Along the Northern Circuit

Leaving the urban bustle of Lusaka behind, and just a couple of hours into a three-day drive to the magnificent Lake Tanganyika, the ritual break at the roadside Fig Tree Café is always a moment to stop for breakfast, take a deep breath and throw off the stress of city life.

Beyond Kabwe and after turning right at Kapiri Mposhi, I began to sense the calm embrace of open space and to enjoy the much emptier roads. Driving long distances in Zambia is always a bit of an adventure; but dodging the ‘occasional’ pothole, braking for a stray goat or two, and stopping for the far too frequent police checkpoints is a price I am willing to pay for the anticipation of spending time at one of Africa’s oldest, largest and deepest lakes, and one of Zambia’s finest natural treasures.

But this journey was just as much about stopping off to visit some of the natural and historical heritage sites on the way as it was about my eventual destination on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

The first night of my journey northwards was at the roadside Forest Inn. Load shedding meant that dinner was a candle lit affair, adding to the rustic atmosphere of this small, well-kept lodge.

The next morning, I turn right out of the lodge gate and start the relatively short drive to my first stop of the day – the beautiful Kundalila Falls (the Bemba name translates as ‘crying dove’), where the Kaombe River cascades over the Muchinga escarpment. The falls is a National Heritage Site, and the attendant comes up to me as I park the car – we greet one another, and he points out the path through the trees leading to the top of the falls.

The easy walk takes me to the spot where I could see the river disappearing over the edge of the water-worn rocks into the shadows below. The river was quite low when I visited, but nevertheless the sight from the best viewing point was truly impressive.

The path continues in a loop down a steep hill to the series of pools at the foot of the falls – a perfect place for a picnic.

This was by no means my first time at Kundalila. As a guide and instructor, I had taken groups to explore the area and to do the river walk that I would say is one of the best water activities on the Great North Road.

My next stop was only a few miles further along the Great North Road after I left the falls behind, and a very different experience. The Nachikufu Caves have been described as one of the best archaeological sites in Zambia, probably deserted in the 19th century, digs have revealed evidence of human habitation and activity going back for something like 15,000 years. Some of the finds are displayed in cases at the site.

Reached by a dirt track and a short walk, clambering over strange, parallel lines of rocks that break through the soil, the caves themselves are set in a rocky outcrop that dominates the local landscape. The guide (you can find him by chance or by calling the number on a sign by the side of the road) unlocked the gate in the fence and took me to see the main cave. He pointed out the red and black abstract patterns and animals painted on the walls, one of which shows a group of men bringing down an elephant. In the dim light, it was easy to feel transported back in time and imagine the hunter-gatherer people who sheltered or lived here about 2,000 years ago and become lost in thought about how they lived and what inspired them to create this ancient art gallery.

Returning to the present was a slightly jarring experience, but I had to continue my journey if I was going to make my next overnight stop before dark.

Turning off the main road at Mpika town, I made for Kasama where I was planning to camp by the Chishimba Falls, which are a short distance out of Kasama town itself. The triple falls are one of the most famous in Zambia, attracting many more visitors than other sites, including the large group of local tourists that were wrapping up their day out as I arrived.

The site manager was very welcoming, showing me where to park and offering to lend a braai stand and sell a small bag or charcoal. As the sun began to set, I took the short walk to stand by the river and admire the Kaela Rapids that stretch between the two main upper and lower falls. The last, deep orange light of the day reflected off the pools that punctuated the white water, creating a magical mixture of light and sound. It was only as darkness completely fell that I returned to eat and then settle down for the night with the sound of the river lulling me to sleep.

Waking up in the morning, a small group of children was already busy sweeping and tidying the site from the previous day. In the early morning sunshine, I was given a personal tour of the falls – first making our way to the upper falls and then retracing our steps before heading downstream to the third falls of the sequence. Having such a place to myself well before the day’s visitors started to arrive simply enhanced an already amazing experience.

Before leaving Kasama on the last leg of my journey, I took the chance to visit the Mwela Rocks, with their world-famous collection of almost 2,000 rock paintings, with new discoveries being made on a regular basis. This mystical site that stretches over several square kilometres, is a series of weirdly architectural but natural formations and caves. One cave entrance is believed to have been associated with birthing rituals, a symbolic connection that was easily brought to mind as I squeezed through the narrow opening in the rocks.

Mwela is one of the highest density rock art sites in Southern Africa, designated as a site of Outstanding Universal Value by UNESCO. After asking how long I had for the visit, my guide took me to see some of the highlights – red human and animal paintings, and many finger-printed dot and line paintings. Exploring the site was a journey through time, revealing painting after painting as we climbed over massive boulders and looked inside several small caves. The site’s significance did not die off with its Stone Age creators, even today it plays a role in local religious life, with several pieces of contemporary graffiti scrawled somewhat incongruously alongside the ancient paintings.

The final stretch of my journey was the drive to Mpulungu, the port that stands at the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. The working town looks out over the lake and serves as a trading point for all manner of imports and exports to the three other countries that share the lake with Zambia.

I take an evening boat ride to a lodge by the shores of Lake Tanganyika, Isanga Bay and as we approach the lodge, we are greeted by many lights on the lake by fishermen trying to catch some fish to sell the next day. Before sunrise, they return to the lake to catch more fish, keeping each other encouraged through song and laughs. I imagine this would be a lot to take in for tourists that aren’t accustomed to this kind of culture, but for me, it was almost comforting, and a reminder of quite how far I was from the fast pace of Lusaka life.

Lake Tanganyika is unlike any lake in Zambia, the clear blue waters help it to stand out with abundant water life which makes it perfect for snorkelling. The lake is surrounded by beautiful, dramatic hills and mountains – one of which you can hike up to take you all the way to the top of the breathtaking Kalambo Falls.

Even though I have visited Lake Tanganyika – the world’s longest freshwater lake – before, with each trip I am once again captivated by its unique beauty. The colourful sunsets, the silhouettes of the mountains in the distance and the sights and sounds of the rich fishing culture. This gem of the Northern Circuit is a pilgrimage that every person in Zambia should take to truly experience the country’s history and culture – a chance to see a surprisingly different side of our land.

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