Guest Post: 11 Things to be aware of when backpacking and hitchhiking in Zambia
1) A little tricky unless you are exempt
Depending where you’re from, a visa will cost you $50 USD for 90 days. The only catch is that you have to extend it a day before it expires if you want to stay for the entire duration. For instance, you’ll get stamped for 30 days upon entry. A day or two before the expiration date you’ll have to visit an immigration office and get it extended at no cost.
I have heard that sometimes they’ll refuse for whatever reason or only give you what they feel like giving (if you ask for a further 30 days they might only grant you 14) but I didn’t have any issues.
You’ll find immigration offices in most towns across Zambia.
ⓐ No visa – 90 days
Citizens of the following countries do not requite a visa to enter for up to 90 days:
Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Cyprus, Dominica, Fiji, Grenada, Hong Kong, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Montenegro, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, Romania, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Serbia, Seychelles, Singapore, Zimbabwe, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, Vanuatu
ⓑ Visa on arrival (but only if you fly) – 90 days
Citizens of the following countries can apply for a Zambian visa upon arrival at the following airports – Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka, Harry Mwanga International Airport in Livingstone and Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport in Ndola.
Albania, Andorra, Angola, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bhutan, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Burundi, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Republic of the Congo, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Ecuador, Egypt, Eritrea, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Laos, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Madagascar, Mexico, Moldova, Monaco, Mongolia, Burma, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Saint Lucia, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Western Sahara, Venezuela, Vietnam
ⓒ Visa in advance
Citizens of the countries listed above (if crossing the border by land) and all other countries have to apply for and obtain a visa in advance before entering the country. A list of Zambian embassies can be found here and information on what you’ll need here.
Food & Drink
2) What food to expect
Like everywhere else I’ve been in Africa, the staple local cuisine is nshima (pap in South Africa, shima in Malawi) which they eat three times a day. I can only tolerate it once a day as it sits like a brick in your stomach. It has no protein and is 100% carbohydrates. And very hot (temperature wise) so let it cool down a bit.
It’s the cheapest feed you can get with a side of chicken/pork/goat/beef/fish and some steamed vegetable called rape (don’t ask). It’s traditionally eaten with your right hand. A dish will cost you about 9 Kwacha (about $1.80 AUD) and it’s eaten everywhere (to compare, western food – pizza, burger – ranges from 30 to 60 Kwacha, about $8 – $15).
Caterpillars and worms are also served (best grilled).
There is street food but since refrigeration is an issue I didn’t take the risk with the barbecued meat on offer. Grilled corn, grilled cassava roots with salt are great.
Zambians cook with a lot of salt and oil and love sugar. A lot of the times I was tempted to ask for some food with my salt.
3) What to drink?
Zambians drink mostly soft drinks (locally known as softies) such as Coke or Fanta. A lot of them will drink a cheap local beer that is sold in cartons and they start that from early in the morning. You can tell these guys from their yellow eyes.
Tea is more popular than coffee and they like it with a lot of sugar and strong.
The local beer is called Mosi (pronounced: Mozie) and is best served ice-cold. Usually sells for 7 kwacha.
4) Where to sleep?
You’ll be surprised where you can find couchsurfers in Africa. From the smaller, lesser known towns to the big cities. Hostels and lodges are abundant (I’m not sure about prices) everywhere – even by truck stops.
If you’re stuck for a place to stay (arrived late in the evening or every place is booked) go to the local police station. They’ll be happy to accommodate you or find you somewhere safe to pitch a tent.
Wild camping is possible, just always ask someone local if it’s cool to pitch up.
5) The weather of extremes
The climate of Zambia can be divided into three seasons. May – August is cool and dry with average temperature highs of 21-26 C and lows of 6-12 C. September & October are hot and dry with average highs of 28-35 C and lows of 17-22 C. November – April is the rainy season with average highs of 25-30 C and lows 14-19 C.
It’s scorching hot in the day. October is the hottest time of year in Zambia with temperatures reaching mid-40’s. From the crack of dawn it can already be in the late 20’s, cracking the 30° by 8 am. Depending on the season, the nights can either be stifling hot or cold enough that you’ll need a warm blanket.
I found that sleeping outside was much more cooler than sleeping indoors.
The wet season usually starts around November and lasts until April. And when it rains it fuckin’ rains. It can rain for a whole week non-stop and then you’ll get a break for 2 weeks before it starts up again.
Daylight only lasts for about 13 hours. The sun begins its rise from about 04:30 (the coldest time of day) and it sets anywhere from 17:30 to 18:00, getting completely dark by 19:00.
Culture & traditions
6) Any cultural customs to remember?
Zambia is the most religious country I’ve been to. It’s Christian (although there are pockets of Muslims) and everyone believes in Jesus and God (or Allah). The radio blasts gospel music and evangelical announcers. A lot of folk carry the Bible around and will even have a copy in their cars and grace is said at every meal.
It’s inappropriate for women to wear short-shorts and revealing skirts in the day (go to a club/bar and it’s a whole different world) but you don’t need a head scarf.
Men can wear shorts.
You’ll always be asked if you’re married and if you have kids. In Zambian culture (as is with most African traditions) marriage is from a young age and the more kids you have, the wealthier you are regarded (although most families can’t afford to have more than two kids, the average is six).
Attitude towards LGBT is, I guess, hidden under social coverings. No one speaks openly about homosexuality and even though it’s common for men to walk hand-in-hand, it doesn’t mean that they’re in a homosexual relationship. It’s just part of the culture.
They love the English Premier league. The majority support either Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United.
Men and women don’t sit together at the table in most homes. The women will sit with the children on the floor in a separate room for meals while the men sit comfortably on seats and chow down.
When you say ‘thanks’, it’s respectable to clap your hands together or tap with an open palm on your chest.
When greeting elders, bend slightly at the knees as though bowing, shake hands with your right hand and place your left under your right elbow.
Handshakes are in the 3-form variety – from the usual stance, to the switch back to the usual.
They’ll ask if you are safe which means, ‘Are you all right?’
They’ll say ‘sorry’ (pronounced: Soh-ri) if anything happens to you: If you trip, rip your bag, swallow a fly, spill a drink all over yourself.
Money & Costs
7) What are the costs?
The currency is the Zambian kwacha (Kw), which comes in standard denominations of: 1, 10, 100, 1000. The kwacha is however, very weak and has been devaluing steadily, in line with the country’s inflation rate, for a while now although there have been recent signs of improvement. You will find that prices are given in both US dollars and kwacha. The exchange rate is roughly 1 – 5000.
Zambia is not a cheap country to visit, especially if you plan to see some of the national parks. This isn’t because of high park fees US$15–20/£8–11 a day but the safari camps cost an arm and a leg. Money can be saved by cooking as eating out can be quite expensive.
Barclay’s Bank is the best bank to pull money from. You’ll get a lot of money exchangers on the streets of Livingstone and at border crossings. Don’t deal with them no matter what they offer you’ll get screwed.
Health & Safety
8) Health issues to keep in mind
Zambia has a high rate of HIV so if you’re going out and getting it on, always – ALWAYS – use a condom (most police stations give them out for free). You should always use a condom anyway but if in doubt, there are free clinics about to get tested.
Zambia is also well known for malaria so travel with a mosquito net, use repellent and don’t camp by water ways. I don’t use any anti-malarial medicine and talking about it with some doctor friends they recommended not to take any. They are very expensive and when you get malaria, it’s quite easy to treat and within a few days to maybe two weeks you’ll be back on your feet (symptoms are flu-like).
9) Animals to be aware of
Although wild animals are contained to national parks in the Livingstone area, elephants are known to enter the town too munch on the abundant mango trees that are everywhere (elephants, although vegetarians, are highly unpredictable and have poor eye-sight. Can startle easy, run faster than you and toss you about like a rag doll. Should you encounter one, they may or may not mock charge you before they actually do charge. Should they charge, run. Run faster than Usian Bolt and zig and zag. But please, just run) and snakes are abundant. Zambia is home to a few deadly species including the infamous Black Mamba and the Puff Adder.
The Black Mamba is notorious for its aggressive attitude and has been known to chase people. It just also happens to be the fastest snake with speeds of 25 km an hour on flat surface and is the most venomous in Africa. It can reach up to 9 feet in length and sometimes hides in trees and may drop on you.
The Puff Adder is much smaller, rarely reaching over a meter. It’s fat and lazy and won’t budge as is customary when encountering a snake. But when they strike they are blinding fast.
10) Crime and other things to ruin your time
I always felt safe in Zambia although, like with most big cities, it’s not recommended to walk the streets on your own late at night. Zambians love to drink and everyone is affected differently when it comes to alcohol.
I have a large beard and walking with local friends in Lusaka in the evening I was approached by 4 drunks, asking why I looked like Jesus proceeding to tug on my hair and beard, holding me by the arm. I had to resort to pushing them back and telling them to politely ‘Fuck off.’
Police are corrupt and most truck drivers worry about taking a tourist as the police will demand a bribe but this is easily negotiable (although I don’t use money and the only driver I rode with lucked out but that was because he was lacking in the proper ways of driving).
Note that it is highly recommended NOT to walk to Victoria Falls from Livingstone even though it’s only a 4 km hike for two reasons: wild elephants and thieves that will hold you up and rob you of everything.
With crime, I had one negative experience at the Oktoberfest weekend where my small backpack was stolen from my tent along with my sandals. Although I had no issues leaving my bags by the road to go and talk with drivers who stopped a ways down, you never know who might have a sudden urge to take ownership over your belongings.
11) Current political problems
During my time in Zambia their beloved President passed away. After his death some riots issued in Lusaka, the nation’s capital, where fires were set (I still went out to a club and had no issues regarding safety).
In general, Zambia is one of the most peaceful countries having obtained its independence from British Colonial rule in 1964. It’s held peaceful, democratic elections ever since.
There aren’t any breakaway regions and it’s at peace with all its bordering neighbours.
written by: Simon (The Nomadic Diaries)
Tired of society’s rinse ‘n’ repeat lifestyle, Simon has decided to dedicate the rest of his life to hitch-hiking the globe without flying or using money. Instead, he barters for food and board and adventures. Life is one shot. Go live it.
Check out his blog at: thenomadicdiaries.wordpress.com