I had not realized it before I arrived in South Luangwa National Park, but I had been dreaming of it for years. Planning my road trip through Africa, I had always envisioned myself finding campsites deep in the bush, surrounded by wildlife, and just staying there, exploring the park by myself.
I wanted to know where the hyenas had their den, and which trees a leopard favored. I wanted to be able to tell which pride a lion was from, and where the bee-eaters were building their nests. In most parks you only learn general landmarks, and are lucky to have some chance sightings, but I wanted to feel like I understood the individual animals in the ecosystem.
I felt like I had this in Kenya, after years of exploring the Maasai Mara. I knew where the cheetahs hunted, and the wildebeest crossed the river during the great migration. I knew the members of the marsh pride, and the bends in the river where the hippos congregated. It is a wonderful feeling to be so intimate with an area that was so wild.
However, it takes a very special place to develop this relationship. It may have been possible in Ishasha or Kidepo in Uganda, but I did not have the time. The same goes for Samburu in Kenya. Virunga in the Congo does not allow camping, and the whole country of Tanzania was way too expensive to stay anywhere very long. Lastly, both Malawi and Ethiopia just do not have high enough concentrations of wildlife to make them interesting. South Luangwa National Park was just right.
While I could not bush camp in the park, the area is unfenced and so wild, it did not matter. Wildlife Camp sits just on the other side of the Luangwa river from the park, and is arguably just as wild. I saw hyena, genets, puku and African civets in my camp. On my second night, an elephant walked by me, and I had to jump back in the car for safety. I also heard the longing sonic grunts of lions nearby on three different nights. Then, on my last night, the deep throaty call of a leopard resonated through my camp, like the raspy vibrations of a lumberjack’s saw being pulled back and forth through a hollow tree.
In the park I watched puku and impala feast on the falling flowers of the sausage tree, and learned that leopards anticipate this, and lie in wait on their branches. I searched sausage trees until I found a leopard lying in ambush, and returned to find the same leopard scouting around the area on two other days. The rangers told me about the super pride of 17 lions in the Nsefu sector of the park, and I tracked them down next to the Luangwa river.
Retuning to a nesting site of carmine bee-eaters, I stumbled upon the hunting grounds of a pack of painted dogs, and found them there on three separate days, twice feasting on puku. On my last day, I found a beautiful male lion sitting in a prairie, he had a regal white hide with a distinguished amber mane. It was such a unique sighting, I almost stayed another day to try and find him again.
I stayed a week, and felt this wild park grow familiar. Honestly, if the trip did not have to move on, I would have stayed a month, and really gotten to know the habitat better. Sitting by the campfire and watching the sun’s glowing orb set over pods of hippos in the Luangwa river, and the stars float in overhead on a moonless night is the epitome of a wild safari.
I do not know if there is a better place to do that than South Luangwa. So, although it will always be a place where I will have to look all ways before getting out of my car, I am so happy to now have a connection to the ecosystem that will certainly bring me back for years to come. Now I know, South Luangwa was the park of my dreams.
Author’s Note: South Luangwa National Park is a fantastic park. You must go there, especially to see big cats. I found most wildlife driving south along the Luangwa river from the main gate, but if you go north you will hardly see anyone, and there are also great sightings around the marsh. Further, do not forget about the Nsefu sector where there is hardly anyone else, a pack of painted dogs, and a super pride of lions along the river.
Wildlife Camp is just outside the entrance, and offers camping or lodges. The campsites on the riverside are spectacular, and there is a swimming pool for the heat of the day. Kakumbi town is just a few kilometers from the park gate, where there is a petrol station, an ATM and basic amenities. Also, visit the ladies at Mulberry Mongoose, who are making some very stylish jewelry from poacher’s snare wire removed from the park.
While I approached the park from Lilongwe in Malawi, I traversed the park when I left, exiting just South of Mpika. Note, that while the distance is not far, the drive takes a long time. From Wilderness Camp to Kapishya Hot Springs it took me over eight hours (including having to change a flat tyre in a sand pit).
The road through the park is mostly sand, through mopane forest, so sightings are rare. There are two major river crossings, so consult the rangers before setting out. The most difficult part is climbing up the escarpment leaving the park. There are no people around, and it is steep and lined with perfectly sharp rocks for puncturing your tyres, so ideally I would want to drive it in a caravan, although I did not.