South Luangwa National Park is arguably the jewel in Zambia’s wildlife crown. I say arguably, because, having spent an awful lot of my time in this most beautiful of countries, I have been fortunate enough to experience most of its wild spaces and they all have their own unique pull and charm. But there is something about SLNP that just keeps me coming back. I first visited this park in 1998….self driving with a roof tent…and things were, shall we say, a little different back then! It was one of my first attempts in the country to start building a portfolio of what Zambia had to offer, and armed with a couple of commissions in my back pocket, I spent a few weeks traversing this most fantastic park. This year, when I get back there in September (Covid permitting of course!), it will be my 15th visit to the park; 11 of which have been on shoots (of the photo kind of course!) and latterly, the last four, as a leader for budding camera-toters for both my own groups (much more fun and freedom!) and other companies. As one of the parks I’ve visited most, I wanted to share a bit of “inside knowledge” to those contemplating a trip there themselves.
Throughout the last 20 or so years, I have stayed in the northern, central and southern parts of the park (and even, horrifically one year when guiding for someone else, outside the park on the other side of the river…) in lodges, tents and bush camps. I have delighted at having lions sleep on tree boughs literally a few feet above my head, marvelled at the daily crossings of elephants (and giraffe!), laughed at night with hippos (well…until they keep grunting at 1am…and then it does get a bit tiresome…) and had some close shaves with a leopard that decided to investigate my tent flaps and an elephant that wanted to lean against the sausage tree and drop these 20kg fruit onto the canvas all night…a long story…but one that resulted in no sleep and five hours of paranoia!
This year my group is full, but we do have a couple of spaces for September next year if you’re interested. More on that on the “guided safaris page”. Here, however, are my “do’s and don’ts” of visiting this fantastic park…
When to visit?
Ok…so, there’s this “green” season thing….that tourism groups now call “emerald” season (see what they did there? sounds so much better right?!) that takes place in January-March basically. It’s certainly different. Grey skies, drizzle (sometimes heavy rain), healthy animals and a fast flowing river (the Luangwa…it’s kind of a big deal for this park!). Migrant birds are also in their pomp and if you’re into specialist stuff, or are seeking to complete a book (as I have been working on for example), then, for sure, it’s a great time. However…for the first time visitor, this is hardly the best time to descend on the valley. The roads are limited (only the raised all season gravel roads are really accessible at this time) and this severely limits your chances to explore. Also, water is everywhere dispersing the game and making it harder to find.
What is “shoulder season…”?
This is not really advertised to you, the visitor, but the reality is that all the lodges and camps operate a cheaper, shoulder season that lasts usually from March – end May/very early June and then again in mid-late October to November. It’s called shoulder season in the trade as it is exactly that – neither one thing or the other. This may indeed be a cheaper time to visit as the lodges give discounted rates, and you will see wildlife, but you come when the rain is not pouring (so lose the drama), the bush is thick and green (making it harder to follow and observe) and there is still a lot of water around meaning game remains spread out. At this time your larger buffalo herds are still inland away from the river (keeping the lions with them in many places), and the riverbed itself is not the scene of action that it will become later in the season. Shoulder season can still work, and of course in Africa, you can get great sightings at any time…BUT…buyer beware! If the lodges are calling it shoulder season, then think why that is…. The rates are cheaper for accommodation, and therefore you may feel you’re getting a bargain, but in reality you’re just visiting at a non-optimum time.
Things you would miss…
Go too early, and you miss some of SLNP’s specialities:
- Fishing parties (formed when hundreds of storks and pelicans descend upon diminishing water pans, particularly in the northern part of the park) that come in to scoop up all the catfish that get stranded. This is an incredible experience, and you need to be there when water levels are at their lowest.
- Quelea flocks: always more active when insects are rising from the open grassland areas in the dryer season; spectacular murmuration-style ducking and diving from these innocuous, tiny birds.
- Hippo fighting: this comes right at the end of the dry season when territorial tensions run high and pressures build within diminishing water pools and stretches of the river itself.
- Predator activity by the river: at the height of the dry season, the only water is in the river…and it’s where everything will head towards. Big herds of buffalo in particular are even more obvious at this time, and it’s not uncommon to see lions and wild dog hunting in the river bed. Also, access down to the river bed floor itself is possible at this time, allowing some great low-level photography options
- Carmine bee eaters: these don’t start showing up until very late August, and through September. These beautiful, scarlet coloured birds nest in large colonies in the river bank…and if you know where to stay and where to go…you’ll get some great shots of these.
For me, the park is at it’s most photographically productive between late July and end September. This comes into the height of the dry season but before the heat hits too hard in October that causes wildlife to seek shade for too long in the day. September hits the button for me as a first choice…and indeed, is when I’ve always guided for example.
Where to stay?
Inside the park. This is sooooo important. Ok, you can save some money (like with shoulder season), by staying outside the park and indeed there are some fun, lively and beautiful properties on the “other” side of the river. Game is also present there too, and you can have a whole load of birds and herbivores on your property for sure. Lions and even wild dog have been known to range on the “wrong” side of the river too….but don’t count on it. The problem with staying outside the park is that you are in what is known as a “GMA” or “Game Management Area”. This is multiple use…not just for wildlife…and one of those uses is hunting both by locals and the paid “big game” variety. In fact, one year – I was asked to guide for one company and they had decided to put their guests in an untried bush camp that was essentially in between two hunting concessions. Needless to say everything (and I mean EVERYTHING!) was terrified of a vehicle/person/anything in fact! Not even an impala would relax. Staying outside the park puts you right in the heart of this area. You save a few pounds/dollars, but ask yourself if that’s the experience you want. Also, not in every case, but many of the lodges outside are bigger and much busier. Although you can keep yourself to yourself, it does remove the wilderness experience a bit…and you will sit at night, staring at the river and wishing you were on the other side, within the park boundaries.
There’s also some other considerations too that are far more practical. There is essentially one gate into the park (Mfuwe) and all the self drives, lodges, backpacker hostels et al from outside the park will access through there. In the morning, therefore, you can be surrounded by other vehicles all queuing to get into the park…governed by strict opening hours. There used to be pontoon from one lodge, but at present, I’m not sure that is in operation. That took you across the river and saved the long drive to the gate, but I don’t think it’s currently operational. As such, you may spend an hour perhaps driving to the gate in the dark in the morning. Your drive will then be largely restricted in range as you can’t explore too far from that gate…as you’ll be leaving through it by mid-late morning in order to get back to your lodge (perhaps an hour depending on where you are staying) for lunch. Your afternoon…well…you’ll be doing that all over again. Whilst this central Mfuwe area is busier as a result, it remains productive though and you’ll still have a great set of sightings. However, it makes it hard for you to visit the ebony groves of the northern part of the park where you will probably have your best chance of sighting some of the park’s endemic wildebeest (Cooksons…pale in colour and very different!); the Nsefu sector (the only part of the park on the “other” side of the river, and accessible from further north in the park), and also the far south where packs of wild dog reign supreme. Your evenings are also curtailed as well. Instead of being able to stay out and spotlight ’til late, your driver will be aware of the need to get you back all the way to your lodge – particularly if you have a long drive. This can dramatically reduce your chances of leopard sightings in particular, as well as lion and hyena action and a whole host of nocturnal specialties.
If you stay inside the park – you are surrounded by it 24/7. You can leave earlier in the mornings, and be far away before the morning “rush” starts and everyone pours over the bridge, stay out late and never have to rush back for lunch. It allows you to explore all parts of the park, getting away from the crowds and seeing some of the most beautiful parts of the park. Bush camps and lodges in the northern and southern sections are all excellent, much quieter, and although more expensive, offer a fantastic wildlife photography experience. You can also vary your day far more and you don’t waste any time “commuting”. Costlier? yes. Better? definitely. Only you can decide the experience you’re after.
Vehicles and guest numbers…
This is one of the most important parts of any safari. If you are going to be there photographically, you are going to need space. A maximum of 2 people per row and a vehicle of 3 rows only is what you need. If you put in a photo leader too, then do bear in mind that in the afternoon, most lodges will take out an extra staff member to assist with spotlighting (never let your photo leader or driver do this….use someone with experience and better eyesight!). That means one more body in the vehicle, which, if you had a group of 6 would mean one row would have to accommodate this person and end up with 3 in it. I always opt for 5 guests as a result. This means there are 5 in the back during the day, and in the afternoon, the extra staff member can take up a seat in the back row without it making the vehicle any fuller. When the spotlighting starts, he or she will swap with me in the front, putting me in the back seat, and still leaving only 2 guests per row at any time. Space is key – yes, you might have to pay a bit more for it….but that’s the point. You will curse missed opportunities if you do not have the chance to wield your lenses and reach for your kit unencumbered!!!
There are some great guides in the park, and its environs too. The very best guides, on the whole (but not completely) do tend to be based within the park confines and operate from the camps there. They work with film crews and pro photographers regularly, and know the park inside out. Likewise, if you’re with a photo guide, just remember the golden rule: make sure you’re not just subsidising their trip/holiday. Make sure your guide has been to the location (and this is not just SLNP…but anywhere really!) themselves, preferably more than once, and therefore built up their own knowledge. Either that or they have been fully trained by someone who has. You want that person in the front to be predicting and anticipating, understanding and reading the scene and knowing the park well enough to understand what, why, where and when you should be shooting. The last thing they should do is raise THEIR camera to their face…without helping you and discussing what you could be doing with the scene. An appreciation of the environment is built over years…and should be done without guests. After all…why would you pay for their training? 🙂 It’s great they get excited – I still do – but you don’t want them to see their first lion kill at the same time as you really….no amount of practice in the garden is going to prepare them for that…and ensuring you’re on top of it too!
I hope you enjoy the short video I’ve posted here made up of some pics from the last five or so visits. Kick-back, turn up the sound and escape to the wonders of the valley….and if you want to try for yourself, come and take one of the last couple of spaces in 2021!