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Going on a safari is a quintessential part of a trip to Africa. There are national parks all over the country teeming with amazing wildlife, so which one do you pick? And will a safari break your budget? Not at South Luangwa! This amazing national park in Zambia is one of the best safari options in Africa.
Before going to Africa I knew I had to go on safari, but I wasn’t sure where, or how I was going to make that financially happen. I always thought African safaris were a luxurious experience, something that I would have to spend thousands of dollars on. It turns out, this isn’t the case at all.
Going on safari in South Luangwa National Park was everything I hoped my first African safari would be, and it didn’t break my budget. In this post, find out everything you need to know about visiting South Luangwa National Park including costs, what you can see, where to stay, and what to bring.
Why Visit South Luangwa National Park?
South Luangwa National Park’s daily entrance fee is just $25 USD. Compare that to Kenya’s Masai Mara $80 entrance fee, it’s a bargain. More to that, South Luangwa has a number of budget-friendly lodges, which offer affordable guided safari packages if you don’t have your own vehicle.
In 2017 South Luangwa National Park was declared the world’s first sustainable park by the United National World Tourism Organization. One of the main reasons for this was the park’s initiatives to involve local people in the tourism industry, which is key to sustainable tourism development.
South Luangwa has been nicknamed ‘valley of the leopards’ for its thriving leopard population, one of the most exciting animals you can see in Africa. It’s also home to most of the other big five animals, including elephants, lions, and buffalo. Not to mention all the other amazing species you can see there!
Walking Safaris and Night Drives
South Luangwa is one of the few parks in Africa that allow for night drives, where you can see nocturnal wildlife (this is the best time for spotting leopards). It’s also the birthplace of the walking safari, where you get the chance to go on an exciting walk in the bush with an experienced guide and armed ranger.
How to get to South Luangwa National Park
South Luangwa National Park is in East Zambia’s Luangwa River valley.
You can actually fly into South Luangwa national park via Mfuwe, the nearby town where most of the lodges are. There are flights from Lusaka International Airport (the capital of Zambia) with Proflight Zambia.
South Luangwa is just 300km away from Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. If you don’t have your own vehicle, there are still options for getting there via public transit. Although the distance between the two countries isn’t huge, it took me the entire day since I decided to be cheap and go via shared taxis.
Shared taxis are a common mode of transportations locals use in Malawi and Zambia. It’s just a regular car that picks up and drops off as many people as they can. So if you take a shared taxi, you are constantly stopping to pick and drop people off. As you can imagine, this isn’t an efficient mode of transportation. It cost me less than $10 to get from Lilongwe to South Luangwa, but I paid much more in patience.
There are also private transfers that will take you between Lilongwe and South Luangwa, but these are much more costly. I was quoted $120 USD.
Leaving South Luangwa, I took a public bus all the way to Lusaka. The bus leaves at 3:30 am in Mwufe and takes just over 12 hours. It runs daily.
If you are driving from either Lilongwe or Lusaka, check here for detailed directions on getting to South Luangwa.
Visa Requirements for Zambia
Depending on your nationality, you may need a visa to enter Zambia. As a Canadian, I was able to buy a single entry visa at the border for $50 USD. You can also arrange your visa online in advance.
Health & Vaccines
Malaria is present in South Luangwa National Park so visit a travel clinic before your trip to get an anti-malarial prescription for the duration of your stay. Make sure to bring a strong insect repellant and cover up your skin from dusk into the evening when the mosquitos are most active.
Best Time to Visit South Luangwa National Park
The dry season (April – October) is the best time to visit South Luangwa National Park to maximize your chances of seeing wildlife. During the dry season, large herds of mammals concentrate around the watering holes which is amazing to see.
I visited South Luangwa during the end of October and found it extremely hot (it was 40+ degrees some days). Although I still enjoyed the safari, I think the summer months would be a better time to visit.
The wet season begins in November and lasts until the end of March. It turns the dry landscape into a lush jungle and is an ideal time for bird watching as this is when most return to the park.
South Luangwa National Park Lodges
South Luangwa National Park has a wide range of accommodation options, whether you’re a solo budget backpacker or on a family safari.
Since I was backpacking, I stayed just outside the park at Marula lodge which offers guided safari packages. I booked the 3N/2 day package which cost $210 USD. The price included all meals, three nights accommodations in a shared dorm (they also have private rooms), and two daily game drives. The staff at Mwufe are excellent, and they have a pool which is essential in the Zambian heat. The location of the lodge is beautiful. It’s set right next to the river where you can often see wildlife for free. I spotted hippos, elephants, baboons, monkeys, and countless birds.
Another popular budget accommodation lodge in South Luangwa National Park is Croc Valley Camp, which I’ve heard good reviews about.
For a more luxurious experience, check out Mfuwe lodge which is the only accommodation option inside the park.
What to expect on a Guided Safari in South Luangwa National Park
As part of my package with Marula Lodge, we took two game drives each day. One in the morning (6-10 am) and another evening drive (3-7 pm). This means you aren’t outside for the hottest part of the day, which I was grateful for. The night drives give a chance to see the nocturnal wildlife and beautiful Zambian sunsets.
South Luangwa National Park is massive, so we spent a lot of the guided safari driving around looking for the most interesting wildlife. That said, I never felt bored while on safari. There were always antelopes, birds, monkeys, and other small animals to look at it. We would generally find something exciting every half hour or so.
The guides on safari were knowledgeable about the wildlife and provided lots of interesting information during the drive. They were also excellent at spotting them! Overall, I was very impressed at the quality of the guided safaris in South Luangwa.
Each guided safari was four hours long, including a break half-way through for a light snack. In the evening drive, the break was during sunset which was just stunning to watch.
Self-drive vs Guided Safari
If you have your own vehicle you can do a self-drive safari in the park ($30 fee to self-drive). You’ll need a 4×4 car as the roads are not in great condition. Personally, I recommend going on a guided safari at least once since the park is so large, and the guides know the best spots to find wildlife.
Wildlife in South Luangwa
South Luangwa has an impressive diversity of African wildlife. The highlight of the park was the leopards, and I saw quite a few! Leopards are more likely seen during the night drives since they are nocturnal. However, we were lucky enough to spot a mom and cub sleeping in a tree one morning.
One of the other big highlights was this adorable family of lions. The little cubs were playing with each other, and it was just so magical seeing the whole family together. Don’t they look like they are smiling?!
South Luangwa also has many elephants that we saw both days. Although after volunteering in Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve, I was used to seeing large herds of elephants (not that this ever gets boring)!
Although they aren’t the rarest African animals, I was super excited to see zebras and giraffes at South Luangwa National Park. I’d never seen these animals in the wild before. We saw quite a few, and I found out that a group of zebras is called a DAZZLE. Here’s a dazzle of Zebras. You’re welcome.
Some of the other animals you may see in South Luangwa are wildebeest, wild dogs, hyena’s, hippos, antelope, and birds.
The only animal I wanted to see that the park that they don’t have is rhinos. If you want to see white rhinos in Zambia, they have them in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in Livingstone (Victoria Falls).
What to bring on a safari in South Luangwa
- The weather is hot so you want to bring light, breathable clothing. I recommend something from the Sahara line at REI, that protects you from the sun but is still comfortable. Plus a safari hat to protect your head from the sun!
- Sunscreen and Insect Repellant
- Water in a reusable bottle. Light snacks and beverages are provided during the break but it’s a good idea to have some water in the jeep.
- A camera to photograph the wildlife. You get relatively close to the animals (as you can see in the photo below) so you don’t need a crazy lens, but having a zoom will help your photography. I used a Sony a7ii with the 24-240mm lens and it was perfect for capturing the wildlife. Check out this guide for more ideas on the best cameras for travel photography.
If you’re looking for an affordable place to go on an amazing safari in Africa, then look no further then South Luangwa National Park. For less than $300, I had an amazing three days discovering some of the best wildlife Zambia has to offer.
Have you gone on a safari before? Let me know in the comments below!
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