Seasonal changes enhance the national park’s scenery. It shifts from dry and bare in the winter to a lush green paradise during the summer, as a result of summer rains. Between January and February, the Luangwa River floods and it turns the area into a rich, productive and beautiful ecosystem.
The Luangwa River, which flows right through the heart of South Luangwa National Park, is one of Africa’s most intact river systems. The river’s lagoons form the park’s eastern boundary and its muddy waters host an extraordinary number of Nile river crocodiles which can often be seen basking on the river banks. The Luangwa River is also home to several hundreds of hippos. South Luangwa National Park is not only renowned as one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world, but also boasts of being the first national park in the country to pioneer the now extremely popular walking safari. South Luangwa National Park covers 9,050 square kilometres. It is sustained by the Luangwa River which is the park’s lifeblood and main source of water.
Founded as a game reserve in 1938, it became a national park in 1972 and is the most accessible of the four national parks found in the Luangwa Valley (the others being North Luangwa National Park, Lukusuzi National Park and Luambe National Park).
Current on-going excavations have revealed some of the earliest evidence for humans in South Central Africa. Some of the discoveries that have been made have included Stone Age tools said to date back to at least two million years ago.
In December 1866, when world renowned missionary and explorer David Livingstone crossed the Luangwa at Perekani, he is known to have said of the area, “I will make this land better known to men that it may become one of their haunts. It is impossible to describe its luxuriance.”
The park spans two eco regions, both of them woodland savannah, distinguished by the dominant trees in the area. Southern Miombo woodlands cover the higher slopes of the valley, while Zambezian and Mopane woodlands cover the bottom of the valley. This is because the Mopane tree tolerates the higher temperatures and lower rainfall found at lower elevations, unlike the Miombo trees found on the higher plateau. The Luangwa valley has several different types of trees, the most common being the Leadwood, Winterthorn, some beautiful Baobabs, large Ebony forests, the tall Vegetable Ivory Palm, Marula, and the magnificent Tamarind tree.
The concentration of game around the Luangwa River and its oxbow lagoons is among the most intense in Africa, so much so, that some refer to it as a crowded Zambian game park. Since most travellers on a safari want to experience Zambian wildlife, South Luangwa National Park is a premier safari destination.
The Luangwa valley has one of the highest concentrations of hippos in Africa, estimated to be at least 50 per kilometre of the Luangwa River. South Luangwa National Park is also known for its huge herds of elephants and buffalos, which often move in hundreds. This game park is also home to an impressive 14 antelope species. The most common type of antelope is the Impala, which can be seen in herds all over the park. Impala is a favourite prey of the African lions and the numerous leopards that can be found in South Luangwa National Park. The Puku is another type of antelope likely to be spotted. It is similar to the Impala in size but is much fluffier with a rich orange coat. Arguably the most stunning of the antelopes is the Greater Kudu, with its majestic spiral horns and delicate face. The Reedbuck, Roan, Sable, Hartebeest, Grysbok, Klipspringer, and Oribi, can also be found in the park but are harder to encounter.
Unique to the Luangwa national Park is the beautiful Thornicroft’s giraffe. Other animals that can be spotted in the park include Cookson’s wildebeest and Crawshay’s zebra. Apart from the lions and the leopards, other carnivores present in the park include Caracal, Wild Dog, Serval, and the Side-striped Jackal. Not to be outdone, Hyenas are fairly common, and their plaintive, eerie cry can be heard most nights. The most common primates that can be seen are the yellow Baboon and Vervet monkeys. Other primates are the rarer Maloney monkeys, and bush babies.
It is also famous for pioneering walking safaris when visitors can experience the African wilderness first hand and feel part of it, while being led on foot by safari experts and armed guards.
Avid birdwatchers will not leave South Luangwa National Park disappointed. With about 400 of Zambia’s 732 species of birds appearing in the Luangwa Valley, including 39 birds of prey and 47 migrant species, South Luangwa provides plenty of bird watching and photography opportunities regardless of the season.
Hundreds of large water birds can be seen wading through the shallows of the Luangwa River near the end of the dry season when the river and oxbow lagoons recede. These include the red faced yellow bill, the striking 1.6 meter saddle bill and the pelican, which have a tendency to hunt in lines, driving the fish before them in shallow water before scooping them up into their beak pouches.
The more patient hunters include the marabou stork, great white egrets, black headed herons, open billed storks and the stately goliath heron that can stand in the same position for hours before pouncing. Some of the most beautiful birds to be seen are the elegant golden crane which congregates in large flocks at the salt pans. Special sights during the dry season include the impressive flocks of crowned crane, and from August onwards, the carmine and white-fronted bee-eaters which gather to nest in the river bank. Migratory birds from Europe that visit the valley just before the rains include the red chested cuckoo, white storks, and European swallows.
Interestingly, the name Luangwa means “fishing basket”, a reference to the great number of fish residing in the many pools, lagoons and Luangwa River itself. So there are without a doubt many fish to be caught. However, generally speaking, the Luangwa River is only navigable in the rainy season.
The best time to visit the park depends on what type of game you wish to view. The dry season begins in April through to October and game concentration is at its greatest in the hottest months.
The wet season begins in November, transforming the dry bare land into a lush green jungle. At the end of March, the rains tail off and the migrant birds arrive, making it a birdwatcher’s haven. This is known as the green season, with many Zambian wildlife species will be nursing their young.
If you want to get to the park by plane there are regularly scheduled one hour flights from Lusaka to Mfuwe airport, where a safari operator will collect you for the short drive to your safari accommodation.
By road, travel is more difficult, and sometimes impossible in the wet season. If you are driving you can can approach South Luangwa National Park from three sides. The usual route is from Chipata. This is a good road, if a little corrugated, and the 123 kilometre drive takes about two hours to Mfuwe which is just outside the Park. A robust 4×4 vehicle is recommended.
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 National Parks. It is passable but only open between August and October. 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.
The dry season offers better game viewing as most of the animals can be seen near the Luangwa River, drawn to it as a source of drinking water.