A Weekend in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park
I had the opportunity to travel to Zambia as part of USAID’s Farmer to Farmer Program. I was based out of the Chipata area during my stay and was also blessed with a weekend to enjoy nearby South Luangwa National Park. I had amazing work and travel experiences in Zambia, and as a result, it ranks as my second favorite country I’ve ever visited (Vietnam is #1). I’m not alone in my zeal for Zambia, as I have met many other travelers that also fell hard for this country. I hope this post will provide you with some inspiration and information for your own trip to South Luangwa and Zambia. Note that I have converted all of the prices below from Zambian Kwacha to US dollars.
I arranged for a driver to take me from Chipata to my game lodge in Mfuwe after I finished up work midday on Friday. It was about a two-hour drive, and I paid $60 for this service. There was a $7 bus option, but they only left in the morning, and since time was more of a limiting factor for me, the private car was a better option. Of course private is relative when traveling in Zambia, as they have a strong hitchhiking culture. Actually when I was making my weekend plans, I sought some input from a couple of Peace Corps volunteers. They encouraged me to try hitchhiking to Mfuwe as that is how they all get around. Since I was a solo female traveler and had only been in the country a week, I did not feel comfortable following their advice. However, in hindsight I think it would have been a safe, efficient, and much cheaper way to get to Mfuwe. While I never did work up the nerve to hitchhike in Zambia, I do love that it’s considered rude to turn down a hitchhiker if you have room in your vehicle. So I wasn’t bothered that my private car was full the whole time with hitchhikers. In fact, I had a lovely chat with the two English-speaking hitchhikers and even exchanged numbers with them. They both ended up calling me later in the weekend to make sure I was safe and having a good time. In my experience, that level of friendliness is standard in Zambia.
When it was time to return to Chipata on Sunday, I arranged a ride through my game lodge which cost me $100. Luckily I found three students to travel with and so we each only had to pay $25.
Note if you are traveling from Lusaka, you can expect to spend about $22 and 11 hours traveling by bus to Mfuwe or $150-$300 and one hour traveling by plane.
There are many game lodges that service South Luangwa National Park. I stayed at Wildlife Camp which seemed to be a more budget-friendly option. I paid $286 for two nights lodging, three game drives, entrance to the park, and all of my meals and drinks over the weekend. Note, I bought my meals a la carte and ended up paying less than the full board option. My lodging was a river-front “tent,” but it had a comfy bed, solid floor, bathroom, electricity, and a little porch to enjoy all the sites on the Luangwa River. It was lovely to zip open all the windows at night and fall asleep to the hypnotic hippo noises. There was no air conditioning, but I did not find that to be an issue in May when I took this trip.
There are more luxurious lodging options at Wildflife Camp and there are plenty of other game lodges in the are better known for luxury. Wildlife camp also offered more traditional camping options that would have cost less than what I paid.
I am not a safari aficionado, but I found that many of Wildlife Camp’s clients are. During my stay, I met an Austrian who had been on game drives in 10 other countries and ranked South Luangwa as the best park he had ever visited. I met US students that had visited all the Zambian National parks as part of a study abroad coarse and they found this one to be better than all the rest by leaps and bounds. I also met a very wealthy and well-traveled Swiss guy who spends two weeks every year at Wildlife Camp because he loves the game drives so much. And I had just happened to have a free weekend and end up here without doing any research whatsoever. I must have done something good in a past life.
On the three game drives I took over the course of the weekend, I too began to see why this park is so special. The variety of animals I saw was amazing. The following is an abbreviated list of the animals I saw: elephants, hippos, giraffes, kudo, puku, impala, waterbuck, genet, monitor lizards, velvet monkeys, baboons, mongoose, and leopards. And even while just hanging out at the game lodge during the day, I saw a variety of monkeys, zebras, elephants, and hippos galore on the river. There was even a hippo in our restaurant bathroom one day.
All of my game drive guides were fantastic, and I would say that the work ethic I saw in Zambia in general is the number one reason I love the place so much. I met so many hardworking people in Zambia who were also all working smartly, efficiently, and always with their community in mind. At the conclusion of a fantastic game drive, I ended up talking to my tour guide for about two hours about his side banana paper business he started with some Japanese tourists. He was one of many Zambians I met who had seemed to make the most of every opportunity that came his way and was brimming with positivity about the possibilities the future would bring. He was definitely proud of his wildlife work and paper business, but he was most proud of the job opportunities he was creating for his community members.
What to do in the middle of the day
Game drives are generally in the morning and evening, so you may find yourself wondering how to fill the middle of the day. Wildlife Camp offers village tours, but that didn't appeal to me since I had already done many village tours with my work. A fellow Wildlife Camp tourist told me they enjoyed their visit to Tribal Textiles which would be a good place to purchase some souvenirs while supporting the local community. I, however, enjoyed spending the day by the pool and bar, chatting with all the interesting tourists and locals I ran into. I know it's so cliche to talk about how friendly the locals are when you are a tourist. Generally people in service industries are friendly because they make a living ensuring the people they serve have a good time. So yes when you are travelling anywhere you are bound to run into many friendly locals - that is part of our privledge as travelers. However, I never left any conversations with friendly Zambians feeling like they were just fishing for a good tip. Instead I left feeling like they were genuinely interested in the opportunity to learn something new and share something about their lives that brought them joy. Hopefully if you end up travelling to South Luangwa you will have as many wonderful interactions with the locals as I did. The positivity boost I got from those interactions alone was worth the time and money spent getting here. In my opinion, the wildlife was just an added bonus.