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Michele rediscovers the magic of Zambia’s Luangwa Valley

When I visited Zambia last year I dedicated my time to the Lower Zambezi and Kafue National Parks. This time I visited the South Luangwa National Park. It doesn’t matter how many times I return to this park, I’m always astonished by its incredible game viewing, wilderness, and scenery. A highlight for me on this trip was revisiting the remote North Luangwa National Park. It is as pristine and wild as it was when I first explored the park 18 years ago. The only word to describe it is ‘magical’.

I travelled in the hottest month of the year – October. Growing up in Zimbabwe, ‘suicide month’ was used frequently to describe the heat at this time of year by my parents and other locals and I never quite understood what they meant… until this trip! There’s no getting away from the fact that climate change is affecting our seasons and temperatures globally, and I’ve certainly noticed an increase in temperatures in Africa in recent years. If you’re travelling to Africa in the hotter months, you need to be prepared for the heat. However, if you can tolerate it (and I have lots of tips for how to keep cool) you’ll be incredibly well rewarded as the game viewing is SENSATIONAL!

Travel to Zambia is fairly easy – although no direct flights, several airlines including Emirates, Qatar Airways, British Airways and Kenya Airways offer good connections. I chose to fly via Johannesburg overnight with British Airways as I prefer a longer flight to get some sleep and to keep my body on a similar time zone. The following morning, I connected with Airlink to Lusaka and spent a night at the charming Latitude 15 in the leafy suburbs of Lusaka. We generally recommend a night in Lusaka to allow for any delays and to recover from your travels. Latitude 15 has beautiful, manicured gardens where you very much feel you are in Africa and can enjoy a lazy afternoon sitting under the Jacaranda trees listening to the beautiful birdsong.

After a good night’s sleep and hearty breakfast at Latitude 15, I transferred back to Lusaka Airport and flew south to Mfuwe, gateway to the South Luangwa Valley. I spent a couple of nights in the northern Nsefu sector of the park visiting Robin Pope Safaris’ Tena Tena Camp and Remote Africa’s Big Lagoon walking camp (previously Crocodile Camp). I absolutely love Remote Africa’s walking camps (Chikoko Tree Camp is the other, and together they form the Chikoko Trails). A couple of days in these camps is a fantastic way to explore this big game area, focusing purely on walking with not a vehicle in sight! Your guides are superb and incredibly knowledgeable, and the experience allows you to have exciting big game encounters on foot. Access to the camps starts with crossing a channel off the Luangwa River in a local ‘mokoro’, which only takes a minute or two. At the other side you’ll find your guide and scout waiting for you, at which point you walk off into the wilderness eventually ending up at the camp.

Big Lagoon’s new location is stunning, overlooking a large permanent lagoon (as its name suggests) which attracts an array of wildlife and birdlife. You feel very close to nature here and far away from ‘the real world’. The camp itself caters for just six guests and accommodation is rustic and very comfortable. Open fronted thatched ‘bandas’ have open air bathrooms so you can brush your teeth overlooking the lagoon and shower under the stars.

The next morning, I walked back to the river, took the return crossing by mokoro and walked across the sand bank to a waiting vehicle for my transfer to Tafika’s local Lukuzi Airstrip. I hopped on the small aircraft and enjoyed the scenic flight for approximately 40 minutes to the North Luangwa National Park. When I visited all those years ago there was only Mwaleshi Camp there, but in July 2019 Remote Africa opened another camp – Takwela on the confluence of the Mwaleshi and Luangwa rivers and so I spent a night in each to experience both camps and areas.

Takwela has a stunning location. The central area hosts a small bar, lounge and dining area all under thatch with lovely river views. The four chalets are built from local materials and, like all Remote Africa properties, have a lovely open air feeling. Traditionally, when visiting North Luangwa your prime activity would be walking, but the Takwela area has a road network which offers both game drives and walks. The wildlife doesn’t compete at all with the likes of the South Luangwa and being in such a remote area, the animals are not used to vehicles so a little skittish. However, it is ideal for those seeking pure wilderness and exclusivity and who like the option of game drives to enjoy the beauty and remoteness of the park.

The following morning, we set off on a walk northwards along the Mwaleshi River to Mwaleshi Camp around eight kilometres way. Walking along the river was beautiful, but we did have to push inland several times to get around elephants coming back from the river after their morning quench! It was an exhilarating walk and our guide, Alex, was excellent and communicated well with the scout. After an exciting hour or so weaving back and forth between the mopane and the river, we stopped for some water at the top of the riverbank. Our talking startled two male lions that were relaxing in the shade behind a small dune on the riverbank. We couldn’t believe our luck! They ran across the river to the safety of the opposite bank and lay down, their eyes meeting ours as they met through binoculars!

We made it to Mwaleshi by mid-morning, by which time the temperature had already reached 35 degrees and enjoyed refreshing cold drinks as we all excitedly talked about our morning’s encounters. Mwaleshi is such a charming camp and somewhere you feel instantly at home. The chalets made from local materials are dotted along the Mwaleshi River and I spent my siesta time watching a herd of elephant cool down in the distance and beautiful kudu come down to drink. Later in the afternoon we searched for more lions, this time upstream. Again with excellent guiding, this time by Brent, we found them on an island in the river just before dusk.

North Luangwa really got under my skin. The two days flew by and I fell in love with the park – its remoteness, stunning scenery, and feeling of adventure. As mentioned above, the wildlife does not compete with other parts of Zambia or Africa, but it is perfect for anyone yearning for pure wilderness and an immersive bush experience. It is magical…

After a sad farewell to North Luangwa, I hopped back on a plane and returned to South Luangwa. This time I was travelling to the park’s remote south to check out two new lodges – Sungani Safari Lodge and Kulandila Camp.

The properties are owned and operated by the Davy family, and they have transformed this area of the park, which was tsetse ridden with limited road networks and animals, into a little piece of paradise. Since they started their journey in 2019 they have made huge steps in conservation, transforming this once neglected area.

The wildlife is not as obvious as it is in the more central section of the park, it’s still a little shy, but the beauty is that your sightings are not shared with anyone else. The two properties are quite different with Sungani offering high end luxury whilst Kulandila is smaller with more authentic, but still very comfortable, tents. The family is very passionate about their conservation efforts and make every effort to engage you with their journey – their excitement is quite infectious. A stay here is ideal for those seeking high-end luxury, personal service and exclusivity.

From here, I hopped on a short light aircraft flight heading north to Kapamba Airstrip where I spent a night with The Bush Camp Company at their Bilimungwe Camp. They really do have an excellent operation. Their collection of camps are all very different in surroundings and style and all offer superb guiding and hospitality in a more remote area of the park. In the space of 24 hours we enjoyed bush pizza-making, followed by watching a lovely family of elephants cool down in the river, a baby elephant trying to get some sleep (but his sibling wasn’t having any of it!) and sundowners in the Kapamba river – bliss!

My final night was spent with Chikunto, a relatively new luxury tented camp in the more central area of the park. It has a good location being far enough away from the busier Mfuwe sector and with access to the excellent game viewing sections in the north. The camp has a warm feel and would suit those looking for a bit more luxury with a down to earth feel.

Zambia, as usual, delivered in so many ways. It’s a destination that offers superb wildlife, guiding and scenery as well as a variety of activities. The camps are generally authentic and in keeping with the natural environment, yet offer great levels of hospitality and personal service.

Michele stayed at Latitude 15, Tena Tena, Big Lagoon, Takwela, Mwaleshi, Sungani Safari Lodge, Bilimungwe and Chikunto.

Michele visited Shawa Luangwa Camp, Nsefu Camp, Tafika, Kulandila Camp, Zungulila, Kapamba, Chindeni, Chamilandu, Kuyenda and Mfuwe Lodge.