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The Luangwa Valley unveiled

This is Travel Africa’s guide to everything you need to know about planning your trip to one of Africa’s finest wildlife regions - when to go, what to do and where to stay.
IN HOT PURSUIT: Wild dogs chase impala through the Kapamba River in South Luangwa National Park
DANA ALLEN / THE BUSHCAMP COMPANY

When I first visited South Luangwa, in north-east Zambia, in 1995, I was captivated by the meandering river, majestic forests and patchwork of beautiful lagoons — not to mention the staggering concentrations of wildlife. Since then, I have returned twice a year or more to research books, photograph lodges and host workshops. If I could pick just one region to visit for the rest of my life, it would be this.

The three national parks, South Luangwa (9050sq km), North Luangwa (4636sq km) and Luambe (254sq km), along with their neighbouring game management areas (GMAs), together create a 13,940sq-km ecosystem that stretches from Malawi down to the Middle Zambezi. It is surprisingly little changed since explorers such as Livingstone first came here in the late 1800s and a place where you can find the old Africa. You will not see the Big Five in a day here, nor will you encounter the wide-open grasslands and immense herds of East Africa, but you will find one of the most scenic and spectacular wildlife areas in the continent.

Luangwa is famous for its leopard (and it’s common to see three different individuals in a single drive during the dry season) but there are more than 60 species of large mammal here, including wild dog, lion, elephant and vast pods of hippo. What make it even more special are its endemics, such as the graceful Thornicroft giraffe and the pale Cookson’s wildebeest. The birding is also outstanding with more than 430 species, including huge flocks of crowned cranes and yellow-billed storks.

The indigenous communities here include the Kunda ethnic group in the Mfuwe area, and, further south, the Nsenga people, with the Bisa tribe around North Luangwa and Luambe. Most were traditionally hunters and they are given permits to fish inside the park.

Since tourism started here in the 1950s under Norman Carr, generations of camp owners, such as Robin Pope, John Coppinger, Derek Shenton and Phil Berry, have instilled an ethic of authenticity. The classic, unfussy approach to safaris, the friendly people and the exceptional guiding make Luangwa unique in my opinion. And it’s amazing how many times I have stood at sunset or on the high ramparts of the Chichele Hills, and heard people from all corners of the world reach the same conclusion: “I feel like I am part of this place, that this is where I came from. I have to come back soon.” Luangwa is that kind of addiction.

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