The Zambezi, which means “Great River” in the local Tonga language, is a little explored river that evokes mystery and excitement in all who visit. The source of the mighty Zambezi is in remote northwest Zambia. From here it flows through Zambia, Angola, Namibia, and Botswana, then back along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, before finally discharging into the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. The river’s beauty attracts tourists from all over the world and provides great opportunities for game viewing, various water sports, and other exciting activities.
As well as being a lifeline for millions of people, the river supports large wildlife populations. Hippos, crocodiles, and birdlife are abundant along most of the calm stretches of the river. Coastal woodlands support many large animals including buffalo, zebras, giraffes, and elephants. The Zambezi also contains several hundred species of fish.
To celebrate this iconic river, I’ve collected a few facts:
- At 1,677 miles long, the Zambezi is the 4th largest river in Africa.
- En route to the Indian Ocean, the Zambezi either crosses or forms the boundaries of six countries — Angola, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.
- Near Chobe National Park, the river forms the borders of Zambia and Namibia, Zambia and Botswana, and Zambia and Zimbabwe; the world’s only quadripoint.
- The Zambezi flows over several waterfalls, the most notable being the breath-taking Victoria Falls — one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and a World Heritage Site.
- The Zambezi has two of Africa’s largest hydroelectric projects. The Kariba Dam/Lake Kariba (the world’s largest manmade lake) in Zimbabwe, and the Cahora Bassa Dam in Mozambique were both constructed to provide power to Zambia and Zimbabwe, and Mozambique and South Africa, respectively.
- Legend has it the Zambezi River is protected by Nyami Nyami, the river god of the Zambezi Valley. Nyami Nyami and his wife are said to be the god and goddess of the underworld, residing in the Kariba Gorge. During the construction of the Kariba Dam, regular flooding and numerous deaths were attributed to Nyami Nyami’s wrath at being separated from his wife during the construction of the dam wall.
- Over two million years ago, the Upper Zambezi used to flow through what is now the Makgadikgadi Pans desert in Botswana. Tectonic uplift formed a vast lake causing the river to change direction.
- The river is home to some of the world’s most thrilling whitewater rafting. Starting just below the Victoria Falls, 24 rapids, with names like “Devil’s Toilet Bowl,” “Ugly Stepsisters” and “Gnashing Jaws of Death,” fill a stretch of river that winds its way through the steep sided Batoka Gorge.
- The river runs through numerous game reserves and national parks from source to the sea, providing sustenance to a wide range of wildlife, birdlife, and fish.
- The first non-Africans to reach the Zambezi were Arab traders in the 10th century. They were followed in the 16th century by the Portuguese, hoping to use the river to trade ivory, gold, and slaves.
- Until the 19th century, the river was believed to flow south from a vast inland sea (that was also thought to be the source of the Nile). Accurate mapping of the Zambezi didn’t take place until Scottish missionary and explorer, David Livingstone, charted most of the river’s course in the 1850s. His map remained the most accurate until the 20th century, when surveys finally traced the Zambezi to its source.
When you mention the Zambezi River, most people think of Victoria Falls, where the massive river forces itself into a few narrow channels and plunges 354 feet to the rocks below. But in fact, the river has three distinct phases in its journey from source to sea and offers a multitude of experiences for travelers. Indeed, the Zambezi runs through most of southern Africa’s top safari destinations!
The Upper River
The Zambezi starts as a tiny burbling spring rising out of the ground, at the base of a fallen tree, in a secluded stretch of marshy wetland and lush forest in the Mwinilunga district of Zambia, close to where the borders of Zambia, Angola, and the Congo meet. This is a small protected forest area, home to nearly 200 bird species and numerous special mammals, including the tree Pangolin, red-tailed monkey, and African palm civet. Within the protected forest, elevated wooden walkways lead to the source and follow the path of the river down the valley for some distance. From here, it flows about 20 miles before entering Angola, where it runs for about 175 miles.
Shortly after re-entering Zambia, the river flows over the Chavuma Falls and enters a broad region of floodplains, the largest of which is the Barotse Plain. If you are seeking wilderness and isolation then Barotseland, Liuwa Plains, and Sioma Ngwezi in western Zambia are the places to be. Try to time your visit to see the annual wildebeest migration in Liuwa Plains.
Every year on the Barotse Plain, as summer gives way to winter, the famous Kuomboka procession makes its way down the Zambezi River. Kuomboka literally means “to get out of water” in the local Lozi language and this annual procession marks the transition of the Litunga (king) from his summer to winter residence, which is located on higher ground, away from the seasonal floodplains. The exact date of the ceremony changes every year, depending on the ebb and flow of the natural world. It’s also kept a secret until just before the procession, to ensure the safety of the king, but usually takes place in the month of April. To witness both the migration and the Kuomboka ceremony I’d suggest staying at Time & Tide’s King Lewanika Lodge.
Leaving the floodplains, the Zambezi enters a stretch of rapids that extends from Ngonye Sioma Falls. These horseshoe shaped falls mark the transition of the Zambezi River from Kalahari sand floodplain to basalt dyke. Rapids stretch from the Sioma Falls to the Katima Mulilo rapids after which, for about 80 miles, the river forms the border between Zambia and a small strip of Namibia. Keen fishermen might like a 5-day fishing safari near Sioma Falls.
Flowing onward, the river passes Botswana, before turning almost due east and forming the frontier between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and then on to Victoria Falls, the world’s largest sheet of falling water and a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site. Victoria Falls marks the end of the upper course of the Zambezi. Below the falls, a gorge some 60 miles long has been formed by erosion, through which the river descends in a series of rapids. There are countless activities to entertain yourself here, on either the Zambian or Zimbabwean sides of the river. I’ve nervously watched my children both bungee jump off the Victoria Falls bridge and microlight over it. We’ve whitewater rafted as a family, flown over the falls in a helicopter, done countless sunset cruises, gone canoeing, game viewing, fishing, and of course, viewing the falls themselves!
The Middle Stretches
The Zambezi’s middle course extends about 600 miles from Victoria Falls, through Lake Kariba, and onto the eastern end of Lake Cahora Bassa in Mozambique, and continuing to form the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe until it crosses the Mozambique border. It is here, just upstream from where the three countries meet, that I’ve recently discovered a hidden gem, Redcliff Zambezi Lodge. This is the perfect spot for the avid fisherman (my husband caught a 10-pound eel and an 11-pound tiger fish in one day). Not being a fisherman myself, I occupied myself with game viewing from the boat and was rewarded with a leopard, several elephants, and numerous other wildlife sightings.
The middle section of the Zambezi is notable for the two manmade lakes, Kariba and Cahora Bassa. Kariba Dam often gets overlooked by international tourists, but this is a beautiful spot for gorgeous sunsets and exciting fishing, as well as impressive game viewing. I’d recommend a stay at Bumi Hills Safari Lodge. Just upstream of Lake Kariba, the river valley widens and is contained by an escarpment nearly 2,000 feet high. Between the two lakes, the Zambezi heads through the phenomenal game viewing areas of the Lower Zambezi National Park (one of Zambia’s best-kept secrets) and the Mana Pools National Park (a World Heritage Site covering 848 square miles in Zimbabwe). This area is renowned for tiger fishing and canoeing trips, as well as fantastic game viewing. My favorite places to stay here are Anabezi on the Zambian side and Nyamatusi Lodge on the Zimbabwean side.
The Lower Reaches
From the dam at the eastern end of Lake Cahora Bassa, the Zambezi begins its lower course, where it descends from the Central African Plateau to the coastal plains. The hilly country is replaced by flat areas and the river becomes more placid, before fanning out into the wide, flat, marshy Zambezi Delta, a fertile haven for migratory waterbirds and coastal mangroves.
The Zambezi’s 400 miles from Cahora Bassa to the Indian Ocean are navigable, though shallow in many places during the dry season. During the rains, however, streams and tributaries unite into one broad, fast-flowing river. About 100 miles from the sea, the Zambezi receives the drainage from Lake Malawi, through the Shire River, widening it even more.
If you’re looking for a relaxed coastal lifestyle, then head for the mouth of the Zambezi. The river spreads out into a myriad of mangrove-infested channels before meeting the Indian Ocean in a heaving display. Be warned that the mouth of the river is over 60 miles wide, with tidal swings of 13 feet, and there’s a good chance of getting lost if you head into the mangroves without an experienced local guide — even GPS coordinates are no guarantee!
One of the most fascinating rivers in Africa, the Zambezi is not only a major tourist attraction but the life-blood and source of income for millions of people. Traversing a variety of landscapes and overcoming various obstacles along the way, the Zambezi is a true African gem. You could spend a lifetime exploring this river — whether your interests are big game or birds, bushwalking or water sports, and whether your style is hammock or high-adrenaline, this river is the place to go.
The Zambezi is a destination for all seasons. Game viewing is generally better during the cool, dry months of winter and the fringe seasons (April–October). For birding, you are better off to come during the hot and wet summer months (October–March). Whitewater rafting, on the other hand, is available most of the year, but be aware it can be postponed if conditions are deemed too dangerous.
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