Zambia’s insane potholes: a survival guide

What are the roads like in Zambia? The short answer – shocking. The potholes are out of this world. They come in all shapes and sizes – miniature, jagged edged pockmarks that look like the lunar surface; road-width trenches that sneak up on you; corrugated fill-in jobs.

Journeys in Zambia often take twice as long as predicted, and this challenging experience is not for the faint of heart. Here is a look at some of the most terrifying potholes in Zambia you should watch out for.


Road conditions in Zambia

Zambia’s roads in general are in a state of disrepair and neglect. A 2001 measurement showed that Zambia has 91,440km of highways. Of that, 71,323kms are unpaved. That’s 78% of highways unpaved, and only 22% that are.

Those paved highways, are they any good at least?

In 2004, an estimate of road quality was made by the NRFA (National Road Fund Agency). They designated 57% of paved roads as good quality, 22% fair quality, and 21% poor quality.

What exactly does a poor quality road look like in Zambia? Let’s explore some of the hazardous potholes out there.

Jagged-edge cauldrons

The first potholes out of Kabwe were the size of garbage bin lids, ankle deep, and were spattered all across the road, to make the tarmac look like the surface of the moon. We could counter these by driving in a slow slalom.

People had warned us about the state of Zambia’ roads, and we took heed. For smaller roads, we expected this; but the potholes in the middle of major highways took us by surprise.

We drank our awful freeze-dried chicory coffee-style drink, the sour tasting Ricoffy. Brains fuelled with caffeine, we strapped in for the highway battle.

Home-made repair jobs

Where locals have tried to fix a pothole, they fill it in with rocks. The result is a crater filled with a lumpy mix of teeth-rattling rocks, that sometimes pop up and create a knobbly speed bump. When you hit one, it feels like the wheels are going to get ripped right off the axle. Approach these at extremely low speed.

Invisible ‘Trench’ style potholes

But we hadn’t seen anything yet. As we ventured into more remote parts of the country, we hit our first seriously big pothole. It was a knee-deep trench, about two metres long, spanning the entire width of the road.

And the worst part? They’re completely invisible until you’re on top of them.

We were coming down the road at a rocketing highway speed when the pothole appeared.

We stamped the brake pedal hard into the floor, sending any luggage that wasn’t tied down hurtling around the car. We screeched to a halt, and the front wheels dipped in the pothole. We looked at each other incredulously. My hands were sweating. That was close.

How to spot the trenches

As we saw more and more of these trenches, we grew accustomed to how to spot them. Thick black tyre marks from previous victims were always a good indicator that a pothole was close. Another tell was to look for offroad tracks to either side of the road where people drove around.

We always drove around using the flanking tracks, (which were so heavily used that they sometimes had potholes of their own). Along the way, we stopped in enormous craters big enough to park our car in (for some incredible photos).

‘Truck Killer’ potholes

Zambia highway truck crash drawing semitrailer flip

Zambia’s highways can be ruinous to trucks, and we started seeing more and more semi-trailers which had actually flipped onto their side. These were usually close to the deepest trench-style potholes (unless speed or alcohol was a factor). Some of the giant vehicles were stranded in the sandy ditches by the highway, others were completely burnt out shells.


Drivers would sometimes be asleep in the cabins or lying on top of the trailer, stranded in the middle of nowhere with no more working transport.


The signal system

There was even a signal system to warn of a crash site. A crashed driver would line up leafy tree branches lined up for a hundred metres or so on the asphalt, as makeshift marker cones.

When driving, trucks were kind enough to signal us as well, especially as we prepared for scary overtaking manouvres. Indicating with a right signal meant that the road was dangerous, or a car was coming the other way, and a left signal meant all clear, time to overtake.

A break for truck stop food

We stopped at a tiny truckstop called Serenje to rest. Clingy yellow dust covered everything and the roasting hot sun was directly overhead in the wide blue sky. 

We paid a fee to use their toilet, a brick outhouse. We didn’t get within 5 metres before the smell struck us. The (never cleaned) toilet was one of the worst I had ever seen in Africa. None of us dared use it, and we held on until the next stop.

A local shop sold hot dogs, which were propped up in a glass-doored oven, and looked as though they had been cooking in the heat for days. We ordered Cokes, and drank them as fast as we could (the insistent shopkeeper wanted the empty bottles back, and was hurrying us).

With three hot dogs, we sat down and took our first bite. I chewed slowly, staring down at the fluorescent pink meat inside. I looked worriedly at Jeff and Wessel, who were also eating theirs slowly and skeptically. I couldn’t clear my head from alarming words like food poisoning…tapeworms…hepatitis.

I never finished it.