Beating The Safari Crowds: Zambia's Luangwa Valley

In the second installment by David Bristow on alternatives to the Okavango Delta, we visit Zambia’s Luangwa Valley.

Don’t you just love the names – Kafue, Luangwa, Zambezi; they spell out a litany of adventure and anticipation of the primordial wilderness. The Luangwa River is, like the Kafue, a major tributary of the Zambezi, both tail-ends of Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

There are two Luangwas: North Luangwa and South Luangwa national parks. As a North American analogy South Luangwa would be like Louisiana, while North would be like Alaska (the Okavango Delta would be California: lovely but getting ever more crowded).

The Luangwa River winds a serpentine, sometimes braided channel through the rifted valley, forming lagoons, ox-bow lakes, reedy backwaters and wide flood plains. Its outermost banks are stitched with large riparian trees such as African ebony, mangosteen, mopane and marula, leadwood and baobabs … ah, those enchanting names again.

Southern Africa’s Largest Unaltered River System

The Luangwa is southern Africa’s largest unaltered river system – no dams, no towns, no industry and, with very few exceptions (including a few notable community development projects), no large-scale agriculture. It is a honey pot for wildlife though, with elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, hyenas, and antelope to travel a long way to see. Otherwise rare puku and lechwe antelope are among the most common here.

On the other hand it would disingenuous for me not to mention the scandal when the powers in Lusaka allowed rhinos to be poached to extinction here in the 1970s and 80s. A runner’s-up compensation is the fact that the valley is the only place where you will find Thornicroft’s giraffe and Cookson’s wildebeest.  Note: the seven varieties of giraffe found in Africa have of late been awarded full species status.


Bilimungwe Bushcamp set up in South Luwanga National Park

One of the Best Birding Localities in Africa

The river and surrounding woodlands are one of the best birding localities in Africa, with great avian spectacles especially when the river dries to shallow pools in winter and birds in great profusion congregate in frenetic clusters to feed on the trapped fish: yellow-bill and saddle-bill storks, marabous, herons, egrets, pelicans, kingfishers and one of the local “lifers”, Pel’s fishing owls.

There are around 400 recorded species but many visitors come to see just one: the early summer arrival of the carmine bee-eaters that nest in high sand banks on the outer curves of the river and perform swarming aerial ballets in vivid technicolor. The river also accommodates the largest concentrations of hippos and crocodiles in southern, and possibly all of Africa (some crazy local safari guides have been known to paddle it end to end).


Carmine Bee Eaters in South Luangwa National Park Zambia - photo courtesy of The Bushcamp Company

Ground-zero for Leopards

South Luangwa gets, let’s not fib here, pretty wet and boggy in summer, but most safari camps and lodges there these days are solid structures and open all or most of the year. If its leopards you want to see, not the semi-habituated animals you’ll encounter in some of the big-name lodges in South Africa and Botswana, Luangwa is ground zero for the secretive spotted cats.


Leopard in a tree within South Luangwa National Park Zambia - photo courtesy of The Bushcamp Company

Accommodation ranges from camp sites with minimal facilities for self-sustaining safaris, to more than comfortable lodges. There is, however, a noticeable absence of “five scatter cushion” lodges (see previous post for an explanation).


Traveler relaxes and observes elephants at Bilimungwe in South Luangwa Tanzania

This is Africa more raw in tooth and claw than most elsewhere. Prices are also generally between half and a quarter of those in the Okavango. I cannot think of any other good reasons why you should not visit, and I shouldn’t have to.


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The first version of this article was posted on 9 Feb 2018 at 10:30 AM.