South Luangwa National Park

The sun sets over the Luangwa River in South Luangwa National Park.

South Luangwa National Park encompasses the lower half of the prolific Luangwa River Valley.

Size:
9 050 km2
Country:
Zambia
Established:
1972
Number of Mammal species:
60
Number of Bird species:
400

Introduction

South Luangwa National Park lies within the Luangwa Valley, whose floor, for the most part, is gently sloping and well-wooded with isolated, broken ridges and a flat alluvial plain. Two large grassland plains are located in the South Luangwa National Park, with smaller grassland areas to the north. The Luangwa River inundates its flood plain periodically, usually in February, and after a flood sometimes changes its course, leaving oxbow lakes along the old channel. This instability creates the richness of scenery and the highly productive ecosystem for which the Luangwa Valley is known.

South Luangwa National Park has exceptionally rich and varied wildlife, but commercial poaching has brought the once widespread black rhinoceros population to the brink of extinction, and elephant numbers have also declined. The South Luangwa National Park is the Luangwa Valley's most accessible and popular park. It is 9050km² and the concentration of game around the river is of the highest in Africa. Hippos, buffaloes, warthogs, the endemic Thornicroft's giraffe, bushbuck, kudu, eland, reedbuck, waterbuck, puku, roan and Lichtenstein's hartebeest are just a few of the species of game that may be seen. The area is also well-known for its predators, which include lion, leopard and spotted hyena. This is an excellent birding area, and, amongst others, many raptor and waterfowl species can be seen. South Luangwa National Park is also one of the few national parks that allows night safaris.

The peak travel season is between May and October. May to August it is still pleasantly cool and dry. September and October are very hot and the humidity starts building up, but these are the best months to spot the game as they gather close to the river and watering holes. November to December is hot and humid and January to April is the rainy (or "green") season. Some lodges close during this period or offer reduced rates. The rainy season is the best time to go bird watching. March to June is the best time to spot the elusive African wild dog.

Reasons to Visit

1

Atypical Antelope

When visiting the South Luangwa National Park, be sure to keep a look out for the puku and red lechwe, neither of which you would be able to encounter in South Africa nor Namibia. They are mostly found in the wet grasslands and eat mostly aquatic plants. They are also largely unknown to anyone who hasn’t been to the area.

2

Click, Click, Click

The South Luangwa National Park is any photographer's dream. The landscapes, cloudscapes and wildlife are mesmerizing. The blues of the Luangwa River against the golden sandbanks and the lush green wetlands make for exceptional photo opportunities, so be sure to pack extra batteries and a dust cover for your gear.

3

Catch the African Wild dog

There are several packs of the African Wild dog or African painted dog in the South Luangwa National Park. The park is definitely one of the best places to find the endangered canine. Keep a look out for these very elusive predators in their natural environment. If you do see one of them, count yourself as very lucky.

Useful Info

Getting There
Plane

By Air

Guests traveling to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia will be met at OR Tambo in Johannesburg where they will be assisted in transferring to the international flight to Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka. Upon arrival guests, will board a domestic or charter flight to Mfuwe Airport, which was constructed specifically for tourists to the park.

Car

By Road

Upon arrival at Mfuwe Airport, guests will be transferred to their lodgings in a private, air-conditioned vehicle. Although the Mfuwe Gate lies only 20km from the airport, lodges are spread across the park and the drive through the park can take a couple of hours through the rougher terrain. This however, is a wonderful opportunity for game viewing.

Weather & Best Time To Visit

When traveling to Zambia the consensus is to visit when it is dry, with the only exception being if your main aim is to visit the Victoria Falls which is at its best at the end of summer and autumn, from February to May. The dry season starts in May and ends in October, which makes May an ideal month for visiting both the wildlife and Falls.

During the rainy season from December to April, the terrain becomes a dense jungle and animals are hard to spot through the thick vegetation. Lodges try to stay open as long as they can for birders, and some stay open throughout the year, but the rains make a lot of the areas in the park inaccessible.

History

Already in 1904, the Luangwa Game Park was declared on the eastern bank of the river, but the animals inside this so-called reserve weren’t really protected, as hunting licenses were still given out to hunt elephant. By 27 May 1938, three parks were defined in the valley, namely: North Luangwa Game Reserve, Lukusuzi Game Reserve and South Luangwa Game Reserve. South Luangwa Game Reserve corresponds roughly with today's South Luangwa National Park - the Chifungwe Plain was just added. South Luangwa National Park was established on 15 February 1972 when legislation turned all the game reserves into national parks. Norman Carr was one of the reserve's first rangers and pioneered the walking safari here.

Anthropogenic history in the park dates back to at least 2 million years ago, as stone tools of that period have been excavated in the reserve. Early, Middle and Late Stone Age stone tools have been excavated on location, and evidence of early agriculture appeared around 400 AD. In more recent history, the first settlement, 'Zumbo', was founded on the eastern banks of the Luangwa River by the Portuguese in 1546. This was the first Portuguese settlement in what is now Zambia. In the 19th century, the area was crossed by European explorers such as the Portuguese Antonio Gamitto and the famous Dr David Livingstone that said: “It is impossible to describe its luxuriance.”    

Wildlife

The sheer abundance and diversity of wildlife in South Luangwa National Park will rival the best reserves in the world. Lions are the most common predators, and their large prides are relatively easy to spot. Every now and then, a lucky few guests are treated to a hunt.  The park is possibly the best place to find leopards, as their consecration of one leopard for every 2.5 km² is twice that of Kruger National Park. Thus, you are very likely to come across this elusive predator on a night drive. Spotted hyenas are frequently seen. Wild dogs do occur, but are seldom seen and there are only a handful of cheetah sightings in a year. Impala is by far the most common antelope, followed by the puku.

Thousands of hippopotamuses congregate in the Luangwa River. Elephants are plentiful and not too skittish around people. Buffalo herds more than a hundred strong are present. The only Big Five animal missing is the rhinoceros, which has sadly been hunted and poached into extinction. Special sub-species such as Thornicroft’s giraffe, Cookson’s wildebeest, Crawshay's zebra and defassa waterbuck attract wildlife enthusiasts from around the globe. The tropical forest and dry plains allow for hundreds of birds to be found in the park. During the rainy summer, yellow-billed storks with pink breeding plumage fill the trees and migrants are abundant. A few special species include the African skimmers, giant eagle owls and carmine bee-eaters.

Vegetation & Terrain

The South Luangwa National Park stretches over two eco-regions: on the lower parts of the valley Zambezian and Mopane woodlands are most prominent, whilst the higher areas are covered by the southern Miombo woodlands. Both regions can be classified as woodland savanna, and grassland can be found within these areas. Closer to the river, patches of floodplains are also prevalent, which are extremely important for the river ecosystem including the larger animals, such as the crocodile and hippopotamus. With an elevation of between 500m and 1000m above sea level, the lower rainfall is largely a reason for the presence of the Mopane trees in the lower regions.

The Luangwa River that winds through the park - one of the main tributaries of the Zambezi River - generally floods in the rainy season, and is one of the largest in Zambia. It also houses the largest concentration of hippo in the world. The tributaries of the Luangwa River are dry throughout most of the year, but the giant mahogany trees that can be found on their banks can be followed all the way to the park's main river. The key to the park's lush and diverse flora lies in the volcanic, nutrient-rich soils that have been shaped over the millennia, and even include salt pans such as the Kakumbi pan located in the Nsefu region.

Activities

South Luangwa is a premier safari destination with a variety of safari options to choose from. Bush walks, where guests are accompanied by experienced guides through the unspoilt wilderness, allow visitors a rare glimpse into the natural habitat of the wildlife. On boating safaris in the green season, you can sit back and relax whilst taking in the lush scenery. Aquatic mammals such as the hippopotamus and various reptiles such as the crocodile can be seen up-close. Birding safaris offered at Luangwa are specifically designed to meet the particular needs of birding enthusiasts, and are accompanied by either an ornithologist or an expert birding guide.

Game drives are an excellent way to view larger game and explore more of the park's lush landscapes, and some lodges even offer night drives which offer a rare glimpse into the lives of the nocturnal animals (many of the animals are nocturnal hunters). Guests can take a break by visiting the tranquil Bush Spa, where various beauty and relaxation treatments are offered, that make use of traditional ingredients. A cultural immersion can be experienced at the Kawaza Village situated just outside the park. In 2000, the village was even awarded the British Guild of Travel Writers’ Silver Otter Award for the “Best Overseas Tourism Project.”

Experiences to be Savored

Guests on a walking safari in South Luangwa encounter a herd of buffaloes.

Strange Rocks

The Luangwa River is beautiful on its own, but ever so often, driving up to it, you are sure to see some rock formations that weren’t there the day before. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the moving rocks are in actual fact a massive herd of hippos.

On track

The walking safari at South Luangwa National Park is one of the best in the world. Walking along the tracks of the various animals that inhabit the area, over the grass plains and through the shallower river channels, allows guests to truly connect with nature.

Tree-top scouting

Leopard sightings in the park are one of the most sought-after by guests. Strangely enough birders often find these marvelous creatures lying nonchalantly in the trees, keeping an eye out from their elevated position – so be sure to scout for them.

FAQ

Why aren’t there any rhinos in the area?
Sadly, South Luangwa's rhino population has been poached into extinction
Are there any health-related factors that I need to take into consideration?
There are malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the area, so it is advised that you see your personal physician before visiting.
What are the animals that we'll most likely see when on a safari?
The most common animals are elephant, impala, puku, bushbuck, warthog, zebra and giraffe.
When are the lodges closed?
Some lodges stay open all year round. Those that do close, however, close during the wet season, when certain roads become impassable.
Is the tap water safe to drink?
Yes, it is safe to drink the tap water, but bottled mineral water will be readily available at the lodges that you are staying it.
Is there any internet connectivity in the park?
Yes, there is even a small internet café, and, in certain lodges, WiFi is available.
Are boating safaris safe?
Boating safaris are safe. However, as with any other type of safari, wild animals aren’t always predictable, so it’s best to listen to the expert rangers on how to act.

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