Getting there & away
There are good all-weather roads linking Lukulu (GPS:SANCTA) with Kaoma, which is just off the Lusaka–Mongu road, Kabompo and Zambezi. Despite its proximity, the route to Mongu is nothing but a series of inter-village footpaths across the Barotse floodplain. There are no reliable roads on the west side of the Zambezi, though crossing the river and finding a route through to Liuwa Plain is possible.
From Mongu – across the Barotse Floodplain
By far the quickest and best route to Lukulu starts near the Kaoma turn-off, on the Lusaka–Mongu road. However, if it is well into the dry season, then there is another possibility described here: heading cross country across the floodplains.
Leaving Mongu past the new market, the tar ends after the shops at Limulunga (GPS:LIMULU), and shortly the track forks. Head down the hill, towards the small river. Fording the first shallow channel of this, take a hard right on to a motorable track and follow this. There are lots of people down here, and if you can pick up a hitchhiker to guide you, then do so. You'll probably give lifts to several before the day is out!
As you head north the tracks split and fork, getting smaller all the time, until about mid-way to Lukulu. Then there appear to be no good tracks. However, gradually, as you continue, they get clearer again as you approach Lukulu. Think about it and you'll realise that they are all made by the local people, travelling from village to village, and (crucially) to their nearest town – so they radiate out from the towns. This is the typical pattern made by the smallest thoroughfares in most rural areas.
There's little point my trying to describe the precise route here, as every vehicle will end up on slightly different track – which is half the fun! Instead I'll list a few waypoints, south to north, so that those travelling with a GPS can keep track that they're heading roughly in the right general direction:
(GPS: NANGIL) Nangili School where an engaging headteacher presides over about 350 children, from grades one to nine.
(GPS: AIRNGU) Ngulwana Airstrip, which is occasionally used by fishermen coming on private trips up to this corner of the Zambezi.
(GPS: KAWYA) Near the school at Kawaya. If coming south towards Mongu, this point marks where you deviate from the track to Mbanga, turning right down a steep bank. Coming north, you join a better track here.
(GPS: TUMONG) Where the bush track from Mongu/Mbanga meets the good Kaoma–Lukulu road.
(GPS: SANCTA )The Sancta Maria Mission at Lukulu
The countryside is lovely here, with open fields and plenty of patches of various interesting palm trees. You'll pass through a variety of tiny villages and settlements – mostly subsistence farming of rice and maize. On very rural routes like this it's important that you give lifts to other travellers; they're often poor people for whom there probably isn't any other form of transport. Conveniently, they'll often be able to direct you to the nearest town, making the second half of your journey much easier than the first. It's about 99km as the stork flies between Mongu and Lukulu, and going over the floodplains will take you about five to six hours.
From Kaoma to Lukulu
This is a reasonable, all-weather gravel road, and the most reliable way to reach Lukulu. When the Barotse Plains are flooded, then travellers from Mongu will reach Lukulu either by boat, or by driving east to Kaoma and then northwest to Lukulu.
If you are backpacking, there are buses that ply between Kaoma and Lukulu. However, they don't run to a fixed schedule; rather the driver waits (possibly for several days) for the bus to fill up enough to make the trip worthwhile. Karun Thanjavur (a VSO volunteer working in Lukulu) described the road as 'an axle breaker … the buses creak and groan from abuse'. She advises travellers coming this way on public transport to travel with a good stock of food and water (at least for two days), and a sleeping bag (with mosquito net/coils) etc – just in case the bus breaks down. Most people will hitch a ride on any vehicle rather than wait for a bus, and van drivers charge about US$2–4/Kw10,000–20,000 for the trip.
From Lukulu to Kasempa
Heading north-northwest you pass the Sancta Maria Mission and then the old market before leaving town. This is a reasonable gravel road through the bush, for which you'd want a high-clearance vehicle, and 4WD in the rains – but otherwise it is a main artery by local standards on which you can reach 50–60km/h. Either side of you is a mix of bush and settlements, with plenty of mango trees and cassava crops being grown.
It's about 62km to the slow, manually-operated Watopa pontoon (GPS:WATOPA), which didn't appear to cost anything – though clearly the guys that operated it appreciated a tip for their efforts. There are a few small shops around the ferry, and the road continued southeast from the ferry back to meet the road to Kaoma.
Continue directly for about 21km, heading slightly east of north, from Watopa and you'll reach a road junction with the east-west 'M8' road.
This is Mumbeji (GPS:MUMBEJ), which isn't a place to linger in – it's little more than a T-junction with a range of small stalls and shops around it. Look out for the 'Strugglling Grocery' (sic) here and the 'Slow by Slow Restaurant and Grocery'.
From here the good all-weather M8 gravel road (50–60km/h when dry!) goes west to Zambezi, and east about 67km to Kabompo (GPS:KABOMP). Although there has clearly been some logging here, much of this road goes through thick woodlands with very few settlements.
Without your own vehicle, the only means of public transport around these areas are private local 4WDs, assorted lorries and vans. The charge varies (depending whether you wish to ride in the cab or in the open back braving the elements) but you can get from Lukulu to Watopa or Kabompo, for example, for about US$4/Kw20,000. Some drivers will inevitably charge more if you are fair- skinned, as you are perceived to be a wealthy 'makuwa' (white person). On average, this is probably a fair assumption – so pay and smile, and don't complain!
West from Lukulu
There is a pontoon crossing here, but no real roads on the other side – just a series of paths that link the small villages there. Crossing here and then driving south to Kalabo or Liuwa would be possible in the dry season, but a local guide and a GPS would be essential. Kalabo is much easier to reach by crossing the river further south.
If you do want to use the pontoon at Lukulu, then Sue Grainger commented: 'the pontoon at Lukulu is an adventure. The pontoon is owned by the hospital, the engine by the veterinary service and fuel is a matter of local negotiation. Therefore time, patience and the services of a guide are much appreciated. It is a one-car pontoon and the steep sandy east bank of the Zambezi is perceived to be better than the west bank. It is best to get off the pontoon on the west bank in a forward gear. You therefore back on to the pontoon – which can be quite daunting when you are looking at a 1-in-3 slope of sand on the east bank!'