Driving in Zambia is on the left, based on the UK's model. However, the standard of driving is generally poor, matched only by the quality of the roads. Most roads in the cities, and the major arteries connecting these, are tar. These vary from silky-smooth recently laid roads, to potholed routes that test the driver's skill at negotiating a 'slalom course' of deep holes, whilst avoiding the oncoming traffic that's doing the same.
Inconveniently, the smooth kind of road often changes into the holed variety without warning, so speeding on even the good tar is a dangerous occupation. Hitting a pothole at 40–60km/h will probably just blow a tyre; any faster and you risk damaging the suspension, or even rolling the vehicle. Away from the main arteries the roads are gravel or just dirt and usually badly maintained. During the dry season these will often need a high-clearance vehicle: a 4WD is welcome here, but not vital. (The exceptions are areas of western Zambia standing on Kalahari sand, which always requires 4WD.) During the wet season Zambia's gravel roads are less forgiving, and they vary from being strictly for 4WDs to being impassable for any form of vehicle. Travel on anything except the tar roads is very difficult during the rains.
Speed limits are 100km/h on main roads and 50km/h in towns, although there are local variations, particularly around Lusaka, and these tend to be strictly enforced. Beware of speed humps, often without warning, at the approach to a town, in both directions.
Police roadblocks are an occupational hazard of driving, and you can expect to be stopped regularly. Most commonly, you'll be asked to produce your insurance documents, or driving licence; failure to do so will incur an on-the-spot fine of Kw54,000, for which you should be given a receipt. (If you're asked for Kw20,000, the likelihood is that you'll be paying a bribe, in which case no receipt will be forthcoming.) All vehicles should also carry two warning triangles for use in case of an accident or breakdown; again, failure to produce these on request will result in a fine (although you'll often see brushwood laid out on the road at strategic intervals to warn of an accident or breakdown).
Hitchhiking is a practical way to get around Zambia – especially in the more remote areas. Most of Zambia's poorer citizens hitchhike, and view buses as just a different form of vehicle. Either way, lifts are normally paid for.
Hitching has the great advantage of allowing you to talk one-to-one with a whole variety of people, from local business-people and expats, to truck-drivers and farmers. Sometimes you will be crammed in the back of a windy pick-up with a dozen people and as many animals, while occasionally you will be comfortably seated in the back of a plush Mercedes, satisfying the driver's curiosity as to why you are in Zambia at all. It is simply the best way to get to know the country, through the eyes of its people, though it is not for the lazy or those pressed for time.
Waiting times can be long, even on the main routes, and getting a good lift can take six or eight hours. Generally, on such occasions, the problem is not that lots of potential vehicles refuse to take you. The truth is that there are sometimes very few people going your way with space to spare. If you are in a hurry then combining hitchhiking with taking the odd bus can be a quicker and more pragmatic way to travel.
The essentials for successful hitching in Zambia include a relatively neat set of clothes, without which you will be ignored by some of the more comfortable lifts available. A good ear for listening and a relaxed line in conversation are also assets, which spring naturally from taking an interest in the lives of the people that you meet. Finally, you must always carry a few litres of water and some food with you, both for standing beside the road, and for lifts where you can't stop for food.
Dangers of drink driving
Unfortunately, drinking and driving is common in Zambia. It is more frequent in the afternoon/evening, and towards the end of the month when people are paid. Accepting a lift with someone who is drunk, or drinking and (simultaneously) driving, is foolish. Occasionally your driver will start drinking on the way, in which case you would be wise to start working out how to disembark politely.
An excuse for an exit, which I used on one occasion, was to claim that some close family member was killed whilst being driven by someone who had been drinking. Thus I had a real problem with the whole idea, and had even promised a surviving relative that I would never do the same … hence my overriding need to leave at the next reasonable town/village/stop. This gave me an opportunity to encourage the driver not to drink any more; and when that failed (which it did), it provided an excuse for me to disembark swiftly. Putting the blame on my own psychological problems avoided blaming the driver too much, which might have caused a difficult scene.
Safety of hitchhiking
Not withstanding the occasional drunk driver, Zambia is generally a safe place to hitchhike for a robust male traveller, or a couple travelling together. Dressing neatly and conservatively is a very good idea. It is safer than the UK, and considerably safer than the USA; but hitchhiking still cannot be recommended for single women, or even two women travelling together. This is not because of any known horror stories, but because non-Zambian women, especially white women, hitching would evoke intense curiosity amongst the local people. Local people might view their hitching as asking for trouble, whilst some would associate them with the 'promiscuous' behaviour of white women seen on imported films and TV programmes. The risk seems too high. Stick to buses.
Excellent maps covering the whole of Zambia are available in Lusaka and the major cities, if you can find them. By far the best place for maps is the main government map office at the Ministry of Lands, in the basement of Mulungushi House.
There are several different series kept here, including the useful 1:250,000 series, a number of town plans, some 'tourist' maps of the parks and many more detailed maps of selected areas. Some are always out of print – but you can usually find at least some sort of map to cover most areas.