Quite possibly the best bit of travel advice we’ve been given was to add South Luangwa to our list of African destinations. Coupled with the Cape Epic mountain bike race this was the only thing planned in advance and definitely the costliest of anything we did whilst in Africa! With safaris easily costing upwards of ten thousand Dollars we shied away from high end lodges, instead being more selective and adding a little more rustic into the mix – Flatdogs Camp just outside of the park was the first destination followed by Gavin Opie Safaris at his Nkonzi bushcamp. We were extremely happy with both operators, complimenting each other with comfort, remoteness, and amazing hospitality.

Elephants wandering along the Luangwa River

First we had to get from Lusaka where we had just spent a couple of nights at Natwange Backpackers, the journey being almost 700km and around 11 hours by bus. We chose Jonda Bus Tours as they were the only company we could find that would take us all the way to Mfuwe, the jumping off point for South Luangwa, and not requiring a bus change in Chipata – the price was reasonable too at $47 between us! The taxi from Natwange to the main Lusaka bus station wasn’t so cheap, a quick hop skip and a jump away but seeing the bus station in daylight certainly didn’t make us want to walk there in the early hours of the morning! We left by 5am and eventually rolled into Mfuwe at 4pm after a short passenger change in Chipata.

Mfuwe seemed like a nice little town, pretty much only existing for the safari industry and with our first lodge situated on the edge of the national park made for an easy visit. A further 20km from town was Tribal Textiles, definitely the most popular place to visit and with their town based cafe providing a free taxi service made for an interesting afternoon. They employ over 100 local men and women who produce unique hand-painted textiles which can then be purchased through their workshop, online or through stockists worldwide. We could have spent a fortune!

Artist hand-painting designs at Tribal Textiles

Leopard designs awaiting the painter

Welcome to South Luangwa National Park

We had a night to kill before our safaris began and with only a couple of cheap backpacker options decided on Croc Valley Camp, definitely in need of some updates but sitting right on the Luangwa River and only $20 in an Eco tent it was a no brainer. Their internet was also good enough for Andrea to squeeze some last minute work in prior to our vacation.

Flatdogs Camp
The following morning after devouring a pretty good Croc Valley breakfast we headed over to Flatdogs Camp, a mid-range lodge only a couple of kilometers from the park entrance. We had booked 4 nights on their Safari Package in a luxury safari tent and judging by our first impressions were not going to be disappointed. Our tent sat right on the river with the potential of hippos and elephants joining us for morning coffee on the patio! For $650 a night between us everything was included with a 4 hour morning and late afternoon game drive, park fees, and more opportunities to eat from an excellent a la carte menu than we could handle. This may sound expensive but compared with Robin Pope and many others it was a bargain.

Flatdogs luxury safari tent in South Luangwa

View out to the Luangwa River from our tent

Falling asleep to the sound of hippos passing by in search of food was unbelievable. Andrea seemed better at it than me as every time I heard rustling I’d be back out of bed looking for whatever had made the sound – on a couple of occasions the bulk of a hippo or two was mere meters away from our patio. We’d also have hippos munching on grass that prevented us from getting back from dinner to our tent in the evening.

The best were the elephants, entire herds of them, that would cross the Luangwa River and stroll right into camp – in the process eating whatever took their fancy and laying down to rest wherever they liked. This was more often than not around safari tent number four. Almost daily there would be a time when we couldn’t leave the dining area or make it along any of the trails. Fortunately there are worse things in life than being at the whim of the planets largest land animal!

Mother and the tiniest of babies

Big destructive elephants in our outside dining area

Elephants taking a dust bath

The Flatdogs safari crew couldn’t have been better, specifically our guide Kennedy who found us numerous packs of wild dogs, lion kills, many leopards, and knew that if we were patient the sound of distressed animals would lead us straight to a predator or two. Bellowing elephants found us wild dogs, screaming baboons led us to a leopard, and his ability to see 3″ chameleons whilst on night drives was amazing! We couldn’t fault Flatdogs and during our first stay knew that we would be back for a few more nights later in our trip.

Gavin Opie’s Nkonzi Camp
Moving on to a far more rustic experience, we were collected at the park entrance by the owner of Gavin Opie Safaris and taken on a 45 minute game drive to the remote Nkonzi bushcamp. Situated on the banks of the seasonally dry Mushilashi River the location was perfect for a peaceful and tranquil 4 night stay. Once again everything was included, with two safaris a day, communal dinners, transfers, and the experience of a great support staff. Due to the nature of a bushcamp when we arrived it had only just finished being erected for the season; an epic job in itself, the 5 safari tents complete with flushing toilets and hot outside showers. Even though it wasn’t luxury Gavin had thought of everything to allow for a comfortable and relaxing experience.

Dining and social tent at Nkonzi Camp

Breakfast on the dried up Mushilashi River

For our first couple of nights we were the only clients in camp, a dedicated staff all to ourselves! Each morning following breakfast taken on the sands of the dried up riverbed we headed off for the first 4 hour safari of the day, in search of basically anything that moved. So early in the season the grasses in this part of the park were at their longest, usually well above our heads, causing a bit of a visibility problem – for this reason wildlife sightings weren’t at their best. Gavin the driver and Gavin the spotter had to be at his best! Once we were away from the long grassy areas on the bare plains and riverbanks success was pretty much guaranteed, and with elephants, plenty of antelopes, and the occasional predator, we were happy.

One of the 4 days was spent on safari from 6am through 8pm, a full on excursion into parts of the park that were too far to reach on a typical am or pm drive. Leopards, lions, giraffe, elephants and anything else on four legs greeted us throughout the day – although tiring this was probably our most favorite day in South Luangwa. Another day we took to two feet instead of four wheels and with our armed chaperone headed off across the grasslands. This had the potential of being a big adrenaline rush but with the wildlife choosing to be elsewhere it turned into a comfortable ‘stroll in the park’.

Enjoying sundowners whilst listening to the sound of hippos, the sun setting over the Luangwa River usually did away with any thoughts of fatigue!

Reassured by an armed guard whilst on a walking safari

Alternate means of entering the park

Breakfast prep under a watchful eye

South Luangwa sunset

Although expensive we were glad to have spent a little over a week being pampered and driven around viewing Africa’s stunning wildlife, the upside being that a skilled set of eyes picked up things that we would definitely have missed, the downsides being independence and the cost. It was great to have our own vehicle in other parts of Africa and head off discovering wildlife at our own pace and on our own schedule – there’s something about potentially getting lost in the middle of a park full of elephants and carnivores!

We wouldn’t hesitate to return to South Luangwa to spend time at both camps, but next time it will be towards the end of the season when the grasses have disappeared, the watering holes and rivers have all but dried up, and the wildlife is fighting for what little is left before the rains once again return.

SIM Card & Coverage
Carrier: Airtel, Usage: 6.7GB
Cost: $15

Arrival: Lusaka -> Mfuwe, Carrier: Jonda Bus Tours, Cost: $23.38 pp
Departure: Mfuwe -> Chipata, Carrier: Shared taxi, Cost: $cheap pp

May 25th – June 5th 2018


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