Tracks4Africa co-founder Johann Groenewald has had his fair share of exploring Africa – as one would expect! Every year he sets off for one of his favourite destinations, Zambia. He tells us what to expect on Zambian roads.
The yearly drive to Zambia is part of my annual cleansing process. It takes me about four days to reach Lusaka and I normally work my way up via Namibia, head along the Caprivi and enter Zambia at Katima Mulilo (Sesheke). The border post is well organised with no hassles. However, the road from Sesheke to Livingstone is another story and this year I convinced myself to rather in future enter via Botswana at Kazungula border. This let me cut out the tar road between Sesheke and Kazungula, which is littered with deep potholes. Progress is painstakingly slow and with a heavily loaded vehicle, damage to the tyres or suspension is always a possibility.
I am privileged enough to know many locals in Zambia and they have showed me just how open this country is. – Johann Groenewald
Police stops in Zambia are a frequent occurrence, but unlike their Zimbabwean counterparts, the Zambian police have no interest in extorting money from tourists. In all six years of travelling, I’ve had to show my driver’s licence on only a few occasions – my foreign registered vehicle was mostly just waved through.
Zambian roads are unpredictable: be cautious of potholes or broken-down vehicles. Small towns and villages along the main road will be announced with speed humps which could dislodge your suspension if not treated with respect. So, take it easy and mind stray animals, bicycles and buses, which will all compete for your lane. Did you know that green branches in the road signal a broken-down vehicle ahead?
Travel on gravel
Gravel roads in Zambia suffer from seasonal water damage. You may be lucky to find a good route only to return next year to find it destroyed by water and too much traffic. In Zambia, it’s safe to assume that rain and gravel roads aren’t the best of friends – adventure to some, but disaster to others. A four-wheel drive vehicle is always advantageous, even if it’s just for the bigger wheels. Planning on visiting national parks or other off-road destinations? A 4WD with low range is advisable, if not a necessity.
Running on fumes?
Although fuel is readily available in bigger towns, smaller towns regularly run out of juice while waiting on delivery trucks. And even if supply is regular, storage capacity unfortunately does not keep up with local demand. For this reason, I like to fill up in major towns where you can also buy low sulphur diesel (LSD) as opposed to the crude oil that passes for diesel in smaller towns.
But exactly how low is the sulphur content? It’s not 50ppm, as my good friend in the auto business in Lusaka assured me. Good friend says fuel filters in Zambia sell like hotcakes and injector problems on the latest diesel engines are a regular occurrence. Everyone is hoping that with deregulation, the market will open for imports to drive the demand for clean diesel. Take note that for fuel, only cash is accepted.
Money, money, money
You will need some Zambian kwacha to pay for cross-border charges and unfortunately the only place to obtain this is from money vendors at the border. I exchange just enough to get me through the border and then go to a forex in the nearest town or withdraw cash from an ATM. It is advisable to carry USD to exchange or even pay with at lodges and some camps.
Off the beaten track
Most rural areas are accessible – ideal to track down waterfalls or one of the hundreds of beautiful rivers. Wherever you go, ask the village headman if you can set up camp. Without fail he will show you a nice shady spot to pitch your tent. We normally take some supplies for the village and pay one or two of their men to assist in the camp. Although one can do without this help, we find it a courtesy to offer temporary employment and allow them to take advantage of your presence. For me, this is similar to paying my camping fees at formal camps.
In Zambia’s national parks, varying forms of accommodation are available. In general, I prefer either top-end lodges or campsites with very little. Top-end lodges will charge more than USD1,000, so most of the time camping is the way to go. Park entry fees will vary, but expect to pay in the region of USD15 per person per day if you are a SADC citizen.
In Zambia’s national parks, varying forms of accommodation are available. In general, you will either get top-end lodges or campsites with very little in between, however, look for places around the parks which offer fair value. I suspect as the demand from self-drive travellers increase, there will be more on offer.
This is evident around South Luangwa National Park, but then you have to be content with lots of tourists. Top-end lodges will charge more than USD1,000, so most of the time camping is the way to go, especially if you want to visit areas off the beaten track. Park entry fees will vary, but expect to pay in the region of USD15 per person per day if you are a SADC citizen.
My Zambia self-drive tips
- Distance in Zambia may be deceiving. To cover 500km is not necessarily a five-hour excursion, even on a main tar road. Many ‘obstacles’ will lower your average speed, so allow plenty of time when you plan your trip. On the Tracks4Africa maps we aim to give you accurate travel times, but conditions may change with seasons. Be conservative when time’s an issue and chat to travellers who have recently traversed these roads.
- Zambia is in a different league to South Africa, Namibia and Botswana in terms of ease of travel, but it is a very rewarding country to explore if you are willing to rough it just a little bit more.
- Every year I visit Lusaka to be surprised by yet another mall. Expect major South African brands all over the city. In every bigger town you will find a Shoprite with anything you might need, South African red wine included!
- Lusaka is a big city and the traffic makes it difficult to cross during the week. Plan your stay in Lusaka so you enter or exit at the correct side of the city. On the eastern side of the city where the airport is you can stay at Pioneer Camp, which is just outside the city. On the southwestern side of the city you should rather stay at Eureka Camp. There are shopping malls on either side of the city. Allow extra time if you have to drive through the city during the week.
Travel Zambia informed
In time for Christmas, get your hands on T4A’s Traveller’s Atlas Southern Africa with detailed maps and expert travel tips on 10 African countries, including Zambia.