Aug 04 2013

Exploring the Luangwa Valley

Crossing through North Luangwa National Park (NLNP) was something both African GirlChild and I were looking forward to after our time in Malawi. We realised that we really enjoy the bush and the quiet campsites that usually come with a National Park experience. We were not disappointed.

When staying at Wildlife Camp just outside South Luangwa National Park (SLNP) before entering Malawi we enquired about the possibility of traversing NLNP. Our host Conrad had received a text from Sam and Cat (whom we later met in Malawi) saying they had passed no problem. Later, in Malawi, we were given the full story from Sam and Cat, so no issues with lack of information.

NLNP is much less visited than the more popular SLNP, as it takes some determination to reach the park – at least from Mfuwe. The road to the park leaves the tar about 15km south of Mfuwe, goes through a small part of SLNP (NSEFU sector), before it crosses the Luambe National Park. From Luambe it crosses 105km of countryside, before reaching Chifunda Community Camp (It’s Wild Bushcamp) and the pontoon. All in all from Mfuwe it is 260km to It’s Wild, and it took us two whole days of driving. From the north the access is much easier, with a good gravel/dust road from the tar to the Mano Gate.

The first day took us through the NSEFU sector in SLNP. This is an easy drive from Mfuwe, and our little detour (not going straight) gave us three nice surprises. First, we passed a small marsh where a colony of Crowned Cranes feed. Second, we encountered a large flock of White-Backed Vultures waiting for the thermals to start so that they could take off. And third, there is a hot spring in this area, with the steam visible even in the early morning sun. From the NSEFU sector we headed to Luambe, to find a hunting lodge marked on the map just to the north of the park. Our enquiry at the park gate ensured us the lodge was open, but we later learned it was not. So we continued on to Luangwa Wilderness Lodge to camp there. Peter, our Zambian host, has recently found German investors, so the lodge part should be up and running soon too. We spent the night on the river bank listening to about 400 hippos.

The second day we continued from Luambe. The drive was nice and relatively easy, with stunning scenery and a few additions to our bird list. As we reached Chiweza we turned towards what we thought was the south park entrance. When we reached the gate, we learned that it is just an exit gate –entry to the park from the south side can only be made via Chifunda (turn off at the airstrip). The last few kilometres to the campsite were very bumpy. Surprisingly, amidst all the shaking, we managed to spot a Lappet-Faced Vulture… only because it was sitting above the road in a tree and flew as we came too close.

NLNP was founded as a game reserve in 1938 and became a national park in 1972. It now covers an area of 4,636 square kilometers and is home to the Big5. The scenery is varied, with Mopane woodland, grasslands, river front, and hills further to the north. Unlike SLNP, it is not a park with many options for self drive. The roads to the west in the park are closed to anyone without a booking to the one lodge operating in that area, leaving only one road to drive – straight through the park. With a booking at the lodge it is possible to access the area around the Mwaleshi river and the wildlife seeking the water there in the dry season.

After a quiet night at It’s Wild – where we also had a leopard visiting us at dinner time – we set off at 0730 for the pontoon. This is a true African pontoon made out of oil barrels and wood, and is pulled across by hand by the pontoon pilot. I always enjoy these pontoons. We then ambled our way down the river for about 20km to the hippo pools. A fantastic sight of hundreds of hippos splashing, snorting and basking in the early morning sun. From the hippo pools we backtracked to the main road again and headed on through the park. There are some waterholes on the way where we stopped for a quick lunch. We didn’t see much game on our traverse – I think they have all migrated towards the west and the Mwaleshi river this time of year. Hippo, crocodile, elephant, kudu, impala, letchwe, warthog, black wildebeest, waterbuck, bushbuck was what we saw. Yes, a nice list, but they were very few in numbers. In the middle of the park we crossed the Rhino Sanctuary, the NLNP airstrip, and then we started the climb up the escarpment to reach the campsite on the other side.

We had a lovely day in the park, with relatively good game viewing and a few special birds we could add to our list. Is it worth it? If you come to see game I would say “no”. If you like the bush, game and birds both, and some nice off-road driving thrown in I would say “yes”.


  • NLNP was established as a park in 1972 and covers 4,636 square kilometers. It lies between the Great East Road and the Great North Road, to the east of SLNP.
  • NLNP has community campsites either end, and a few lodges inside. The community campsites are expensive, with various standard on their offerings. It’s Wild charges ZKW75 pppn, offers flushing toilets and showers (no hot water), and is clean. Natwange (near Mano gate) charges the same but with water in buckets for washing and flushing.
  • On the way to NLNP we camped at Luangwa Wilderness Lodge for ZKW40 pppn. It is also possible to camp at the defunct Chibembe Lodge for US$15 pppn.
  • Park entry for self drive is ZZKW135 pppd, and ZKW80 for the vehicle. The permit is valid 0600 to 1800.
  • The transit route through the park is just under 70km long, and the road is of a good standard, although a 4×4 is needed to negotiate both the dry and flowing rivers.



  1. Vic

    How do these parks, etc, remain viable? It sounds as though tourists are few in number, so do they rely on the State for support? Investors would surely not see much return on their investment?

    1. African GirlChild

      I think in the case of N Luangwa they are more aimed at the package tour market, rather than the self drive market (such as us). The best viewing areas were only accessible if you were staying in the lodge … not in our budget unfortunately.

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