The Zambezi River: Source to mouth
She goes from lazy and beguiling to a raging beast capable of pounding a man and his ambitions into submission. Indeed, the Zambezi River is quite a lady…
Most people know the Zambezi as that intoxicating cauldron of the elements and humankind at Victoria Falls – that eclectic mix of 5-star luxury safari and backpacker basics, of gentle sunset cruises and bruising white-water rafting – where that huge river inhales and forces itself into a few narrow channels, before plunging a hundred hurly-burly metres onto the rocks below. Mosi-oa-Tunya – ‘the smoke that thunders’.
The life force of southern Africa
But the Zambezi is more than that – far more than that. It is the lifeblood of southern Africa, providing drinking water, food, irrigation, transport, tourism services and more. Many major, east-flowing rivers in southern Africa marry into the Zambezi kingdom before completing their quest to reach the Indian Ocean. Yes, the Zambezi gobbles up the likes of the Chobe, Kafue and Luangwa rivers on her way to complete dominance.
I am one of a privileged few that have charted her waters from source to sea, an experience that will forever remain etched in my memory.
The Zambezi goes through three phases in her journey from source to mouth. First, she is a vast floodplain in remote western Zambia, and then a river as we know it as she squeezes between five countries, and finally a delta at journey’s end – the Indian Ocean. Of course, man has tried to tame her wild ways along the way and the dams Kariba and Cahora Bassa create temporary moments for pause in her journey.
A travellers’ paradise
Along the way the Zambezi offers a multitude of experiences for travellers. In fact, if you scan the famous names below you will cover most of southern Africa’s top safari destinations!
If you seek isolation and zero infrastructure then Barotseland, Liuwa Plain and Sioma Ngwezi in western Zambia are the ticket. Look out for the annual wildebeest migration in Liuwa Plain, but be warned that this entire area is not to be taken on unless you are well prepared, or with an experienced operator.
Much of this area becomes a vast mass of water during the wet summer season, with people, livestock and wild animals fleeing to higher ground. The famous Ku-omboka is a ceremonial enactment of this annual pilgrimage as the Lozi chief leads his people to dry ground. Dry ground could, of course, just be a small mound surrounded by rising water – as I and a few trillion huge and ratty ants found out one evening…
If you seek more traditional safari experiences then the stretch of the river forming Zambia’s international border with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique is where you should head. Isolation is still the keyword in much of this section, but of course areas near Victoria Falls are very accessible. Famous names like the Caprivi Strip, Chobe National Park, Lake Kariba, Mana Pools and Lower Zambezi National Park provide legendary wildlife encounters. And then of course there is Victoria Falls.
Clockwise from left: 1) A game drive vehicle makes its way across the flooded Barotse floodplain, near the source of the Zambezi River © Time + Tide; 2) Mana Pools is arguably Africa’s top walking safari location © Zambezi Expeditions; 3) More Mana Pools walking safari magic © Vundu Camp
If you enjoy the relaxed coastal life 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. But be warned that the mouth of the river is almost 100 kilometres wide, with tidal swings of four metres, and you will certainly get lost if you head into the mangroves without an experienced local guide. Even GPS co-ordinates are not a guarantee for not getting lost, as I and my fellow adventurers found out…
You could spend your lifetime exploring the Zambezi and surrounds. You can do this in supreme comfort or rustic simplicity, and anything in-between. Whether your interest lies in big game or bird watching, bush walking, water sports or any of a myriad of activities, and whether your style is hammock or high-adrenaline, the Zambezi is the place to go. Short excursions from the river get you to northern Botswana’s predators, Kafue’s diversity, Liuwa’s migrations and much more. There are remote river lodges where you will not see another soul for weeks and there are hotels brimming with activity. Such is the diversity of the Zambezi.
The best time to go and where to stay
The Zambezi is a lady for all seasons. Birding is generally better during the hot and wet summer months (October to March), whereas game viewing is best during the cool, dry winter months and cusp seasons (April to October). White-water rafting at Victoria Falls is available all year round, but sometimes postponed if the conditions are considered too dangerous.
King Lewanika Lodge is situated in Liuwa Plain National Park, one of the earliest protected areas in Africa. Despite its luxurious design, the lodge, which has six villas, retains its safari authenticity with canvas walls, indoor and outdoor showers, and decks overlooking the plains. Liuwa Plain is home to the world’s second biggest wildebeest migration, rich birdlife and the iconic Lady Liuwa lion pride (although lady Liuwa died in 2017).
Clockwise from left: 1) The rooms open up onto a verandah, which provides a hypnotic, uninterrupted view of Luiwa Plain; 2) Dine on mouthwatering cuisine in the middle of the picturesque landscape; 3) The open-plan accommodation allows the natural light of the African sun to brighten the room. All photos © Time + Tide
Chundu Island – located only 21 kilometres upstream from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe – is situated in the Zambezi National Park on the iconic Zambezi River. It is an oasis of tranquillity where stress melts away. From sunset cruises to canoeing to game drives, this island has it all. You have the choice of either staying at the main lodge or in one of the suites, which ensures complete privacy.
Clockwise from top left: 1) Modern open-plan lounge that opens up onto the banks of the Zambezi River; 2) Dinner for two! – feast on a scrumptious meal while revelling in the beauty of ‘the smoke that thunders’ a stone’s throw away; 3) The outside deck gives you a postcard-worthy view that you will remember forever; 4) A room with a view – wake up and be greeted by this natural masterpiece. All photos © Seolo Africa
Thorntree Rive Lodge is situated in Zambia’s Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park, which is in close proximity to Victoria Falls. There are eight double suites and two family suites, each of which have indoor and outdoor bathrooms and a private plunge pool. The main communal deck boasts a sunken boma and an infinity pool. There are many incredible activities available such as visiting Victoria Falls, rhino trekking, game drives, fishing, river cruises on a private boat and cultural village visits.
Clockwise from left: 1) Each suite has its own private deck as well as a stunning plunge pool; 2) Enjoy your meals while enjoying the views of the Zambezi River; 3) The main lodge has a state-of-the-art infinity pool; the perfect way to relax after a fully day of activities. All photos © Thorntree River Lodge
Victoria Falls Safari Lodge overlooks the Zambezi National Park, with the iconic Victoria Falls only four kilometres away. All of the rooms have a private balcony and the majority command a view of a central waterhole where various wildlife congregate. You can expect to see buffalo, elephant, kudu and hyenas. At the same location, you can also find Victoria Falls Safari Suites and Victoria Falls Safari Club – each offer their own unique style and ambience.
Clockwise from top left: 1) An incredible view of the central waterhole; 2) Many of the rooms have a private verandah that overlook the central waterhole; 3) Indulge in tasty snacks and cocktails at the Buffalo Bar while appreciating the incredible landscape; 4) The rooms are of a modern design, complemented by beautiful decor. All photos © Victoria Falls Safari Lodge
Situated just three kilometres from Victoria Falls, and bordering the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, Stanley Safari Lodge is an elegant and luxurious getaway consisting of 10 uniquely designed chalets. Due to its proximity to the falls, the spray of the falls can be seen from just about anywhere at the lodge, and the surrounding views of the Zambezi River and pristine African wilderness are simply splendid. Guests at Stanley Safari Camp can enjoy activities such as guided tours of Victoria Falls, visits to the local village and museum, game drives and sunset cruises. For travellers seeking a little adventure, there is also river rafting, bungee jumping and canoeing on offer.
Clockwise from left: 1) The chalets are designed to offer you the most luxurious, elegant experience possible; 2) Relax in a hot bath that overlooks the breathtaking Zambezi River; 3) Enjoy exquisite African cuisine in a picturesque infinity pool. All photos © Robin Pope Safaris / Stanley Safari Lodge
Bumi Hills Safari Lodge is located on the banks of the inland Lake Kariba. All of the rooms boast uninterrupted views of the serene lake. There are many activities available that allow for exploration of the lake such as a private boat cruise, fishing and a lakeside walking safari.
Clockwise from left: 1) Picturesque infinity pool that overlooks Lake Kariba; 2) Luxurious room with a deck that has an uninterrupted view of the lake; 3) A stunning fire pit situated in the sunset deck. All photos © Bumi Hills Safari Lodge
Kanga Camp is located in the most remote area of Mana Pools, the Kanga pan – the only known all-year-round water source. You will be treated to views of the diverse Ruckomechi River as well as have the opportunity to explore the mopane woodland. This is an immaculate untouched paradise that gives you an unparalleled private safari experience.
Clockwise from left: 1) Sit back with a drink under the African sky and gaze at the sweeping views of the waterhole in the most remote part of Mana Pools; 2) The lounge has a rustic feel to it, but is built for comfort; 3) The spacious tented accommodation has en-suite bathroom facilities as well as outdoor showers. All photos © Kanga Camp
Vundu Camp is a tented camp that offers unrivalled views of the Zambezi River. The camp is situated in Mana Pools National Park – a small piece of heaven. There are eight chalets (one of which is suitable for a family.) Each of these chalets is a mere 10 metres away from the river. Besides basking in the beauty of the wildlife, activities such as game drives, canoeing, fishing and bird watching are offered.
Clockwise from left: 1) The accommodation has a wonderful blend of modern design, infused with the spirit of Africa; 2) Rooms on the banks of the Zambezi, with unrivalled views of the iconic river. All photos © Vundu Camp
John’s Camp is a semi-permanent tented camp situated within Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe. Generously spaced out along the floodplain adjacent to the Zambezi River, the camp comprises of five Meru-style canvas tents, a common dining area, and a sleep-out deck. Activities on offer include game drives, wonderful bush lunches, and tours of the local village and park office.
Clockwise from left: 1) Welcome to your accommodation – a stunning Meru-style tent; 2) Your tent offers you an unobstructed view of Mana Pools National Park; 3) Put your feet in the water and watch the sun set over this timeless landscape. All photos © Robin Pope Safaris / John’s Camp
Chongwe River Camp is situated in the Chiawa Partnership Park in the lower Zambezi Valley. The award-winning camp is known for its luxurious accommodation – from the tents to the River House, you can expect the absolute best. You are also spoilt for choice with the wide variety of activities: day and night game drives, tiger fishing, boating, walking safaris, canoeing safaris are all available.
Clockwise from left: 1) Relax on your private balcony overlooking the wondrous Zambezi River; 2) Luxury accommodation with an African twist – simple, yet sophisticated; 3) Indulge in the opportunity to enjoy delicious cuisine right on the banks of the river. All photos © Will Burrard Lucas – Time + Tide
This exclusive mobile camp is located at Namyepi/Nkupi campsite in Mana Pools – renowned for its wildlife, floodplains as well as unmatched views of the mighty Zambezi River. The camp is set up prior to your arrival, right on the banks of the river. While there, you can enjoy the thrill of game drives, canoeing and fishing.
Clockwise from left: 1) The tented accommodation is set up on the banks of the Zambezi River. This is the beauty of a mobile-tented camp; 2) Savour your dinner and then relax around a fire, watching the sun set over the river; 3) The tents are equipped with twin beds, en-suite bathroom and an outdoor hot water bucket shower. All photos © Zambezi Expeditions
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Simon Espley is an African of the digital tribe, a chartered accountant and CEO of Africa Geographic. His travels in Africa are in search of wilderness, real people with interesting stories and elusive birds. He lives in Cape Town with his wife Lizz and two Jack Russells, and when not travelling or working he will be on his mountain bike somewhere out there. His motto is ‘Live for now, have fun, be good, tread lightly and respect others. And embrace change.’