Wonderfully Wild, Wonderfully Accessible: South Luangwa National Park
If you are traveling to Zambia (or even Malawi), South Luangwa National Park should be at the top of your bucket list.
In fact, it is probably one of the greatest wildlife parks on the African continent.
But that sentence sounds too generic and soulless…like there isn’t an actual human who has experienced the wonders of South Luangwa National Park writing this post.
So let me be clear and shout it to the heavens:
YOU HAVE TO GO TO SOUTH LUANGWA NATIONAL PARK!
There! Are you convinced yet? What even is South Luangwa? Where is it? Why should you go?
What, where, why:
South Luangwa National Park is in southeastern Zambia not so far from the border with Malawi. It is the most beloved national park in Zambia. It is also relatively easy and cheap to travel there.
When you are there you see animals everywhere you look. Hippos laugh all night long. They have a special white lion with a hot orange mane who lives there. You can see elephants parading all over the place.
Be sure to check out my Zambia page for more travel tips!
But what makes South Luangwa National Park special is the fact that it is accessible to backpackers or people on a tight budget.
So if you are looking for the perfect budget safari location, then South Luangwa National Park is the place for you!
Independent Travel to South Luangwa National Park
The park is reachable by public transportation from Lusaka and also from Malawi. You can make the trip in one day (though it is pretty long) and it isn’t expensive.
Read all about how to get to South Luangwa National Park on Public Transport here!
There is also a small airport near Mfuwe for those of you who have either more money or less time or just can’t stand another bumpy bus.
So if you search online for a budget safari, you will find plenty of websites claiming that paying something like $500 a day is a great price for a safari.
My heart sank when I read that. That was still way too expensive for my African travel budget!
But I soon learned that I could book a much cheaper safari in Zambia. A perfect budget backpacker’s safari!
How to plan your budget safari in South Luangwa National Park
The secret to really saving money? Pass on “all inclusive” and go for “do it yourself”!
So the biggest thing I learned about traveling independently to South Luangwa National Park is that a lot of the lodges will actually let you camp on their property if you bring your own tent.
Some will charge prices as low as $10 a night! I always travel with a tent and it saved me a ton of money. Plus it is pretty exciting to camp out among all the amazing African wildlife! Just don’t go wild camping unless you know it is permitted.
See Also: Safety tips for Camping in Africa
The other big money saver is food. A lot of the lodges have kitchens available to guests. Sometimes they say online that you have to pay to use the kitchen, but I learned in hindsight that this usually only applies to huge over-lander tour groups and not individuals or small groups.
I mean, some lodges have great food, but you may just be stuck with overpriced burgers and fries.
You could easily save $30 a day by just picking up some items at the market in town. The trading posts always had a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. The kitchens I encountered were always well equipped with pots and pans and plates.
Here are some lodges that offer cheap camping for budget travelers and backpackers (between $7-12 per tent per night):
Croc Valley Camp: I camped here and really liked it. There’s nothing like waking up to hippos laughing at night, or ELEPHANTS grazing inches away from my tent! What an experience.
It was clean, they had guards on duty all night long, the kitchen was fine. The owners were present and interesting to talk to. There were warm showers and plenty of places to chill out between safari drives.
Track and Trail River Camp: This one doesn’t let you book a campsite right online, so it may be worth calling before you arrive to make sure there is space.
Marula Lodge: These guys say they offer furnished tents for as little as $12 dollars a night. It would be worth checking out!
So you’re not so into the idea of camping in a flimsy tent…
Well, lucky for you, most of the lodges I listed above offer shared accommodations for pretty cheap. This would be a great option to look into if you are traveling in a small group. Never hesitate to call to see what they have. These places are often family owned and run and are really attentive to questions.
Also…check for secret deals
I am not going to throw out names because I am not 100% sure, but the lodge right next door to Croc Valley (take a left at the fork in the driveway to both of them) was offering a great deal when I was at Croc Valley.
It was something like 2 or 3 nights in a dormitory + lunch and dinner each day+ two game rides (park entry fees not included but that adds like $20 to $25 per day) all for LESS than what I was paying for a few nights in my own tent, two game rides, and NO food from Croc Valley.
I only know this because I ran into someone staying over there at the Croc Valley Bar (which is apparently much more exciting than the bar next door).
I mean it was amazing to sleep among the animals in my tent, but I would have slept a lot better if I had been in the dorm. Plus I was pretty sick of instant noodles and would have enjoyed prepared meals!
Moral of the story: don’t hesitate to check around before committing. You can’t walk from lodge to lodge but you can get a taxi to drive you around from Mfuwe. Or you can call ahead and see who has the best deal.
Also, the lodge guards were happy to walk people back to the lodge next door after dark. DO NOT wander around the grounds on your own after dark! I am wagging my finger at you! Be safe!
If you hate my lodge suggestions…
OK I found a lodge but how do I actually go on a budget safari?
You don’t travel to South Luangwa just to sit around at the lodge and chug beer, I get it. You need to get out and do some game rides.
Though luckily you will see plenty of animals while chugging beer at the lodges as well!
Every lodge will offer rides and I didn’t even need to book in advance. You just show up and go. The rides usually lasted around 4 hours and cost $40. There is always a morning ride and an evening ride. If you do two rides in one day you only need to pay the $25 park entrance fee once!
So don’t think that you have to plan everything out before you get there. Booking drives in advance online costs way more money!
Other safari options
South Luangwa National Park is one of the few places where you can do a walking safari! You will have to book that in advance with your lodge, but for my place they only asked for a 24 hour window.
Walking safaris aren’t the cheapest option, but you are safe with an armed guide and apparently it’s a great experience.
You can also do everything independently in a self drive situation and stay in bush camps or just go back to camp at a lodge at night. The fee to enter will be slightly higher, but then you can drive wherever you want.
Also, I mentioned it in my transport to South Luangwa post, but some travelers got a great deal on some drives from a hostel in Chipata. I don’t know the details but it may be worth asking around if you spend the night there.
I hope you have an amazing budget safari! Independent travel to South Luangwa National Park is totally possible and won’t break the bank.
Also, if you are in Lusaka and a little pressed for time, consider doing a safari in Kafue National Park. It is a lot closer to Lusaka so you don’t need to spend two full days on a bus!
This post contains affiliate links. I will make like ten cents if you click to a third party site to check prices from Tripadvisor. It will not result in higher prices for you if you decide to book something. I use the MAD CASH (like $2 a month) I make from this to pay for hosting this site.