South Luangwa National Park

South Luangwa National Park

The most fertile area of the Luangwa Valley is the wide alluvial plain and riverine area where South Luangwa National Park and its many safari camps and lodges are located. By combining fantastic wildlife with extremely high-quality guiding, Luangwa comes out near the top of the list of Africa's most famous parks.

Safaris to South Luangwa

The three ways to get to South Luangwa National Park are to fly in and stay at one of the camps or lodges provided; to drive yourself into and around the park in a 4WD; or to arrange a safari company from outside to drive you into the park. The easiest of these is to fly in, because it is the most relaxing and your time is relatively limited. This is how almost all the trips arranged by Expert Africa are set up.

From Lusaka we usually organise a short 70-minute flight with Proflight, which takes you to Mfuwe Airport. On arrival, you will be met by someone from your safari camp, and transferred to the camp. There you will be welcomed by the team with some time to settle in, before heading out on an activity such as a safari walk or drive.

South Luangwa safari camps and lodges

South Luangwa boasts several world-class safari camps which all offer exciting safari walks and drives with first-class guides. Some also offer excellent mobile and fly-camp options.

Almost all the South Luangwa safari camps and lodges lie in natural bush along the Luangwa River or one of its tributaries, with game regularly roaming through camp. Most of the camps recommended by Expert Africa lie away from the main Mfuwe gate, spaced a considerable distance from each other, where it is unusual to see vehicles from other camps during your game drive. Closer to the gate, however, there is more activity and other vehicles are less of a rarity.

In style, the safari camps in the South Luangwa National Park differ widely, from sophisticated safari lodges to the simplest of bush camps. Many, such as Tafika Camp, Kaingo and Kafunta, with their tiny satellite walking camps, are still owner run; others, such as Nkwali and Kapani, are operated by companies that retain the strong personal ethic of their founders.

For families or small groups, a safari house might be a good option, while the more adventurous can choose to spend a night or two camping. At the other end of the spectrum, you could even stay in chandeliered splendour at the old presidential lodge. Just ask us about the many options; we know all these camps from first-hand experience!

Activities on a South Luangwa safari

In most safari camps and lodges within the South Luangwa National Park you will enjoy a game drive or walk in the early morning, and a second in late afternoon. The hours between are yours to linger over lunch and enjoy a siesta, or spend time watching the birds and animals in camp. Game drives usually take place in open-topped 4WD vehicles, and an afternoon drive may continue after dark in search of the park’s nocturnal creatures. On a walking safari, you can expect a leisurely pace, with fascinating input from an expert guide, accompanied by an armed ranger.

One of two of the South Luangwa camps, such as Kaingo, where there are several hides well suited to keen photographers, offer a third activity. At Tafika, you may be able to take to the air in a microlight. And in the so-called ‘emerald season’, a handful of camps operate safaris that include river trips.

Wildlife of South Luangwa

South Luangwa supports a very rich flora and fauna, and the key to this is in the valley's soils. These were originally volcanic in origin, so are often rich in minerals and nutrients, augmented by fine deposits from the river. Combine these with plenty of rainfall and a position about 12–14° from the Equator, where there is plenty of light, and you have the base for a lush and diverse plant growth.

Animals of South Luangwa National Park

Amongst South Luangwa's many herbivores, three several stand out as being endemic to the area. The beautiful Thornicroft's giraffe has a different (and more striking) coloration than the giraffes in the rest of southern Africa.

Cookson's wildebeest differ in having slightly reddish bands and often 'cleaner' colours – and they are also a little smaller and more compact than their blue cousins. Finally Crawshay's zebra is an endemic a subspecies of the more common plains zebra, completely lacking its cousin’s brown shadow-stripes between the black stripes.

Elephant and buffalo occur in herds hundreds strong, and antelope, especially impala and puku, are numerous. Impala are very adaptable: they can browse and graze, whilst puku are best suited to well-watered riverine areas.

The main predators in the Luangwa Valley are lion, leopard, spotted hyena and wild dog. Of these, lion are probably the most common, and their large prides are often easily spotted.

South Luangwa has a top reputation as a first-class park for leopard. This is largely because leopard hunt nocturnally, and South Luangwa is one of Africa's few national parks to allow spotlit night drives.

Wild dog are uncommon, but sightings have been becoming much more numerous in recent years. They're now regularly seen, especially around February to May, and it seems likely that their numbers are growing.

Birds of South Luangwa National Park

As you'd expect of a fertile valley, the Luangwa boasts a rich tropical birdlife including birds of dry-country and water-based habitats. About 400 species have been observed here, including many typical of Southern Africa – and a few more usually known from East Africa.

The best time to visit the South Luangwa for birds is around December to March: the 'emerald season'. Then summer migrants are here, lured by plentiful food. Once-dry plains have thick vegetation and water is everywhere, encouraging wading flocks of herons, egrets and storks and several species of geese and ducks.

Of special note for birders are the plains and marshes of the Nsefu Sector, in the north of the park. During the rains there is a huge breeding colony of yellow-billed storks here – situated in a stand of tall trees, surrounded by shallow water.

Another birding highlight of the South Luangwa is the migrant carmine bee-eater: colonies of these iridescent birds nest in holes in the side of sandy riverbanks. The birds arrive around August–September and usually leave early in the new year, although their peak nesting activity is usually around September to October.

Vegetation of South Luangwa National Park

A patchwork of different vegetation zones includes the ever-present miombo forests, interspersed with open, herby 'dambos', or shallow lakes, and mopane forests – both the stunted variety, and the beautiful mature 'cathedral mopane'. There are a few large open plains, although these aren't common; most notable is the plain at the heart of the Nsefu Sector, with natural salt springs at its centre that attract crowned cranes in their thousands. But the Luangwa's most interesting habitat must be the lush riverine vegetation that lines the Luangwa River, and the banks of many old river courses and small tributaries. Here you'll find giant red mahogany trees, sausage trees, knobthorns and the hard, black African ebony trees – which form dense groves at several places in South Luangwa.
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