South Luangwa National Park is approximately 9050 sq. km of unspoilt woodland savannah spanning the banks of the Luangwa River and its lagoons that meander through the Park. This unfenced Park has the steep escarpment to the West and the Luangwa River to the East. The Park supports large numbers of Thornicroft’s giraffe, elephants, Cape buffalo and various predators among the 80 mammal species found in the Park. Bird lovers will not be left out, with over 400 of Zambia’s 732 species found in the Park, including many raptors and migratory birds.
Flights arrive several times a day with Proflight Zambia to Mfuwe Airport or the area is ideal for self-drivers up for an adventure.
We can thank South Luangwa for pioneering the concept of photographic and walking safaris. The vision of conservationist Norman Carr and the area’s Paramount Chief of the 1950s spurred the South Luangwa National Park into what is today a premier wildlife destination in southern Africa.
At the southern tip of the Great Rift Valley in eastern Zambia, and sustained by the Luangwa River, the region has a rich diversity of fauna and flora and remains relatively undeveloped.
Here, we reveal ten top attractions of South Luangwa, sure to tempt your wanderlust into visiting this pristine wilderness and beacon of Africa’s conservation successes.
Easy to Get to – Easy to Stay
As South Luangwa’s popularity has grown, so has the infrastructure necessary to ensure the park can accommodate visitors from near and far. The town of Mfuwe and its airport is the gateway to this 9,050 km2 wildlife paradise.
Whether you choose to camp or splash out on a 5-star lodge, there is an excellent selection both outside and inside the park. Visitors can hire a 4×4 vehicle and opt for a self-drive safari or leave it to the professionals and join a guided tour.
Spectacular Landscape for Man and Beast
Even from afar, the South Luangwa appeals to the eye, lying at the foot of the Muchinga escarpment. The park’s lifeblood is the Luangwa River, which snakes along the park’s eastern boundary, reduced to scattered pools in the dry season.
Mature riverine thickets give way to alluvial floodplains before mixed grassland morphs first into a miombo and then mopane woodland. This gradual transition of habitats means that wildlife is diverse, mixed and abundant. By night, the skies sparkle with the Milky Way, while dawn and dusk promise jaw-dropping horizons painted in heavenly hues. Some lodges even offer camp out options where you can sleep under the stars like the above photo from Three Rivers Camp.
Endemic Species of South Luangwa
Aside from the Luangwa Valley and its surroundings, three species of herbivores are found nowhere else, including:
The Crawshay’s zebra is a subspecies of Plains zebra with distinctively narrow stripes. The Cookson’s wildebeest is another subspecies, distinguishable from its widespread relative, the Blue wildebeest, by its coppery flanks and markings on the head and neck. And lastly, due to environmental factors, Thornicroft’s giraffes are a geographically isolated subspecies thought to have followed a different evolutionary path. They complement a total of 60 other mammal species recorded in the South Luangwa National Park, from tiny shrews to African elephants.
Heaps of Hippos
The Luangwa River is said to boast the highest density of hippos in Africa, with nearly 50 individuals per kilometre of river – and a total population of over 5000! While these hippos can disperse in the Wet Season (November-April), as the Dry Season (May-October) progresses, the amount of water in the Luangwa River decreases until only scattered pools and wallows are left.
Relatively peaceful when water is plentiful, hippos become moody creatures as the waters recede. Dependent on the water and cooling mud to protect their sensitive skin, they are forced to fight for space, while territorial bulls fuel the chaos.
Walking on the Wild Side in South Luangwa
Since Norman Carr first brought walking safaris to the area, thousands of people have experienced the thrill of exploring the wilderness and encountering Africa’s big game on foot. The walking guides of South Luangwa enjoy a reputation as being amongst the best in the business for their professional conduct and intimate knowledge of the area’s ecosystem and its inhabitants.
Whether on short walks, or multi-day camping expeditions, the sense of connection to the outdoors is undeniable. Walking safaris give participants a chance to experience nature from the ground up, learning about things often missed from vehicles, such as…
The Little Five – And the Big Four
South Luangwa boasts four of Africa’s notorious Big 5, including:
To appreciate the wonder of South Luangwa, it pays to acknowledge the smaller inhabitants too, which particularly fascinate children on safari. Africa’s Little Five include:
Red-billed buffalo weaver
Elephant shrew; and
A visit to South Luangwa reinforces the fact that ecosystems work best when a myriad of species are present, each playing its part in the healthy functioning of the whole. Species occupy different habitats and ecological roles. There are carnivores, herbivores and scavengers, some active by day and some by night.
Things That Go Bump in The Night
At night around the campfire, you’ll hear many noises not heard during the day – you might listen to the hoot of owls, the baying of jackals, or the whooping of hyenas on patrol.
As the temperature cools, many species only get active after sunset. Some use the darkness to hide from predators, while some use it to hide from their prey. Seeing species such as bush babies, genets, civets, honey badgers, and servals is a special treat. Many of them are seen within the confines of the camps. South Luangwa National Park is unique in the fact that visitors can join night safari excursions by spotlight, which is forbidden in many other parks in Southern Africa.
Secrets Behind Shiny Eyes on Safari
Exploring the wilderness after dark in South Luangwa with an expert guide with an uncanny ability to spot the reflective eyes of things like spiders, chameleons and bush babies is not to be missed.
Seen by few, watching an animal go about its “nightly” life illuminated by a spotlight, is a reminder that there is so much in nature that happens while we’re not there to witness it. But, of all these behaviours, it is probably those of predators that are most appealing, and South Luangwa has plenty!
A Parade of Predators
Often referred to as the “Valley of the Leopards”, South Luangwa is renowned for the number of leopards and the quality of the sightings. The riverine and dappled woodland habitats are prime leopard territory and are often found during the day, draped on a tree, or stalking the undergrowth by night.
Lions and hyenas continue their battle for dominance of the plains; both are sociable predators using teamwork for success. Cheetahs, meanwhile, do most of their hunting by day, to reduce the chance of losing their prey to their predatory competitors. Wild dogs are known to visit South Luangwa National Park frequently as well.
Bountiful Birds in South Luangwa
During the Wet Season, the lush vegetation bursts with verdant colours and birdsong. The ranks of the resident bird species are supplemented by the arrival of numerous Summer Migrants species that feast on abundant food.
Later, at the end of the Dry Season, thousands of colourful Carmine Bee-Eaters congregate along the steep banks of the Luangwa River, where they burrow nests and raise their young over a three-month period. South Luangwa is a haven for both novice and experienced birders – and once again, the guides will impress you with their identification skills.
No doubt, whether you’re a first-time wildlife photographer or a seasoned safari aficionado, a visit to the South Luangwa National Park has more than enough to keep you in its thrall. However, one never knows what surprises await around the next bend in the river or road through Africa’s Eden.
All photos on this page credited to Kafunta Safaris in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia