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A Complete Guide to South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

Our South Luangwa guide tells you what to see, where to rest your head and when to go.

Gabriella

Gabriella

Malawi guest writer
Published on

12 Aug 2022

Updated on

15 Aug 2022

South  Luangwa  National  Park

Zambian safaris are renowned for offering a wild and unspoilt experience, with the best know National Parks being the South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi, both of which have abundant wildlife and a wonderful array of places to stay. This blog will take you through everything you might want to know about South Luangwa from how to get there when to visit, what activities to undertake and of course, where to stay.

Carving its way through the gnarly terrain of Eastern Africa, 7,000km of geographical trenches known as the ‘Great Rift Valley’ feed into a Zambian offshoot called the Luangwa. Formed millions of years ago, this low-lying valley is home to flourishing vegetation, plentiful wildlife and birdlife, drastic seasonal fluctuations and of course the Luangwa River, which carries with it from the north-eastern side of Zambia fertile soils and nutrients that sustain the life that embraces its banks. And here within lies the majestic South Luangwa National Park.

Pic 1 Luangwa River Gabriella Costantini
Luangwa River ⓒ Gabriella Costantini

Wildlife

South Luangwa National Park was established in 1972 and spans a massive 9,050km². This unfenced wilderness is a refuge for some spectacular wildlife and birds. It is home to 4 of the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo), as well as wild dog, giraffe, zebra, hippos, hyenas and much more. Interestingly the giraffe in South Luangwa are known as the Thornicroft Giraffe and are endemic to this corner of Zambia, along with the endemic Cookson’s Wildebeest.

Pic 2 Thonicroft Giraffe Gabriella Costantini
Thonicroft Giraffe ⓒ Gabriella Costantini
Pic 3 Leopard Gabriella Costantini
Leopard ⓒ Gabriella Costantini

South Luangwa is also fondly known as ‘The Valley of Leopards’. That makes quite a promise doesn’t it…? Good thing it delivers! The park is said to have one of the densest populations of leopard in Africa. Tourists from all over the globe that travel to this special corner of Africa can attest to this, with at least one leopard sighting *almost* guaranteed during your visit.

Notable birds that can be found here include the Narina Trogon, African Pitta, Great White Pelican, Collared Palm Thrush, Pel’s Fishing Owl, as well as the nesting display of the Southern Carmine Bee-Eaters every November.

Top things to do

1. Game drives.

The classic safari experience! Undoubtedly your best chance of ticking the big game off your shopping list, as you drive through the wilderness in an open topped vehicle with your experienced guide behind the wheel. Pack a day bag, sit back and get comfy as you explore different parts of the park. One minute you’re admiring the bloated hippos honking on the riverbank, the next you’re scanning an open plain for signs of wild dog, before you delve into the thick foliage to scope out the shyer creatures. A game drive allows you to get up close to some really exciting sightings as the wildlife have become accustomed to seeing these big green motorized animals trundling around the park, and they simply gaze at them with vague disinterest. If you want to do a game drive the right way, check out Shawa Luangwa Camp who conduct their game drives in e-cruisers! Completely solar-powered and completely silent - certainly the best way to do it.

Pic 4 Shawas Ecruiser Gabriella Costantini
Shawas ecruiser ⓒ Gabriella Costantini

2. Walking safaris

Back in 1950, when Zambia was still known as Northern Rhodesia, Norman Carr began the very first photographic safari camp in the country right here in South Luangwa, and was later fundamental in establishing the area as a national park. It was here that he pioneered the walking safari, a chance to experience nature in all its glory. Watch a tiny beetle emerge from its shadowy home, a golden orb spider weave its web, and a variable sunbird suckling on the sweet nectar of a fuchsia flower, cross pollinating and diversifying the flora. Witness the wilderness from a different perspective and embark on an adventure with Remote Africa Safaris as you walk from camp to camp during your stay. Spend a few days at Tafika Camp before you head to Chikoko Tree Camp on foot, and then onto Crocodile Camp with your experienced guide and an armed park ranger. The lodge staff will transport your luggage as you take your time, tracking wildlife and experiencing some exciting encounters – the adrenaline and excitement that comes from traversing this land by foot, just as the explorers had done way back when, is intoxicating and is an experience you will never forget. Check out our walking safari itinerary here: Remote Luangwa Walking Safari.

Pic 5 Walking Safari Chikoko Tree Camp Remote Africa Safaris
Walking Safari Chikoko Tree Camp

3. Boat safaris

This seasonal activity is a must – only a handful of lodges can offer this activity as some parts of the river are shallower than others, and can only be done when the water level is at its highest; however, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you have the chance to see the park in a whole new way. Weave in and out of the hippo pods and reedy islands and enjoy seeing wildlife approach the riverside to take a drink. The aquatic birds in particular are a highlight on a boating safari so if you’re a twitcher, this is a great way to tick off a big chunk of your bird list. Plus, nothing beats a sundowner on the river, with the vibrant colours of the sunset casting a warm glow over the landscape and sparkling reds and oranges bouncing off the water. Book your boat safari at Nsefu.

Pic 6 Boat Safari Chikunto Chikunto Safari Lodge
Boat safari Nsefu

4. Sleep out:

So, you’ve done your walking safari but you’re not quite ready to head back indoors yet? Be sure to book this once in a lifetime experience of a ‘sleep out’. Whether the beds are set up on the ground or high up on a star deck, there is nothing between your mozzie net and the night’s sky. Fall asleep to the gentle sounds of the wild, gazing at the blanket of twinkling stars and the shimmering moon, knowing that you’re safe with an armed park ranger camped out nearby to ensure your safety.

Sleep out in the Elephant Hide sleep out at Kaingo Camp, on their Numbu star bed at Mwamba Camp, or camped out somewhere in the bush.

Pic 7 Elephant Hide Sleep Out Shenton Safaris
Elephant Hide Sleep Out
Pic 8 Numbu Star Bed Shenton Safaris
Numbu star bed at Mwamba Camp

5. Shopping with a purpose:

It’s always fun to do a bit of retail therapy while on holiday, and there are some special things to be found here. Mulberry Mongoose – Creating beauty from brutality. Local craftswomen make up their workshop in South Luangwa, where poachers’ snare wire recovered from the park is used to create African bush-inspired jewellery designs. Each jewellery purchase goes back into the well-being of the park and its wildlife as a portion of the funds are donated to local conservation projects and anti-snare patrols, as well as supporting the beautiful team of local Zambian women who create the jewellery. A great place to stop in at is Tribal Textiles. A stunning shop full of stylish African prints and materials; everything from napkins, table cloths and cushion covers, to bedspreads, wall hangings, bags and accessories. With locally sourced raw materials all items are made right there at the shop and guests can go and see the team at work. They also reinvest 5% of each purchase in local community and conservation initiatives.

Pic 9 Mulberry Mongoose Photo Cred Mulberry Mongoose
ⓒ Mulberry Mongoose
Pic 10 Tribal Textiles Photo Cred Tribal Textiles
ⓒ Tribal Textiles

Where to stay

£ - Flatdogs Camp

A great spot for families and young couples, Flatdogs Camp is affordable and comfortable with a range of different rooms types, a fantastic restaurant and a beautiful swimming pool to cool you down after a day in the park. It’s situated on the banks of the Luangwa River just outside the park’s main entrance so you get great views and is in a convenient location. They offer game drive activities, morning and evening so you can make the most of your time here to find the exciting wildlife within the park.

Pic 11 Croc Valley Camp – Photo Cred Croc Valley Camp
Croc Valley Camp

££ - Kafunta River Lodge

Perfect for honeymooners, Kafunta River Lodge has a selection of gorgeous safari chalets overlooking a beautiful flood plain. It is also located just outside the park but further south and they access the park by crossing the river on a pontoon. The food here is exceptional so prepare yourself for a delectable three-course feast in their stylish boma with the fire crackling and plenty of wildlife visiting the waterhole in front. Make sure to test out their bush spa and treat yourself to a full body massage in the wilderness.

Pic 12 Kafunta River Lodge Photo Cred Kafunta River Lodge
Kafunta River Lodge

£££ - Lion Camp

Lion Camp lives up to its name with its location, guests can frequently find lions in and around camp who know how to rest in style. Lion Camp boasts 8 luxury suites, elevated on wooden decking; they’re all stylishly decorated while maintaining a tasteful theme of the surroundings. Each room has ample space, en suite bathrooms, outdoor bath, comfortable furnishings and a sweeping private deck. Located within the park in an uncrowded area, the wildlife here is fantastic so take a game drive or a walking safari, or even just relax on your private deck overlooking the oxbow lagoon to see what comes along.

Lion Camp
Lion Camp

££££ - Time + Tide Chinzombo

Bush luxury at its finest, Time + Tide know how to spoil their guests. The glamorous safari tents at Time + Tide Chinzombo are spacious and air-conditioned with large beds, walk in showers, free-standing bathtubs and WiFi. Enjoy freshly prepared and tasty meals, and activities with their world class guides. It’s located inside the park so be prepared for plenty of wildlife viewings. Time + Tide, formerly Norman Carr, specializes in walking safaris so be sure to give that a go.

Pic 13 Time Tide Chinzombo Photo Cred Time Tide Chinzombo
Time + Tide Chinzombo

When to visit

July - October: Peak Season

Luangwa’s peak season runs approximately from the beginning of July until the end of October. It is so called peak season because at this time the game sightings tend to be more prolific. While July and August are a little chilly, things start to heat up in September, and really scorch in October. During these months the park has dried out since the rains ended in March, this means the foliage has died back which helps with visibility. It also means that there are fewer waterholes and sporadic water sources throughout the park, so the wildlife tends to congregate near the river and major waterholes that have remained full; this makes it easier to predict their location and equates into plenty of wildlife sightings - but as you can imagine, more people too...

April - June: Mid Season

The mid season runs approximately from the beginning of April to the end of June, this is when the temperatures are most comfortable and mild. The rains have stopped, although in April the ground will still be quite wet, the river is full to the brim and the park is still a vision of colour.

Nov - March: Green Season

The green season runs approximately from the beginning of November to end of March, this is when the rains come to quench the thirst of the land and send the Luangwa River flowing again and the temperatures are at their highest until a big rain cools everything down temporarily. This is when you’ll find the most beautiful landscape as everything is painted an emerald green and the flowers are blooming. It’s also a prime time for birding as well as breeding season, when all the baby animals are frolicking round in their lush surroundings. Fewer camps are ope during the wet season and roads can become tricky to travel along, but you benefit from lower prices and fewer people.

Pic 16 Elephant Dry Season Gabriella Costantini
Elephant in dry season ⓒ Gabriella Costantini
Pic 19 – Playful Elephants Mid Season – Gabriella Costantini
Playful elephants in mid season ⓒ Gabriella Costantini
Pic 18 Baby Giraffe Green Season Gabriella Costantini
Baby giraffe in green season ⓒ Gabriella Costantini

How to get there

South Luangwa is on the outskirts of Mfuwe town where there is a small international airport and all lodges here can arrange airport transfers to/from their lodge and the airport. There are currently two scheduled flight routes that come directly into Mfuwe Airport:

  • Daily with ‘Proflight’, from Lusaka (Zambia’s capital city) – 1-hour.
  • 4 times a week with ‘Nyasa Express’, from Lilongwe (Malawi’s capital city) – 1-hour.

There are also charter flight options which can get you straight to South Luangwa from other main destinations like the Lower Zambezi, Kafue, Livingstone (Vitoria Falls), Liuwa Plains, and more.

While you’re in Zambia, your best option is to fly – Zambia is a big country and most of the key tourist destinations are quite widely spaced, which makes driving between them a real pain! Long journeys eat into your holiday and not great roads into the more remote locations.

However, if you’re looking to combine your trip to Zambia with a trip to Malawi too, it’s only a 4-hour drive from South Luangwa, across the border, to Lilongwe – from here it’s a great chance to head to Lake Malawi and enjoy some beach time after your safari. Check out our South Luangwa - Malawi combo itineraries here:

If you’re wanting to scope out the highlights of Zambia in a short time, be sure to pay a visit to Victoria Falls in Livingstone. Livingstone has an international airport so you can fly straight in and enjoy your holiday and the myriad of activities available there, from micro-lighting and bungee jumping to rhino walks and swimming in Devil’s Pool; then hop on a plane and head to South Luangwa (with a short layover in Lusaka) for your world-class safari. Check out our Livingstone – South Luangwa combo itineraries here:

If you’re looking for something a little more unique than the usual Kruger or Serengeti safari options, steer away from the crowds and immerse yourself in an unspoiled wilderness with exceptional wildlife, world-class lodges and unforgettable experiences, then South Luangwa could be for you!

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