Zambia's South Luangwa National Park

The Kingdom of the Elephant

The Luangwa River rolls out of Tanzania, drifting slowly through Zambia on its way toward the Zambezi. As it winds southwest, it meanders through open woodlands, its waters curving into oxbow lakes and silty lagoons. Off to the west, the Mchinga Escarpment rises to form a natural wall. Between the river and the rift lies one of the last hidden jewels of Africa: Zambia's South Luangwa National Park.

South Luangwa is perhaps Zambia's finest example of an enlightened policy that has set aside large portions of the country as wildlife reserves. Covering almost 3,500 square miles, the park is mostly miombo woodland, with open grasslands in the north and stands of African ebony along the river. A bit over 400 miles from the capital of Lusaka, South Luangwa offers a remote wildlife experience far off the typical East Africa track. And if foot is your favorite mode of travel, South Luangwa is the place to head. The Zambians pioneered walking safaris, and offer some of the best in Africa.

Once known as "The Crowded Place" and "The Kingdom of the Elephant," the Luangwa Valley boasted 100,000 behemoths. The elephants loved the tracts of mopane woods that dotted the landscape. Despite losses to poaching during the 1980's, 15,000 elephants still roam the area, making the park a prime destination for viewing the beasts. Staring at an elephant from ground level, unprotected by the steel of a game vehicle, makes for an experience to test nerves of steel.

Hippos are another beastly attraction. As numerous as their land-based brethren, they wallow in the lagoons where the river twists. With 15,000 churning up the mud, the Luangwa banks are one of the best spots for viewing Hippos out of the water. Crocodiles also laze in the muddy flow.

Two of the rarer animals sharing the woods and grasslands are the white impala and Thornicroft's giraffe. Greater Kudu graze along the river, and a park extension east of the river offers good opportunities for seeing Cookson's wildebeest, a subspecies unique to the valley. Buffalo, zebra, puku, and waterbuck also live off the grasses. Lions, leopards, and hyenas watch the herds of grasseaters in the valley. All told, over 50 mammals call Luangwa home.

Over 400 species make South Luangwa a birder's paradise. Sharp eyes will spot sacred ibis, saddle bill and yellow bill storks, fish eagles, crested cranes and long-tailed starlings.

The park today provides a refuge for many creatures, but it also has one sad tale of failure. Find an old enough guide book and you will see the Luangwa praised as a bastion for the Black Rhino. Unfortunately, the Rhino's days have past, victim to gangs of poachers

Visitors can view the game of Luangwa in several ways, but its walking safaris have given the park its renown. Experienced safari rangers escort visitors for as little as a few hours, but a walk of 4 or 5 days brings out the real treasures. Exploring the wilderness walking from bush camp to bush camp unveils subtleties of the land that few experience. Night viewing with spotlights also complements traditional game drives, both in open 4WD vehicles. The nocturnal roamings of lions on the hunt, hyenas, civets and other creatures are revealed during the dark hours.

The dry season at South Luangwa runs from April to November. If you want to walk, plan on arriving from June to October, when walking safaris are conducted.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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