I had little to no expectations about Zambia. I had never even stepped foot in Africa, let alone in one of its most sheltered and unsung countries. I had seen a few pictures on the official travel site, and thought it looked a lot like Portland: clean and green, kind of flat, with thick forrest and wild water rafting, but then with hippos and lions instead of cows and cats. It didn’t look like the Africa so often portrayed as dusty and perilous in the media, the Africa everyone so takes for granted. If anything I imagined Zambia to be familiar and modern, and the capital Lusaka a bustling city with sky scrapers and business centers. Honestly, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. But, that would be the best part of the trip, because I love surprises.
Here’s a few things that got me:
1. Lusaka is vast, and growing by the minute. When you fly over the capital, the buildings look short, colorful and plenty, but there are very few tall structures. It’s provincial at best. The old Kamwala market stands in sharp contrast against the new, glistening malls popping up all over the city. Apparently the waiting lists are endless. Every Harry, Dick and Tom brand name wants a spot.
2. Zambia was a colony of the United Kingdom until its independence in 1964. Despite the fact that there are more than 73 actively spoken languages, the official language is still English. Which means, simply, that as a tourist you can bare your soul to kids and grandmas alike. And with 87% of the population being Christian, they will gladly listen too. Zambians are the kindest, gentlest people I have met. They seem to be at peace with themselves and the world. You’re always greeted with a big smile and zero attitude. It’s a lesson in humility.
3. The country’s landscape is a little boring. When we drove South to Livingstone all I saw was long grass and bushy trees, for seven straight hours. It wasn’t exciting until we actually got to our destination. But what’s cool and interesting are the little villages and mobile markets on the way. That’s when you see Africa at its most authentic, the way we’ve pictured it for hundreds of years, rural and rudimentary: men on bicycles, women carrying large packages on their heads, man-built huts without running water, kids coming home from school in uniform, missions and churches and lots and lots of color. There is just one main “highway” – a two-way road running North to South – with just two crossings going East or West. No traffic though…
4. You haven’t done Zambia without seeing the Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park. The Falls are so overwhelming and powerful that I actually cried. If you follow my instagram (@jxxsy) you might remember the red-faced video I posted – I honestly couldn’t help myself. You can rent plastic ponchos before you head out but it’s way more fun when you get wet!
4. Chobe National Park is in Botswana, on the South border with Zambia. It’s the only place in the region where you can still see wild animals. They are protected by the army against poachers, and vice versa, shielded from attacking humans. The boat trip is awe-inspiring. Those elephants are magnificent; and to see them swimming was probably the highlight of my entire trip. We also saw impalas, buffalos, all kinds of birds, giraffes, warthogs, crocodiles, and hippos. Sadly, no lions. But we made up for that by visiting the Mukuni Big 5 Safari the next day. This park rescues wounded or sick big cats like cheetahs and rehabilitates them. Before they are released back into the wild bush though, they are sort of half-domesticated, hence our petting them…
5. Cell phones are big in Zambia. The telephone companies are some of the biggest advertisers – all you see is red and green buildings with their respective logos. Which also implies that the internet is quite good in Zambia. So no worries, you can instagram to your heart’s desire.
6. I stayed in two different hotels, which I will review on A Hotel Life very soon, but I just want to mention that Latitude 15 is by far the most beautifully designed hotel I ever stayed at. It’s the first boutique hotel in Zambia and meets all the standards of comfort and luxury. All the furniture and art on the walls is made by local Lusaka artists, which gives the decor a certain authenticity. The Royal Livingstone on the other hand is fantastic because of its spectacular location. It sits right on the Zambezi river, in walking distance from the Victoria Falls. And because it’s situated in a national park, the zebras and giraffes are literally chilling in your backyard.
7. I didn’t sample as much of the food as I had wanted, so maybe I can make more of an effort next time. I tried the staple dish, Nshima (a kind of polenta) with the Ndiwo (relish) at the hotel. But the Zambian kitchen is not that much different from the European. The only thing I was missing was my almond milk…
It is often said, even by locals, that Zambia is ‘Africa for beginners’. And I understand why:
– the people are friendly and welcoming. At the risk of sounding political, as a white female tourist I didn’t feel discriminated or treated like a minority.
– there is no history of violence or war. It’s a peaceful country with great tolerance and economic growth, which only benefits the political landscape.
– it’s safe and feels crime-free. I went running at dusk in Lusaka and felt 100% at ease.
– everyone speaks English, so anyone can get around.
So basically, what I’m getting at is that Zambia is your next destination!