Northern Zambia is one of nature’s best kept secrets. Sacred, mysterious and beautiful, the rivers cascade in fabulous displays of falling water; remote, uncommercialised, yet truly spectacular. Combine these rivers and falls with the beautiful lakes of Bangwelu and Tanganyika and you have found a real water wonderland.
Home to an incredible amount of water, it is estimated that almost 30% of all the fresh water in Africa originates in Zambia, and a large proportion of this is in the country’s northern provinces. A myriad of beautiful waterfalls, the Chambeshi River (headwaters of the mighty Congo River), Lake Bangwelu, Lake Mweru and Lake Tanganyika are all found here.
Heading north, our first destination was Lake Bangwelu. Bangwelu meaning ‘where the water meets the sky’ is very aptly named; indeed when you look at the lake it is hard to tell where the water ends and the sky begins.
After arriving in Samfya we spent the afternoon on the top deck at Chita Lodge. A cold beer in hand and a constant cool breeze blowing, a magnificent view of the lake… the perfect end to a long day’s drive.
Lake Bangwelu is a beauty among Zambia’s lakes; at 50km long and about 25km wide it is probably the largest body of water within Zambia’s borders. It is also part of one of the world’s greatest wetland systems; comprising the lake itself, the Bangwelu Swamps (home of the famous shoebill and the endemic black lechwe) and the Bangwelu Floodplains.
The Bangwelu wetland system is crucial to the economy and biodiversity of northern Zambia and also to the birdlife of a much larger region. Sadly it does face a number environmental stresses and conservation issues.
Fed by 17 rivers, of which the Chambeshi is the largest, and drained by the Luapula River, Lake Bangwelu and its wetlands receive some of the highest rainfall in Zambia, over 1,400ml per annum. Despite being a shallow lake, averaging a depth of only 4m, the surface area of lake expands from its dry season size of 3,000 km sq to over 15,000km sq by the end of the rains, when water floods into the swamps and plains.
Northern Zambia’s waterfalls
There are numerous waterfalls in this part of Zambia and all of them are spectacularly beautiful. From the roaring Lumangwe to the picturesque Ntumbachusi, and Africa’s second highest waterfall, Kalambo Falls, that empties into Lake Tanganyika. Many of these northern waterfalls, these hidden gems of Zambia, are rarely visited, several are virtually unknown and are all the more magnificent for it.
Leaving Samfya we headed for Ntumbachusi Falls, 15km west of Zambia’s tea growing area, Kawambwa. Just one kilometre off the main tar road we found the beautiful 30m high network of cascading water, with an array of crocodile-free swimming holes above the falls and a picturesque camp/picnic site at their base.
The waterfall was believed to be a sanctuary of spirits and the waters of the Ng’ona River are used to bath new chiefs, washing away bad luck before they take the throne. Given the falls proximity to the main road we were surprised to see in the visitors’ book that we were the first people to come this way for many, many days.
There has clearly been an age old attraction to Ntumbachusi Falls judging by the collection of ancient bushman rock art in the immediate vicinity. A local guide hiked with us above the falls and showed us what we would have struggled to find on our own; these paintings may date back over 10,000 years. Much of the art was of geometric designs, though we did also see a lovely painting of a giraffe, very faded by time.
Next stop, Lumangwe Falls. Legend has it that the area was home of the Great Snake Spirit, who was said to stretch itself out from the Lumangwe Falls to the Kabweluma Falls, 5km away. For us though, they represented a 9km detour off the Kawambwa to Mporokoso road, and was well worth the visit. Isolated in Miombo woodlands, these falls are one of Zambia’s best kept secrets.
Located, on the Kalungwishi River, close to the DRC and Lake Mweru, it is an absolutely spectacular waterfall, over 100m wide and 35m high. An astounding drop in the middle of nowhere, Lumangwe is sometimes referred to as the Victoria Falls of the north; though it is stunning in its own right.
After getting completely soaked by the spray from the top, we went down the steep path to the wide misty pool in the gorge at the base of the falls. An absolutely breathtaking sight, with the roar of water falling just in front of us giving a real sense of the power and volume of the falls.
The next day was on to Mbala (where incidentally the Germans surrendered to the British at the end of WWI, three days after the armistice in Europe) and finally to Mpulungu, the town on the southernmost tip of Lake Tanganyika. Here we boarded a small boat to our final destination.
A tiny beach of beautiful white sand, swaying palm trees and three thatched bungalows, Luke’s Beach is a secluded paradise and eco lodge. Situated in Mishembe Bay, this sandy inlet is one of the last bays before the Tanzanian border and is one of the most relaxing places we have ever stayed in Zambia.
Lake Tanganyika is the world’s second oldest, second largest by volume and second deepest lake (in each case coming in ‘second’ to Lake Baikal in Siberia). Measuring 673km though, it is the world’s longest lake. Tanganyika holds a staggering 17% of the world’s fresh water. Shared between four countries, Tanzania and the DRC have the lion’s share of the lake, with Zambia claiming to only 7% of this vast inland sea’s surface area.
Regarded as one of the most biologically unique habitats on earth, Lake Tanganyika has approximately 450 species of fish, including tiger fish, Nile perch (which can grow to an incredible 80kg) and a vivid array of tropical fish. There are about 250 species of cichlids in the lake, with 98% of these being endemic; many of these cichlids have become quite localised, some found only in single bays.
A four-hour round trip hike from Luke’s Beach is Kalambo Falls, Africa’s second highest single drop waterfall and the 12th highest in the world. With a 221m single drop into the gorge below, Kalambo Falls is twice the height of the Victoria Falls. The climb from the lake is steep, but definitely rewarding, with spectacular views from the escarpment. From viewpoints near the top of the falls you can see the Kalambo River plummeting over the cliffs and into the deep gorge below, before winding its way the 5km to Lake Tanganyika
The area around Kalambo Falls is considered an important archaeological site, with continuous human occupation spanning over 250,000 years. Kalambo Falls is on the tentative list for recognition as a protected World Heritage site.
With about 10 different waterfalls in the area we barely scratched the surface, having only visited three, but will be back again soon for more!
Have a look at the video below by David Karnezos that showcases Zambia’s greatest waterfalls.