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Luangwa DMC-31

South Luangwa National Park and Mfuwe Lodge

The Voyagers team has once again been on the road with a weekend escape to the South Luangwa National Park.

The South Luangwa National Park has long been the jewel in the crown of Zambia’s natural heritage. A magnificent national park established in 1972 but in existence as a game reserve since 1938. Its area covers 9050 square kilometres. Although not Zambia’s largest park, its area still exceeds that of countries such as Israel and Djibouti and is not far off the size of Rwanda.

Voyagers was lucky enough to be flying in on one of the first commercial flights into the valley since the great Covid-19 constriction that has throttled back the Tourism industry. The flight on Proflight’s CRJ jethad no issues; it was comfortable, quick and a short hop from Lusaka.

At Mfuwe Airport we were collected by our guide, Manda Chisanga, one of Zambia’s foremost guides and a long-time member of the Mfuwe Lodge team. The drive to Mfuwe Lodge passes through a series of small settlements: Chivimba, Kawanzi and Kakumbi which are all adjacent to the road that leads from the airport to the South Luangwa National Park (including a section of the D104 that leads south-east to Chipata). Every year it is noticeable that the population of this area is growing rapidly which suggests that there will be inevitable conflict between human beings and animals in the future.

Arriving at Mfuwe Lodge, we were greeted by the Mfuwe team; many of them old friends and acquaintances and of course our new friend – Covid-19 safety protocols. These protocols were exceptional in their completeness and adherence. The lodge seems to have read the playbook, embellished upon it, and delivered the same with practised ease. Regular temperature checks, sanitising and mask-wearing are built into the lodge program. Combined with open air, lots of sunshine and natural social distancing, this must be one of the safest places to be in 2020!

Mfuwe Lodge has a warm place in the writer’s memory; the beneficiary of numerous holidays to Luangwa as a child, with Norman Carr as our guide from the lodge. The writer remembers being taken around Kapani as an empty site when Norman was planning his first solo venture, and his endless patience with my enduring fascination with orchids. Voyagers was amongst the first tour operators to market Zambia at WTM (World Transformation Movement) when we formed with Tongabezi, Chinzombo (Save the Rhino Trust), Kapani, and Robin Pope Safaris - the original ‘Pride of Zambia’ – a joint marketing effort to try and put Zambia’s nascent private sector on the map. In the words of Marion Gatchell, Voyagers founder and shareholder, ‘Norman was a family friend from Malawi before he came to Zambia. He was never about sighting the Big Five; he was about the feel for the bush, being at one with nature, appreciating the wilderness, studying ‘curly-whirlies’ (ant lions) as closely as a lion. He approached all of this with his quiet sense of humour, calmness, and never rushing anything.’

Mfuwe’s latest development is the Directors House – an innovative new product allowing a family of six to live in secluded luxury within the lodge grounds. The Directors House is a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home with a private kitchen, garden, and swimming pool. This facility offers a private oasis in the middle of the bush and is complemented with a private guide and an exceptional silver service team to support your stay. This is a welcoming new dimension to the establishment and is highly recommended to families or groups of friends who treasure their privacy, and most especially to those with children who wish to relax – the enclosed garden and pool providing a self-contained safe ‘playpen’ for the little ones. In short, we loved it.

So why do we go to South Luangwa?

Luangwa has an amazing mix of vegetation; nature’s cathedrals formed from ebony groves and riverine bush composed of Sausage Trees, Winter Thorns and Natal Mahogany.  Lead Woods and Mopani Trees stand like sentinels in the poorly drained cotton soils that cover substantial tracts of land. All of the above gives rise to a constantly changing environment as you travel through the park.

The Luangwa River meanders through the park constantly evolving, leaving behind ox bow lagoons. This constant process of change, destruction and renewal dominates the landscape and influences the flora, bringing life to the warm arid valley. All of thee above attracts game which makes the area one of the best places to visit in Zambia.

The game in South Luangwa ranges from the tiny elephant shrews, dung beetles and army ants through to elephants, lions and leopards backed by a supporting caste in the thousands. From the common, but oh-so-elegant, impala to the comic hyena and the rock star wild or painted dog, the density and variety of game is unrivalled in Zambia and makes this park one of the country's key sites.

Our experiences in the park were tremendous – our list of animals and birds was simply amazing. Of note was a magical sighting of wild dogs on an early morning foraging expedition, three large buffalo herds, five separate leopards, a pair of mating lions and Thornicroft’s giraffe. All of the above were delivered by Manda with consummate skill, enthusiasm, and respect for the bush.

The children were enthralled with a constant stream of education and narrative by Manda on the animals, birds, plants, and the intertwined relationships that link them all. Normally Manda is based at the bush camps that form part of the Bushcamp Company portfolio.

Visiting in the Green or Emerald Season:

In the green season, Luangwa changes markedly, going from dry semi-arid bush to lush green meadows of grass. The mix of game and birdlife changes but not profoundly.

On a recent trip just after Christmas, the Voyagers team had amazing sightings of a leopard killing a male impala, wild dogs on a kill, a black mamba interacting with some very stressed squirrels, buffalo in a tropical downpour, as well as elephants, Woodland Kingfishers and baby impalas everywhere. Lions, zebra, and the rest of the usual suspects were all on a par with the best viewing of the dry season.

So did we get wet? Yes – a little, but the trade-off with the spectacular skies, cool breezes, fresh dust-free air, lush vegetation and amazing new life everywhere was more than worth it.

Despite intermittent cloud and rain, the Mfuwe Lodge pool remained inviting. The team copes hugely well with rain or shine and everything was great from bush breakfasts, to pizza night or the Mongolian wok experience.

Voyagers would heartily recommend the South Luangwa National Park and specifically Mfuwe Lodge if you can make the journey. Our team will be organising charter flights into the park from the Copperbelt and Lusaka later in the year, hopefully including a few new points of interest along the way.

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