Great East Road
The Great East Road is a major road in Zambia and the only highway linking its Eastern Province with the rest of the country. It is also the major link between Zambia and Malawi and between Zambia and northern Mozambique. However, the route does not carry as much traffic as many of the other regional arterial roads and between the main cities it serves, Lusaka and Chipata, it passes through rural and wilderness areas. In Lusaka the road forms the main arterial road for the eastern suburbs.
Chipata, the capital of the Eastern Province was an early outpost of the British colonial administration as Fort Jameson when Zambia was Northern Rhodesia. Like most of the Eastern Province, it had much easier access to Malawi, then the British protectorate of Nyasaland, and to the Mozambique ports of Quelimane and Beira than to the rest of Northern Rhodesia, and so most trade and communication in early colonial days was eastwards. Until the mid-1920s mail, goods and passengers went between the capital of the territory at Livingstone and Fort Jameson by train through neighbouring countries — via Bulawayo and Beira to Blantyre and then by road.
Before the Great East Road, the first direct vehicle access to the east of any kind was a track made in 1929 by transport companies following a more northerly route than the present road, and which crossed both the Lunsemfwa River and the Luangwa by pontoons made from dugout canoes roped together.
Eventually the Northern Rhodesian authorities needed a better road to assert their control over the Eastern Province, and the first Great East Road was built in 1932 from the Great North Road at the small railway town of Lusaka (Livingstone was still the capital, and this junction of the 'Great Roads' together with the main north-south railway contributed to the decision to site the capital in Lusaka in 1935).
The Eastern Province is a narrow slice of land sandwiched between Mozambique and Malawi to its south and east, and the Luangwa Valley, world-famous for its wildlife, to the north-west, which no highways cross. Apart from a bush track over the highlands in the far north of the province, a narrow neck of land in the west became the only way in from or out to the rest of Zambia, and as the only highway to cross it, the Great East road is strategically vulnerable. This neck is cut by the lower Luangwa River making a turn due south to the Zambezi, in a narrow and deep valley with steep slopes and thick vegetation, amounting in some sections to a gorge. The river is 250 to 400 m wide in this area, and flows quite fast, with a huge variation according to season.
The route and its branches
Crossing the steep terrain of the lower Luangwa valley was a major challenge. The 1929 track was usually closed in the rainy season, and so the first Luangwa Bridge was built in 1932 with funding from the Beit Trust. On the eastern side, once the road had climbed up the difficult terrain onto the Luangwa-Zambezi watershed at Nyimba, Petauke, and Katete, the going is easier. Chipata is reached 605 km from Lusaka and the road goes on to the Malawian border 20 km further on, where it connects via Mchinji to the Malawian capital of Lilongwe, just 90 km from Chipata.
In addition to its east-west Lusaka-Malawi axis, the Great East Road links north to Lundazi, north-west to the South Luangwa National Park, south-east to Mozambique, and, in Lusaka Province, south to the Lower Zambezi National Park and the town of Luangwa at the Luangwa-Zambezi river confluence. In the 1960s the Great East road was paved, opening up the Luangwa Valley (and to some extent, Lake Malawi) to tourism. At times the surface has deteriorated considerably. The section between Katete and the Luangwa Bridge was repaired and reconstructed around 2002/3.
As well as being strategically vulnerable as described above, the Great East Road is within a few kilometres of Mozambique and a few tens of kilometres of Zimbabwe, where there were wars of independence in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result of Zambia's political support for the anti-apartheid and independence sides in these conflicts, armed incursions cut the road at the Luangwa Bridge — see that topic for further details.
- Terracarta: Zambia, 2nd edition, International Travel Maps, Vancouver, Canada, 2000.
- H. C. N. Ridley: “Early History of Road Transport in Northern Rhodesia”, The Northern Rhodesia Journal, Vol 2 No 5 (1954)
- Camerapix: Spectrum Guide to Zambia, Camerapix International Publishing, Nairobi, 1996.