Storks, Crowned Cranes, Pel’s Fishing Owls and Fish Eagles.

Seasons & when to travel

The season is very short in Zambia with many camps only open between mid-April and mid-November, with a few slight variations. The wet season starts in earnest in late November and continues through into March: this makes many camps completely inaccessible owing to rising waters on the flood plains and swollen rivers, and the dark cotton soil found in the reserves also becomes a slippery quagmire that makes game drives and supply deliveries impossible. The very best time to visit is from the end of June to the end of September, which is when it is at its coolest and driest and game viewing is premium. Average day time temperatures at this time are 24 C (75 F), though make sure to advise pax to bring layers as the mornings and evenings can be very chilly, even frosty, with temps as low as 5 C (40 F)! October and November are the hottest months as Zambia moves into summer and the country waits in anticipation for the cooling rains. Day time temperatures can reach 40 C/100+ F with not much relief at night. With air conditioning an extremely rare luxury throughout the country, the heat can be trying! Pax do need to be warned about this if traveling during this time of year.

The Emerald Season

Some camps are experimenting with off-season special rates during the rainy months from December – April. The rains transform the dry, barren landscape into a lush, verdant world bursting with colorful birdlife and newly born wildlife. With reduced rates and fewer people, for the adventurous clients, this is a great option. Game is still good, and is concentrated on higher grounds and islands, and some very limited game drives can be done at those camps with access to permanent roads in the South Luangwa Park. This is apparently also the best time to see wild dog. Camps open in the South Luangwa in the Emerald Season are Luangwa Safari House, Nkwali (both Robin Pope Safaris) and Kapani and Kakuli (both Norman Carr camps), Mfuwe Lodge, Chindeni, Kapamba & Zungulila Bushcamps (Bushcamp Company) and Sanctuary Chichele Presidential Lodge.

New Frontiers has a 9d/8n Emerald Season Special combining three Bushcamp properties (Mfuwe Lodge, Kapamba & Zungulila camps) and Islands of Siankaba near Victoria Falls, valid November 1st – January 6th and Apr 30th to May 31st.

Getting there

There are regular international flights to Lusaka/LUN (via London or Dubai) and Livingstone/LVI (via Jo’Burg/JNB) and from here, Proflight operates an extremely professional and reliable internal network to both Mfuwe and the airstrips that service the Lower Zambezi (which can be booked through New Frontiers Tours). All New Frontiers passengers will be met on arrival at Lusaka International and assisted with immigration, baggage collection and onto their connecting flight. Domestic departure tax and security tax is payable locally in Zambian Kwacha cash and the Meet and Greet representative will assist with this prior to boarding. Should an overnight be required in Lusaka due to non-connection of flights, pax will be transferred to one of the following recommended Lusaka hotels – Southern Sun Ridgeway, Protea Hotel Lusaka, Taj Pamodzi, Chaminuka Lodge or Intercontiental Lusaka for overnight.

Zambian taxes

As of 26 Sept 2012 the following taxes are payable (these taxes are subject to change without prior warning).

  1. K58,000 per person domestic airport tax and security tax – approx. $13.00 per person payable on departure from Livingstone, Lusaka, Mfuwe and Ndola airports.
  2. K28,000 per person Aviation Infrastructure and Development Charge – approx. $5.60 per person.

Transit passengers only pay these taxes once. When flying with Proflight from LVI to Jeki/Royal via LUN tax will only be paid on departure from LVI as LUN is a transit stop. Passengers flying LVI to LUN with Proflight and LUN to Royal airstrip with Royal Air Charter tax will be paid ex LVI and ex LUN.

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