What if I told you that you could do a week long African safari for under $500 USD? I wouldn’t blame you for calling me a liar. But it’s absolutely possible.
Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park is probably the cheapest African safari destination you’ll find. And not only is it cheap, but your chances of seeing all the animals you came for are extremely high. Add that to the limited number of other tourists in the area and it’s pretty much safari heaven.
For some reason this park is not as widely marketed or as developed as common safari destinations in countries like Tanzania & Kenya. This means that it’s not a luxury destination, but it’s also by no means roughing it. I can’t really say why it hasn’t developed further, but as we entered the park each day with only around 15 other vehicles, I was very glad of it.
If there’s a reason for relatively low visitors to this park, perhaps this is it. It’s really in the middle of nowhere. There’s a small airport in nearby Mfuwe with tiny planes being flown in by Proflight Zambia, who holds a monopoly and charges a fortune. If you’re not the roughing it type, don’t let the high cost of flying here deter you – you will make up for the cost elsewhere.
Or to save more money, travel by land. It’s a 2 day schlep from Lusaka, or a few hours drive from Chipata, on the border with Malawi (it’s actually less travel time from Malawi’s capital Lilongwe, than from Zambia’s capital, Lusaka). You’ll be able to get a taxi all the way to your lodge from Chipata for under $25 per person.
There’s even a bus that runs once a day from Chipata, but details of this change so frequently that I won’t post them. Ask at your Chipata hotel, or call ahead to your South Luangwa lodge for details.
Where To Stay
South Luangwa has a number of budget options. These line the bank of the river opposite the national park. This is really clever as you’re not actually in the park, so you don’t have to pay park fees to stay, but the animals cross the river and enter the lodges regularly.
For a pre-erected safari tent, with twin beds inside, Marula charge $13pppn. This includes running hot showers, a swimming pool, close encounters with African animals and wonderful, passionate staff who know all about the animals and make sure you don’t stumble across a hippo at night.
We can’t stop raving about this place. We had hippos grazing around our tent at night, got sniffed by a huge wild elephant while having dinner and spent days lazing around in the pool watching the monkeys play and staying very still as elephants crossed the river right in front of us. The owners are a relaxed, welcoming couple and it feels great to support people who are in turn putting their spare time back into developing the local community.
What You’ll See
Due to the excellent location of the lodge, we saw elephants (so many elephants), hippos, baboons, vervet monkeys, crocodiles, warthogs, puku, impala and monitor lizards in our campsite.
On game drives within South Luangwa National Park we saw lions, giraffes, buffalo, a leopard, hyenas, zebra, kudu, well pretty much everything you could want to see on a safari. The only notable thing missing from South Luangwa is rhinos.
You can buy food at the lodge, but Marula are more than happy for you to BYO food & drinks and use their kitchen. There is a small shop in town, but options are limited – best to stock up in Chipata to avoid disappointment. I can’t speak for the other lodges, but the Marula owners were even kind enough to take us into town with them when our supplies ran low. (A little too much drinking wine in the pool, watching the elephants pass.)
Drinking water is provided at the lodge so don’t worry about hauling huge bottles there.
Entering South Luangwa National Park will cost you $25 per day. This is an absolute steal and covers you for the whole day. Make sure you keep your receipt if you’re entering the park more than once in a day, though we were never asked to show them.
Game drives from our lodge cost $40 per person. This include 4 hours of guided day or night driving in the park, with no more than 12 people per vehicle. They even throw in a cup of tea and a snack to have in a scenic location of the park.
For something a little different, you can do a walking safari. They drive you and only a few others into the middle of the park and then you walk. As scary as this sounds, it’s fascinating to learn about tracking wild animals (I can now tell the difference between lion and hyena poo) and seeing the small things you wouldn’t notice as you whiz past in your safari vehicle. As you need to pay a park ranger with a rifle, this safari costs $50 per person. We found the walking safari totally fascinating and well worth the extra $10.
This can be done unbelievable cheaply. Our budget for 2 people was as follows*. Prices are in US dollars as this is the most common currency used in the South Luangwa area.
7 nights accommodation (safari tent) $182
Park entrance fees (2 days) $100
Game drives $240
Walking safari $100
TOTAL COST FOR 1 WEEK SAFARI FOR 2 PEOPLE: $922 USD
*We ended up flying out due to a family emergency, which totally threw the budget (cost more than the whole budget!), but emergencies aside, this spend is perfectly achievable