Unspoiled and wild, South Luangwa National Park is the top destination for safaris in Zambia. Here is everything you need to know about planning your trip to this hidden gem.
The sun was setting down at the South Luangwa National Park, and we were finishing a sunset break at the shores of the Luangwa River. The temperature was warm, and the sky was calling for a storm. Meanwhile, herds of ten to twenty elephants bathed meters away from us while buffalos and zebras gazed with precaution and watched out for leopards and lions. It was an experience to remember.
Still, while I was thinking how such a scenery couldn’t get better, dozens, if not hundreds, of hippos came out of the water. They dotted the river’s shores as the darkness approached, and our night safari was about to start. At that moment, I understood why experts call South Luangwa one of Africa’s greatest wildlife sanctuaries – I preferred to call it, “Africa’s wildest paradise.”
South Luangwa is exciting, wild, and captivating. Still, good planning is required to make the experience even more memorable. Here is my guide on everything your need to know about South Luangwa and how to plan a trip to this national park.
Understanding South Luangwa
Considered by many as the most unspoiled and intact safari park in Africa, South Luangwa National Park is probably Zambia’s biggest hidden gem. Its inaccessibility and wild natural conditions make it a less popular choice for first-timers. At the same time, safari experts and wildlife lovers try to keep quiet to protect its beauty. This is not Kruger, Etosha, or Masai Mara, where dozens of vehicles wait in line to see a lion. Here, travelers drive carefully through the dense jungle to encounter lions, leopards, wild dogs, and elephants from one moment to another.
I went on a trip to South Luangwa National Park for just a few nights. However, the more time I spent in this wilderness and pristine location, the less I wanted to leave. If there is a single tip I can give to travelers visiting South Luangwa, it is to simply stay longer.
Accessibility and accommodation
Located in the valley of the Luangwa River on the northeastern side of Zambia, South Luangwa National Park’s accessibility is not as good as other well-known national parks around Africa. Still, this is one of the few big national parks where public transportation is still an option.
Travelers can get to South Luangwa National Park by public bus (Lusaka – Chipata – Mfuwe) or by a rental/private vehicle; expect the drive from Lusaka to be at least 10 hours long. A more convenient option would be combining a visit to South Luangwa in Zambia with a visit to Malawi. Lilongwe’s (Malawi’s capital) trip to Mfuwe is way shorter than from Lusaka.
Prices to get to South Luangwa National Park
- Public bus ( Lusaka – Chipata – Mfuwe) : 130.000 ZMW + 60.000 ZMW – 8-9 hours
- Public bus (direct bus): 220.000 – 12 hours
- Private car: 6-7 hours
- Flight from Lusaka: Direct connection with ProFlight Zambia – 150-200 USD – 45 min
Once in Mfuwe, the main gate to the national park is located just 20-30 minutes away, and transfers to the national park and drivers to get around inside the park can get easily arranged at guest houses, lodges, etc. or at Mfuwe city center.
The most convenient (as well most expensive) option is flying 45 minutes to Mfuwe from Lusaka with ProFlight Zambia. Visitors can agree with their lodge on a pick-up (most of the time free of cost) and talk to them for drives inside the park.
NOTE: Most lodges offer packages including accommodation, three meals a day, two games drives per full day (morning and afternoon), and transfers to and from the airport.
Where to stay
A visit to South Luangwa is definitely more affordable than Kenya or Tanzania. Still, it is way more expensive than in Namibia, Zimbabwe, or South Africa. Outside the park and depending on the location, lodging can go as low as 40 USD a night (for example, Croc Valley camp, near Mfuwe Gate), while inside the park, prices simply skyrocket – with accommodation prices starting at 300-350 USD a night per person.
The most convenient (and still affordable) option is to stay on the outskirts of the national park along the Luangwa River. Here, accommodation is way cheaper than inside the park, and the experience can be more rewarding. I stayed at Flatdogs Camp, a camping lodge next to the Luangwa River, located 5 minutes from the Mfuwe gate. Here, I was able to encounter elephants crossing the premises of the camp – yes, elephants inside the camp (I even had to hide one day from them) – as well hippos and antelopes that were gazing the whole night around our tents.
There are no fences around South Luangwa, so wild animals can quickly move freely in and out of the park. “you can sometimes even hear the lions roaring and passing by next to your tent,” said one of the staff at Flatdogs.
Best time to visit the South Luangwa National Park
Climate ultimately defines your visit to South Luangwa. While winter months (May to October) are considered the dry season and best time to visit the national park, the hot and wet summer season (November to April) is regarded as a wild card and sometimes a no-go time to visit South Luangwa.
From November to January, expect to have showers almost every day, and even in some cases, floods leave the national park completely inaccessible. Keep in mind, several lodges close their doors during this season (February to April) and open back in April when the climate changes and the rain stops.
On the other hand, May to October is excellent for game-viewing, as water is limited and animals congregate at the river and waterholes inside the park. Temperature is also cooler at this time of the year, making the experience more comfortable for those who can’t stand high temperatures and humidity.
Prices also tend to change depending on the time of the year. During the high season (June-August), prices can be almost double as in the low season. Travelers looking forward to having an incredible safari experience and saving some money are recommended to visit South Luangwa in November or December – dates on which the heavy rain has not arrived yet and chances to see animals are still high.
Activities inside South Luangwa
Considered to be the birthplace of the walking safari, probably every lodge and camp in the park offers this experience. While doing a walking safari in South Luangwa National Park, you will get a more personal encounter with wild animals. Still, you will also have the opportunity to learn more about animal behavior, animal tracks and see tiny species that can’t be easily observed from a vehicle.
The best part about a walking safari in South Luangwa is that you can go for one or two hours into the bushes and explore with a ranger or spend several days tracking and moving from camp to camp with an expert guide.
Additionally, the game-viewing in South Luangwa is simply outstanding. Here you can see four out of the big five (white and black rhinos disappeared due to poaching in the area), and for many safari experts, South Luangwa National Park is the best place to spot the elusive leopard.
During my safari drives in South Luangwa, I spotted multiple herds of elephants, a lion hunting a buffalo, wild dogs, dozens of different antelopes, countless hippos, and twice a leopard.
The Luangwa Valley also has a few species that you can’t see anywhere else. Thornicroft giraffes, Crawshay’s zebras, and the endemic Cookson’s wildebeest are some of the animals you can appreciate as a more experienced safari visitor.
Another highlight of South Luangwa is the opportunity to do night safaris, and this activity is quite popular among safari lovers and not possible to do in every national park. Here, your chances to see a leopard increased significantly, but also you can see other nocturnal animals such as the spotted hyena, genet, bushbaby, and porcupines.
Prices of several activities inside South Luangwa National Park
- Boating: 20 USD permit + Costs from the operator
- Canoeing/rafting: 20 USD permit + Costs from operator
- Camping: 5 USD fees from NP + rental equipment + rental space
- Night safari: Starting 30 USD per person (minimum 3-4 per vehicle)
- Game drive: Starting 25 USD per person (minimum 3-4 per vehicle)
- Safari walk (1-2 hours): Starting 20 USD
- Safari walk (full day during a multiple-day trip): Starting 150-200 USD per day
NOTE: According to the Zambia Tourism Website, South Luangwa National Park hosts the largest concentration of leopards in Africa. Expert Africa also suggests that there is an 80% chance of seeing a leopard in the wild on a visit to South Luangwa.
Cutting down the costs
A trip to South Luangwa can go as low as 100 USD per day if you really go on a budget. However, this would mean you to get overland to South Luangwa, stay at the least expensive lodge in the area and get three to four people every day to join you on game drives and share the driver’s cost.
More comfortable itineraries that focus on game-viewing and medium-class lodges will cost you around double the price of 200-250 USD a night.
For a trip to South Luangwa, the most determinant factor in pricing is the location of your accommodation and the quality of the accommodation itself. Lodges inside the park will cost you at least double or triple the prices outside, and lodges offering game drives and a full pension can cost more than double lodges without these services.
Unlike other parks, entry fees are a minimal cost for the final budget, as the entry fee to the South Luangwa National Park for a foreign adult is just 25 USD per day.
But don’t worry. Local operators are the best call for planning your trip if you want to make the most of your budget but don’t have the time to check and compare prices and options. Operators like local company Ntanda Ventures can get the lowest prices and the best connections for your trip without charging extra costs.
Entrance fees to South Luangwa National Park in 2022
- Zambian citizens: 41.700 ZMW
- Foreign residents/SADC Nationals: 20 USD
- Foreign visitors: 25 USD
- Self-drivers: 30 USD
How would I plan my next trip to South Luangwa?
If I revisit South Luangwa National Park, I would extend my itinerary a couple more days and schedule a multiple-day safari walk. This is probably one of the most unique experiences you can do in Africa, and South Luangwa seems to me to be the best place to do it.
When it comes to accommodation. Even though spending the night inside the national park sounds excellent, I think selecting the right lodge next to the river and outside the national park would be a better call.
Accommodation prices inside the national park are simply ridiculous. The experience from Flatdogs Camp (where I stayed in South Luangwa) was as good as any other experiences I had sleeping inside other national parks such as Masai Mara, Etosha, Hlane, and Serengeti.
Wilder than South Luangwa National Park, the North Luangwa National Park is another hidden gem in Zambia. However, development in this national park is almost nonexistent, and organizing a trip is way more complicated and expensive.
South Luangwa is still a gem for safari lovers. This is the place to go now if you want to get a memorable experience and glimpse of how a safari in Kenya or Tanzania was decades ago. This is one of my favorite safari parks globally. For anyone who has already done one or two safaris and is looking for something new, South Luangwa would be my top recommendation.
Read more: Which is the best park for safaris in Kenya?