South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia, the southernmost of three national parks in the valley of the Luangwa River, is a world-renowned wildlife haven. It supports large populations of Thornicroft's Giraffe, and herds of elephant and buffalo often several hundred strong, while the Luangwa River supports abundant crocodiles and hippopotamuses. It is one of the best-known national parks in Africa for walking safaris. Founded as a game reserve in 1938, it became a national park in 1972 and now covers 9,050 km².Although the park is generally well-protected from poaching, the park's black rhinos were wiped out by 1987, and the elephant population has been under serious pressure at times.One of the park's greatest visitor attractions is at Mfuwe Lodge, where every November, a small herd of elephants walks right through the Lodge's reception area in order to reach a wild mango tree.
Before getting to our final stop in Zambia, South Luangwa, we did an overnight stay in Lusaka to sort our Tanzanian visa as we had heard that there are huge queues if you wait and do this at the border
. Lusaka had some nice spots but also like every capital city some dodgy parts too.
We had a bit of a mission to get to South Luangwa. Firstly there was an overcrowded, smelly bus from Lusaka to Chipata for 7 ½ hours. Then when we arrived in Chipata there is two choices, either a cab, which obviously costs more or a minibus which waits to fill up before leaving. The cab option seemed too expensive (USD 100 !!!) so we decided to wait for the minibus. One minibus was just about to leave and it was so choc full of people and luggage that we decided to try and negotiate on the cab price again. The road from Chipata to Mfuwe, the village nearest to South Luangwa is notoriously bad with a 120km journey taking over 4 hours as the drive is slow and very, very bumpy. This was another reason why we could not face the packed minibus. We found a cab and negotiated the price down and set on our way. The road was much worse than anyone had described with huge craters in the road and parts of it were nothing more than a dirt track. How the cab made it in one piece is amazing as the cab was pretty beat up in the first place.
We stayed at Marula Lodge which is within the national park, the park has no fences or borders so the animals are free to roam wherever, including the propery of the lodge
. This is the best paid accommodation we have stayed at in Africa. It was run by Jenny and Mike who were a lovely couple, really friendly and nothing was too much trouble. The lodge was based right on the river Luangwa and we could see hippo´s and crocs in the river. Jenny also warned us to be very careful moving about away from our rooms at night as hippo´s and elephants regularly come into the Lodge garden to feed. There was a security porter who was about at night to take you between your room and the outside dining room and main house. They also have had lions and leopards wondering in their grounds at various times too. This made the stay even more exciting although we were a little bit doubtful that they actually do have hippo´s and elephants right there in the grounds. On our last night after we arrived back from a night game drive there as large as life were two hippos grazing near our room. To make things even more exciting on our last morning in Marula, Rob was woken at 6am by loud munching. We looked out the window and right outside our window was a huge female elephant feeding on the tree and scratching herself against three. The rest of her family were part way up the drive. She stayed for about 20 minutes and then moved on with the rest of her family. She looked so cute and friendly munching away but Jenny advised that real care has to be taken with the elephants as nine villagers had been killed by elephants in the last year. We met another couple of travellers staying at Marula, Fabrizio, Nikolas and Paul and so we did a morning and evening game drive together to keep costs down.
The morning game drive was amazing as we headed out early and saw lots of buffalo, hippo´s, elephants and buck. We also saw a couple of hyena´s and the Thornicroft Giraffe, which is only found in the South Luangwa area. The best part of the drive was the amount of lions that we saw
. The first group included a lioness lying in the centre of the dirt road. We watched her for a while and then noticed that three male lions were lying in the grass really close to her. All four lions got up and moved into the bush. Our driver followed them and we tracked them for a while into the bush. They then lay down for a rest in the shade. We were able to get practically next to the lions and they didn´t really take any notice of us as it was clear from their huge bellies that they had had a massive kill last night so they were all happy, sleepy and relaxed. Our guide, David advised that if they were hungry there would be no way of getting so close as the lions would become aggressive. He explained that normally you would not see a lioness on her own with three male lions but what probably happened is that this lioness stayed with the three males to allow the rest of her pride to get away from the area as the male lions would have killed all of the cubs in the pride. To protect the cubs and the rest of her pride the lioness comes into a false oestrus so that the males will think that they can reproduce with her and this then gives the other females time to get away from the area with the cubs. Nearby we found another lioness keeping watch over her sister and the male lions from a distance. This lioness had recently fed and so we got extremely close to her in her relaxed state. The final lion sighting was a few km´s away where three of the lionesses pride were asleep in the grass. The cubs were nowhere to be seen though
Our evening drive was not as successful as the morning but we did make a final check on all of the lions that we had seen earlier in the day. They had all been sleeping in the spots that we had left them in earlier. We also managed to find a leopard sitting in one of the trees. To make it out you really needed to use the binoculars as it was quite a distance away. David was telling us that for the Zambian big five they have replaced the rhino with the hippopotamus. It is very difficult to see rhino's in the wild in Africa as many rhinos have been moved to protected areas to try to improve their numbers and to prevent poaching of them which is a major wildlife issue in Africa. So we did get to see the big five in Zambia (lion, hippo, buffalo, elephant and leopard). For the last part of the night drive when darkness fell we had a huge spotlight held at the front of the jeep to see the wildlife at night. We came across quite a few hippos who come out of the water to graze at night and elephants who need to feed for most of the time as they need to eat 10% of their body weight in food each day. We were a bit unnerved by a ten year old male elephant who was thrashing about through the undergrowth and showing aggressive behavior. His family were nearby ignoring his trumpeting and thrashing about. What happens with male elephants when they reach ten years of age is their family group throw them out of the herd as they do not want them to mate with their sisters once they have reached sexual maturity
. This poor male who has been with his mom and siblings for the last ten years is no longer welcome in the group and he was having a hard time accepting this. David told us that it takes about a month for the males to get used to this rejection. They then go off and try to join bachelor herds, where they are also beaten up as they are invariably the youngest and smallest elephants. It’s a hard life being a young male elephant. In fact it seems like males get the raw end of the deal in the wild as male lions generally only live for 9 years due to the number of fights they get into whereas the lionesses live for about 15 years. It is the same story for the male buffalo´s who are forced to leave the herd when they get older as they cannot keep up with the pace and aggression from the younger males as they get into their twilight years. It´s all very sad being a male in the animal kingdom.
South Luangwa was easily our best safari stop so far as it was so unspoilt and off the beaten track. There are far less visitors here so we got to see a lot more animals. The hack of getting there and the state of the roads keeps many tourists away which makes it an ideal stop for a brilliant wildlife experience. No surprise here that South Luangwa and Marula Lodge get the highest possible score of 10/10.