Considered by some to be one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world, South Luangwa is one of Zambia's main draws. This 9,050-km² park is centered on the Luangwa River and is home to one of Africa's largest concentrations of wildlife.
Thanks to its inaccessible location, South Luangwa manages to combine immense density of wildlife with limited visitor numbers, and it's also one of the few national parks that allow night safaris. However, visitor numbers are steadily marching upwards, and the best time to visit is right now — before it becomes the next Kruger or Serengeti.
South Luangwa is dry woodland, watered by the meandering Luangwa River and its many oxbow lakes. The dominant tree is the mopane, but stately baobabs also dot the landscape here and there. In the dry season, most plants and trees seem to shrivel up and wildlife congregates around watering holes, allowing excellent viewing.
Flora and fauna
South Luangwa is home to a dazzling array of wildlife. You'll see hippos and crocodiles as soon as you cross the bridge over the Luangwa River, and elephants are hard to miss along the river's banks. Thornicraft's giraffe, with white legs and faces, and Crawshay's zebra, without the brownish "shadow-stripe" of common (Burchell's) zebra, are endemic to the park and easily spotted. Herds of buffalo roam the park, along with several prides of lions. The density of leopards is among the highest in the world, although spotting these nocturnal creatures can be tricky. All sorts of antelopes abound: impala are ubiquitous, the puku — rarely seen outside Zambia — is almost as common and there are plenty of waterbucks and bushbucks too.
South Luangwa is a dream come true for birdwatchers, with over 400 species recorded. Depending on who you ask, the best times to go are November-December (when the rains start), April-May (when they end) or August-September (when the water levels are at their lowest).
See also: African flora and fauna
The peak travel season is May to October. May to August it's still pleasantly cool and dry. September and October are very hot and the humidity is 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, other give reduced rates. The rainy season is the best time to go birdwatching. From March to June is the best time to spot the elusive African wild dog.
There are two major access points for the park: Mfuwe Gate, near the village of Mfuwe and connected by bridge, and the less used Nyamaluma 50 km to the southwest, where a pontoon ferries vehicles across the river.
Most tour groups will offer either the option to fly into Mfuwe or have a private vehicle pick you up (e.g., from Lusaka, Chipata, Lilongwe). Although these options offer the most convenient and comfortable means of getting to the park, they are not the only means of entry--and one can also access Mfuwe by means of public transport through much of the year.
The nearest airport is in Mfuwe, which offers flights to Lusaka, Livingstone, and Lilongwe (Malawi). Flight schedules are cut down in the green season. The airport is about 30 minutes away by car from the park entrance, and most lodges offer free transfers.
Mfuwe is 123 km by car from Chipata and mostly paved (2014), though road quality varies. It's possible to complete the journey in as little as 2 hours in the dry season in a high clearance vehicle (longer if a public vehicle is being used), but travel is more difficult, occasionally even impossible, in the wet season. Trucks ply the road, but can take more than seven very bumpy hours. In 2008 the journey took 2½ hours in a high clearance 4x4 private vehicle.
There is a rarely used very scenic track from Petauke down the escapement and along the Luangwa northward to Mfuwe, but it's best not attempted unless you're traveling in convoy and can repair any problems that crop up. Expect 8 hours for this unforgettable trip of 180 km.
By public transport
South Luangwa remains one of the few national parks suitable for budget travelers. Lodges offer relatively cheap rates (some with dorms), and the park can be accessed by public transport as well. Although as has been mentioned above most travelers access the park by way of plane or private vehicle (and most tour companies only have information about these two methods), it is also possible to reach by public transport from Chipata.
To Chipata from Lilongwe: Either (a) Take a minibus from the Lilongwe minibus stand toward Mchinji (~2 hr: 1000 kwacha in 2012), then a taxi or shared taxi to the border (15 min, 500 kwacha). After crossing the border, take a taxi or shared taxi to Chipata (15 min, 15,000 kwacha). (b) Take a bus from Lilongwe to Lusaka, but depart at Chipata. 'Zambia-Malawi' is a reputable company.
To Chipata from Lusaka: Take a bus to Chipata (~7 hr, 130,000 kwacha in 2012). Buses depart from InterCity Bus Terminal. Zambia-Malawi, Johabie, and possibly Juldans operate on a fixed time schedule (often referred to as 'time buses' by locals), but other coaches operate closer to minibuses (leave when enough passengers have boarded, which may take several hours or all day). If in doubt, ask locals or staff members, though the latter are more likely to mislead you. You will need to catch the first bus out of Lusaka in order to arrive in time to catch the same-day minibus to Mfuwe. If you do this, it is advisable that you coordinate with the minibus driver so that he anticipates your arrival.
Once in Chipata: There are nearly daily minibuses that run from Chipata to Mfuwe, the town just outside the entry to the Park. The PPDAZ minibus departs in the early afternoon (14:00) after collecting passengers and sometimes goods (i.e., to deliver to Mfuwe stores), and takes 3-3½ hours. There are other minibuses that may also bring passengers to Mfuwe, but, as opposed to the PPDAZ minibus (which leaves at a fixed time), are passenger-dependent and will only leave when full. The ride from Chipata to Mfuwe costs 60-70 kwacha (2014), though you may pay more if you request to be dropped off directly at your lodge or simply for being a 'muzungu.' To confirm your spot on the minibus and coordinate its pick-up (can pick you up pretty much anywhere in Chipata), call the driver (John--a very friendly and honest Zambian) at ☏if calling from Malawi). Call 1-2 days in advance.
There are generally two ways of returning from Mfuwe to Chipata. The PPDAZ bus leaves early in the morning (05:30), and will arrive mid-morning/noon in Chipata. Alternatively, the more traditional minibus tends to leave around 18:30-20:00 (~4 hr to Chipata by night) and costs 60-100 kwacha (2014). The minibus will drop you at the Chipata bus stand. If you are doing this with the intention of taking a morning bus to Lusaka, it is possible to buy your bus ticket when you arrive at the Chipata bus stand, then sleep on the bus until it departs in the morning. This is a safe (though can be cold) way to avoid the hassle of finding a hotel late at night upon arriving in Chipata.
With a tour group
- Kiboko Safaris, Mandala Road 4/278, Old Town, Lilongwe, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. This hotel and travel company based in Lilongwe, Malawi runs reasonably priced all-inclusive tours round-trip from Lilongwe.
- Jackalberry Safaris, ✉ email@example.com. The company runs affordable 3-, 4- and 5-day all-inclusive tours from Chipata with an interesting range of itineraries that include game viewing and cultural activities. From US$135 pppn.
- Land & Lake Safaris, Old Town, Lilongwe, ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Land & Lake Safaris offers standard and luxury safari trips to South Luangwa and is also specialized in tailor made trips in Malawi and Zambia.
- South Luangwa Safaris, Golden Peacock Shopping Complex, Lilongwe, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. South Luangwa Safaris specialise in tours to South Lunagwa National Park and other destinations in Zambia and Malawi. Discover a host of exciting itineraries combining South Luangwa & other Southern African countries.
- Marula Lodge, ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Provides accommodation and safari packages from their camp at the main gate to the park. Dorm from US$10; tents $15pppn rooms from $30pppn.
- The Personal Touch Ltd, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Daily 06:00-21:00. It has well-equipped game-viewing cars available for the hire to established lodges or individuals needing rental vehicles, transfers or transport in the valley. Beside high quality game viewing vehicles, Personal Touch offers a variety of transport options within the Mfuwe area. For volunteers assisting at various community projects wishing to hire a vehicle, to specific transfer needs to lodges, camps, or even researchers or filmcrews.
Fees and permits
As of 2016, the basic park fee is US$25 per day for non-Zambians. Extra fees are levied for bringing in your own vehicles ($15 foreign reg or 12,500 kwacha for locals). Complete list of fees here.
Entry permit is valid for a single calendar day (06:00 - 18:00).
Most visitors tour South Luangwa by car, either on safari drives organized by their lodge, or by their own 4WD vehicle. If going on your own, there are plenty of trails but the signposting can be a little haphazard, so pick up a map from the gate.
- It is possible to rent 4WD open top Land Cruiser from a local company in Mfuwe (Hardies Engineering, near airport).
During the dry season the water levels in the Luangwa River are too low to permit travel by boat. In the green season, however, some operators arrange canoe safaris, but trying this on your own is not recommended due to the large number of hippos (which capsize canoes) and crocodiles (which attack capsized canoes) in the river.
Independent travel on foot is not permitted, but you can join a walking safari (see next section).
See & do
The thing to do in South Luangwa is, of course, to go on safari. All lodges organize game drives, where a trained guide takes visitors around by a safari jeep. Safaris are typically arranged at the crack of dawn (wake-up call before 06:00), in the evening past 16:00 when temperatures have started to cool, and at night after sunset when high-powered spotlights are used to locate nocturnal animals like leopards, hyenas and civets. High-end lodges include drives in the price, but independent travellers pay US$20-25 each if you can rustle up 3-4 others to go.
Some lodges organize walking safaris, where you walk through the bush on foot and track animals with the help of a guide — an altogether different experience. Walking safaris can be as short as 4 hours, but multi-day treks where you stay overnight in "bushcamps" (usually far more luxurious than you'd think from the name) are more rewarding. You will not, however, save any money this way: costs are generally US$300-400 per person per day.
Buy, eat & drink
There are no public shops or restaurants in the park. Safari lodges usually provide three meals a day.
- How Bazaar Shop and Dog and Gat Bar, Flatdogs Camp (on the road to main park entrance). Sundry shop, bar and restaurant. Promises to satisfy enormous appetites, quench unbearable thirsts and guarantee monumental hangovers. Open all day.
In the July-September peak season demand often outstrips supply, so book in as far advance as possible. During the green season, however, many lodges close down and those that are still open can offer steep discounts.
Unless otherwise noted, all rates below are per person per night and include all meals, two game drives per day, park fees and airport transfers.
- Wildlife Camp, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Provides affordable rustic en-suite chalets, a secluded en-suite tented camp, a Bushcamp for overnight walking safaris and a campsite, all situated on the banks of the Luangwa River. Guides lead all the activities and, as they are all Zambian, they give a true insight into their own South Luangwa Park. A full board option is available at US$220 (peak) and includes accommodation, three hearty meals every day, all game drives or village tours, room cleaning & laundry as well as airport transfers. Open all year.
- Kafunta River Lodge, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Wonderful safari lodge with friendly service, knowledgeable guides, stunning views of the Luangwa River and the Luangwa Valley. It has a pool, a natural hot spring tub, a wellness spa, a hide and a tree deck. Kafunta River Lodge has its own pontoon 5 minutes from the lodge taking you to the more remote areas of the park and providing a shortcut to the main gate 10 km north of the lodge. US$370-490.
- Thornicroft Lodge, 5 minutes from main gate to park, ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Classically African on the banks of the Luangwa River overlooking the South Luangwa National Park. An intimate lodge with 9 chalets and a Zambia shaped swimming pool. Rates: US$205 low season and $255 high season per person per night including two four-hour safaris per full day stayed, breakfast, lunch and dinner and transfers, based on two people sharing. Specials: Thornicroft Lodge also offers upgrades from standard safari to walking safari and all-day in the park which can be requested by email. Standard package from US$205 pppn.
- Mushroom Lodge (Can be found as you enter the main entrance to South Luangwa National Park, travelling 2 km until you see a sign to the right), ☏ , , (mobile), (mobile), fax: . It is a unique site on the Mfuwe Lagoon inside the South Luangwa Park, and was built in the early 1970s to accommodate the Head of State and his VIP guests. The main lodge area boasts an expansive verandah that overlooks the lagoon, meals are taken here. The Mushroom Pub is a great social meeting area. The lodge features twelve double chalets, each with bathroom en-suite and wireless broadband internet. Each chalet is equipped with twin or double bed options and a spacious lounge complete with mini bar.
- Shenton Safaris, ☏ . Offers two bush camps and six photographic hides that are used regularly by National Geographic, BBC and Discovery channel for numerous photographic shoots and the making of wildlife documentaries. Visitors in these hides will have a unique up-close-and-personal view into the lives of these animals, enabling you to watch them undisturbed in their natural environment.
- 1 Zikomo Safari Camp, plot# 24623/M (135 km from Chipata via Mansumba), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. A small and personalized safari camp on a beautiful spot on the banks of the Luangwa river. This is the base for the South Luangwa Safaris are conducted in open safari vehicles. US$450-500 per person per night sharing on full board (all inclusive) We also offer camping at $20 pppn.
- Marula Lodge, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Budget accommodation right on the Luangwa river with chalets and safari tents. It's the closest lodge to the main gate of South Luangwa National Park and has lots of wildlife wandering through the property. There is a pool and bar/restaurant area and a kitchen so you can cook your own food. Good budget option with tents from US$12 or full board in a chalet for $150. US$12-150.
- Track and Trail River Camp, ✉ email@example.com. On the Luangwa River, with the park boundary on the other side of the river. Expect the daily elephant herds outside your window, lion prints outside your tent and hippos keeping you up all night. The 'terrifying at the time' memory of looking up at the elephants as they tred carefully around your tent throughout the night is definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity and not to be missed. The camp features a tidy ablution block, luxury tents, swimming pool, massage room, two storey chalets, shady trees. Each camping spot has electricity, running water and a barbeque. Great meals, friendly service, free airport transfers. Game drives are organised on request; ask for Godfrey. Camping US$10/7.50 in high/low season.
- Wildlife Camp (firstname.lastname@example.org) US$10 p.p.p.n. peak season. Offers a scenic site to camp and relax next to the Luangwa river. Swimming pool, bar, electricity and warm showers available. Game drives & restaurant is optional. Campers planning on bringing their own food to eat should be entirely self-sufficient as there are limited to no cooking facilities (i.e., a kitchen for backpackers to use) at the lodge.
Bushcamps are scattered throughout the camp, but are generally accessible only on exclusive safari tours costing US$300-400 per night. The largest operators are The Bushcampcompany Robin Pope Safaris, Norman Carr Safaris and Kafunta Safaris.
There is also a barebones camp site at the Nyamaluma pontoon, but using it is only practical if you have your own 4WD.
- Island Bush Camp, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Island Bush Camp lies under a grove of mahogany trees on the banks of the Luangwa River in the heart of the South Luangwa National Park. This intimate bush camp provides a real safari bush experience in rustic but comfortable accommodation in grass and reed huts built on stilts providing great views of the Luangwa Valley. The camp specialises in walking safaris but also offers game drives and night drives. US$270-495.
Mobile phones do work in the national park and nearby Mfuwe has GSM. However, all safari lodges and camps, as well as the airport, are set up with a radio system for local communication.
- CyberDog Internet Café, Flatdog Camp. Two terminals available at US$1 per 15 minutes. Open from 07:00 to 21:30.
Walking in the bush at night is extremely dangerous, and lodges provide escorts to take their guests even around lodge grounds. Hippos, crocodiles, lions and buffalo kill many people every year — although the victims are mostly unfortunate locals, not tourists.
- Mfuwe — village just outside the park, with some attractions of minor interest
- North Luangwa National Park — a short flight (or arduous drive) away, offers wilder game and fewer visitors.