Johan Groenewald from Tracks4Africa is a regular traveller to Zambia, having covered almost every corner of this beautiful country in Southern Africa. He shares some of his favourite destinations.
One of my favourite things about travelling is the great friends I have made along the way. These are people who have showed me places that I would otherwise never have been able to discover on my own. I also gained invaluable insight into how many ex-pats (there is a significant South African farming community in Zambia) and local residents like to travel and explore their own country.
What I have found is that Zambia is truly an adventurer’s dream. There are some proper wild places left in Zambia, and you can really lose yourself if you want to. The parks are also not overcrowded, the shops are well stocked, and the roads are… well, let’s just say the roads are part of the adventure.
Any adventurous traveller who enjoys exploring a little further than the usual places will love Zambia. There is a great variety on offer, with something to everyone’s liking. To get you started, I have extracted some tourist highlights from Tracks4Africa’s newly published guidebook on Zambia and included some of my own observations and experiences.
Source of the Zambezi
Zambia is named after the mighty Zambezi River. This river is a national monument and a copper plaque was installed to celebrate Zambia’s independence in 1964. It is the biggest river in a country blessed with massive rivers and gives life far beyond its banks. The sheer size of the Zambezi is impressive. When you visit Victoria Falls, you cannot believe that this mighty river starts with a small fountain, bubbling from beneath the soil.
I still remember my first visit to the source, many moons ago. While nothing impressive, I was overcome with emotion in realising that this is where it starts. From here, the Zambezi quickly grows into a mighty river as it collects water along the way. The Zambezi exits Zambia for a short stint through Angola before re-entering the country at Chavuma.
Mwinilunga is a vital birding area and my suggestion would be to make that the main focus of your trip. The equatorial rainforests in the area are unique to Zambia and contain 30 endemic bird species found only in this area or the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
This part of Zambia is out of the way, and while any trip this way will involve a lot of driving, it will be well worth it for the unique flora and birdlife.
Liuwa Plain National Park
Liuwa Plain National Park – on the far western side of Zambia – is a beautiful example of what the Zambezi’s floodplains must have looked like before. When I drive from Lukulu to Mongu, I usually try to cross the Barotse Floodplains on the east of the Zambezi, water levels permitting. The park is to the west of the river and the contrast between the two places is significant.
There are only domestic animals, rice paddies, fishing traps and tiny villages on the eastern side of the river. However, it is still a very interesting trip to do and for fisherman targeting the biggest tigerfish in the Zambezi, this is the place to be. However, enter Liuwa, and you have beautiful grasslands and abundant game. This should also be high on any serious birder’s list as you can quickly tick off some impressive large waterbirds in the park.
The park is managed by African Parks, who works in partnership with the government and the villagers who live on the outskirts of the park. It would be amiss not to compliment this team – they are doing a tremendous job of conserving and building up the park. If you do not know this already, the Liuwa Plain National Park plays host to the second-largest plains game migration after the Serengeti.
I have only been able to visit the park during the dryer months of September and October but still want to see it during November when the first rains have fallen. During this time, the plains spring to life, decorated by various bulbs that grow after the first good rains. This is also when wildebeest will start arriving from Angola to take advantage of the new growth. Landscape photographers who are chasing thunderstorms should also try out this time of the year. The Liuwa Plain National Park can easily be added to an existing Namibia and Botswana itinerary since you can enter the country at Katimo Mulilo and reach Liuwa within a day’s drive. Note, however, that access to the park is by four-wheel drive vehicles only and ensure that you are comfortable driving in deep sand as the recovery fee is a hefty $200 or more!
Livingstone – home to the Mosi-oa-Tunya, better known as the Victoria Falls – is always a welcome retreat on long journeys. The town is alive with tourists and offers many exciting attractions and activities. This is where adrenalin junkies can find their fix in the form of bungee jumping, swimming in the Devil’s Pool above the falls, river rafting or flying over the falls in a microlight. However, there are much more than just these thrills – with some digging, you will be pleasantly surprised. I like to stay at some of the camps outside town to avoid the busy tourist attractions, but there are many lovely places to stay in town. If you miss your coffee, pop into Munali Café for Zambian coffee prepared the proper way. The local Shoprite will surprise you with an impressive selection of food and wine and is a great place to stock up for the next leg of a journey. Livingstone also has Low Sulphur Diesel, indicated as LSD on the Tracks4Africa maps (note that this refers to 500ppm and not 50ppm).
The local markets and railway museum is worth a visit and if you like to take a break from camp food, there are plenty of local restaurants to try out. Another exquisite treat is to take the Royal Livingstone Express, an old steam train converted into a five-star restaurant, and dine on the train while stopping on the bridge for sunset. If you also want to see the Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwean side, you can leave your car in town and take a taxi to the border. From here, you can walk across the magnificent Victoria Falls bridge to the other side. Finally, Livingstone can also be used as a springboard to our next attraction, the Kafue National Park.
Kafue National Park.
I have visited this park so many times that I have lost count. Established in 1924, Kafue is Zambia’s oldest and largest national park and stretches over 280km from north to south. You can spend anything from three days to three weeks in Kafue National Park and not get bored.
The truly amazing Kafue River – which drains into the Zambezi near Chirundu – is the park’s main attraction, with several other notable rivers flowing into it. The park has diverse vegetation and you can expect swamps, floodplains, woodlands, stretches of forests and river thickets.
The wildlife is diverse, yet it does not have the Big Five – however, you do not visit this piece of paradise for game viewing only. Kafue is a lone ranger’s wonderland where you can pretend to be in deepest, darkest Africa all by yourself. Some of my fondest memories are floating down the Kafue River in a tiny aluminium boat, watching animals come to drink while you keep an eye out for the hippo’s. You will see some massive crocodiles on these riverbanks and the park is another birder’s paradise. You can access the park from several sides. A popular starting point is Hook Bridge which is in the middle of the park where the M9 highway bisects the park. I have seen a lion on the M9 and my friends who live there tell me they often spot wild dog. Since the M9 connects Lusaka with Mongu, you could include both the Liuwa Plain and Kafue National Parks into a single trip quite easily. Another popular way to access the park is from the south, starting in Livingstone and following the Spinal road through the park. This is an all-weather road allowing you to get all the way to Hook Bridge. Along the way, you could stop near the Itezhi-Tezhi Dam and then head further north, camping along the river.
In the northern section of the park, you can try to access the Busanga Plain. This is a beautiful area, far out of the way and serviced only by a couple of small, top-end lodges. While there is no camping in this very exclusive area, it is possible to slum it at Mapunga Bush Camp, which is about a two-hour drive from this area. Get up early and take a day trip to Busanga – you will not regret it. If budget permits, take your better half for a romantic night in one of the lovely lodges to wake up to the mist hanging over the grass plains. If you are lucky, Sitatunga would be grazing not too far off. You have not seen Zambia if you have not been to the Kafue National Park – so add this to your bucket list today.
Lower Zambezi National Park
If you have ever sat with your early morning coffee in Nyamepi Camp in Mana Pools and gazed across the Zambezi river, consider yourself blessed. You have laid eyes on Lower Zambezi National Park, running along the northern side of the Zambezi River. Together these two parks ensure that this stretch of the Zambezi remains largely untouched and is worth exploring by boat. For Zambia, this is also the last stretch of the Zambezi before it leaves the country into Mozambique (hence the name, Lower Zambezi). A word of caution, though: visit this park sooner rather than later to ensure you can still enjoy its unspoilt splendour. The Zambian government has thought it reasonable to grant a license for an open-pit copper mine inside the park, which may harper your future visits.
While this park offers no campsites, it does boast some stunning luxury lodges and accommodation options to choose from. However, just outside of the main gate, there are some wellequipped campsites, which serves as an excellent base to explore the park. I fondly recall a trip where we entered the park from the north, on the Great East Road (T4). You enter at the Mukamba gate where you might have to go and find the guard at his nearby house since this entrance is not often used. If you use this track, be ready for a proper four-wheel drive excursion as you make your way down the escarpment. These roads are not maintained, and during the rainy season, I would think twice before embarking on this route.
Very few vehicles make use of this track, so if you decide to brave it, make sure you are completely self-sufficient. Be sure to carry enough food and water should you run into trouble. While challenging, your adventurer’s spirit will be rewarded with magnificent views and a sense of accomplishment when arriving at the river’s edge. We opted to spend the night on the lawn of a lodge owned by my travel companion’s friend who asked us to swing by. What a treat to have this little piece of paradise to yourself! Gosh, I love this job!
As it was a warm and humid evening, I decided to pitch my little two-man hiking tent without the rain shield. Essentially, this meant was sleeping inside a big mosquito net, but having spent nights in much rougher conditions I didn’t mind. During the night, I was woken up by the sound of a hippo grazing on the lawn, about 10 m from my tent. I did not know what to do, so I just stayed still and hoped she would not be too curious about me in my little tent. I eventually drifted off again, only to wake up in the early hours of the morning with her now investigating the other side of my tent! My snoring must have put her at ease as she merrily grazed the night away.
The following day, I was still lying in my tent, admiring the river, when one of the staff tried to cross the lawn, and the hippo charged at him. Luckily, he knew how to dodge her between some big trees, but I was glad I did not attempt any escape from my tent last night. He told me afterwards that she is a regular visitor to this lawn.
South Luangwa National Park
Further along the Great East Road, you will find the town of Petauke. It is a smallish town, but there is fuel (not low sulphur diesel, though) and a good lodge. The lodge has a wonderful campsite which I highly recommend for a stopover if you have driven from Lusaka. From Petauke, you leave the highway and head north towards South Luangwa National Park. You end up in the game management area (GMA), which surrounds the park – it is like a buffer zone around the park and usually buzzes with wildlife. This track can get tricky in the rainy season but is perfectly doable in the dry season and a great alternative to driving via Chipata.
South Luangwa National Park is Zambia’s premier park. Most people visiting Zambia will end up in this park, and there are many reasons to do just that. Wildlife sightings are frequent when you are around the Luangwa River, which is also home to the original walking safaris. There is no camping inside the park, but there are campsites dispersed all along the Luangwa River on the opposite side of the park, and as you are inside the GMA, wildlife moves freely through the camps. I would also recommend a visit to the Nsefu sector of the park. You remain on the Luangwa River’s southern side, and some of the high-end photo safaris bring their clients to this area for magnificent photo opportunities.
The northern part of the park has far less game, but we once did the so-called Route 05, which run from Mfuwe to the northern gate of the park, offering some exquisite wilderness scenery. Explorers can only cross the Munyamadzi River during the dry season, and it’s best you ask the rangers about the crossing before setting off. Strangely enough, just further north, you can cross the Mutinondo River without concern as there is a proper steel bridge in place. This area is idyllic, or maybe I was having heat stroke by the time we got there. From here, you must make your way up a very rocky pass to scale the Muchinga escarpment before reaching the Ntunta Game Scout camp. Do not attempt this pass without a low range capable vehicle – you will run into trouble. After you master the pass, you will eventually end up on the Great North Road (T2) near Mpika.
North Luangwa National Park
A continuation of the protected areas further north of South Luangwa National Park brings you to North Luangwa National Park. This park is a significant conservation area and, as such, is not self-drive friendly. However, you are allowed to transit via the park to reach the Great North Road. Should you wish to do game drives in the park, you have to take one of the rangers with you. It does make for a great safari to travel from South Luangwa on the ‘cotton’ road to North Luangwa and then on towards the Great North Road.
North Luangwa National Park is a great wilderness and although a bit off the beaten track, you should think twice about excluding this area from your itinerary.
Kasanka National Park
This tiny park is world-famous for the largest mammal migration on earth. Between October and December every year, straw-coloured fruit bats arrive here from all over Africa to roost in a small forest inside the park. It is estimated that up to 10 million of these fruit bats will come together to what I would define as an absolute must-see experience. You can view all of this from specially built lookout points and hides. One of these is called the BBC hide. It is from this spot that the popular David Attenborough series on Africa filmed the incredible bat migration. The concentration of these bats attracts all sorts of predators, which adds to the spectacle.
I would highly recommend a visit to this park and not only to see the fruit bats – the birdlife in the park is excellent. If you are after a Sitatunga sighting, you need not go any further than Pontoon Camp, where there is a viewing deck at the campsite. You can have your morning coffee while taking pictures of this elusive animal.
Not too far from Kasanka National Park is the Bangweulu Swamps on the southern side of Lake Bangweulu. Conservation efforts in this area are challenging as it is a prime fishing area which provides a livelihood for many Zambians. The result is that you find wildlife and fishing villages sharing this area. As the rainy season arrives, the water levels rise, and people are forced to higher ground, with the tracks washing away completely.
Why would you visit here, you might ask? One reason for me was that I must write a travel guide and needed to see the place, but another very compelling reason for explorers like myself would be to look for the Shoebill Stork. This ugly duckling is highly endangered and found deep inside these swamps. You can make a trip to the floating islands by canoe during the rainy season, but when you arrive in the dryer months (as we did), you have to walk. We trekked for seven hours, covering 21 km, to find one of these birds. It was well worth it as I was also amazed to see large herds of Black Lechwe grazing on the plains. It’s the first time I saw these beautiful antelope.
This is a special place, but most certainly not for the faint-hearted. The community campsite is on the plain and makes for a beautiful setting. The staff cart your hot water for a shower by bicycle – so appreciate it! On the trip between Kasanka and Bangweulu, you could also consider visiting the place where David Livingstone died of malaria. There is a monument, and you can camp inside the grounds as well – when I was there, the newly build ablution facilities were in perfect condition.
Did you know that landlocked Zambia has a beach? It takes about a day to reach the small town of Nsumbu on one of Zambia’s special gravel roads. The road surface can be referred to as surf, and the wave action measured in feet. However, at the end of a very tiring and challenging drive, I was met by a lovely camp under Acacia trees, on the sandy beach of Lake Tanganyika.
Here you can go fishing, scuba diving, snorkelling, or explore the nearby Nsumbu National Park by vehicle or on foot. I stayed at the Ndole Bay Lodge’s campsite. The lodge offers great value and services, and I can highly recommend staying more than just a few nights here. The lodge owners are involved with conservation work in the Nsumbu National Park, and it looks like this park will grow from strength to strength. Ndole Bay plays host to an annual fishing competition so make sure you don’t come on this weekend as the place will be fully booked.
Waterfalls of Zambia
I never thought of Zambia as a country with waterfalls. I am from Cape Town, and there you find waterfalls in small rivers in the mountains, and Zambia does not strike me as a mountainous place. But Zambia has plenty of substantial rivers, fed by its own rainfall and water from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. Even the smaller rivers in Zambia are impressive, and when in flood, they carve their path through the earth. A slight drop in elevation creates the right environment for a beautiful waterfall.
When we think of falls in this part of Africa, we all think of the Victoria Falls, and while this is the biggest and most famous one in Zambia, I have had the pleasure of seeing close to twenty awe-inspiring waterfalls on my trips. And these are only the ones which are easily accessible by road. My friend, Ilse Mwanza from Lusaka, together with a couple of like-minded fellows, have set out to document hundreds of waterfalls all over Zambia. Many of them are deep in the bush and can only be reached on foot.
Waterfalls can be the theme of a trip through Zambia, and I would strongly suggest that you make sure a few of these gems are on your itinerary. In the west, on your way to Liuwa, you will find the Sioma Falls. As you enter the country from Tanzania in the northeast, near Mbala, there is the Kalambo Falls. On the Great North Road, there is the Kundalila Falls which roughly translates to Crying Dove. Near Kasama, there are two sites with various waterfalls, of which the most famous is the Chishimba Falls. These are quite popular over weekends, but you will have the whole place to yourself if you go during the week. One of my favourite sites was quite far north, close to the Lusenga Plain National Park. Here you find two incredible waterfalls in the same complex: Lumangwe Falls and the Kabwelume Falls. These falls are far out of the way, and there is a lovely campsite under dense trees where you can hear the falls throughout the night. Waterfalls can be the theme of a trip through Zambia, and I would strongly suggest that you make sure a few of these gems are on your itinerary. In the west, on your way to Liuwa, you will find the Sioma Falls. As you enter the country from Tanzania in the northeast, near Mbala, there is the Kalambo Falls. On the Great North Road, there is the Kundalila Falls which roughly translates to Crying Dove. Near Kasama, there are two sites with various waterfalls, of which the most famous is the Chishimba Falls. These are quite popular over weekends, but you will have the whole place to yourself if you go during the week. One of my favourite sites was quite far north, close to the Lusenga Plain National Park. Here you find two incredible waterfalls in the same complex: Lumangwe Falls and the Kabwelume Falls. These falls are far out of the way, and there is a lovely campsite under dense trees where you can hear the falls throughout the night.
Most waterfalls have been declared national monuments – mostly because they provide the authorities with income from tourists – and it ensures incredible moments, close to nature. There are, in most cases, campsites at these falls, but you should bargain with the attendant for a reasonable price. Do not expect the greatest of facilities at these campsites and when the falls are close to towns, I would suggest you avoid weekends
Now that you know all my secrets, it is your turn to plan an adventurous trip to take on some of what Zambia offers. No matter what you end up doing in this beautiful country, it is sure to be an experience that you will never forget.
Zambia Self-Drive Guide: Edition 1
Tracks4Africa recently released the first edition of the Zambia Self-drive Guide. Following the same recipe as the brand’s successful Botswana and Namibia self-drive guides, you can expect more than 400 pages packed with objective travel information. Key features include:
• An introduction to self-drive or Overlanding
• Information about Zambia (i.e. road conditions, border posts, fuel etc.)
• Detailed descriptions of the various travel regions in Zambia
• Detailed descriptions of towns and cities (including street maps and a list of services available)
• 407 lodge listings, including contact details
• 167 official campsites, including contact details
• 25 atlas pages of 1:1 000 000 scale, featuring driving times based on road conditions
• Time and distance table for trip planning
• Livingstone detailed street map (6 pages)
• Lusaka detailed street map (22 pages)
• Nine transit routes between major destinations
• Four suggested touring routes.
* Priced at R480, you order it online: https://shop.tracks4africa.co.za/