There are a lot of beautiful places to visit in Zambia but unfortunately many of them are only accessible in the dry season. We focused the short time we had available on South Luangwa National Park (SLNP) because it is open in March and it seems to be most people’s favorite spot.
Crossing into Zambia is supposed to be easy – it never comes up when people recount horror stories of African border crossings. However, we felt like it was the worst one we have encountered thus far! There was a huge list of papers to fill out and different booths to visit but no one would tell you exactly what was needed upfront. It was a trial and error process of getting some things filled out, trying to approach the gate then being sent back to figure out what was missing. There were so many fees also – I think we ended up paying over $200!
The roads in Zambia were in pretty good condition and it was easy to get around. The terrain varied from lush hills and mountains to flat open savannas. Most of the country consists of small rural villages. The local people were incredibly friendly and helpful. We got the impression that most people are very hardworking and industrious.
Over the past few years we have heard people speak volumes on the beauty and amazing “wildness” of South Luangwa so it was very built up in our minds. We were totally unprepared for what a different experience you get visiting the park in the wet season. Only a tiny portion of it is open and everything is very very green.
We soon realized that the chances of seeing game in March are pretty low. Animals spread far and wide across the park and the overgrown vegetation makes it difficult to spot anything. Reality started to hit that the timing of our trip in Feb – May meant we would hit all the best parks at the worst times! We were aware of this possibility when planning the trip, which is why we chose to front end the trip with Mozambique and push our visits to Zambia, Zim and Bots as late as possible. However, we just didn’t think it was going to make that big of a difference to our ability to see the animals.
On the flip side, visiting in the green season means the parks are empty and we got to feel as though we had the whole place to ourselves. This has made for an incredibly special experience of Africa.
We decided to stay outside SLNP because there are no budget options for campsites within the park. We camped at Croc Valley Camp which is < 10 minutes drive from the gate. We were shocked with the size of this lodge! It could easily accommodate over 100 guests but there were maybe about 12 at the time we were there. The campsites were well set up along the Luangwa river with private bomas including picnic tables, lights, electricity and water spickets for each site. However there was no trash can available anywhere at the camp! This was not the type of place where you would be expected to haul in and out your trash so we were quite annoyed. The ablutions were a bit run down but they had hot water.
One of the things we liked best about camping at Croc Valley is that you get hippos coming out of the river to graze in the campsites at night. On our way to take a shower the first night we were shocked to find a huge hippo lurking in the shadows next to the ablution door. Then our flashlights revealed that there were actually 5 hippos surrounding our campsite – including a small baby! Hippos are known to be the most dangerous animal in Africa, however at night they appear to be pretty focused on eating. As long as you stay out of their way and give them a good amount of space, they really do not bother you while feeding on land. My biggest concern was that I might accidentally bump into one at night on my way to the bathroom!
We mainly did self driving around SLNP. Not that many roads were open and you aren’t allowed to off road so we didn’t really feel the need for a guide. We saw leopard, lions, lots of elephants, impala, kudu, giraffe, zebra and all the other usual suspects. We were most excited to see a Pel’s Fishing Eagle which is rare bucket list bird!
We had the most luck with wild dogs and found them everyday in SLNP. One afternoon we caught them just at they were crossing a ravine. It was so cool to see them all jump across one after the other. Unfortunately, after jumping they crossed into an area that we couldn’t follow and we lost them before they made their kill!
The next night we found the dogs in a large open plains area that had impala flanked across the edges. It was a perfect area for hunting and we expected to have a spectacular view of their kill. But things never quite work out like you expect with wildlife! They will never cease to surprise you! Instead of going for the easy kill, these dogs decided to run toward a pack of elephants which had a small baby. At first we thought they were going after the baby, but then realized they were just harassing it. Not a smart move! Elephants are extremely protective and they started trumpeting, stamping and charging the dogs. It was quite a sight! The dogs quickly redirected and went after some impala which took them into a wooded area. We missed the kill, but the elephant chase was a much more unique experience anyway!
After three nights at Croc Valley camp we switched to Track and Trail camp which was next door. There were a few reasons for this. First off we would be the only guests at Track and Trail which meant we could go on a few games drives and have the vehicle to ourselves. Secondly, we had started getting incessantly attacked by vervet monkeys and baboons which were absolutely rampant at Croc Valley. Monkey are known for stealing food, but these guys were something else! They actually stole a towel that I had hung out to dry! It was a big thick terry cloth towel that was the only towel I brought on the trip! An employee said he saw the baboon ran up a tree with it! No one had ever heard of a baboon stealing a towel! What the heck is he going to do with it! I was soo angry!
But that was not the end of it. I made a loaf of beer bread and corn bread in our cast iron bread pan. The corn bread was still hot so we left it in the pan with hot coals on top and heavy rocks. We came back from our afternoon game drive and found that the monkeys had gotten inside the pan and eaten the whole thing! When I sat down to have some of the beer bread – they ambushed me and ripped the bread out of my hands! Shortly after they again ambushed from behind and pulled a butternut squash off our pantry shelf. The worst part is that they don’t just take stuff that is left out – they will snatch things directly from your hand as you are eating it! They also work together as a team to distract you from one direction while their buddies attack from the other direction. It got to the point where we didn’t feel comfortable even cooking. So it was definitely time to leave.
Track and Trail camp was actually much nicer and we wished we had stayed there the whole time. Everything was more updated and they had well equipped ablutions, better food, more attentive staff and wifi access. We did two enjoyable game drives where we had the whole vehicle to ourselves. We refuse to share a vehicle with 9 people like you have to do at the other camps so we really only do guided drives if there is a small group or we have our own guide. We didn’t see anything much different with the guide, however it’s a nice break for Garrett to get to sit back and enjoy viewing instead of driving. It is also much easier to take photos in an open vehicle.
We definitely hope to come back to SLNP in the future during the dry season. The landscape is beautiful and we were told that predators are so plentiful that you can regularly see 2-3 leopards a day! The only downside is that it is an expensive park. Just for entry/car fees as a self driver it cost $75 per day. To stay at the lodges inside the park you are looking at min of 800-1000 pp/night.
On the way out of town we visited Mulberry Mongoose and Tribal Textiles. Both are local craft shops. Mulberry Mongoose makes jewelry out of snares that are taken down from in and around the park. They make some pretty cool stuff but its quite pricey and they only contribute 10% back to wildlife conservation. Tribal Textiles has been around for over 20 years and is famous for hand painting fabric with designs inspired by nature and local Zambian culture. I loved basically everything they were selling but again pretty pricey!! Their proceeds support a local school.
On the way out of Zambia we spoiled ourselves with two hotels nights which were free thanks to Marriott points. We found a Protea Hotel in the small town of Chipata which seemed like a really random spot for a hotel chain! We were over the moon about finding it so we could get a break from camping.
We had planned to bypass Lusaka because everyone said that it was a dangerous, over crowded time suck. However, we decided the benefit of getting a free night at the Lusaka Protea Hotel outweighed any of these potential risks. I am so happy we ignored the advice! As we drove into Lusaka, we saw a Food Lovers! Our favorite grocery store from Gabs! We were like kids in a candy store shopping for fresh produce and other goodies. There was a bit of traffic in town but nothing worse than we experience in Gabs. We also found a Pizza Hut!
Whenever we stay in a hotel, it is amazing to rediscover the joy of having a soft bed, running water, electricity, A/C and wifi! Everything seems like magic. I find myself so incredibly grateful for everything around me. One of the best things our time in Africa and particularly this overland trip has brought us, is the chance to rediscover how insanely lucky we are. I hope I can hold onto this gratitude when I return to living an over-privileged American life!