South Luangwa National Park Zambia

Young Elephant

It was an uneasy night at our bush camp on the outskirts of Lusaka. Energetic lodge dogs kept us wide awake most of the night barking and chasing zebra. Eager to escape the noise and commotion, we departed early for South Luangwa National Park.

Baby Hippo
Smiling Baby Hippo
Tribal Textiles

On the way we visited a local textile project – Tribal Textiles. The elegant textiles they produce are a hand-painted mixture of traditional African art and contemporary designs inspired by the wildlife and surroundings in the breathtaking remote Luangwa Valley.

Thorneycroft's Giraffe
Thorneycroft Giraffe

The textile project was founded by a group of local Zambian artists in 1991 and has grown into a lucrative international business. The magnificent textiles are works of art, but my thoughts were with the next bush camp at South Luangwa and another exciting game drive!

Grazing Zebra
Grazing Zebra
Luangwa and Zambezi Rivers

We continued through the lush Zambian countryside to a point where the Luangwa River intersects the Zambezi River and forms a natural border between Zambia and Mozambique. The Zambezi is the fourth longest river in Africa and flows through six countries on its way to the Indian Ocean.

Hyena with Injured Paw
Hyena with Injured Paw

The bridge across the Luangwa River was heavily guarded and taking photos of the bridge or the armed guards is forbidden. The penalty is severe. Our guides explained this is for security reasons since the bridge is over a strategically important hydroelectric dam – Cahora Bassa.

Tribal Textiles Zambia
Tribal Textiles Zambia

Recently there has been tension in Mozambique between opposition party militia (RENAMO) and state security forces. I’m educating myself on the situation. The news media reported armed attacks on vehicles, and warned of a terrorism threat.

Elephant Family
Elephant Family

We crossed the bridge unscathed and reached our destination. Tired and sadly arriving too late for a night game drive, we enjoyed dinner and rested for the following day.

Saddle-Billed Stork
Saddle-Billed Stork

Our isolated camp was along the banks of the Luangwa River where we would be staying for the next two days. After so many one-night accommodations it’s comforting to hang your safari hat in the same place for two whole nights!

Luangwa River
Luangwa River at Dusk
Luangwa Riverbank Campsite

The guides said we would see hippos and crocodiles on the riverbank. Indeed we did!! We enjoyed a casual riverside dinner watching a spectacular scarlet Zambian sunset and listening to sweet African songbirds and base-sounding hippo grunts. We spotted a few sinister looking crocodiles scuttling along the riverbank.


Hippos are crucial to Luangwa’s ecosystem. When released into the river, their excrement fertilizes the water and supports the fish population which, in turn, sustains the crocodiles.” During the night when the hot sun isn’t beating down on them, lazy, sedentary hippos come out of the water to graze. I was tired and fell into a deep sleep, but some in the group heard grunting hippos roaming our camp during the night.

Cute Little Bee Eaters
Cute Little Bee Eaters
South Luangwa National Park

South Luangwa National Park is a world-famous wildlife sanctuary. Declared a National Park in 1972, the Luangwa Valley became an established game reserve in 1983. It covers over 9,000 sq. kilometers (3,500 sq. miles). The Park has 60 animal species and over 400 different exotic birds, including Bateleur eagles, fish eagles (Zambia’s national bird), bee eaters, lilac breasted rollers, and many unusual stork species like the exotic but endangered saddle-billed stork.

Young Lion
Young Lion

The park has large elephant and buffalo herds and a significant population of Thorneycroft Giraffe – a species endemic to the Luangwa Valley. A group of giraffes is called a “tower”. Beautiful, graceful giraffes have the best vision of any animal in the African bush. Coupled with their height they have the “greatest range of vision of any terrestrial creature”.

Impala – “Fast Food” of the African Bush

South Luangwa National Park is said to contain the largest population of leopard on the African continent. Park officials estimate that there is one leopard for every kilometer (0.6 mile) of river in the South Luangwa Valley. The area is appropriately called “the valley of the leopard“.

Leopard at Dusk
Luangwa Leopard at Dusk
Game Drives

The early morning game drive was not included in the safari activity package, but it was well worth an extra fee. The vehicles used are open jeeps suitable for six or more in the back and two guides up front. There were only a few of us, so we sat close to the friendly guide who answered our questions. Game drives can last from three to five or more hours – depending on the terrain, photo stops, and the amount of game spotted.

Hippo Fight
Hippo Fight Luangwa River

The morning game drive was mellow and memorable. We saw SO MUCH game including hippo, impala, zebra, giraffe, warthog, monitor lizards, wild dogs, crocodile, hyena, lions, elephant, buffalo, waterbuck, and many species of exotic birds! It was an incredible experience!

Marula Tree

One of the most exciting parts of the drive was our guide spotting an impala kill draped over a limb high up in a marula tree. Leopards are nocturnal, and they often hide their kill in trees and come back at night to eat when it’s dark and the meat has ripened. Our guide said we would return to the spot later during the night game drive and probably find the leopard returned to claim its kill.

Zambian Children
Shy Zambian Children

Every animal sighting was a precious, exciting experience but the two most unusual were a family of wild dogs and a huge herd of water buffalo. African wild dogs are an endangered species and our guides were surprised when we came across them – or rather, they found us…. The dogs were curious about the safari vehicle and came close to sniff around checking us out.

Wild Dogs
African Wild Dogs

We met up with a group of elephants, and the female matriarch didn’t like the safari jeep. She stood in front of our vehicle blocking the road, trumpeting, and raising her head in a threatening way.  We were respectful, gave her space, and stayed quiet. When she started to charge us, the guides put the jeep in reverse, and we high-tailed it out of there!

Luangwa Valley Zambia
Artist Depiction of Luangwa Valley Zambia

As we headed back to camp, a large herd of water buffalo suddenly appeared. There were hundreds of them crossing the road moving slowly toward the Luangwa River! It was stunning seeing so many of the magnificent animals in one place. The buffalo were curious and stood around the jeep staring us down and blocking the road with their massive bodies!

Buffalo Herd
Water Buffalo Herd

During the night game drive we returned to the scene of the leopard kill. Sure enough, shortly after dusk we saw the leopard had returned and was waiting to devour its prize. It perched nearby in a big marula tree sprawled out over a limb watching us with an air of cautious disinterest. In the soon to be pitch-black African night, it was difficult getting good photos – or at least it was for me.  A photo couldn’t do justice to one of the most beautiful animals in the world!

Zambia Map
Zambia Map

Multiple game drives in one day can be exhausting. I think night drives are the most tiring, but it’s the only way to see nocturnal animals like the leopard in their natural habitat. The guides use spotlights and find game by the light reflecting from their eyes. Since bright lights can be distressing and disruptive to animals, the guides soften the light by placing a red filter on the spotlight.

Park Entrance
Bateleur Eagle –
Zimbabwean Guides
Hippo River Gathering
Red Necked Spur Fowl
Daisy Stork with Babies
Monitor Lizard
Lion Thinking about Hunting…
Resting Lion
Heinz, Maria, Guide
Sue and Maria from Madrid with Game Guide

Bugs are a big problem. There are so many swarming in the night air you need goggles or a face mask for protection. Even though we sprayed ourselves with insect repellent, we still ingested bugs through our eyes, nose, and mouth!

Lilac Breasted Roller – rmiller

As we left the park, we saw a pride of lions stalking a zebra herd. We couldn’t tell if they made a kill. On the way home, we spotted a little chameleon climbing a bush along the road.

Sunset Luangwa River
Sunset Luangwa River

After such an exciting day in the bush, we were sad to leave the animals, but returned to camp to prepare for an early morning departure to Malawi.

Cahora Bassa Dam Luangwa River

More African safari stories later….


  1. Marilyn S Meyers

    Thanks – it’s been a little harder than I imagined getting settled in Cape Town but moving into a flat May 1st. The safari was something else and now reliving and experessing some of the days is a good mental exercise.

  2. suemtravels

    Thanks May – revisiting the adventure is good and helping me get over this rough period of finding a place to live in Cape Town :( so much more difficult than I imagined. Enjoy Hawaii!!! Hope you can visit!

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