South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia, the southernmost of three national parks in the valley of the Luangwa River, is a world-renowned wildlife haven. Concentrations of game along the meandering Luangwa River and its lagoons are amongst the most intense in Africa. The river teems with hippo and crocodile and provides a lifeline for one of the greatest diversities of habitat and wildlife, supporting more than 60 species of mammals and over 400 species of birds.
It supports large populations of Thornicroft's giraffe, and herds of elephants and Cape buffaloes often several hundred strong. It is one of the best-known national parks in Africa for walking safaris. Founded as a game reserve in 1938, it became a national park in 1972 and now covers 9,050 km2.
The Park is unfenced and bordered to the west by a steep escarpment and to the east by the Luangwa River. The Luangwa Valley lies at the tail end of the Great African Rift Valley system, which extends 4,000 km all the way from the Red Sea down to the Pungwe River mouth in Mozambique.
The Muchinga Escarpment in Northern and Central Provinces forms the park's western or north-western boundary, it slopes down from there to the river, lying mostly on its western bank. The eastern bank of the river is in Eastern Province, and as access to the park is only from that side, it is usually thought of as being wholly in Eastern Province.
Wildlife in South Luangwa National Park
The birding is spectacular here, with over 400 species, especially in the ‘emerald season’ when the summer migrants feast on an abundance of food and the amount of water found everywhere is fantastic for herons, egrets and storks. There is a colony of iridescent bee-eaters that nest in the holes of sandy riverbanks and, during the rainy season, huge breeding of yellow billed storks in the Nsefu sector.
South Luangwa National Park is also famous for its large hippo pods that live easy in the river and lagoons in the company of crocodiles. Poaching had a major effect on the amount of elephants found here, but they are now in herds hundreds strong, amongst buffalo and several antelope species, such as impala and puku. There is also the striking Thornicroft’s giraffe, Cookson’s wildebeest and Crawshays Zebra. There is no shortage of predators here with large prides of lion being a common sighting, the spotted hyena are strong here too and there is a population of wild dog that, although not commonly seen, seems to have more and more sightings every year. The park is great for spotting leopard too as you are able to scour the dark for them on exciting night drives.
Known as the home of the walking safari, it is here that the first ones took place over fifty years ago, and they are just as exciting as ever today. Experience the sights, sounds and smells of Africa like never before in the search of Zambia’s wildlife, large, small, friendly or ferocious. With few open spaces, this is the perfect area to explore by foot. Staying under the cover of the bush reduces the likelihood of scaring off any potential wildlife as you track them via their footprints, dung or other evidence.
History of South Luangwa National Park
British conservationist Norman Carr was influential in setting up the South Luangwa National Park. A man ahead of his time, Norman Carr broke the mould of track-and-hunt safari and created conservation based tourism.
In the 1950s, he persuaded the Paramount Chief to set aside a portion of tribal land as a Game Reserve. He built the first game viewing camp open to the public in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Guests shot with cameras and not rifles; thus the South Luangwa became the home of the photographic and walking safari. Profits from this remote photographic camp in the bush went back into community and eco-tourism in Africa was born.
How to Get to South Luangwa National Park
Mfuwe Airport recently achieved international status and various airlines were looking at scheduled flights from abroad.
Proflight Zambia is the only airline flying scheduled domestic flights in Zambia. They fly daily to South Luangwa and Livingstone from Lusaka all year (frequencies increase in high season).
Charter planes from outside the country can now fly direct without clearing customs at Lusaka and there are a number of charter companies in Zambia, that can fly to and from Zambia’s top destinations. All lodges do transfers to and from the airport. Charter planes at seat rate – Executive Air and Nyasa Air Taxis.
One can approach from three directions. The usual route is from Chipata. This is a good road if a little corrugated and the 123km drive takes about two hours to Mfuwe, just outside the Park. If travelling in a robust 4x4 from Lusaka, it is possible to take a short cut from the Great East Road at Petauke, up alongside the Luangwa River to Mfuwe. Only to be attempted well into the dry season. A good overnight stop along the way is at the Luangwa River Bridge at Bridge Camp.
The Northern access is from Mpika on the Great North Road or Lundazi, near Zambia’s eastern border with Malawi. Just below Mpika, there is a road running down the Munyamadzi Corridor between North and South Luangwa Parks. It is passable but is only open between August and October and only in 4WD and preferably with two vehicles as help is a long way away. The mountain pass down the escarpment is quite formidable, very rocky and bumpy but the view over this, the tail end of the Great Rift Valley, is quite spectacular.
Things to Do in South Luangwa National Park
Set off on Foot in South Luangwa
A guided walking safari is an opportunity to immerse yourself completely in this pristine wilderness. As your senses sharpen, so too does your understanding of how every part of nature fits together in this extraordinary ecosystem. Before long, you'll identify different animal tracks in the sandy riverbeds, discover which plants are good to eat, and be amazed at how much information you can glean from the ubiquitous piles of animal dung.
And yes, there is a good chance that you too may experience the thrill of that lion sighting – especially in the South Luangwa, which is one of the best places in Africa to spot big game on foot. There are no guarantees though: walking is not an activity for travellers focused on ticking off a checklist! Nights are passed in comfortable tents with all the basics of camp set up for you by the experienced staff.
The best accommodation is in the heart of the South Luangwa, far from other people, vehicles or signs of civilisation. Don’t let the name 'bush camp' put you off – you’ll be more than comfortable with high-quality linen, hot showers, delicious down-to-earth meals, and ice-cold drinks served around the campfire under a starry sky.
Game Drives Along the Luangwa River
The South Luangwa is Zambia’s best known park for very good reason: the concentration of game around the Luangwa River is among the densest in Africa. You probably – and sadly – won’t find rhino here but apart from that notable exception, there is more than enough big game to fill up many a camera memory card.
On foot you feel a part of this remote wilderness but in a car you can cover more ground and maximise your wildlife sightings. Our advice? Combine your walking safaris with game drives in this area known for its high density of leopard and lion, rumbling herds of elephant gathered at oxbow lakes, and endemic species such as Thornicroft's giraffe and Crawshay's zebra.
One of the guiding habits we most admire is the fact that the South Luangwa guides don't automatically radio each other every time they come across a good sighting. This means that when you do come across a big cat or even a kill, you will have the space and freedom to quietly observe a sighting, which is simply wonderful.
Drift Along the Lower Zambezi River
The Lower Zambezi is an incredibly beautiful reserve stretching out along the shimmering waters of the wide, blue Zambezi River. There is plenty of big game here too, and the lodges tend to be more flexible with their schedules by putting together a day of activities to suit your tastes: game drives, nature walks or – a major highlight – canoe safaris.
Don’t think of a canoe safari as hard work: you drift more than paddle, floating past the twitching ears and snorts of submerged hippos and knobbly Nile crocodiles basking on the riverbanks. It’s both peaceful and undeniably thrilling! The guides are utterly attuned the animals' habits and behaviour, and are completely at ease predicting their next moves.
You’ll find that a canoe gives you a closer and more intimate perspective on creatures like buffalo and elephant, who ignore your quiet passage past them quite undisturbed by your presence as they drink their fill at the water’s edge.
Get up Close and Personal With Vic Falls
Victoria Falls deserves its local name, Mosi-oa-Tunya or 'The Smoke That Thunders'. Nothing prepares you for your first sight of the Zambezi River in full flood thundering over the drop – 500-million litres of water per minute crashing into a deep rocky gorge, throwing a cloud of mist and rainbow-lit spray high into the air.
The Main Falls lie within Zimbabwe (see our complete guide to Victoria Falls) but the Zambian side is equally impressive during peak flow months (February to May). One of our favourite Zambian viewpoint is the Knife-Edge Bridge, which takes you right up close to this thundering waterfall – be prepared to get soaked!
Victoria Falls is a fantastic start or end point to a Zambian safari. If you have the time, I recommend a good three days to sample the many activities on offer – you can take a scenic helicopter flip or microlight flight, or even go white-water rafting on high-grade rapids.
Witness the Biggest Mammal Migration on Earth
Every year from about October to December, the skies around Kasanka National Park come alive with around 10 million straw-coloured fruit bats. That's right, East Africa's Great Wildebeest Migration is not the largest mammal migration in the world!
While the sheer volume of bats is jaw-dropping, it's the atmosphere surrounding this phenomenon that's the most thrilling part: huge birds of prey swoop through the dramatic skies and take down bats for breakfast. And of course, you can see the usual Kasanka specials like rare, swamp-dwelling sitatunga antelope graze in the misty dambos (wetlands) in the morning. If you're a true safari enthusiast, this is an absolute must-do experience.
Explore the Remote Busanga Plains of Kafue
Kafue National Park is one of the largest national parks in Africa, and yet the least visited of Zambia's major three parks. Well of the beaten track, Kafue is still very, very wild with just a handful of luxury tented camps.
In the extreme north of Kafue lies the Busanga Plains, one of Zambia’s most significant wetland resources and the best region of the park for game viewing. Huge herds of red lechwe, puku and stately roan antelope graze these grassy floodplains, their large numbers attracting plenty of predators including packs of wild dogs, lion prides and lone cheetah.
Along with game drives, you can spend your days in Kafue on boat rides and walking safaris, go fishing on either the Kafue or Lunga River, and twitchers are sure to add a few ticks to their lists with over 490 species of birds recorded.