A Travel Guide to the Northern Circuit in Zambia: 15 must see places.
Updated: Jul 6, 2021
The Northern Circuit: waterfalls, rivers, lakes, wetlands and historical art rock caves
The Northern Circuit of Zambia refers to the numerous National Monument Heritage sites spread mostly throughout Luapula and Northern provinces, many of which are waterfalls, along with nature reserves, archeological sites, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. There are a variety of routes and sites to choose from but the trip that I have outlined will focus on the numerous waterfalls.
Kundalila falls, Kasanka National Park, Kapishya hot springs, Shiwa Ng'andu Manor (The Africa House) and Samfya Beach are often included in this circuit depending on your route of choice and although I did not cover them on this trip, I have guides to all places from previous trips. This blog post was sponsored by Zambia Tourism Agency.
The main focus of our trip was to experience as many waterfalls as possible on the way to our final destination: Lake Tanganyika.
Recommended time of year to go
March and April.
These are the ideal months right as the rainy season is finishing and everything is covered in that beautiful emerald green whilst the waterfalls are at their fullest.
Recommended amount of time
Minimum of 6 days if following this route and itinerary but I would recommend taking about 10 days or more, if you have the time! We jam-packed everything in, seeing over 10 waterfalls within just 4 days.
Victoria falls and the northern waterfalls
All should be added to your bucket list. One advantage to the diverse falls of Luapula and Northern provinces is that they are more interactive and along the road less travelled compared to Victoria falls. Swimming, camping and seeing the different parts throughout the year, along many different rivers, at very affordable costs all nearby enough to experience numerous different waterfalls within a few days!
Here are the following 10 (or 12) waterfalls which I will explain in more detail below:
Chishimba falls (along with Mutumuna and Kaela falls)
National monument heritage sites
6 out of 10 of the waterfall locations are national monument heritage sites which means they are well maintained with smooth gravel roads, walking paths, signs, guides and facilities:
Chishimba falls (along with Mutumuna and Kaela falls)
All waterfalls that are national heritage sites, along with the first remote waterfall, have camping available. I would not recommend camping at Musonda, Mililimba and Chipempe falls, although there may be some space, they are not established sites and it may not be allowed. The Lumangwe and Kabwelume Complex also has affordable and clean chalets. There are lodges in nearby towns to most of the waterfalls.
Chishimba falls does have a number of walking paths adding up to almost 2km to see all 3 of the falls. Musonda falls has a short but rocky hike down. Kalambo falls has both hiking from the top to the bottom as well as a long path of steps between the top of the waterfall to the viewpoint of the falls. The other falls are all set up with no or very minimal hiking to the main point, but they do have paths to explore more nearby.
The national monument heritage site waterfalls have very nicely maintained gravel roads and are all off main tarred roads. Most of the gravel roads are short and there is no need for 4x4 vehicle, apart from the Lumangwe and Kabwelume complex road, see details below. Some of the main tarred roads do have bad sections and potholes to be on alert. I recommend asking people locally and being flexible with the route as some roads are either not listed on google maps or the recommended route may change based on the season or updated road conditions.
Can we trust google maps?
Yes! Just make sure to verify with people who live in the area and also download the maps.
Every single pin for all 10 waterfalls and any other locations we followed were 100% accurate!
There was one road that was not listed on google maps. I only found out about this road through enquiring about the roads from the manager at Ntumbachushi falls which is why I always recommend verifying with people locally. Such roads may also be found and followed using the road signs.
Budget and Backpacker Travel
The Northern Circuit is ideal for budget travel and anyone who likes exploring off the beaten path. Standard fees are K8 entrance per person, K5 per car and K30 per person to camp. For non residents, rates are $15 per person. Always make sure to call ahead or check pricing in case of any changes.
Before we get to the waterfalls that are part of the national monument heritage sites and more widely recognised, let’s talk about this scarcely known remote waterfall near Serenje.
A modest but charming falls, this is the perfect lunch stop along the way to begin on the Northern Circuit of experiencing even more robust waterfalls around the country.
Just 12km after Serenje, turn right at the sign post for the Chipota project. Follow the google map directions here (make sure to download them because service/network is spotty).
The road is gravel and smooth in most parts but not without a number of rocky parts and small crevasses. It becomes steep and rocky the last 1km of approaching the falls. It’s important to follow the google map point because there is no sign for the dirt road to turn down but according to the point and your location, you will know to turn on the road/path. There is a small “clearing” to at least park a few cars and if you’re really being adventurous, camp. The rest of the roads are very tight.
There is a short walking path right to the middle of the falls and it is a fantastic picnic, swimming and lookout point. There are some other paths if you wish to hike up or down along the falls. After a lunch break at Chipota falls, we continued on to Mansa with a stopover at the Bangwelu wetlands.
Close to 10,000 square kilometres of flood lands, permanent swaps, habitat to incredible animals and home to a wonderful culture lies the Bangweulu wetlands. It truly encompasses its meaning, “where the water meets the sky.”
Full of its expansive nature, Bangweulu has been named one of the world’s most important wetlands. These swamps are fed by the Chambeshi, Luapula, Lukulu and Lulimala rivers.
Black lechwe, medium-sized semi-aquatic antelope, are only endemic to the Bagweulu basin in Zambia. They are on the red list of endangered species due to population decrease after flooding in 1930’s-1940’s. Their population has been slowly increasing since the 1950’s, but it is still estimated at only 35% of the capacity. We were lucky enough to catch a group of hundreds of these beautiful Black lechwe right by the side of the main road. There were also storks alongside them and many other beautiful birds as we drove along.
Just about 40 minutes outside of Mansa lies this stunning waterfall with more than one tantalising drop, beautiful swimming areas and places where it is safe to jump right off the waterfall!
What stood out most to me was the ease of getting here and how impeccably well maintained it is all at the entrance price of K5. In contrast to yesterday’s waterfall experience, this is a national heritage site, as are most along the northern circuit. The camping area and all parts of this site have been kept up beautifully. For whatever reason, they had not updated their entrance fees yet so it was still K5 to enter, but will likely go up to the standard fee of K8.
Musonda falls is waterfall you will not miss if you drive about 20 minutes past Mumbuluma falls, or 50 minutes outside of Mansa. This is a hydroelectric power station and is not a national monument heritage site, but it is still worth stopping and a short hike to experience its beauty.
The best way to do it is to park by the shops across the road and walk down along the side which will require some light hiking. We met someone to guide us, but if you choose to explore yourself, it is very doable. It has numerous drops and rapids and leads to a third waterfall right along the same road.
Really more of a rapids and beautiful place to stop over for a picnic or swim, Mulilmba falls is just 1 km from the road as the sign will point out. We had not planned to stop here but once we saw how close it was and a quick easy stop, we went for it! The crowds did gather so we didn’t spend too much time before continuing on the road along the Zambia and DRC border, to our next destination.
Located about 18km from Kawambwa, this is one of the waterfalls that as you drive up it is right in front of your eyes. It is unique in its drop and also in the different areas to hike around both above and below.
Although this is the most visible drop of Ntumbachushi, there is one just as large right next to it and many other rapids and falls along the river. The braii areas and camping facilities looked very comfortable here but we decided to move on to our next location.
Lumangwe, Kabwelume and Chipempe falls are all located along the Kalungwishi river, right at the edge of Lusenga Plain National Park. Lumangwe falls is the most commonly known and visited despite them all being located about 5 kilometres of one another.
Not only are there a few rough parts in this road that needs higher clearance and 4x4, the main tarred road was under construction so there was an additional 60km of gravel that should hopefully be tarred soon.
We arrived after dark and set up camp right at the top of Lumangwe falls as we listened to the roar of this majestic waterfall but we only experienced it in all its glory in the morning.
This was an incredibly unique experience with having the whole place to ourselves and after a night of camping, we swam and bathed at the top of such a spectacular waterfall. Make sure if you go all the way to Lumangwe, to also visit Kabwelume falls.
This is the hidden gem of all. As it came into view, I held back tears of joy and uttered, “This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” Kabwelume falls has got to be the most underrated and too often missed waterfall in Zambia. Many people come to Lumangwe falls but don’t drive the 5km short distance to also experience Kabwelume falls, in the same complex.
Kabwelume has such unique drops and formations with numerous different falls, pools and such beauty that is truly unique to any of the other waterfalls in the northern circuit and around Zambia. I had never viewed photos before experiencing it, but even these photos do not do it justice. The panoramic and detailed nature of this waterfall is breathtaking.
Located just before Lumangwe and Kabwelume complex, Chipempe falls, could better be described as rapids. The rapids are strong, so swimming is not advised and there is no specific entrance. It is very common to miss this one as there is no signage or road. If you would like to see it, ask the tour guide from the main complex to guide you.
Since there is no proper entrance or clearing, when the water is high, it is not very photo or leisure friendly and is better to visit just for viewing purposes. During the dry season, it is said to be able to interact and more with Chipempe falls.
Chishimba falls (along with Mutumuna and Kaela falls)
Set just 30 minutes outside of Kasama are incredible rock formations that are home to three different waterfalls: Mutumuna, Kaela, Chishimba, and a number of rapids between. The view from the final, major drop of Chishimba falls is also spectacular as you look down over the valley and a panoramic view of the area.
This does require a little bit of walking around to view all 3 falls but the paths are well marked and maintained. Make sure to see all three waterfalls as each has their own character.
Kalambo falls is known as the second tallest single drop waterfall in Africa and it is more than double the height of Victoria falls. At 235m (772 ft) high, you can sit right at the top with no rails, along the border of Zambia and Tanzania, very near to our final destination.
This was the final destination of our trip and it truly was the cherry on top to one of the most amazing experiences in Zambia.
Lake Tanganyika is the world’s longest freshwater lake, the second deepest lake in the world, the second oldest freshwater lake in the world and the second largest by volume in the world, all after Lake Baikal in Siberia. If you haven’t been to lake Tanganyika yet, add this as your first priority next time you want to vacation on a beach in the tropics, while still in Zambia.
Mwela Rock Art Monument
Mwela Rock Art is a must see, just 10 minutes outside of Kasama. It is expansive in the number of caves and types of rock art, with a tour guide who is very knowledgeable of the vast history of this area. This is the best cave painting experience I have yet to have in Zambia.
Thank you for reading along with my Northern Zambia experience, I sure hope you enjoyed virtually and my hope is for you to experience this through your own eyes, physically. Please comment below with your favorite part or anything you would add? Please also share as much as possible in hopes of showcasing Zambia's tourism.
I would also like to extend a huge thank you to Zambia Tourism Agency who partnered with me and sponsored my trip in exchange for this blog post, other edited photos and my 5 day takeover of their instagram and facebook platforms. Please do give their website a view and follow their social media pages.