The South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia is one of the truly great safari regions of Africa. Each time I am more impressed than before and genuinely in awe of what the South Luangwa offers. Game rich and stunningly beautiful along the course of the Luangwa River, the park is best suited to visitors with a passion for an authentic African safari. It is not really a place to ‘pop in’ to see a few animals on route to the beach, but rather a destination to savour the traditional values of a wilderness adventure, an escape from everyday life into the natural world.
The South Luangwa offers wonderful game-viewing from vehicles and it is entirely possible and normal to spend most, or all, of your safari seeking out the big game in this way, including excellent night drives. However, The Luangwa Valley (including the northern park) has long been known as a classic walking destination, and there is no better way to truly immerse yourself in the region than exploring on foot from small, remote camps.
With this in mind, I was excited to spend half my time in the Luangwa exploring just such opportunities. The sense of adventure was perhaps increased by the early season conditions – few visitors and thick vegetation with high grass in many areas. But as the dry season progresses the conditions will change, with increased visibility through the bush, dramatic game concentrations around water sources and from late August the migrant birds begin arriving.
In the south of the park, I had a wonderful 24 hours around the shallow, sandy Kapamba River which flows into the Luangwa. A gentle evening stroll turned up fresh wild dog tracks and as we enjoyed cool drinks and the sunset from the middle of the river (chairs set up in the gentle flowing water – great fun) we wondered whether the dogs would still be around in the morning. We were not disappointed as our next walk along the Kapamba found them resting in the shallows, presumably after a successful early morning hunt. The seven dogs looked in great condition and were due to ‘den’ shortly in the area. This was my first dog sighting in the valley and a genuinely special encounter.
A couple of days later and I spent the morning walking along the Luwi River, further north in the park, between two isolated bush camps. The feeling of tranquillity was immense. We watched zebra drinking nervously at a waterhole, impala bounding effortlessly across the plains, puku relaxing on the sandy river bed, and we followed the fresh lion tracks of those which had been roaring throughout the night. We saw five separate sets of leopard tracks, nearly always accompanied by hyaena tracks.
Crossing to the east of the Luangwa River, I spent a night under canvas on a private walking safari. There is something magical about a private tented camp, set up in the heart of bush with a safari bucket shower and dinner next to the camp fire. Serenaded through the night by noisy hippo, a Scops Owl, a foraging hyaena, lions across the river, and nervous baboons in a nearby ebony grove, it really was a night in the wild. The walking too was excellent. We encountered elephant herds and tracked a leopard until the bush became too thick to continue safely. A series of oxbow lagoons provide wonderful walking country in this, the ‘Nsefu’ sector of the park – at times I wondered if I had stepped into Eden, such was the richness of life and the beauty of the scene.
However, my most memorable couple of days was spent in the far northern section of the park in an area to the west of the Luangwa where there are no roads at all. Access to the region is on foot from the river, and for nearly two days I did not see or hear a vehicle or set foot on even the remotest of bush tracks. For anybody looking to truly ‘escape’, this is how to do it. The game-viewing was superb and the couple I joined in camp had spent the previous morning tracking leopard which ended with a rewarding sighting. They were the only people in the whole area before I arrived. That night a herd of buffalo grazed around us as we sat around the camp fire, clashing horns and lowing in the darkness. During the day, puku, zebra and impala grazed in view from my bush chalet, baboons foraged along the tree line and a herd of elephants wandered through. It was simply magical. We heard hyaena and lion calling in the night, and heading in that direction the next morning we scared hyaena off a hippo carcass (they heard us coming and were no doubt watching us as we discussed the likely demise of the hippo) and later caught a fleeting glimpse of a young male lion as it darted for cover. It was a wonderfully remote and authentic safari experience, from the big game tracking to showering under the stars and lying in bed with the sounds of Africa lulling you to sleep.
We are able to offer any combination of driving and walking in the Luangwa – as always we offer genuinely tailor-made safaris – but the time I spent walking on this trip reminded me about the ‘wilderness factor’ which is so rewarding but a little harder to find these days!