South Luangwa, Utterly Intoxicating and Virtually Empty...

by Philip.Mitchell

South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. One of Africa's great parks and still relatively undeveloped. The animals and vistas are breathtaking and you could be one of the few people enjoying them.

The first time you hear a sacred ibis calling as it skims across the Luangwa River, you would be justified in thinking it is one of nature’s more irritating sounds. Yet when you leave South Luangwa National Park, you will miss this noise waking you up and sending you to sleep as it will mean you are no longer in (by expert consensus) one of the greatest parks in Africa. It is a park where a sense of wilderness takes precedence over a sense of commercialism and where every sighting one of the 60 animal or 400 bird species that inhabit the park feels like a privilege, not a manufactured experience.
I first visited South Luangwa in August 2008 and then again in August 2011, and it didn’t disappoint on either occasion. It is worth bearing in mind that 2008 was the first time I had ever been on a safari and so there was a level of youthful excitement however that same excitement was there 3 years later. Luangwa’s vistas, animals and people are utterly infectious and have dug themselves a little nook in my mind, similar in shape to one of the Carmine Bee-eater nests that pepper the Luangwa River’s bank during their August migration every year.
On both of my visits I stayed at Mfuwe Lodge, one of the more upmarket safari lodges but like most of the lodges it is not surrounded by fences so you still feel very much a part of the park. It is nestled between an arm of the Luangwa River and a lagoon, with small 2 and 3 bed chalets with balconies overlooking either the river or the lagoon, filled with hippo and crocodiles and whichever animals come to drink there. You are always wonderfully aware of your surroundings as the chalets manage a happy medium by making it feel like camping whilst having more than just canvas between you and whatever visits during the night. It is at Mfuwe where every November, a small herd of elephants wander through the reception (literally) to get to the wild mango tree within the lodge. Whilst we were there an elephant by the name of ‘Wonky’ broke through the door to one of the food stores to get at the fruit.
It is worth noting you can only see 4 of the Big 5 here as sadly all of the black rhino within the park were killed in the 1970s and 80s by poachers. Having said that you will probably see the other 4 on an almost daily basis such is the density of game within the park. What Luangwa will give you is an incredibly rich and diverse safari experience, not just ticking off your Big 5. You will go on night drives and can go on walking safaris, two activities that are not offered in many other parks.
In fact Luangwa is famous for walking safaris and if you have the chance to go on a walking safari make the most of it. There is something very primordial about walking through scrubby bush and mopane forest, hoping and praying a buffalo or elephant doesn’t suddenly emerge. You walk with a guide and a scout (who carries a rifle) and as exciting as facing off a bull elephant sounds (this happened to us incidentally), it is also the little things you see and hear that make a walking safari such an educational as well as an exhilarating experience. You can even stay at camps where all they offer are walking safaris. These are buried deep within the park and are (according to many guides) the best way to experience South Luangwa.
A good guide can make or break a safari and the guides we have had in Luangwa were all brilliant. Having said that you get as much as you give to some extent and the more questions you ask them, the better your whole experience will be. All of our guides at Mfuwe knew the landscape and the animals intimately and one by the name of Patson had been working at the park since it was created in the 1970s. In fact we found the remains of a village whilst on a walking safari where it turned out his grandmother had lived before the creation of the initial game reserve in the 1930s. A memorable and humbling experience was sharing sundowners with him on the bank of the Luangwa River with the guttural calls of hippo echoing across the water as he recounted how the park was before the mindless poaching that so badly affected it.
However, South Luangwa could soon change as the main road to the park is currently being tarmaced. This means what was a 4-5 hour journey from Chipata on mainly average to poor dirt roads will now take half as long. You can fly in but this is of course expensive. It remains to be seen what affect the road will have on the park though it will almost certainly lead to more visitors. Obviously this is a good thing for the local communities and businesses around the park but there is fear it may lead to an increase in poaching, something that has taken 30 years to virtually eradicate.
If you visit South Luangwa, you will get a wonderfully remote African experience whilst seeing some stunning game in an equally stunning landscape. It is possible to go for hours without seeing more than a handful of other vehicles and this means that you may be the only one’s watching a pride of lions, an experience it can be hard to get in other parks. There is no doubt in my mind that as soon as it becomes more readily accessible, the numbers of visitors will increase dramatically as everyone will want a piece of what Luangwa undoubtedly has to offer. Simply put, you could do a lot worse than getting there before the crowds do...