I really do not want to overanalyze this drive we did in one day. It really was a numb bum day to say the least. If there was only an interesting destination to stay over at the halfway mark and not being too fussed about the accommodation, all would probably want to break the journey after 4 or 5 hours.
We felt it was important to get off to an early start and there was initially minimal traffic on the Great East Road when we left just after 06H00. The road as far as the well-known, but single lane and huge bridge spanning the Luangwa River, has been rehabilitated and was a pleasure. This took us about 3hr for the 220km. Immediately at the bridge the agony begins. I would venture to say that until Chipata is reached almost as much of the road is diversion as is old/new road. When finished in a few year’s time, this massive high grade project will truly make the journey from Lusaka to SLNP a 1 day journey. The standard and scale of the work is impressive. Enough crying now, let the bare stats speak.
Lusaka – Luangwa Bridge: Distance 220km, Time 3hr.
Luangwa Bridge – Chipata: Distance 325km, Time 6hr 15min.
Chipata to Wildlife Camp – Distance 138km, Time 2hr.
Total Distance: 770km. Total Time: 11hr 15min.
T4A showed us directly to Wildlife Camp, which is well signposted just after you pass the Oasis fuel station in the village of Mafue. We chose Wildlife Camp because it belongs to the Zambian Wildlife Society and is run as a fundraiser. Also the campsites are right on the Luangwa River and not set back behind the chalets as is the case with the other choices. Here the overlander truck section is separate to the individual camper section, which is a great idea. The camp is situated on a great big horseshoe bend on the banks of the Luangwa River affording excellent views onto the river and across into Park. The iconic original campsite here on the River, Flatdogs, no longer has camping only more upmarket chalets and innovative treehouses overlooking the river. Then the other campsites are Crocodile Camp and Track and Trail. As is the case with life in general people’s preferences vary but I am steadfast in my belief that Wilderness is the place to be. Its only disadvantage is that it is a little further from the Mfuwe entrance gate to the Park compared to some of the others. However this is a matter of probably about 10-15min. Wildlife Camp is 8km in all from the bridge over the Luangwa and the entrance to the park.
There are at least 4 campsites right on the river bank and another 3 or 4 set slightly further back. They each have a thatched lean-to and good shade. There are power points scattered about but some will need a lead of almost 40m. There are very functional male and female ablutions with permanent hot water and flush loos. Lights are scattered subtly around the camp. There are no fences in the park and this campsite is visited almost nightly by elephants and hippos and the local lion pride take a regular turn on what they regard as their turf. The river is not usually an obstacle to animals crossing over. Monkeys, baboons and even hyena visit regularly so pack away and keep closed. The camping complex has a nice bar, lounge and swimming pool and sells wood at US$5 if I remember correctly. Campers are welcome to eat in the Lodge’s restaurant but this is not cheap with something like lasagna at US$16. Night drives can also be organized at US$50pp, no this does not include supper! Camping is US$ 8pppn.
SLNP is no doubt a leading African wildlife destination and it is with great excitement I am visiting it again. This year has seen relatively poor rains and almost the whole park is accessible but still nice and green. This park has the reputation of producing the best leopard sightings in Africa! Do not miss out on a night drive here.
The biggest thumbs down for Luangwa to my mind is that it does not allow private camping within the park. I suspect that all the many exclusive and expensive private lodges hold sway here. I think a community run campsite within the park would thrive and of course bring tangible benefits to the local communities. The other problem in Zambia, within the Southern African context (and unfairly equated with that in East Africa) is their very expensive park fees in the regional context. Entrance fees for us as adults and Southern African residents were US$30 pppd and the vehicle US$15pd. Yes these are quoted and paid for is US$. Except for the well-managed South Luangwa, the Zambian Wildlife Authority has been beset with inefficiency, corruption and poor anti-poaching measures. Recently there have been extensive winds of change but we all await the results of the new approach with some trepidation. At the moment there is also a degree of political paralysis in Zambia.