South Luangwa National Park

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For my third safari, I scheduled a trip with friends to Zambia.  We spent a week in South Luangwa National Park.

South Luangwa National Park

South Luangwa Natioinal Park is located in Eastern Zambia, with the closest airport being in Mfuwe.  Known to locals as “the South Park” it was established in 1904 as Luangwa Game Park.  It was converted to a game reserve in 1938 and declared a national park in 1972.

South Luangwa National Park is approximately 9,000 square kilometers, and its natural borders include the Luangwa River and the Muchinga Escarpment.  Inside the park, the topography varies from grassy plains to mature woodlands.

South Luangwa National Park is especially known its elusive leopard.  In fact, there are more leopards than lions in the park.  That said, we still saw more lions than leopards, due to the leopards’ solitary, stealthy nature!

While South Luangwa National Park does not have rhinos or cheetah, it has large herds of buffalo and elephants and too many crocodiles and hippos to count!  There is also a nice variety of antelope including the kudu, bushbuck, waterbuck, impala, and puku.  But don’t expect to see a wildebeest unless you are farther north.

South Luangwa National Park is home to the Thornicroft giraffe and the Crawshaw zebra, both different species from those seen in Eastern Africa.  The park also features prolific bird life, hyenas, warthogs, and the rare wild dog.

Safari Camps

We split our week stay between two camps, Flatdogs Camp and Kakuli Camp.  Flatdogs Camp was outstanding.  For more details, see my Flatdogs post.  We spent the second half of our stay in South Luangwa National Park at Kakuli Camp, operated by Time and Tide.

Originally, in 2020, we were booked at Nkonzi Camp also operated by Time and Tide, but COVID closed that one.  Then we were scheduled into Nsolo for 2021, but I think the dates got messed up, so we learned from Flatdogs we were being transferred to Kakuli.  All the camps owned by Time and Tide in the area include five tented rooms, so the only difference was the location. Some were farther north, some were inland, and some on the river.

Accomodations at Kakuli

Kakuli was on the Luangwa River and very nice.  The tents included beds draped in mosquito net, a bathroom, and an indoor and outdoor shower.  During the day, they opened up to the river with a nice view.  At night, the staff zipped down the flaps to keep the hyenas, lions, hippos and other animals that walk through the camp out of our bedroom.

The only things that joined us at night were tree frogs.  We counted 12 one night, though the count dropped to 11 after we heard a thunk, thunk, thunk in our standing fan!

frog on our coffee press

Meals at Kakuli

All of our meals at Kakuli took place in the covered dining, living, and bar area.  We enjoyed a buffet breakfast at 6am which included toast, fruit, yogurt, cereal, bacon, sausage, eggs to order and tea and coffee. We ate breakfast by the outdoor fire prior to our game drive.  It was so warm, we didn’t need it, but the staff used it to heat the water and cook eggs.

The lunch was buffet style with a choice of salads, a quiche, and a meat. The salads were spectacular and lunch was our group’s favorite meal. High tea included fruit and snacks and dinner was a set three course meal. Tasty, but no options.

lunch at kakuli

Games Drives at Kakuli in South Luangwa National Park

We had two daily game drives. Both lasted approximately four hours. As with Flatdogs, we went out in the early morning and in the late afternoon/evening. The heat of the day allowed for a siesta.

Phil was our guide and Batwell was our scout.  We’ve rarely had a scout on our previous safaris, but Batwell, with his gun, joined us on everyone.  We learned we could be taking a walk from our vehicle at times, thus the protection.

Phil could have been a University professor.  Serious in demeanor, he regularly lectured about the different animal behaviors.  Later we found out he teaches the guides. Consequently, we learned a lot on this safari, as he shared his knowledge of tracking, animal alarm calls, and the like.  That said, at times I would have appreciated some light-heartedness! 

Knowing we had already seen several animals on our first three days of safari, Phil asked what we wanted to see.  We requested wild dogs and leopards, a VERY hard task.  We mentioned our leopard sightings in the southern part of the park were limited or in the dark, so we wanted a better encounter.

He replied, “That’s very unlucky.”

But after two days of not finding a leopard or the wild dogs with pups, as someone had disturbed their den, he was visibly distraught.  Fortunately, our luck changed.  More on this later.

Anyway, as previously mentioned, we took a morning and afternoon/evening drive each day.  Some of our group opted for a walking safari instead of a drive as the camp is famous the walking safari created by Norman Carr.  If I weren’t so set on having a good leopard encounter, I would have joined, but the leopard prevailed.

The Wildlife in South Luangwa National Park

There wasn’t quite as much wildlife in the northern part of the park as there was in the southern part of the park.  There also weren’t as many safari vehicles with the entrance in the south. That said, the park was busier on the weekend when we were in the south.  Altogether, South Luangwa National Park was very quiet as compared to the Masai Mara in Kenya, especially during COVID of August 2021.

While we saw herds of the aforementioned antelope, giraffes, zebra, buffalo, hippos along with a dead one being fed on by vultures, a pack of hyena, elephants at the river at sunset, the highlights during our stay at Kakuli were a lion encounter during our sundowner, crocodiles fighting over a bird, and two long periods with a leopard!

Lions in South Luangwa National Park

The lions were very interesting.  We found a male and two females lazing in the tall grass not far from the Luangwa River shore.  After a brief stop, we drove about 300 yards downriver for our sundowner (drinks during sunset).  As we were enjoying our happy hour, a safari vehicle from another Time and Tide camp radioed Phil to find out where we saw the lions.  On a side note, in Zambia, they only radio between their own safari vehicles, not all vehicles in the park like Kenya.


Phil told them where to look, and we could see the vehicle headed in the proper direction.  A little while later, the vehicle radioed again trying to find the lions.  Just as this was taking place, my friend Mike looked up, pointed to the riverbank, and calmly called out, “Lion!”

Low and behold the male lion was leading the two females along the riverbank.  The next thing we knew, they veered toward us.  Naturally, we piled into the safari vehicle quickly as they laid down next to us!  Next, they rolled in the nearby puku poo to disguise their scent and begin their hunt!

According to Phil, due to our previous encounter, they determined we were not a threat.  Additionally, they sometimes use the vehicle to hide.  At any rate, it was quite the surprise as I’ve never seen a cat during one of our stops in the bush!  Anyway, we watched a little bit of their hunt before we let them be.

Crocodiles in South Luangwa National Park

The crocodiles fighting over a bird was an eye opener too! Two crocs thrashed about the riverbank while fighting over the captured bird.  The clear winner took the bird into the water.  This is where the frenzy began.  Crocodiles came out of nowhere!  The splashing and fighting continued and the croc with the bird swam downriver. 

It surely didn’t look like there were any remains, but suddenly it looked like a 5K race down the Luangwa river.  One, two, three…twenty crocs cruised at high speeds in chase of this elusive bird.  It was remarkable, and it gave me the willies.  Normally we counted three to five crocodiles on the banks which didn’t seem that scary, but twenty, popping up out of nowhere?!?  It was a firm reminder to not make a splash in that river.  What a scene! 

Leopards in South Luangwa National Park

Our leopard sighting on a kill was also a scene.  We had had a bit of a dry run on our afternoon safari, so when we saw a herd of elephants heading to the river, we headed that way to for our happy hour.  As we watched the sunset, we heard baboons make a LOUD alarm call.  When it is that loud, it usually means a leopard is lurking.

elephants at sunset

Leopard on a Kill

I couldn’t figure out why we weren’t packing up our drinks to go in search for it, but Phil seemed nonchalant so I figured it was nothing.  Especially when I did hear anymore noise.  Little did our group know that the leopard was successful quickly successful in its hunt.  And lucky and unlucky for us another safari vehicle watched it happen.

While we weren’t lucky in seeing the hunt, we were lucky in finding the leopard thereafter. It had taken its kill off road and was under a bush eating it.  Those who saw the kill followed it, and we spotted their vehicle.  Generally speaking, vehicle cannot go off road without a permit, but the guides will do it to satisfy their guests. Had we not seen the vehicle, we would not have seen the leopard.

Instead, we and the other vehicle got to sit there listening to crunching bones as the leopard ate its dinner.  While there wasn’t a whole lot to see, once it feared another predator might take its kill, it got up and searched for a tree.  We got to watch for a good twenty minutes before heading back to camp in the dark.

leopard eating baboon

Leopard in the Daytime

Of course, it still didn’t satisfy my hope of having a good encounter in the daytime. But on the last afternoon, of our last drive, of our last 40 minutes before our sundowner, we hit the JACKPOT!  Humorously enough, Phil and Batwell weren’t with us.  Phil is a level one guide, so he and Batwell were leading the walking safari for Kim and Jackie in our group.

We had a substitute, Prince, who was a level two guide.  This just meant he couldn’t take us for a walk.  That’s OK because he was funny and informative, and as we drove to cross the dry river basin for the fifteenth time in the last three days, he pointed and shouted, “Leopard!”

We couldn’t believe it.  It was just sauntering up the wash next to the bank.  Prince raced along the other side to catch up.  It took its time, resting, spraying, and finally leaping up the embankment on the other side.  We had to leave it and go back to cross the wash on the road.  I was so nervous we wouldn’t find it again.

Once on the other side, we veered onto a bumpy road to the left that took us through a wooded area.  So wooded, that Prince had to bend back a tree branch before we could continue.  Nothing!  On the other side of the low trees, however, was an open area.

We backtracked again and then went right at the split.  Finally, there she was, laying in the grass with her eye on the distant impala and warthogs.  She crossed over a ditch and rested again.  Then she sat up.  Next, she sauntered off.  We thought she was leaving us, but in a quick burst she was at the top of a short tree, utilizing it as a vantage point. Boy did I ever want to stay to see her hunt!  But unfortunately, the plan was to meet the others at the sundowner, thus we didn’t even have a spotlight.

Oh well, it was an exciting 40 minutes with a leopard!  And I would have felt bad if we missed the sundowner.  It was a special one for our last night.  Enoch, the restaurant manager, along with two members of the staff, had set up chairs, a full bar, and lights.  One member was popping popcorn for us on a small campfire!  It was a great last night to a great trip to Zambia and the South Luangwa National Park!  ETB

popcorn in the bush

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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