South Luangwa

Every place we go to, we give it a Wildboys rating out of 5. South Luangwa deserves 6. This has without doubt been the best national park we have visited thus far. It has a wonderful mix of bushveld. From wide-open floodplains littered with Puku and Impala to dense Jackalberry forests resided by Bushbuck and troops of Baboons and Monkeys, all beautifully situated alongside the Luangwa River. A river with many big twists turns and horseshoe bends, long sandy banks and tall sidewalls frequented by huge flocks of colorful Carmine and White-Fronted Bee-Eaters. The river itself is littered with pods of grunting hippos, drinking elephants, wallowing buffalo and plenty large crocs. This is simply an extraordinary setting!

And then there are the leopards! South Luangwa is the second most densely populated place on earth for leopards. The highest concentration of leopards is, surprisingly, in the massive Indian city of Mumbai – a city of 20 million people! This shows just how adaptable this amazing cats can be, living in the cities parks and forests and often hunting domesticated livestock brought into the city by its inhabitants all under the cover of darkness.

It is easy to see why leopards are thriving in South Luangwa. The large trees and thick bush lining the river provides ideal cover to rest and hunt and there is an abundance of general game with herds of Impala and Puku, ideal sized prey, scattered all over the park. On the one night drive we took, we saw three leopards in just a few hours. In two of our sightings, we were lucky enough to witness the leopards hunting. Using a dense thicket as cover, a large male watched and waited as a group of Puku settled down on the bordering floodplain for their long night. A few times, the male edged forward, trying a few different angles to approach the antelope. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to witness a full on attack. But the night was young, and we left the scene to let the events unfold under the night’s dark skies. A Porcupine and several Large Spotted Genets rounded off an incredible night!

In total, we saw seven different leopards in the four days we spent in the park. This was with only one night drive. I am certain that if one could spend more time exploring this park after the sun goes down, some incredible events would be witnessed!

But it is not only the leopards that make this place special. The scenery and abundance of general game are enough to warrant a visit here, even if there were no big cats.

There are no campsites inside the park itself, only a few private lodges. A number of camps providing different accommodation options have been set up outside the park not far from the entrance gate. We stayed at Wildlife Camp, which has an awesome bar, pool area, and camping ground overlooking the Luangwa River. Having arrived in the early evening after a long drive from Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, we set up camp and got ready for the next day in the park. After about 300m on that first morning, just after leaving Wildlife Camp and having not yet reached the park entry gate, we bumped into three Wild Dogs bouncing along the road in their busy style! We followed them for a bit before they trotted off into the bush. What a way to begin our stay here! We knew we were into something great here in the Luangwa Valley!

We also saw a pride of lions sleeping off the remains of a buffalo kill, probably made just a few days before we arrived, along with another pride of young adolescent lions on the Eastern side of the park.

Camping outside the park was interesting and very different to what we were used to. Driving to the gate each day, we passed numerous elephants, hippos and various antelope, and of course those Wild Dogs! But between these sightings, we also drove past locals collecting wood, walking between the different villages, or riding their bicycles to the various lodges to sell fruits, vegetables, and other merchandise. This is true Africa! Where animals and people live alongside each other and form part of each other’s daily lives. Yet this can have its downsides too. A newly built tarred road connects the large town of Chipata about 150km away to the town of Mfuwe, a much smaller town that borders the park. This has allowed people to travel to Mfuwe far more easily and the town has grown substantially in recent times. Upon our arrival at Wildlife Camp, we were warned by the staff there of incidents of crime that have taken place in recent times. Criminals from the town and its surrounding villages have been known to come into tents at night and steal personal property. Never a nice thing to think and worry about, especially when you have the most incredible national park just across the river…

A further, and more concerning result of Mfuwe’s population explosion is poaching. On our final day in the park, Woku and I were bumbling our way slowly along the river when we picked up the smell of something dead. Following our noses, we found a dead elephant on the river bank! Driving up the edge of the bank, we were very pleased to see an old, yet ragged and not so beautiful leopard, filling himself up on the free meat! And there was also another male, obviously less dominant to the one already feeding, patrolling the outskirts, waiting for his chance at a free meal. This clearly indicated the denseness of the leopard population here! A bunch of crocs were waiting in the water nearby, no doubt biding their time for nightfall, when they become braver and venture out the water. Woku and I discussed the different possibilities of death. Perhaps the elephant was sick and spent his final hours at the riverside, water being the only respite from its suffering. Or maybe it had just made a mistake whilst walking along the river bank, tripped, fell and broke an ankle or leg and wasn’t able to recover. But those scenarios were unfortunately not the case…

We later found out that the elephant had actually been poached. We had seen fisherman setting their nets on the river, and other villagers living on the opposite river bank, the border of the park. The river being the primary source of food, water and general livelihood for these people. But the river also provides a very easy access point to the park. Rangers would have extreme difficulty patrolling the long stretch of water. Poachers can get into, and out of the park with ease. The dead elephant we saw was simply having a drink at the river, as he had done so many times before, when poachers shot him down from the safety of their boat on the water, hacked out his tusks and crossed the river again to safety. Once again, Woku and I questioned what type of experience our children would have if they were to visit South Luangwa in a 20 years time.

We broke up our days in the park by taking a day off from game viewing to watch the Lions in the Super Rugby final! We managed to find a TV playing the game at another lodge called Croc Valley and decided we have to watch the game! We have seen quite a few Lions on our trip, but none quite as ferocious as those operating out of Ellis Park this season! But, despite the valiant effort of 14 men in the second half, it was not the result we wanted and we went back to our campfire to think what might have been…

All in all, it was an incredible week in what must surely be one of the top wildlife spots in Africa! Do yourself a favor and go see it for yourself before it’s too late…

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