Since moving to Zambia, I’d heard nothing but good things about the South Luangwa. Located in Eastern Province, relatively close to the border with Malawi, the South Luangwa National Park is around 9,050km². I had heard before visiting that this was the go-to place for wildlife sightings, and boy I was not disappointed. You’ve heard of Africa’s big five: elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhino, well the South Luangwa has them all apart from the rhino, which has been devastatingly poached to extinction in this particular park. Despite the sadness of missing out on the final of the big five, the South Luangwa is unparalleled in terms of a beautiful and pristine natural setting.
Being a popular safari destination within Zambia, those travelling from abroad, may not realize how lucky you are to have a safe and well tarmacked road to get to the South Luangwa. For residents or those having visited Zambia before, this is a rarity, and therefore like me, you spend the long drive, simply in awe of such smooth tarmac!
First of all, a word of warning about Google Maps in Zambia. First rule of using Google Maps is to not rely on them for directions or routes. Second rule is to take the journey time suggestion with a big dolloping of salt. I love using Google Maps as I drive, especially on this trip because it was good for seeing in advance big winding mountain turns but be sure to do some research first of the exact route to take.
Let’s assume that most people reading this, and those travelling to Zambia will be coming from Lusaka. Even if you’re not (like I wasn’t) Lusaka will be your major passing point to get to the national park. When travelling from Lusaka, you first want to head to Chipata, a small “city” (I’d use the term very loosely) close to the Malawian border. It is a simple but long drive to Chipata from Lusaka, around 7h45m in total along the T4 road. As I previously mentioned the road is almost perfect by Zambian standards, so this time scale is pretty accurate. The drive to Chipata enables you to enjoy spectacular views of rolling hills and mountains, it really is very scenic. About 3h30m into your journey you’ll reach the Luangwa Bridge, a beautiful stop on the way (although you have to be quick to find a pull in as there aren’t many available). I’ve been preaching a perfect road, but just another warning of a heavily pot-holed section before the bridge heading to Chipata; you will really need to reduce your speed here and watch out for oncoming traffic, as you’ll spend a while on the opposite side of the road avoiding damages to your suspension! Once you have reach Chipata you will take the D104 road to the National Park area. A lot of the lodges in the area are located a short 5-minute drive outside the park along the Luangwa River. Google Maps suggests that journey is just shy of 2 hours, but I would add another 30 minutes as a precaution. So, an estimated journey time from Lusaka to the National Park is around 10h30m for a leisurely drive, however if your familiar with the road and leave early you can be hitting 9h30m no problem.
A lot of people, especially those visiting as tourists will take a short flight from Lusaka to Mfuwe Airport. A flight for one person return in August (peak season) is around $300 (ZK6,800). It is obviously cheaper to drive, but this is a great option for those with little time or who do not want to face the long drive. Flight time is 1h10m and I can only imagine the spectacular views on offer from the air.
WHERE TO STAY
So, let’s talk lodges. There are plenty of lodges to choose from in the South Luangwa, from the luxurious Mfuwe Lodge to others like Murula Lodge which offer both affordable luxury and tent and backpacking affordability. Below is an extensive list of lodges in the area, so you can see for yourselves where would be best for you to stay.
Kaingo Camp, Flatdogs Camp, Nsefu Camp, Kafunta River Lodge, Chinzombo Safari Camp, Luangwa River Camp, Tafika Camp, Tena Tena Camp, Nkwali Camp, Sanctuary Puku Ridge Camp, Chichele Presidential Lodge, Bushcamp Company Lodges, Island Bush Camp, Kakuli Bush Camp, Nsolo Bush Camp, Luangwa Safari House, Mchenja Bush Camp, Marula Lodge, Mwamba Bush Camp, Luwi Bush Camp, Robins House, Three Rivers Camp,
Whilst in the South Luangwa I stayed at Marula Lodge. It was such a nice setting, and the safaris were incredible. I would highly recommend Marula as a great and most importantly affordable place to enjoy your safari experience. Set right on the Luangwa River my tent overlooked a large hippo family and 5 sunbathing crocodiles. The lodge itself offers both comfortable and very comfortable lodge rooms as well as river tents and backpacking accommodation at affordable prices. In between day and night safaris you can relax in in the pool or take a comfy seat to watch what I called ‘Live Hippo T.V.’ One of the most amazing parts was seeing the elephants stroll into the lodge grounds.
There are two seasons with varying package prices. Peak season is from 1st June to 31st October and emerald season is from 1st November to 31st May. There are 4 package types to choose from, but they can also be tailored to your specific needs. I initially started with the 3 night 4 game drives but ended up adding two more game drives (I was truly addicted). I added a morning walking safari and another evening game drive. Here are the peak season prices based on 4 nights and 6 game drives. It should be noted that Emerald Season does have cheaper rates. I also think Emerald Season is such a beautiful time of year, there’s still green on the trees and wildlife sightings are still plentiful.
Backpacker’s Dorm – $280
Riverside Tent – $380
Comfortable Rooms -$620
Very Comfortable Rooms – $728
* Rates based on 4 nights 6 game drive during peak season (US$)
The staff were so friendly and welcoming, and you can expect some very tasty food from their restaurant. The quiche was to die for! As well as the staff in the lodge, the safari staff were amazing, especially Donald! Not only did I see amazing animals, but I also learned so much about different species and their habitats! And man, that guy has a knack for spotting just about anything (leopards up trees & tracking wild dogs).
In the South Luangwa you can enjoy walking safari’s and traditional game drives in both the morning and evening. The list of incredible animals we saw was plentiful but some sightings included: elephant, lion, leopard, zebra, giraffes, warthogs, hippos, African civet, banded mongoose, large spotted genet, grey headed kingfisher, bush baby, yellow billed storks, hyena, wild dogs, and quite a few more. See some photos from the safaris below.
A 10/10 highly recommend a visit to South Luangwa and Marula Lodge.