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Snorkel or scuba dive at Lake Tanganyika in northern Zambia
Snorkel or scuba dive at Lake Tanganyika in northern Zambia | © Brian Harries / Flickr
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The Ultimate Backpacking Guide to Zambia

Picture of Mazuba Kapambwe
Freelance Writer
Updated: 10 April 2018
The warm people of Zambia, numerous water bodies, national parks and traditional festivals make it an ideal country to add to the list of destinations for backpackers treking across southern Africa. Here are some tips to help you make the most of it.

The backpacker scene

The backpacker scene in Zambia is active, with most backpackers starting their journeys from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. Accommodation serving backpackers in the capital city and the tourist capital Livingstone is plentiful, however lodges and camps in national parks can be on the expensive side, so backpackers should consider carrying their own camping equipment to save costs.

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A road less traveled: elephants crossing the Luangwa River, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia | © Geoff Gallice / WikiCommons

Making the most of it

A little language goes a long way

As Zambia was a British colony, English is the official language and is widely spoken, especially in large towns such as Lusaka and Livingstone, as well as cities like Ndola and Kitwe. However, in remote areas, one or more of the seven main local languages may be spoken, so it is helpful to learn a few useful phrases in Nyanja (spoken mostly in Lusaka) or Bemba (mostly spoken in the Copperbelt region). Language guidebooks can be purchased at bookstores in Lusaka.

Go with the flow

There is a local term, “Zambian time,” which describes the sometimes slow process with which government institutions or banks and some restaurants deal with customers, as the the reality is that due to corruption, sometimes people expect to be given extra incentive to do their work. However, never take part in corrupt practices and exercise patience. It is worth knowing that some businesses close for lunch from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.

Know what time of the year to go

While Zambia can be visited year round due its pleasant temperatures (in the coldest months, it’s only chilly in the early morning and evening), it is advisable to know which places are of personal interest in advance, as the different seasons (rainy, hot, and cold) determine accessibility to certain areas. For instance, during the rainy/emerald season (November to April), some national parks close to due inaccessible roads, while the ones that stay open have reduced rates to attract visitors such as backpackers.

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South Luangwa National Park is open year round, though some lodges and camps may close due to rains | © Joachim Huber / Flickr

Safety

Zambia is generally a safe country to visit, but common practices should be observed such as not walking alone at night and not displaying valuable items. When heading to local markets, opt for a smaller crossbody bag as markets are usually crowded and could have pickpockets. Traveling solo as a woman is common, but it is recommended to wear loose fitting clothing of mid length or longer to avoid unwanted attention from the opposite sex.

Food and Accommodation

Many hostels in Lusaka are known for having affordable traditional food such as ‘nshima’, a corn meal served with a protein and vegetables. Less adventurous travelers can substitute the nshima with rice or french fries. There are international fast food outlets in Lusaka and other big cities, such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and others located at the many malls. Travelers who are staying in self-catering accommodation can opt to purchase groceries from supermarkets located at the malls or local markets.

kapenta
Kapenta is a type of fish that can be served as relish or the protein to accompany nshima, the staple food of Zambia | © Linda Mulenga Nsunge

Making friends

Most hostels have a communal area or bar, which is the perfect place to meet fellow backpackers or interesting locals who stop by for an affordable lunch or beer after work. If staying in the Rhodespark area, there are a couple of hostels within walking distance of each other, which increases the likelihood of meeting fellow travelers. Several restaurants host quiz nights, which are also great places to make friends.

Money, money, money

Currency

Zambia’s local currency is called ‘The Kwacha’. ZMW 10 is approximately USD $1 (check the Bank of Zambia site for current exchange rates). Credit cards and debit cards are accepted at major malls, although it is always best to carry cash as well because some restaurants and businesses may not have swipe machines. Be aware that when exchanging money, lower denomination notes are worth less. Also note that national park fees should be paid in the kwacha and, although not always adhered to, it is illegal for establishments to quote their prices in dollars.

Costs

1 meal (USD $3–5 for traditional food or fast food)
1 beer (USD $2–3 depending on the swankiness of establishment, ie hotels charge more than supermarkets)
1 night at a backpacker hostel in Lusaka or Livingstone (USD $12–60. Dorm rooms with eight beds would cost $12 and ensuite rooms are the most expensive)
1 cheap mode of transport for inner city travel (USD $1.50–2 depending on the route)
1 hygiene/medical essential (USD $1–10 depending on the location of the pharmacy)
1 affordable experience (USD $5 museum admission; USD $15 entrance to most national parks)

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The Lusaka Museum is a good place to visit while in Lusaka | © ilf_ / Flickr

Where to go

Livingstone: Livingstone is the tourist capital of Zambia. It has budget-friendly accommodation options, some of which offer experience packages such as JollyBoys Backpackers.

Lake Tanganyika: The world’s longest freshwater lake is hard to get to, but Tanganyika is a beautiful place to spend a few days swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, or sunset cruising.

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Snorkel or Scuba Dive at Lake Tanganyika in Northern Zambia | © Brian Harries / Flickr

Kapishya Hotsprings: Located on the Shiwa Ngandu estate in Muchinga Province, the natural springs are the perfect place to spend a few hours (or days). Camping on the premises is allowed.

#hot springs #zambia #shiwangandu

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South Luangwa National Park: This national park is where the walking safari was invented and it is one of Zambia’s best places to view wildlife, particularly the endemic Thornicroft’s giraffe. One of the most affordable camps in the park is Croc Valley, where eco tents can be booked for USD $15 per person per night, with an additional $30 for three meals a day. Bringing your own tent will cost $12 per person per day. National park and game drive fees are separate.

Mutinondo Wilderness: Every hiker should visit Mutinondo Wilderness, a privately-owned area in Muchinga Province. The land is a mix of rocky outcrops and stunning waterfalls. It is great for independent hikers, but novices are also encouraged to visit. There are two camping grounds, with the cheapest option costing USD $20 per person per night self catering.

Bucket list experiences

Devils Pool: Swimming in an infinity pool at the edge of the Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in Zambia, is an exhilarating experience. At USD $98 it’s not cheap, but it is definitely worth it. If that’s not adrenaline-fueled enough, bungee jumping is an option, too, at USD $110. If that is too much of a budget buster, just opt to view the falls itself. The admission fee of USD $20 includes walking over the Knife Edge bridge and down to the boiling point. The Devil’s Pool is only open from August to January when the falls are drier.

Bat Migration: To see the largest bat migration on the continent, visit Kasanka National Park between October and December when up to five million bats fly into the forests of the park in search of the sweet local fruit called masuku. Entrance fees to the park are USD $10 per person.

Hike up the second largest waterfall in Africa: The Kalambo Falls in Northern Province is one of many beautiful waterfalls dotted around northern Zambia. The 725-foot waterfall can be hiked up in approximately two hours depending on fitness. From Kalambo, travelers can continue on to Lake Tanganyika’s Ndole Bay Lodge if interested in water sports like snorkeling, scuba diving.

kalambo falls
Hike up Kalambo Falls, the second largest waterfall in Africa | © Lwanga Mwilu / Courtesy of Lwanga Mwilu