In 1904 the Luangwa Game Park was declared on the eastern bank of the Luangwa River, but the park was not maintained. In May 1938 three parks were defined in the Luangwa Valley: the North Luangwa Game Reserve; the Lukusuzi Game Reserve; and the South Luangwa Game Reserve. In 1949 Senior Chief Nsefu established a private game reserve on the Luangwa River’s eastern bank, between the Mwasauke and Kauluzi Rivers.
This became the Nsefu Sector, which was absorbed into the boundaries of the present park when new legislation turned all game reserves into national parks in February 1972. Situated at the tail end of the Great Rift Valley, in the Luangwa Valley, the South Luangwa National Park is wild and remote. It has an abundance of wildlife that is rarely seen in other game reserves and is one of the finest wildlife sanctuaries in the world. This huge area of pristine wilderness is home to a large variety of game and birds, as well as the bigger predators.
The survival of the valley depends on the winding Luangwa River, crowded with hippos, crocodiles, and wading waterfowl. Few parks can match this phenomenally high game density nor do they have the ability to show visitors such remarkable wildlife in so remote and isolated a wilderness. There are many excellent lodges in this park.
Experts have dubbed South Luangwa National Park as one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world, and not without reason. The concentration of game around the Luangwa River and it’s oxbow lagoons is among the most intense in Africa.
The Luangwa River is the most intact major river system in Africa and is the lifeblood of the park’s 9,050 km2. The Park hosts a wide variety of wildlife birds and vegetation. The now famous ‘walking safari’ originated in this park and is still one of the finest ways to experience this pristine wilderness first hand. The changing seasons add to the Park’s richness ranging from dry, bare bushveld in the winter to a lush green wonderland in the summer months. There are 60 different animal species and over 400 different bird species found in the park. The only notable exception is the rhino, sadly poached to extinction.
Seasonal changes are very pronounced in Luangwa. The dry season begins in April and intensifies through to October, the hottest month when game concentrations are at their height. Warm sunny days and chilly nights typify the dry winter months of May to August. The wet season begins in November as the leaves turn green, and the dry bleak terrain becomes a lush jungle. The rainy season lasts up until the end of March and the migrant birds arrive in droves. Each lodge stays open for as long as access is possible, depending on its location in the area.
South Luangwa Wildlife
The hippopotamus is one animal you won’t miss. As you cross over the bridge into the park there are usually between 30 and 70 hippos lounging in the river below and most of the dambos and lagoons will reveal many. There is estimated to be at least 50 hippos per kilometer of the Luangwa River.
Crawshay’s Zebra (Equus burchellii crawshyi), a subspecies of Burchell’s Zebra, can be seen running in small herds of about a dozen. The difference between Crawshay’s ’s zebras and the more common (E. burchellii burchellii) species further to the south are the stripe patterns. Here the patterns are without shadow striping and are thinner stripes extending down to the hooves and under the belly as opposed to the more Burchell’s broad light stripes with a faint shadow stripe in-between.
Thornicroft’s Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis thorncrofti) is unique to Luangwa Valley and therefore a specialty of the region. Also seen, but not common are Cookson’s wildebeest (Connochaetes taurines cooksoni) – a subspecies of the Blue Wildebeest.
South Luangwa has 14 different antelope species, most of which are easily seen on day and night drives. Watch out for the elusive bushbuck, preferring to inhabit densely covered areas. The common duiker is not that common near the Luangwa river but inhabits the backcountry of the Luangwa Valley. The largest of the antelope is the eland, usually near the Nsefu sector of the park. The most numerous antelope is the Impala, these gregarious animals can be seen in herds all over the park. Not to be confused with the Puku, of similar size, but a much fluffier buck with a rich orange coat and also prolific.
Perhaps the most beautiful is the Kudu, with its majestic spiral horns and delicate face. Although fairly common, they’re not always easy to find due to their retiring habits and preference for dense bush… Reedbuck, roan, sable, hartebeest, grysbok, klipspringer and oribi are all here but not prolific in the central tourist area of the Park. They tend to stay deeper in the remote parts towards the Muchinga escarpment.
Hyenas are fairly common throughout the valley and their plaintive, eerie cry, so characteristic of the African bush can be heard on most nights.
South Luangwa also has a good population of leopard but they are not easily seen and tend to retreat when they hear vehicles. Many of the Lodge’s game trackers are skilled in finding leopards on night drives, however, and often visitors are rewarded with a full view of a kill.
Lions are as plentiful in the Luangwa as anywhere else in Africa, but when a kill is made away from the central tourist area, the pride may stay away for several days and may not be seen by visitors on a short stay. Very often they roam in prides of up to thirty.
Other carnivores present but not often seen include caracal, wild dog, serval and side-striped jackal.
The Luangwa river also has an extraordinarily high number of crocodiles. It is not uncommon to see several basking on the riverbanks or even floating down the river tearing at a dead animal.
Night drives are fascinating in the Luangwa. Not only for the chance of seeing a leopard but for the many interesting animals that only come to life at night. Genets, civets, servals, hyenas, and bushbabies as well as owls, nightjars, the foraging hippos, honey badgers, and lion.
Birdwatching is superb in the Valley. Near the end of the dry season, when the river and oxbow lagoons begin to recede, hundreds of large waterbirds can be seen wading through the shallows. The red-faced yellow-billed storks move along with their beaks open underwater, disturbing the muddy liquid with their feet until the fish flop into their mouths. The pelicans tend to operate in lines abreast, driving the fish before them into shallows before scooping them up into their beak pouches. The striking 1.6m saddle bill stork makes quick darting movements into the water. Then there’s the marabou stork, great white egrets, black headed herons, open billed storks and the stately goliath heron that can stand in the same position for hours before pouncing. Of the most beautiful are the elegant crowned cranes, with their golden tufts congregating in large flocks at the salt pans.
Around the same time, just before the rains set in, in November, the Palearctic migrants from Northern Europe and the intra-African migrants arrive to exploit the feeding opportunities that the warm rainy season brings. These include the red chested cuckoo, white storks, European swallows. Swifts, hobbies, and bee-eaters, as well as birds of prey such as the Steppe eagles and Steppe buzzards that come all the way from Russia. A special sight is the hundreds of brightly colored carmine bee-eaters nesting in the steep sandy banks of the river.
With about 400 of Zambia’s 732 species of birds appearing in the Valley, including 39 birds of prey and 47 migrant species, there is plenty for the birdwatcher to spot, whatever the season.