NORTH LUANGWA NATIONAL PARK
North Luangwa National Park
Wild. Untouched. Remote. Overused words perhaps, but in the case of North Luangwa, none more true. It is also home to some of Africa’s most eye-wateringly beautiful scenery and supports a spectacular diversity of wildlife. And until recently, it has largely been off the radar.
To discover a wilderness like North Luangwa still exists, two decades into the 21st Century, is to take a journey back in time. It is also to embark on a journey of hope. Because not only is this
4636km² park and its greater protected 22 000 km² ecosystem sanctuary to Zambia’s only black rhino population and the country’s largest elephant population – it is a beacon of hope to thousands of people from the surrounding communities who rely on the health of this wilderness to survive, and who are the true custodians of this ecosystem.
For me the Mwaleshi River is the leading lady of this park, and her wide gin-clear waters which meander along the valley floor are a key aspect of what differentiates North Luangwa from other Zambian parks. Predators and prey alike congregate on her rich sandy floodplains, birding is fantastic and a walk or drive along this river is a balm for a frazzled soul.
But there is more to the park than the Mwaleshi and her sweeping game-packed floodplains. North Luangwa has other amazing habitat diversity – including waterfalls, open grassland, numerous sandy and rocky rivers, and many different types of forest – from mopane to miombo to lush riverine vegetation. Almost a quarter of the park includes the Muchinga escarpment, meaning greater diversity for birdlife, and gems like sable, blue duiker and even blue monkey.
And there’s much more. North Luangwa is the only Zambian national park home to the Big 5. If you’re very lucky you may spot a shy black rhino (not always a guarantee as they are under strict protection in a high security zone). Elephant, leopard, buffalo and lion are definite possibilities, as are wild-dog and the striking silver-liver coloured (and endemic) Cookson’s wildebeest.
Maintaining lodges in these remote conditions is not for the faint-hearted and so it has always been possible to count on one hand the luxuriously rustic (yes, a deliberate oxymoron) camps who call North Luangwa home. These lodges are intimate, guiding standards are excellent, and they largely promote seeing North Luangwa on foot – there is no better way to truly appreciate the park.
For many years I dreamed about visiting this wilderness mecca. Luckily my work in conservation storytelling eventually opened that door. But for most people, North Luangwa has always been famously hard – and expensive to get to. Limited park infrastructure, few low-budget accommodation options, and mostly inaccessible in the rains means coming on your own steam has always been difficult.
Until now. The good news is that for self-drives, new accommodation options have recently been introduced, with plans for more. The even better news is that the park is impeccably managed, which means that wilderness aficionados need not worry that an increase in tourism will take away from its solitude and low volume of visitors – traditionally its strongest selling point.
The park is managed by the North Luangwa Conservation Programme (NLCP) – a partnership between Frankfurt Zoological Society and Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife. Supporting community-led tourism is high on the NLCP’s list, in 2020 the beautiful new camp Samala was built and after seeing how popular it was (yes – even during a Covid year!) park management have decided to partner with other chiefdoms and in 2021 are adding two more community camps on the southern and eastern borders of the park – as well as campsites within the park.