A self-drive journey through the country of Zambia is an experience unto itself, and not a trip for the faint of heart. The condition of the roads is downright disastrous at times, the landscape is dry and rugged, and towns are few and far between. Navigation and phone signals often fail, road signs that indicate turnoffs and distances are often non-existant, and the roads are severely damaged with potholes (and worse!). As a result, journeys can take twice as long as anticipated.
A Destination for Adventure
Here’s the ‘But’ – there is nothing better than tackling these challenges, and being rewarded with an endearing, humbling, immersive African road trip experience. Zambia is a destination for adventure lovers. Crossing Zambia by car is also the best way to see the country, and meet its people.
Dry, spiky bushland, sprawling acacia trees and thatched hut villages keep you company every mile of the journey. And at the end of the day, when the sun sets in a burst of bleeding red rays of light, locals ride home on rattling bicycles carrying bales of sticks up on their heads, and children wave at you as you drive.
A 5 day Zambia itinerary
This route took five days, and was part of a greater African road trip that lasted five weeks all totalled, going roughly south-west to north-east.
- Day 1: Arrive Livingstone (via Botswana border crossing, or Livingstone airport. Stay overnight in Livingstone.
- Day 2: Explore Victoria Falls. Drive to Lake Kariba to stay.
- Day 3: Drive to Kabwe, stopping in Lusaka to visit the market along the way.
- Day 4: Drive to Kapishya Hot Springs Lodge, via the potholed Great North Road.
- Day 5: Drive to Tanzanian border.
The route starts at Livingstone (and Victoria Falls), and crosses into Tanzania at the Tunduma-Nakonde border crossing. The main road used during the journey was Zambia’s major arterial road, the Great North Road.
Starting in Livingstone
No name in Africa is as evocative and lends to adventure more than Livingstone, named for the British explorer David Livingstone. The Scottish missionary’s exploits in Africa to find the source of the Nile, and his disappearance and ‘finding’ by Henry Morton Stanley, all formed part of a legendary mystique.
This relaxed little town in the south-west of Zambia is a fitting jumping off point for visitors, and is also one of the most touristed places in Zambia. As the main hub to excursions to Victoria Falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, and activities on the Zambeze River, Livingstone has plenty of comforts and serves as a great home base.
Accomodation is plentiful, with high-end accomodation options next to the Zambeze, as well as well-provisioned campgrounds. For anybody continuing on into the rest of Zambia, this is the best opportunity to splurge on good food, sip gin and tonics whilst the sun sets across the river (the Victoria Falls Waterfront Restaurant is one such place to sit back and relax).
The local name is Mosi-Oa-Tunya, which translates appropriately to the smoke that thunders. Victoria Falls is by far Zambia’s biggest attraction (maybe one of the biggest on the continent), and the nickname for Zambia’s iconic waterfall is certainly well earned.
The force of nature puts on a spectacular show here, an massive curtain of water over 100 metres (330 feet) high, and 1,700 metres (5,600 feet) wide. The sheer volume of water pouring down into the ravine causes big clouds of spray to float into the air.
The waterfall site has lots of different walking paths to explore. Each one offering a different viewpoint of the falls. The most full on vantage is the narrow, precarious Knife’s Edge Bridge that crosses directly in front of the falls (guaranteeing visitors to get drenched). For those hoping to keep their clothes dry, green hobbit-style raincoats are available to rent.
Another path leads up to the very top of the falls, where the calm, flowing waters of the Zambeze River suddenly seems to drop off the end of the world. During certain seasons, the bravest people try swimming in the notorious Devil’s Pool, a naturally formed (and walled off) pool that comes right up the the dropoff. For observers, it looks like you’re milling about in the water, just a metre from certain death above the waterfall!
A steep forest track leads down to the riverbed, as well, for those who don’t mind a hike. It’s a humid and sweaty climb down through forests and across tricking streams. But eventually, you’ll be at the bottom of the canyon, with a view of bungee jumpers above you. The bridge for bungee is actually the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, so thrillseekers, don’t forget to bring your passports if you want to make the leap!
Zambia’s southern border is traced by a long, slender, man-made lake named Lake Kariba. The lake was formed following the construction of Kariba dam at the northern end, which in turn flooded Kariba gorge. Although there are certainly nice photographs to take of the lake and the sunsets, the Zambian side of Lake Kariba offers very little in the way of activities. And for those who really want to visit anyway, most of the hotels are clustered up near the dam in the north.
Visiting Lake Kariba is thus only for the intrepid, or (in my case), those who took a wrong turn and ended up there by accident. Yes, I’ll blame the poor road signs in the country! We stayed in a small village called Sinazongwe (we think), where we found extremely basic accommodation without food or electricity. Road access is a gruelling, tough offroad, and high-clearance 4×4 transport is essential.
For self-drives through Zambia, be warned that Zambia’s biggest challenge is in store for you – appalling road conditions. Potholes in Zambia come in all shapes and sizes, and affect small back roads as well as arterial highways.
Small roads are often peppered by ankle-deep, hard-edged potholes that offer no clear route through, and you’re forced to drive over this lunar landscape at low speed. Others have been filled in by locals by pouring a pile of smooth rocks into the pothole, creating spine-shaking speedbumps.
The worst of the potholes are on the highways, where an inconvenience actually turns into something much more dangerous. Smooth, straight tarmac is often interrupted suddenly by hidden trenches that cover the whole road width. There are rubber burns before each one, where terrified drivers have attempted to stop, and offroad tracks on either side of the highway where drivers have circumvented the traps.
These trenches can be truck killers, and we spotted more than a few semitrailers which had had their wheels ripped off, or had overturned by the side of the road (with a driver asleep on top of the cab).
Any road trip through Zambia inevitably leads through Lusaka, Zambia’s dusty, traffic-choked capital. It is not a very pretty city, with traffic jammed highways and occasional office blocks, nor is there much on offer for things to do. Lusaka still provided a few laughs for us, as we spotted one tout going from car to car at the traffic lights, trying to sell puppies.
If you need a rest stop, it’s not a bad idea to stop at the lively Pakati Market, where African souvenirs, market stalls and clothes racks fill up a large carpark. Instead of lingering too long, the town of Kabwe is my pick for a better rest stop.
Kabwe was probably even uglier than Lusaka, as we approached by the main street. We crossed a long abandoned train track, where locals walked up and down in both directions. But despite the unlikely introduction, Kabwe had some rest stops which created an unlikely sanctuary after a long day of driving.
The brilliant Tuskers Hotel was one such place, a large stone hotel with a sculpture of an elephant head on its wall. Tuskers offers a swimming pool, and a lofty, spacious dining room. The white-aproned staff there took great care of all the patrons, taking care to obey all the rules of table service.
Besides Tuskers Hotel, cheaper accomodation is abound, with comfortable rooms in motels and guesthouses on the main road. Our guesthouse had a quiet, green garden where we enjoyed some sundowner beers, as well as some very curious statuettes and laughable taxidermied antelope horrors.
Meeting the locals in Zambia
Zambia is a country with lots of friendly people, and engaging in conversation with the locals is a great way to get to know the country that you’re travelling through. At petrol station pumps, women carrying bunches of bananas on their heads liked to come to talk to us and sell us some fruit for the road.
In small villages, a local shop is a rallying point for people to come and say to whoever stops there, and within minutes, you may find that a group of kids has swarmed in for a game of soccer with a soccer ball made of newspaper and string!
Potters, artists are craftsmen sometimes line up their wares along the sides of the highway, and wave down cars who approach. Stopping to see their pottery is a fun way to stretch your legs on a long journey, and meet some locals. Many Zambians like to practice their English, and tell stories about their job, their families, and life in Zambia.
Like many towns along the route, Mpika was simply a refueling stop along the highway. As we exited our car to do some grocery shopping at a local shop, an enterprising ‘car guard‘, apprached us. This was common – usually a young boy looking to make a bit of money in exchange for keeping an eye on things.
With our shopping finished, we returned to find that he wasn’t guarding our car, but in talks with another car to guard theirs. But that didn’t stop him – he sprinted across to collect his fee from us. It didn’t seem like he did anything, but. we were impressed with the way he hustled, so we gave him some Kwacha for the effort.
Kapishya Hot Springs Lodge
Down a long forest road, far from the highway was Kapishya Lodge, featuring a hot springs with the same name. The geothermal pool was a warm, sulfur-free natural pool. When we went swimming, we found that our feet sank in the soft, bubbling sand, and steam lifted off the surface.
Overlooking the Mansha river are the lodges; lofty, timber buildings with peaked thatch roofs and varnished wooden interiors. The area is also great for rafting trips in the day. In the evenings, a long communal dining room is the setting for a wonderfully prepared meal that attracts all the guests.
We were, of course, cheap campers, and didn’t want to shell out for the meal. With the owner’s permission, we entered the kitchen, and cooked up plates of Chakalaka (a canned vegetable stew from South Africa), and baked beans, alongside the cheerful chefs.
Zambia wildlife and national parks
Besides Victoria Falls, Zambia is known for its wonderful national parks and wildlife spotting opportunities. From time to time, we would spot baboons squatting at the side of the road, or a zebra skipping down the trail. For more intensive game spotting, there are several noteworthy national parks to see. That being said, we didn’t get time to see the parks. We visited national parks in Botswana and Tanzania on our journey, so the Zambian national parks we knew only from reputation.
People along the road, and recommendations from guesthouses pointed towards Kafue, Lower Zambeze, South Luangwa National Parks, all great options for spotting wildlife and bird life. They are easily accessible by road for anyone driving through Zambia.
Tunduma border crossing to Tanzania
The border crossing into Tanzania is at Tunduma, a hectic, bustling cacophany of trucks and locals milling about. The trucks were lined up in a horrifying queue. Nearby, a car park was full of cars that were covered in months of orange dust. Determined not to be stuck in line, we drove directly to the steel gate to take our place first in line.
Ignore the touts at African border crossings!
Crossing any African border requires certain considerations. Official government buildings handle everything official, from passport stamps to carnet de passage stamping. Meanwhile, touts on the outside love to approach anybody who looks like a tourist, offering to help them through the border, for a fee, of course.
In general, the rule of thumb is to flat-out ignore those touts. They have no power to help you through the border, and simply point you towards different buildings. What’s more, some touts steal paperwork at this point, so never hand anything over unless they’re sitting behind a desk. Even touts in reflective jackets are other official-looking clothing are not genuine.
Zambia is completely alluring as a road trip destination. Although this route was a a short crossing across Zambia, it was challenging, intense, and wonderful. While we focused on the job of driving and the dangers of potholes, we disconnected from any overlying notion of being on holidays, and it made for a richer, more immersive experience.
We met wonderful people along the way in friendly, organic encounters, hiked to the top of the most impressive waterfall in Africa, and left the country exhilarated and intoxicated about the beautiful adventure we had survived.