Getting there & away
Until the tar road from Mongu is completed Kalabo is not easy to reach. When finished, and when Kalabo has a good, all-weather road linking it to the rest of Zambia, its character will certainly change swiftly. It's likely, for example, that many of the NGOs and aid agencies will establish bases here.
That said, anywhere west of the Zambezi and away from this new road will remain expedition territory. Other 'roads' here are usually just tracks in the Kalahari sand, which need days of low-range driving. They require not only a 4WD (preferably several, in case of emergency), but also large quantities of fuel. This cannot be replenished outside of Mongu, so long-range extra fuel tanks and lots of jerry cans are the normal solution.
Water is also a problem, as it tends to seep through the Kalahari sand rather than forming pans on the surface. Hence no potable water can be relied upon outside Kalabo, so take some good containers and fill up at Mongu and Kalabo.
Driving from Mongu via Sandaula
There a major tar road being constructed from Mongu via Kalabo to the Angolan border, although its completion date remains somewhat uncertain. When complete, this will change Kalabo irrevocably, making access to it quick and easy, even during the rains. Until that's completed, see the directions for Barotseland, Getting there and away, Driving west to Sandaula on the Zambezi
for the route from Mongu to the Sandaula Ferry across the Zambezi.
The ferry (GPS:FERRY3) operates from sunrise to sunset and is large enough for three vehicles – although it will often leave with just one or two. During the dry season, the Zambezi is confined within its banks, only a hundred metres or so wide; the ferry is about 22km from Mongu and costs around US$12/Kw60,000 per vehicle.
On the western bank, the tracks used to diverge as they crossed the floodplains, which was marvellously confusing. However, now most tracks follow the raised causeway (which is a construction site), and soon they'll disappear as everyone uses the new tar road.
Kalabo is about a 42km drive northwest of the ferry in the dry season. At first, the road from the ferry heads in a westerly direction across the floodplains, before climbing up on to a ridge after about 20km. Then it turns more northerly, and reaches Kalabo in a further 22km.
Driving from Mongu via the Libonda pontoon
In theory it should be possible in the dry season to cross the Zambezi higher up the river, at the Libonda pontoon – and then to head westwards, and slightly south, on small paths and tracks across the floodplains. However, when the main tar road across the Zambezi is completed there will be little point in even trying this slow and unmarked route, especially as it'll then be doubtful if the Libonda pontoon is still even operating.
If you do try this way, then you should certainly take a local guide (hitchhiker) to help you navigate – and you will see plenty of these throughout the area. You will pass men, women and children carrying everything from luggage to mattresses and supplies on their heads. Given the area's lack of transport, it you have room in your vehicle then you should offer lifts whenever possible.
Travelling anywhere else
If you're planning on going anywhere else besides Liuwa, then your best source of information is probably the mission station in Kalabo – which until the new road has been the last outpost of civilisation. They have radio communications with various mission stations established nearby, and can advise on ferries and the logistics of your trip. They can also be your last contact point so that, should you fail to return by a certain time, they will contact the authorities. In return, do offer donations and help in the form of taking letters or goods or providing transport.
In the absence of the new tarred road to Mongu, Kalabo has always been cut off during the wet season. Then your options for getting here or away are: a) stay there and wait for the Zambezi ferry to start up again after the floods; b) use the expensive postboat from Mongu, which takes one vehicle at a time - enquire locally to find out how it can be arranged; or c) use the sandy track on the west side of the Zambezi, between Kalabo and Sitoti, discussed below.
Driving from Kalabo to Sitoti
There is a track on the western side of the Zambezi between Kalabo and Sitoti, but it is thick sand with no fuel (or much else) on the way. You'd probably be wise to take local hitchhikers as guides. The route heads south and slightly west (average bearing of about 157º) from Kalabo to Sitoti aim for (GPS:TUSHAN).
This is 164km as the heron flies, and a lot more on the ground. I haven't driven this route, but am reliably informed that it's about 12 hours of driving. If you were forced to do this, it would take much more time and fuel than going via Mongu and Senanga. So if you cross from Mongu west of the Zambezi during the wet season, bear in mind that this could be your only way out.