What you need:
We are not going to list details of camping gear as that would be far too long and everyone is different. But rather we just want to highlight what you really must have as a basis for your self-drive adventure to Liuwa Plain National Park as well as give a bit of guidance for first time visitors, as compared to other more visited parks in Zambia it is a bit more “wild”.
High Clearance 4×4. Just a standard proper 4×4. Ideally something with low range and decent clearance as some of the sand tracks leading into the park can be very thick, churned up and heavy going.
Basic recovery gear. Preferably a highlight jack (and a thick bit of wood to use as a base), a shovel and some traction aids such as some short sections of 1” planks, “maxtrax” recovery boards or some sections of old conveyor belting or even carpet. Basically, anything that can help you get traction after you have freed the underside of the car. You do not need your vehicle to look like it can win the camel trophy, but if you do get bogged in thick sand then basic equipment can save you hours of angst, sweat or waiting for (very) infrequent passers-by. Of course, if you are using a hi-lift jack then your vehicle must have proper jacking points (such as front and rear steel bumpers strong enough to jack on). Many modern vehicles do not. So, think about this now and not when you are stuck! You could substitute the highlift for a decent hydraulic bottle jack, its just all going to take longer and be more difficult than with a high lift jack. Saying all that, in 9 visits we only needed a jack once, and that was in an exceptionally wet mid-December.
20L jerry can and fuel. If you are in Liuwa for a three-night stay and your vehicle is a modern fuel efficient one then you probably don’t even need extra fuel. For many trips we have filled up in Mongu, spent a few days in Liuwa and had enough fuel to get back to Mongu. But on a recent four-night stay and having covered quite a lot of distance in the park our rather thirsty diesel Land Cruiser needed topping up to reach Mongu. A 20L jerrycan in the back of the car will give you piece of mind.
Tyre pressure gauge and compressor. An essential part of sand driving is lowering your tyre pressures to allow the tyre to spread out, lowering the surface pressure footprint of the vehicle and increasing traction. This is not optional, it is essential. Otherwise, you will get stuck. Park rules state that you should drop to 1.6bar, but if your vehicle is struggling then go lower down to 1.2 or 1.4. Bear in mind that when driving in sand with lowered pressures that you must not make sharp turns (the bead of the tyre can potentially come off the rim) at significant speed. Remember also that the thinner side walls are now bulging out and so more vulnerable to damage from sticks etc. You must air down at Kalabo before getting onto the hand-drawn ferry (pontoon) as on the other side when you come off the ferry you are straight into the sand. And it is a bit embarrassing to get stuck immediately coming off the ferry! When leaving Liuwa it follows that you must then pump the tyres up again once you are off the ferry and in Kalabo. There is a tyre mending place where you could stop and pay a few Kwachas to pump your tyres, and this is the best solution unless you have a decent compressor. Bear in mind that the small cheap compressors from Game or whatever are very easy to overheat or even burn out and will take a long time to get four large 4×4 tyres back to highway pressure.
Navigation device. We would recommend Tracks 4 Africa. Either on a standalone GPS device or on a phone or tablet. Liuwa can be a difficult place to navigate as it is so open and with few landmarks. Tracks 4 Africa has been the default overland navigation standard for years but having seen a latest Garmin car navigation I was impressed. The detail was in some cases better than “T4A”. It is worth pointing out that tracks in Liuwa can be very confusing. What seems to be a well driven track can peter out to nothing. As with all GPS navigation using premade maps, do not treat all tracks and navigation routes as gospel. Use your common sense too!
A second vehicle or going solo? If you are not comfortable with independent 4×4 travel in remote areas, then we really advise that you should go with friends. Two vehicles give peace of mind – it makes recovery easy and if one vehicle has a breakdown then it makes solving that problem so much easier. Liuwa is not as wild as it used to be. Access is easier and cell phone reception is possible in quite a few places in the park. The community campsite attendants all have radio communications with park HQ. But despite all this it is a wild place that can be hard on vehicles and it sees few visitors (especially at the moment). So, if you are going solo then a degree of self-reliance and familiarity with basic recovery techniques is essential.
Liuwa is far! From Lusaka you need to overnight in Mongu (Liseli Lodge is the best in town). It is just under 600km from Lusaka to Mongu. Our self-drive promotion package that this guide goes along side assumes that you are starting from the Kafue National Park. So lets start with assuming you have just crossed the Hook Bridge over the Kafue river in the middle of Kafue National Park.
From the bridge you continue along the M9 for 48km on perfect smooth car. Watch out for wildlife and observe the park speed limit of 80km/hr. After the 48km you reach the Western Park gate (Tateyoyo gate). There are often good small, sweet bananas for sale here.
From the gate you continue 74km to the town of Kaoma. Unfortunately, this is the worst section of road that you will face on the trip – big potholes and broken tar. At Kaoma there is a good filling station on the M9 and another one in the town itself. The M9 filling station sells particularly good (and massive) pies!
From Kaoma to Mongu it is 195 km and after departing Kaoma there is only about a further 20km of the bad section of road before it turns to good smooth tar. It is then a beautiful drive passing pastoral scenes of beautiful pans and dambos and stunning sections of forest (many of them forest reserves). As you arrive in Mongu stay on the M9 and you will come to a roundabout with the Barotse Mall featuring Shoprite and the Hungry Lion among others! The Shoprite is very well stocked. The whole Mongu shopping experience has been absolutely transformed since our first visit 11 years ago or so! Liseli Loge is then about 9km from the mall. Take the road to Limulunga (D557) and Liseli is on the right. It is obvious and is also clearly listed on Google Maps. We always find Liseli lodge clean and great service and good food. Reception is 0974303102.
There are a plentiful amount of filling stations in Mongu as well as banks, a very good tyre and battery fitment place and basically everything you need to stock up before Liuwa. There are several craft shops selling Barotse basket work etc and incredibly cheap. Also notable is the Barotse Cashew factory where they have an outlet selling packaged cashews at great prices – also on Google maps.
The following day head back to the roundabout at the Barotse mall and take the road to Kalabo. As you crest the small rise after the police station you start to see the Barotse floodplains opening up. The views are amazing. You then decend down to the new causeway with its 27 bridges. This stunning feat of civil engineering has simply transformed communications between Mongu and Kalabo and of course Liuwa.
After crossing the causeway, the next stop is Kalabo and you should go straight through town and head to the river. At this point you will see African Parks/DNPW workshop and offices just before the small hand-drawn ferry. This used to be the point where fees would be paid, but African Parks have moved their HQ and tourism centre closer to the actual park – so on the other side of the river. However, at this point you must air down your tyres and sometimes this is not a bad way to kill time while the official ferry operator arrives with his receipt book (50 Kwacha each crossing).
This is now the real start of the adventure! Once off the ferry follow the tracks and look out for the signs to African Parks tourism HQ where you will then complete all the entry formailities and payment. The sand from the ferry at Kalabo to the AP HQ and onward to the park boundary is the worst that you will come across in your trip – it can be very thick and quite hard and hot going. If you are heavily loaded or pulling a trailer in October or November, then keep an eye on engine temperatures as thick sand at slow speed with high ambient temperatures can easily lead to overheating. From African Parks HQ you are almost into the park. From here the roads (well, tracks) get harder and smoother and progressively you start to see more and more animals.
Where to stay?
You have three types of accommodation choices in Liuwa. There is the very luxurious (and priced accordingly) King Lewanika camp which is a very high-end camp run by Time and Tide.
Then you have self-catering accommodation at Sibika Camp which is a relatively new site with four very well spaced out and completely self-contained chalets. There is everything you could possibly need. Just bring your food. They are very comfortably equipped and offer a good medium between full on lodging and full on camping.
Next is the four community campsites. You can read about them here:
We have seen quite a big upgrade to the campsites over recent years with solar lighting and solar hot water geysers adding a new level of comfort to staying there. All the sites have an attendant who will check your entry permit and pump water and keep things in order. On the African Parks website it says that they can assist with gathering firewood, but on some occasions the camps do not have firewood and gathering of firewood is prohibited under park rules. Better just to carry firewood with you.
- Last year and this year (2021) have seen a massive drop in visitor numbers such that pre-booking campsites in Liuwa has not been required. However, in normal times this is not the case. Particularly in South African holiday times and in ‘peak’ season of late November Liuwa can be full as it has become a bit of a destination for overland travellers from the south. Full does not mean that it is busy, but simply that all the camp sites are occupied. Even if you are going there this year I would pre-book. It would be highly unfortunate to get all that way to be told you can’t get in!
- Quite often there is no firewood available in the park. Best to buy some on the way between the Kafue NP and Mongu.
- Water in Liuwa is usually from shallow wells, hand pumped up to overhead tanks. As such while it is potable, it is not the cleanest water in the world. In the past we took a water filter, but the fine sediment meant the filter choked very quickly. Best to bring in your own drinking water.
- Cell phone reception is best with the Zamtel network where Katoyano campsite can get (patchy) reception. Ask the camp attendant to show you the network tree!). If it’s Airtel you need then near Lyangu there are areas again with patchy reception. Best just to switch off completely if you can!
- Liuwa is not about seeing big predator numbers. If you drive all that way thinking you are going to see hyenas, lions and cheetah in one visit then you are probably setting yourself up for disappointment. It is more the overall adventure, the wide-open landscapes (unlike any other park in Zambia), the large groups of Wildebeest and Zebra (in the right season) and the birdlife.
And that is it from us. Enjoy your visit and here are a few pictures to whet your appetite!