Expert Reviews – North Luangwa NP

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Northern wilderness
Overall rating

North Luangwa is South Luangwa’s remote and reclusive big sister. The terrain and wildlife are very similar, but there are only a handful of lodges, few roads and visitor numbers are minimal. Consequently this park offers a real wilderness experience for the safari purist – and I loved it. Most activities take place on foot, setting out with guide and armed scout along the Mwaleshi River or down to the Luangwa itself. Game is not as plentiful or as approachable as in South Luangwa, which reflects a gradual recovery from heavy poaching in the past. However, sightings are all the more special as a result.

During my four-day stay we tracked – and found – lions on foot three times, and on my final night I witnessed hyenas pulling down a puku in the river right in front of my chalet. What’s more, we did not encounter one other person or vehicle during my whole stay. Local wildlife specialities include a good population of Cookson’s wildebeest – endemic to the Luangwa Valley – and black rhinos have recently been re-introduced, inside an intensive protection zone.

Footsteps across the Mwaleshi
Overall rating

Compared to South Luangwa, the North Park is only half the size and attracts very few visitors to what is a truly pristine wilderness with only three modest camps created exclusively for walking safaris. All three are situated in the roadless southern wilderness area on the banks of the Mwaleshi, a blissfully clear and croc-free river. Among them is Kutandala, my all-time favourite bushcamp, run by Rod Tether who guides, and Guz, his wife, who cooks sumptuous meals. One memorable ritual here is to enjoy sundowners while sitting in the river with bat hawks zooming overhead.

The game is recovering well after the poaching holocaust of the 1980s and even black rhino have been re-introduced, although at present they are still confined within a so-called intensive protection zone. But all the rest of the Big Five are here, with lions very much in evidence, and the absence of giraffes is made up for by good numbers of eland, puku and Cookson’s wildebeest.

The lesser-known Luangwa, a back-to-basics walking safari haven
Overall rating

North Luangwa National Park is far less visited than its famous near-namesake South Luangwa. So if, after a few days in the southern park, you grow tired of seeing another vehicle in the distance every few minutes, a short hop north by light aircraft could prove very satisfying. There’s a small, dry-season camp here which is thoroughly rustic and, in my opinion, as enjoyable as any in Zambia – perfect for anyone looking for a back-to-basics experience, with superb walking safari guides on hand to take you on lengthy excursions into the bush. There’s a good chance of seeing elephants and even lions en route.

Taking a Walk on the Wild Side
Overall rating

This is Zambia as it should be - remote, wild and difficult to access. There’s a similar range of animals as South Luangwa, with all Big 5 accounted for, although spotting them can be tricky as the park is lush and overgrown. Walking safaris are the prime activity and wandering around is your best opportunity, in Zambia, to combine premium wildlife watching and a remote, wild location.

There are enormous buffalo herds (don’t get too close), and plenty of predators to keep them in line such as hyenas and lions. Your best off flying straight into one of the camps as entry by 4WD is hazardous and not possible when the Wet season drags on - I got caught out by late rains the last time I tried to drive in.

Come face to face with big game in a remote wilderness
Overall rating

If you're looking for a remote wilderness experience and close up encounters with big game you'll find them here. North Luangwa is only open for a few months a year and has no permanent accommodation - only three temporary camps operate here.

A visit to the park is all about low impact bush camping and walking safaris; and with access only possible through a few select operators; there are only a handful of visitors in the park at any one time.

The park’s ecosystem is similar to that of its neighbour, South Luangwa, with a large lion population, leopard, elephant, endemic Cookson’s wildebeest, and huge herds of buffalo. An encounter with the latter whilst out on foot makes for a heart pumping but unforgettable experience.

A North Star
Overall rating

North Luangwa is one of the most uncommercialized parks I’ve visited. There are only a couple of camps here along the banks of the Mwaleshi River, with a new one due to open soon. The main drawcard for North Luangwa compared to its bigger sister South Luangwa is the sense of bush solitude it evokes in a raw and genuine wilderness. All the Big Five are here, including rhinos which are now (relatively) easier to see since their intensive protection zone was increased – we saw fresh dung when we were there but the rhinos themselves eluded us.

Walking safaris are superb with excellent guides. We tracked a pride of lions on foot and stayed just 10m/32ft away from them for an hour. Getting close to a huge buffalo herd was far more nerve-wracking. The NGO Frankfurt Zoological Society have done a brilliant job in restoring the wildlife after it was virtually poached out in the 1980s and 1990s. Although the wildlife can still be a bit skittish, that makes the sightings even more special.

A Zambian Wilderness Rediscovered
Overall rating

This remote protected area offers one of the finest wilderness experiences in Zambia, if not Africa itself. Frankfurt Zoological Society has done a phenomenal job of protecting and resurrecting this iconic national park. There are only a couple of seasonal bush camps (focusing on first-rate walking safaris along the Mwaleshi River) with no permanent lodges established in the park, although plans are now afoot to put in 4x4 routes and campsites.

Remote North Luangwa scores full marks for its wilderness value and wild vibe. It feels untouched and there is something wrong if you are not overwhelmed by the park’s natural beauty and rapidly rebounding wildlife. From the western bank of the Luangwa River to the top of the dramatic Muchinga Escarpment, which rises over 1,000 meters from the valley floor, the diversity of habitat types and trees is mind-blowing. In the midst of this area the rhino intensive protection zone is home to Zambia’s only black rhino population. We were lucky enough during our visit to see a few of Zambia’s rare rhinos, along with large numbers of elephant, buffalo, hippo and general game, as well as lion and leopard.

North Luangwa is a very special place – perfect for die-hard African safari addicts.

A vast tract of undisturbed bush in the valley of the mighty Luangwa River.
Overall rating

The sister park to South Luangwa is very rarely visited as access isn’t easy and there are very few seasonal camps. I was lucky enough to experience North Luangwa on an adventurous self-drive safari and loved the solitude, varied landscapes and the sense that I had this vast piece of Zambian bush practically all to myself. The Luangwa River is the highlight; it gushes violently across the broad flood plains after the rains, is a mere placid trickle over pebbles and sandy furrows in the dry, and is always a beacon for animals. I count myself privileged to see a large pack of wild dogs here splashing in the shallows, numerous hippos and crocs while fording it in my four-wheel drive vehicle, and a couple of black rhino partially camouflaged in the acacia thickets on the steep riverbanks. For the latter, the North Luangwa Conservation Program (NLCP) is doing a sterling job protected sizeable numbers in the park. North Luangwa is a great destination for a private well-guided safari, and is particularly good for walking. But more of an effort is needed to see game here than popular South Luangwa, and the low-impact mobile camps maybe a little rustic and challenging for some. The reward however is enjoying exclusive wildlife-watching and the opportunity to appreciate one of this region’s last untamed wildernesses.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.0/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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