Valley of Adventure
My last visit to South Luangwa was during the height of the January rainy season – marketed as the ‘emerald season’ – and far removed from a standard safari experience, with heavy rain and widespread flooding severely limiting our explorations. Nonetheless, it was a memorable trip, and typical of what this superb park can offer in the hands of its innovative private operators. As expected, large mammals were widely dispersed, but that didn’t prevent us from tracking down lion and leopard almost daily, and enjoying a dramatic hour with a pack of wild dogs hunting impala. On a smaller scale, we enjoyed treats I’d seldom seen before, including mating African bullfrogs, a newly hatched clutch of baby crocodiles and a wriggling procession of sharp-tooth catfish crossing the road. When the roads ran out, we took a boat downriver, dodging hippos, watching elephants along the bank and enjoying a pageant of birdlife, with such seasonal specials as painted snipe and dwarf bittern. Night brought a deafening chorus of frogs and insects, the bush bloomed with flowers and butterflies, and the lush vegetation and vivid storm skies were tailor-made for photography. With few lodges operating, it felt as though we had the park to ourselves. This, by any standards, was an outstanding experience – putting paid to any preconceptions that the rainy season is no good for safaris.
That said, a visit to this park during the more popular dry season is not to be missed. South Luangwa is indisputably the jewel in Zambia’s safari crown, and when the bush dries out from August to November, its mosaic of floodplain, oxbow lake and ebony grove is teeming with wildlife drawn to the few remaining water sources. Hippos cram the seasonal pools and meander loops, while elephant and buffalo are everywhere. Among numerous predators, leopards are unusually abundant and often seen on night drives – along with civet, porcupine and other more elusive nocturnal species. Notable absentees include cheetah and rhino, the latter exterminated by the 1980s, but wild dog populations are growing – now regularly sighted – and the local Thornicroft’s giraffes are a unique subspecies. Among a good selection of antelope are eland, greater kudu and puku, the last of these as numerous here as impala. Specials for serious birders include Pel’s fishing owl, bat hawk and western banded snake-eagle, while breeding colonies of yellow-billed storks and carmine bee-eaters are among the highlights for any visitor.
In general, the visitor experience in South Luangwa is one of seclusion and privacy – with the occasional exception of the main gate area, where big cat sightings sometimes attract a cluster of vehicles. The park has gained a good reputation for its small, owner-run lodges, where wildlife wanders through at will. Perhaps its greatest asset, however, is its top-notch guiding – not just by vehicle but also on foot. It is often said that South Luangwa offers Africa’s best walking safaris, which range from morning walks to three-day trails. And in my experience – having tracked lions, dodged elephants and waited under a baobab as songbirds mobbed a slowly uncoiling python – this claim is hard to contest.