Ntumbachushi Falls is a place of dazzling natural beauty. It lies on the Ng’ona River and cascades over the edge of the Muchinga Escarpment and into the valley below. Ntumbachushi is actually two parallel waterfalls, the (slightly) grander of the two is the one that most commonly appears in online searches and also in print publications about the falls.
It is also the first one you will see when you arrive at the reception of the Ntumbachushi Falls National Monument site. But don’t be deceived, both falls that make up Ntumbachushi are absolutely stunning.
Many waterfalls in Zambia require a bit of a hike to reach them but this is certainly not the case with Ntumbachushi. At the first cascade, only a few steps away from the reception area, I stood in awe of the waters of the enchanting falls as they came roaring down.
The spray from the falls was cold and a little uncomfortable, it didn’t help that it was very early on a frosty winter day. However, I stayed glued to the spot as I thought about how lucky I was to be there.
Relatively few people make the journey to this corner of Luapula Province and I was part of a privileged minority that got to behold this glorious sight. As the water plunges down it forms a pool below; a sign on the side of the pool warns visitors that swimming is not allowed. However, there are other areas along the Ng’ona River where swimming is permitted and these are said to be among the best in Zambia for a swim in natural waters.
Ntumbachushi is a Bemba word and even with my non-existent Bemba I knew that chushi means smoke. I overheard another visitor ask a guide what ntumba means. “It means mountain,” I overhead him answer. Standing in the ‘smoky’ mist created by the spray from the falls, the name seemed apt.
To get to the second cascade of Ntumbachushi Falls, you simply head right and cross the Ng’ona River. Follow the sign that reads “Second viewpoint and rock art across the bridge.” There is a precarious-looking yet surprisingly sturdy bridge that will get you to the other side of the river. A slippery rock formation sits in front of the second section of the falls, meaning it’s a little more difficult to get as close as you can to the first cascade. But of course, there are always those who take their chances for the view and the photo ops.
As I cross the river a fellow visitor declares, “According to local beliefs, you shouldn’t enter the water if you are on your period.” A word of caution to anyone who is considering swimming later. This comment reminds me that this is not just a tourist area full of natural beauty, but an area of cultural and spiritual significance, considered sacred by the Lunda and Chishinga people who inhabit it. In fact, Ntumbachushi marks the boundary between Lunda and Chishinga land. For the Lundas, the falls are a site where they invoke and honour the spirits and perform religious rituals. The Ng’ona River is believed to be a haven for spirits and its waters were once used to cleanse chiefs of bad luck before their enthronement. The area also has historical significance to the Lunda people.
In the 1800s Chinyanta Munona, the sixth Mwata Kazembe (paramount chief of the Lunda people) fell in love with his brother’s wife. He married the woman and gave the land around Ntumbachushi to his brother as compensation.
For a different vantage point, I went back across the river and took on an uphill hike to the top of the first cascade. I did this with a designated guide, as required. The hike is a little challenging but something most people can manage. At the top, where the Ng’ona River descends and forms one of the two parallel falls that make up Ntumbachushi the guide told me the falls were 30 meter's long. I’ve never been brave enough to handle the Devil’s Pool in Livingstone but I could handle the miniature Devil’s Pool I had discovered at the top of Ntumbachushi.
We continued with our hike, passing by a designated barbecue spot, with a built-in grill stand. Visitors spending at least half a day in the area should definitely consider having a barbecue. The area also has a campsite for visitors wanting to stay overnight. It wasn’t long before I was reminded of the cultural significance of the area. As we trekked along, a tiny hut with a path leading to its entrance came into view, bound by stones on either side. At the start of the path were two aloe vera plants. The guide wasn’t sure of their significance to the shrine but shared that they’re considered to have healing properties by the locals. He also shared that the shrine belonged to Chief Munkanta of the Chishinga people and that only the chief was permitted to enter it.
I did not linger for too long before proceeding to the place where the guide wanted to end the journey. I was told we were going to see a few rapids on the Ng’ona River but what I saw was more like a set of rapids and some small waterfalls. It was more than I bargained for, in the best possible way. Here, one can relax on the rocks beside the river and even swim safely in the pools below the mini waterfalls. By this point it was late morning, the weather had warmed up and the sun was shining bright. As I stepped into the Ng’ona River, I watched it flow toward where it would eventually split and form the two sections of Ntumbachushi Falls. I marveled at the beauty of the area, while also acknowledging the immense cultural, spiritual and historical significance it held, once again feeling privileged to visit this remote corner of Zambia.