Perched high above the eastern edge of the Zambezi's floodplains, Mongu is the provincial centre for Western Zambia – and the only large town this side of Livingstone or Lusaka. Very few tourists reach here, so there are few people who aren't Zambian, and almost all of those work with or for the fairly permanent contingent of NGO personnel. The areas around Mongu are amongst Zambia's poorest and many are isolated by seasonal floods, so there is often need for relief workers here.
If you're visiting, then there is little to really attract you to Mongu, apart from perhaps the phenomenally good baskets and weaving to be found here. However, you're highly likely to need the bank, fuel station, supplies, communications or relative comforts here – as there are precious little of any of these outside Mongu. It is linked to Lusaka by a tar road that starts by crossing a raised causeway across the Zambezi's floodplains. As the result of this road, Mongu is easily reached from Lusaka and is the best place in the region to get fuel or supplies.
Mongu is set on a ridge overlooking the north of the Barotse plains. It's about 25km from the dry-season course of the Zambezi, or immediately adjacent to the water when in full flood. The town is spread out, following the ridge, with no real centre – though several quite different busy areas. It has two petrol stations, a bakery, a few grocery stores, a garage, several hotels and a huge local market. Government administration has a strong presence here, as do aid-funded NGOs.
The views west over the floodplain are spectacular when the water is fairly high: a myriad of channels snaking through apparently endless flat plains. By contrast, small villages and cattle dot the dusty plains during the dry season, but when wet it is all transformed into a haze of green grass on a mirror of water that reflects the sky.
The tar road west from Lusaka meets the tar road heading south to Senanga at a central crossroads (GPS:MONGU). North of this is a vibrant, packed old town area with shops, a heaving market, a bus station and an army barracks; and if you pass these, then ultimately you'll find a tar road to Limulunga. West of the crossroads lies a small hill, upon which you'll find most of the government buildings. On the other side of this hill, you drop down to the harbour, and to the road across the river, to Kalabo and Liuwa Plain. If you're only passing through, then do use this book's map for Mongu – it may save you a lot of time trying to find your way around!