Into the Wilderness – North Luangwa National Park

 If you are looking to escape the ordinary tourist trails and dive deep into an untamed experience complete with camping, hiking, wildlife sightings, and the crème of Zambia’s rugged landscapes, head to the North Luangwa National Park and answer the wild call of the Amatololo Experience. Translated as “the wilderness” in the local Bemba language, Amatololo is not your average expedition; it is a self-drive odyssey for the adventurous soul who wants to enjoy nature with no frills, all thrills.

My journey into the wilderness began with a bumpy 4×4 drive into the North Luangwa National Park via Mpika. I quickly stopped and paid a courtesy call at the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FSZ) Headquarters. I teamed up with a local guide with a wealth of knowledge who would later act as my compass throughout this thrilling adventure. We set our sights on traversing the rugged roads to reach Ituba Community Camp, perched on the banks of the Luangwa River in the Musalangu Game Management Area, before nightfall.

The Amatololo Experience consists of four self-supported campsites and two community-managed camps along the rugged trails following the course of the Lufila River into the Luangwa River.

On arrival at Ituba, we pitched our tents and mingled with the locals as we prepared to venture into the vast, untamed wilderness. The following day, we began our odyssey north from Ituba Camp along the Luangwa River, its banks and waters teeming with hippos and crocodiles. As we bumped along the escarpment, we sighted herds of elephants, reedbuck, and impala. Stopping the vehicle to capture some shots, we became aware of the pungent whiff of musk in the air; its source proved to be a sight we never imagined we would experience. A mere stone’s throw away, obscured by shrubbery, a pride of lions lounged, having just cornered and feasted on a young hippo. While still a safe-ish distance away, the adrenaline rush was undeniable as we could only imagine the drama that had unfolded just moments before. We stood in awe, overwhelmed by the intimidating size of these full-grown cats. The tension in the air was palpable as we recorded the moment with trembling hands.

We eventually retreated to the vehicle’s safety, relishing the moment as we ventured deeper into the park’s heart to the next campsite, where we would spend our second night. We witnessed the change in landscape with several tributaries flowing into the Luangwa River. Driving past a couple of overland camp trucks was heartening, a sign that we weren’t completely alone in the vast wilderness of Zambia’s untamed beauty.

When we arrived at Muzungwe Campsite later that afternoon and set up camp near the borehole on site, the sun was already setting. We enjoyed a night under the canopy of stars, sharing stories of our adventures around a crackling fire, which had become a ritual of sorts. As I retreated to my tent for the night, it felt strangely rewarding to swap the comforts of plush beds and flushable toilets for the simplicity of camping beneath the stars.

As dawn broke, I was greeted by the sight of our campsite shrouded in a cloud of mist. As the fog cleared, I realised we were surrounded by a canopy of cathedral mopani, carpeted with fallen leaves in a mesmerising display of red and brown. The towering trees, stripped bare by the dry season, stood like sentinels guarding this place. The scene was not without a feeling of magic.

Ituba is one of the two self-sustaining community-managed campsites on the Amatololo trail, which offer basic creature comforts for visitors. The campsite has a convenient access point for visitors from the South Luangwa National Park or the Luambe National Park as they cross into North Luangwa using the resident pontoon.

We began a leisurely morning with freshly brewed tea over the embers of a rekindled fire, soaking in the change of scenery and the chattering birdsong that filled the air as day broke. The onset of the midday heat drove us to break camp and set off for Lifula Camp Site, where the true magic of the Amatololo Experience unfolds.

The approach to the Lifula Camp Site was punctuated by sprawling hills and lush greenery resulting from the nearby waterfall’s natural irrigation system. Lifula Falls is a short hike from the designated camping area, and as we clambered between the rocks, we were greeted by a vista and a breathtaking cascade of water. The sound of babbling water instilled a sense of pure serenity, a welcome respite following the hot drive. Setting up camp on our last night in the wilderness created a bittersweet feeling because it felt like the experience was just beginning to ripen, but alas, time had caught up, and it was nearly time to wake from the dream.

As if sensing our melancholy, nature treated us to one more magical encounter. As we gathered around the fire beneath a full moon, a majestic hippopotamus with its calf emerged near the waterfall, and later that night, their guttural symphony echoed through the night, a constant reminder that the real Africa was all around us. The morning brought with it our last moments at Lufila Falls and our departure for Samala Community Camp. Samala, a simple tented camp with outdoor showers and simple yet comfortable beds, was a welcome contrast to our wilderness camping experience, its simple comforts adding to the charm of this adventure.

The route is a unique 4×4 adventure where you are completely off the beaten track, often with few to no other visitors in the park.

Enjoying the diverse landscapes and experiences at each campsite filled me with nostalgia, reminding me of the joys of connecting with nature as a young boy scout. I caution you, dear reader, this experience is not for the faint-hearted. The long traverse across the changing terrain tested our wits and resilience and almost made me rethink why I drove over 800 kilometres from home into the unknown expanse.

However, I can guarantee that the reward is assured for those who crave adventure, relish the thrill of the unknown, and appreciate the simple beauty of unfiltered experiences. The Amatololo Experience caters to every adventurer as you hike through pristine woodland, relax by various river banks, enjoy a campfire under the starry night sky, or simply chance upon incredible wildlife encounters.

Aerial photo over North Luangwa NP, Zambia. © Mana Meadows Photography

So, dear reader, plan your itinerary, team up with a local guide and embrace the spirit of untamed adventure in amatololo.

Amatololo means ‘wilderness’ in the local Bemba language, as the experience is completely isolated and untouched.

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