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Of all the unknowns of the vast continent of Africa, Zambia remains a mystery to most of us. We may know of the spectacular Victoria Falls, but few of us could be certain that they lie on the Zambezi River on the country's border with Zimbabwe. And probably fewer still could name any of the score of protected areas Zambia boasts. Of these, the South Luangwa National Park is one of the most outstanding, as well as being one of the biggest nature reserves in the world.
The most common time to visit this wildlife sanctuary is during the dry season from April to October when the increasing scarcity of water causes the different species to congregate and migrate, and brings predators to the waterholes. But when the rains come in November and early December, the leaves turn green again and the arid plateaus become a dark lush rainforest. At this time of year, the visitor witnesses a truly unique natural spectacle. Flocks of migratory birds arrive and herds of elephants gather around the Luangwa River, the heart of the park and one of the areas of densest animal concentration in Africa.
The area is not just a gathering ground for elephants and birds: the 50,000 square kilometres of wooded savanna watered by the seemingly endless river – actually 800 kilometres in length – is also home to giraffes, zebras, leopards, hippos, antelopes and buffaloes, and a large colony of crocodiles.
During the dry season, the Luangwa is just a stream, barely half a metre deep, which meanders along the flat valley in eastern Zambia. Each year, though, when the first rains come in November – and through until March – it becomes a swirling torrent of brown that floods out into the surrounding plains and groves, transforming the region and making the valley impassable.
Overnight, emerald shoots start to sprout on the bare trees, and herds of wild elephants begin to spread across the high plains and cross the river in search of the fresh green plants and grasses they feed on. This is the best time to go in search of the the great giants of Africa, although sometimes it isn't necessary to go very far at all: the Mfuwe Lodge was built on the traditional elephant migration path and, as the pachyderms go in search of their favourite meal of wild mangoes that grow in the Lodge grounds, they will often take a short cut up the steps and through the hotel reception area itself.
There are no fences marking the limits of the Lodge and its bush camps, so the animals can move freely, although there are safety controls in place to prevent possible mishaps, especially after dark. After all, despite the mod cons enjoyed by guests, this is wildlife in the true meaning of the word 'wild'. It's not just the elephants who visit the lodge grounds: at dawn and late afternoon, from the verandahs of the comfortable thatched huts, overlooking a lagoon where hippos lounge, guests can admire a procession of zebras and buffalo.
The day in this magical corner of Zambia, accessed from the town of Mfuwe, usually begins with a pre-dawn safari with lunch being served back at the Lodge. En route, in the shadow of the mopane trees, it's not unusual to see a family of elephants taking a spectacular mud bath . Dusk is another important time for wildlife, when animals can be observed hunting, tracking or devouring their prey.
The off-road trips make use of open-top safari vehicles, but it's also possible to make a safari on foot in South Luangwa, accompanied by a guide and an armed ranger. In this wonderful natural sanctuary, it's not unusual – although it is an incredible experience – to leave the vehicle behind to follow an animal's tracks. In the dense forested area, any noise is suspect, but the possible reward is the sight of herds of zebras, gazelles, giraffes, elephants and other beasts in their natural habitat, with hippos wallowing in the mud of the great Luangwa River.