North Luangwa National Park

No additional bells and whistles required, the plunge pool is the crystal-clear Mwaleshi River which perfectly dissects the park and where you may get an exfoliating fish-spa treatment thrown-in.

Rod Tether owned and ran the highly acclaimed Kutandala Camp in North Luangwa for more than a decade, leading walking safaris in this park almost daily. Talk to Rod if you'd like to discuss your visit to North Luangwa. You can read more about walking safaris in Zambia here.

The North Luangwa offers some of the finest walking in Africa, a true wilderness with plenty to see (an increasingly uncommon combination) and this is how the park is best explored.

The floodplains of the Mwaleshi are more open than those on the Luangwa and this in turn makes for perfect buffalo country. Buffalo are remarkably adaptable and can live pretty much anywhere as long as they have grazing grounds and access to water – no water no buffalo.

The Mwaleshi provides this and so as the park dries out massive congregations of buffalo make a twice-daily pilgrimage to drink from it. This in turn makes for happy hunting grounds for lion who, never a beast to over-exert itself, can lie in the shade on the banks of the river waiting for the buffalo to arrive.

This serendipitous situation for the lion makes for some awe-inspiring game-viewing on foot. Walk a section of the Mwaleshi River in the late dry season and you are extremely likely to come across lion, very wild lion who will snarl and growl at your presence and make you feel incredibly alive.

There are other animals around of course and you would be crazy to go to the North Park for the lions alone, but somehow they best epitomise the wildness. The North Luangwa has a self-selecting following, people who certainly don't mind the rough edges and very possibly actively seek them.

Almost exactly half the size of its more famous southern neighbour, a quirk of history in the form of a chiefdom set upon a remote river and the colonial administration's decision not to move them set in to motion a parallel evolution that ultimately created two entirely different places within essentially the same ecosystem.

Had Chief Nabwalya's people not lived in the narrow strip which is now the corridor between the two parks it is probable that the Luangwa would be one mega-Park like the Kafue in the west of the country.

The fact that they did meant that, when in the early 1970's, a newly independent Zambian government awash with copper dollars commenced an ambitious project to develop the South Luangwa into Zambia's premier wildlife destination (which hitherto had been the Kafue) by building an airport, an all-weather road system, a bridge across the Luangwa and more controversially elephant culling - at the same time it was decided that the North Luangwa should be left untouched, as a control in an experiment to see what happens when you do nothing. To a large extent this legacy remains.

This laissez-fare policy was all well and good until the copper price collapsed and Zambia's first President steered the country down a path of economic suicide resulting in hyper-inflation and shortages of just about everything in the early 1980s.

Developing and protecting National Parks went from a priority with a reasonable budget to a luxury that a country struggling to provide any basic health care and primary education to its burgeoning population could ill-afford, and this, sadly, is where it has stayed.

The sudden lack of protection opened the doors to poachers and the wilder and more remote a place was the worse it was hit. Through the late 1970s to the mid 1980s all of Zambia's Black Rhino population were killed along with tens of thousands of elephants.

The South Luangwa had a nascent tourism industry and therefore both some local protection of vulnerable species in the area immediately around the camps but also, crucially, a voice.

The North Luangwa had nothing and was totally overrun by poachers. This situation continued until the mid 1980s when two near-simultaneous things happened – firstly the worldwide ban on the ivory trade brought about a sudden drop in demand slowing poaching everywhere, and secondly after years of neglect, protection arrived in the North Luangwa the guise of the North Luangwa Conservation Project.

Funded by the Frankfurt Zoological Society and initially headed-up by Mark and Delia Owens, a couple of extremely driven American conservationists. Suddenly the North Luangwa had the resources it has always needed, the wherewithal to fight a war against the poachers who had claimed the park as their own.

These wars never end unfortunately but the battles can be won and the Frankfurt Zoological Society through decades of support are currently winning this one – turning the North Luangwa in to the best protected park in the country, home to the only Black Rhino reintroduction project in Zambia and a model for park protection on the continent.

So enough of the history – the situation today is that the North Luangwa has all the game of the South Luangwa but none of the development and therefore remains very, very wild.

From an operator's point of view this is a double-edged sword and running a camp in the North Luangwa has always been something of a labour of love. There is not a park in Zambia where more excellent operators have come-and-gone and not been replaced, because the economics of operating a short season a long way from anywhere has always been marginal at best.

However from a visitor's point of view this is wonderful news (assuming that a camp or two stays open) as it means that you have a vast wilderness area at your disposal, with wonderful wildlife and you are not going to see another soul – something that is becoming increasingly hard to find.

North Luangwa is best combined with a stay in South Luangwa, preferably beforehand in order to get a "big-game-fix" before venturing out on foot where results are less assured.

Access is by light aircraft charter and is a worthwhile expedition on its own – following the crazily-meandering Luangwa is a lesson in geography and illustrates exactly why the riverine belts of the Luangwa Valley are so rich.

Got questions about North Luangwa? There's nobody better to answer them than Rod Tether so drop him an email and he'll be happy to help.

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