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South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

South Luangwa: Home of the Walking Safari

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Hippos in the Luangwa River, Zambia

Hippos in the Luangwa River

Getty Images/Ben Cranke
South Luangwa National Park in Zambia is one of Africa's best safari destinations. The concentration of wildlife that lives around the Luangwa River is one of the highest in Africa. Pods of hippos number in the hundreds, there are lions, leopard, elephant, African wild dogs, unique species of zebra and giraffe, as well as over 400 species of birds. The South Luangwa National Park is a wild and beautiful place and should not be missed when visiting southern Africa.

Where is South Luangwa National Park?

South Luangwa National Park lies in eastern Zambia, in the Luangwa Valley at the tail end of Africa's great rift valley. The Luangwa River runs through the middle of this 3,475 square mile (9050 sq km) park. On its way to the Zambezi, the Luangwa River has carved out its own path in this valley, creating a spectacular escarpment and leaving plenty of lagoons and ox-bows filled with fish and hippo.

What Wildlife Can I Expect to See?

South Luangwa is famous for its large pods of hippos living easy in the Luangwa River and its lagoons. There are also huge herds of buffalo, and lots of lions and leopards. South Luangwa is one of the few national parks that allow night drives, and this is when you're most likely to spot a leopard.

The Thornicroft giraffe, the Crawshay's zebra, and the Cookson's wildebeest are all unique to the Luangwa Valley. The extremely endangered African Wild Dog also lives in the valley.

The Luangwa Valley used to be incredibly dense with elephants, but poachers put a dent in their numbers during the 1970's and 1980's. Regardless, you can still easily spot large herds sauntering around. The rhino was unfortunately poached to extinction.

South Luangwa is a birders paradise, more than 400 species have been recorded here. Even if you're not very knowledgeable about birds, you will be by the time you leave. Like zebra, warthog and some other animals, birds are the little "cherry on top" of a safari. You generally don't plan a safari with them in mind, but they add huge value to your experience.

Click here to find a checklist of all the birds and mammals found in South Luangwa.

Walking Safaris and Other Activities in South Luangwa

The "Walking Safari" was pioneered in the Luangwa Valley, it's considered by many to be the ultimate way to experience a safari. Personally I get a little nervous on a walking safari, but Luangwa is without a doubt, home to some of the best trained safari guides in Africa. And it's a good guide that will really make or break your safari experience. All walking safaris in Luangwa will have an armed scout as well as a guide leading the way. Walks are exciting but not too strenuous, so you don't have to be super fit. Walks can last from 4 hours to 5 days. Children under 12 are not allowed to go on a walking safari.

Walking safaris are offered at every camp and lodge in South Luangwa. Norman Carr safaris were the first to offer walking safaris in the Luangwa Valley 50 years ago, and they still operate some of the best. Robin Pope was the first operator to offer mobile walking safaris that last up to 5 days.

Your time in South Luangwa is likely to be split with safaris on foot, as well as traditional game drives where you're spotting animals from the back of a 4x4.

Birding Safaris
Birding safaris in South Luangwa are excellent and the best time to enjoy them are in the "green season", from November to February. This is when the local birds mingle with their migrating friends from up north. Norman Carr safaris offers excellent itineraries, guided by one of the best guides in the valley, Kapani Lodge Manager Abraham Banda.

Safaris by Boat
During the "green season" (see below) when the the Luangwa River is full, some of the safari companies offer boat trips on the river. An excellent opportunity to view birds, float through groves of ebony trees, and get a close look at the ubiquitous crocs and hippos. Just don't jump in for a swim.

Best Time to Go?

South Luangwa is open year round. In general, the dry season from April to October is the best time to go because the animals tend to congregate around available water sources. The "green season" (November - March) is beautiful though and offers visitors a chance to see animals with their young. If you're a birder, the end of the dry season and November when the migrating birds come down this way, are best.

How Long Should I Spend in South Luangwa?

You should spend at least 3 nights in South Luangwa, up to a week is ideal if you're keen on walking from camp to camp. This is not a "rush around in 2 days to see the "Big 5" type of safari. This is the real deal and you should savor it.

What's Around South Luangwa?

South Luangwa is beautiful in part because it is so remote. To get to Zambia's other parks and of course to visit the mighty Victoria Falls, it's best to opt for a short flight. North Luangwa National Park shares much of the beauty of South Luangwa, and is even more remote, so you also have to fly in.

Recommended Safari Operators in South Luangwa

South Luangwa is blessed with several operators who are pioneer conservationists and many have spent decades in this valley (see page 2 for a list of their camps and lodges). These operators are also involved with local community projects. They include:

Getting to South Luangwa

Most people fly in to Mfuwe Airport and the lodge or camp you're staying at will pick you up from there. There are regular scheduled flights on Proflight to Mfuwe from Lusaka and Livingstone (Victoria Falls). You can also take Nyassa Air a charter airline from Lilongwe (Malawi).

You can reach South Luangwa by road, but it's a long day's drive from Lusaka, via Chipata. It's best to avoid driving at night.

Accommodations in South Luangwa National Park - Lodges and Campsites

Sources and More about the South Luangwa National Park

  1. About.com
  2. Travel
  3. Africa Travel
  4. More Countries in Africa
  5. Zambia
  6. South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

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