Geologically, the Luangwa Valley is part of Africa’s southern spurs. It is nearly 500 kilometres long and on average 120 kilometres wide. The Luangwa River meanders down its length. Fed by many tributaries that rush out of the hills in the rainy season, it winds through flat alluvial country where it changes its course often and leaves behind a random pattern of ox-bow lagoons that flank the river on both sides, until it reaches the Zambezi escarpment and flows through a series of gorges and finally empties in the Zambezi. The Valley is fertile, and its lush ravine vegetation, its dense thickets, the vast Mopane forests and its shimmering lagoons are home to a unique variety of wildlife. The Luangwa Valley is home to three national parks namely South Luangwa, North Luangwa and Luambe, nestled in between.
After spending the night at Mama Rula’s, the group of six 4X4 vehicles left the following morning for Chipata to restock at the Spar before leaving for our visit to the three National Parks in the Luangwa Valley. This was another Leisure Wheels 4X4 Safaris expedition led by the experienced Andre and Mariana van Vuuren from Explore Africa Adventures. Andre did the briefing the previous evening and the excitement levels were running very high.
The GPS co-ordinates for Mvuwe were entered into our GPS and we were all on our way. On the way we stopped at Tribal Textiles, an interesting textile factory just outside Mvuwe. We watched the workers as they free handed painted on locally produced cotton and of course we all could not resist making a few purchases before continuing on to the Park.
South Luangwa National Park is about 250 kilometers northeast of Lusaka. Bordered by the Muchinga escarpment to the west and the mighty Luangwa River to the east, this premier park offers exceptional scenery and an immense variety of wildlife. Elephant and other mammals such as leopard, buffalo, and lion gather around the Luangwa River, which is itself home of some of the largest concentrations of Nile crocodiles on the continent. Cookson’s wildebeest and Thornicroft’s giraffe are indigenous to the Park, and there are over 400 species of bird to be found here.
Our first three nights were spent at The Wildlife Camp, on the banks of The Luangwa River. After a hot and dusty trip we were delighted with the view that was in front of us. The campsites of South Luangwa are all situated outside of the Park in the GMA (Game Management Area) and on the banks of the Luangwa River. Wildlife Camp is really in the wilderness and boasts good ablution facilities, a lovely pub and pool overlooking the river. The river is low at this time of the year and the Hippo’s congregate in large groups, with just their nostrils and ears above water, snorting constantly.We spent our day’s game viewing driving along the riverside, beside lagoons and through Mopani woodlands. The bright green of the Sausage Tree stands out amongst the dry surroundings. We saw a variety of wildlife including the Puku, Thornicroft’s Giraffe and Zebra. Seeing predators are always a highlight and we were fortunate to have good Lion and Hyena sightings. We were told by Andre that they had a Leopard in the campsite on their pervious visit. Most vehicles in the park were ranger’s vehicles with few private vehicles driving around and this was fabulous as you could get close to the animals for good photographs.
The group also went for an evening game drive with our guide Billy and spotter Isaac. The knowledge and friendliness of the guides was amazing. We had a sunset drink alongside the river before setting off on the night drive. Amongst other, we also saw civet and large spotted genet. The birdlife along the rivers and lagoons was awesome. We saw large groups of yellow-billed storks, pelicans, crested crowned crane, carmine bee-eaters and Lillian’s lovebirds.
Our next destination was Luambe National Park, sandwiched in between South and North Luangwa. We travelled through neat little villages and vast open plains before entering the Nsefu Sector of the park at Milyoti Gate. This is really off the beaten track and completely un-commercialized. On our way we had to cross a couple of steep ditches and the dry riverbed of the Lukusuzi River. In the rainy season the park is closed as it is not accessible by vehicle. ZAWA announces the opening date every year in March, but the opening date is normally on the 1st op April. Due to heavy rains it was only opened in May this year. The entrance to this part of South Luangwa is only a hand crafted wooden boom guarded by a ZAWA (Zambia Wildlife Authority) official with an AK 47. About halfway through the Nsefu Sector, we suddenly came upon an area of green, covered in birdlife with Puku grazing the green grass. This was the Hot Springs bubbling out of mother earth to give water to the animals during the dry winter months. The water at the hot springs was almost boiling hot and we could not hold our hands in it for long.
We entered Luambe National Park at Luambe “Gate”, another pure Africa experience before heading for our campsite at Luangwa Wilderness Lodge for the next two days was. Once again we set up camp alongside the Luangwa. The river in front of the camp was literally filled with Hippo’s and we had a memorable evening around the campfire with Andre telling interesting stories and sharing his experiences in the African bush.
Driving through the Plains the following morning, we passed some ZAWA scouts on foot. They were very friendly and told us that they were patrolling for poachers. Animals are very skittish and run when a vehicle approaches. The park is surrounded by hunting concessions and that do have an influence on the behaviour of the animals.
Later that afternoon we made our way down to The Third Lagoon to have a sunset drink when Andre suddenly stopped the Land Cruiser. His well trained eyes picked up something high up in one of the many mopany trees and he said he thought he had spotted a Pel’s Fishing Owl. We all got out our vehicles and on foot followed the “bird”. To everyone’s excitement Ian managed to get a good photo of it and Andre was correct .It was indeed a beautiful juvenile Pel’s. This was definitely the highlight of Luambe for many of us.
Before leaving for North Luangwa the following morning we all contributed to the pot and had a hearty full English breakfast on the bank of the Luangwa in the company of hundreds of hippos.
The remote, yet game-rich North Luangwa National Park is situated upstream of the South Luangwa National Park and to the west of the Luangwa River. In addition to the wildlife species found in South Luangwa, the park also contains hartebeest, reedbuck and statuesque eland with bird such as Giant Eagle Owl, Pel’s Fishing Owl, Crested Crowned Crane and various species of Bee-eaters. It is the only Park in Zambia where you can view the Big Five. The beautiful woodlands are criss-crossed with rivers, including the Mwaleshi River, which traverses the escarpment in a series of waterfalls. North Luangwa offers a true wilderness experience, with access restricted to the few companies – and their guests – permitted to conduct walking safaris in the Park.
From Luambe we traversed the road via Chitungulu and Zokwe Village. From Mapanda Village we crossed the Lundazi River to Chivunda. That evening we camped at Chivunda, one of the It’s Wild community bush camps. The camp is normally open from the 1st of June to the 1st week of November. We all had a good time and John Brislin even tried his hand on some Nemwe and Tiger fishing. The ZAWA scout game to our camp and Andre finalized all the park entry permits for North Luangwa and the pontoon crossing of the following day. Crossing the Luangwa River with the Mwanja Pontoon was another experience that will always stay with the group. The pontoon can only carry one vehicle at a time and is operated by only one man. The surroundings are beautiful and nobody minded spending the hour to get the six vehicles safely across.From here, we travelled all along the Luangwa via Delia Camp and the airstrip to Mark Harvey’s Buffulo Camp where we spend the night. On our way to the camp Andre led the convoy through the most beautiful Cathedral Mopane forests and we saw Cookson’s Wildebeest, Lion , elephant and a mega herd of Buffalo. Some of us camped under a huge inter woven Natal Mahogony and Sausage Tree overlooking the Mwaleshi River, while others stayed in the chalets.
Buffalo Camp is a seasonal bush camp opened from June to October. It is located on the Mwaleshi River and is one of the last unspoiled wilderness camps in Africa. There are six chalets available at the camp and all are overlooking the river. Buffalo Camp is unique in that it is one of the only camps that allow children of all ages. Guests can enjoy both walking and driving safaris, although walking is the predominant activity. Walks are not an endurance trip but more a meander. These trips are conducted by highly experienced Zambian guides and are always accompanied by an armed Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) scout. Explore Africa’s future safaris to North Luangwa will definitely include two or three nights at Buffalo Camp and will include a walking safari with the extremely knowledgeable Mark Harvey.
The next morning we woke early and did some bird viewing before leaving for our final day in the valley. We drove through the Rhino Sanctuary where 28 Black are kept, but were unlucky to see any. Exiting the park at Mano Gate we climbed from about 650m to about 1320m above sea level through the most beautiful woodland forests with red leaves from the Pod Mahogany to the bright green of the Mopani.
The safari was well planned and expertly guided and the Luangwa Valley is hidden gem. There are few people there and The Valley is all but isolated from the rest of the country. Surrounded by steep hills and escarpments it has been until recently been virtually only accessible by foot. The climate is harsh, from heat and drought in the dry season to torrential flooding during the rains. The Luangwa Valley is possibly the last great wilderness in Africa that has not been spoiled by mass tourism.