South Luangwa – Living up to Livingstone’s Expectations

Written By: The Lowdown - Jul• 01•00

I will make this beautiful land better known to men, that it may become one of their haunts. It is impossible to describe its luxuriance… Thus spoke Dr. David Livingstone in the mid 19th century when he first ventured across the Luangwa into this spectacular part of Zambia, the best known of Zambia’s 19 national parks – but sadly, only visited by a handful of Zambians.

In l999, of the 12,598 people who visited the park, only 3,112 were Zambians. The reason that Zambians don’t get to visit this magnificent corner of their country is simple. It is far too expensive to fly there, and the road from Lusaka to Mfuwe is so bad, that instead of the under-normal-circumstances eight hours that the journey should take, an extra four or five hours can be added on because of the frightful condition of the road.

Perhaps Zambian Airways could pull something out of the hat for local visitors. US$280 (return fare to Lusaka) is way above the average budget. Cutting the price to fill up the planes makes sense surely? Flying in to Mfuwe Airport is a wonderful experience. On a clear day, one has a bird’s eye view of the Luangwa River’s meandering course through the valley. Most Safari camps in the valley are situated on or near the river, so it’s always there, almost as constant as the sky.

The river has a charm all of it’s own with its massive sandbanks and oxbow lagoons. These are formed during the rains when the river tries to create shortcuts by cutting new channels. The cut-off watercourses form oxbow lagoons, and these lagoons play a vital role in the ecosystem in the Luangwa Valley, forming sanctuaries for hippos, crocodiles and birds. When the smaller rivers in the park dry up, the lagoons’ still hold water, and gradually a vigorous riverine vegetation forms.   Dried-up lagoons also provide fertile soil for grassland because of the silt deposited by the river.

It is around these oxbow lakes and lagoons that one sees most of the game, and on my recent visit, the most commonly spotted mammal was the all time favourite member of The Big Five – the elephant. On a trip to South Luangwa in l988, (my last visit) we spotted, over a period of three days, eight elephant. All were seen at a distance and the minute they caught our scent, they vanished into the bush in terror. This was during the time of large-scale ivory hunting, when the elephant population dropped from 35,000 to a mere 5,000. At the same time, the whole of the black rhino population of 4,000 animals was annihilated. My host at the park on this recent trip, well-known Safari Operator, Robin Pope has a wish, that one day the black rhino will roam free again in the South Luangwa. With the elephant population doubling in the last ten years because of far stricter control on poaching and generous assistance and aid from NORAD (Norwegian Agency for Development), this does not seem like an unreasonable wish.

As well as the elephant, there are over 100 mammal species in the South Luangwa National Park, and unlike other game parks that I’ve visited in Southern Africa, one stands a very good chance of seeing most of them.  Around every corner there’s the most-commonly-found- antelope in the Park, the Puku. Similar in appearance to the Impala, and related to the waterbuck, the Puku is found in small pockets in other national parks in central and southern Africa, but nowhere as numerous as in the South Luangwa. Thornicroft’s Giraffe and Cookson’s Wildebeest are also unique to the Luangwa Valley.

The bird life is numerous and spectacular. Even if one is not a budding ornithologist, one cannot help but be impressed with the variety of species. Out of Zambia’s more than 700 species of birds, over 400 have been recorded in and around the park.

An amazing sight at this time of year is the Yellow Billed stork colony that nests in the Chipela area – they’ve been there since January. The guano from the birds has left the trees in snow-storm-like state – white with the occasional patch of green. While I was there the young storks (usually two in a nest) were learning to fly. Such courage! One could almost sense their nervousness as they gingerly left the nest for a brief whirl around the trees, flapping their wings occasionally to keep balanced, and then steadily heading for home to a congratulatory pat on the bill by Mum. The cacophony when a martial eagle dared to land in a tree close by to keep an eye on hapless lame chicks resembled the sound made by spectators at a national football match when the ref. has made an unpopular decision.

There are numerous good reasons to visit the South Luangwa National Park. If not for the abundant animal and bird life, and the wonderful (at this time of year) lush vegetation, then the extremely friendly local people, the majority of whom are from the Kunda tribe. They welcome guests to one of their villages, Kawaza, which is situated near Chieftainess Nsefu’s Palace. Guests can sleep overnight there or simply spend a day joining in with local activities.

Accommodation varies in price throughout the Park – from US $30 to US $120 for locals. In next month’s edition of Lusaka Lowdown, we’ll give you the Lowdown on one of the finest Safari operations in South Luangwa, Robin Pope Safari’s. One of the RPS camps, Tena Tena was recently described by a journalist from The Times in London as “altogether beyond superlatives and must be one of the best safari camps in the whole of Africa. It is both remote and extremely civilised.”  High praise indeed, and yes, all quite plausible!

by Glenda Thompson

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