The Zambezi River: Source to mouth

Simon Espley
Friday, 2 March 2018

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 – where that massive 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’. That heady, somewhat eclectic, mix of 5-star luxury safari and backpacker basics, of gentle sunset cruises and bruising white-water rafting …

Victoria Falls

An aerial photo of the legendary Victoria Falls, also known as ‘the smoke that thunders’ © Janine Mortimer

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 significant, east-flowing rivers in the region 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.

Group of people gliding down the Zambezi River

Canoeing down the Zambezi is a popular activity, with spectacular wildlife encounters © Zambezi Expeditions

The 2,574km-long Zambezi River has a 1,390,000 km2 catchment area, making her the fourth-largest river in Africa, after the Nile, Congo and Niger rivers.

She goes through three phases in her journey from source to mouth, and visits six countries – Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. 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 in Mozambique – the Indian Ocean. Of course, man has tried to tame her wild ways along the way, and the dams Kariba and Cahora Bassa, both of which generate hydro-electricity for the region, create brief moments for pause in her journey. Kariba Dam holds back the world’s largest man-made lake, at 226km long and up to 40km wide in places; and 86 men lost their lives before construction was completed in 1977.

A travellers’ paradise

Along the way, the Zambezi offers a multitude of experiences for travellers. 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 land could, of course, be a small mound surrounded by rising water – as a few trillion ratty ants and I found out one evening during my sojourn from source to mouth…

The annual wildebeest migration in Liuwa Plains

The iconic annual wildebeest migration in Liuwa Plain © Andrew Macdonald

If you seek more traditional safari experiences then the stretch of the river forming Zambia’s international border with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique are 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.

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 undoubtedly 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 my fellow adventurers and I found out…

Clockwise from left: 1) Legendary white-water rafting at Victoria Falls; 2) 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 © Vundu Camp

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.

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, bushwalking, 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 hotels are brimming with activity. Such is the diversity of the Zambezi.

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Travel in Africa is about knowing when and where to go, and with whom. A few weeks too early / late and a few kilometres off course and you could miss the greatest show on Earth. And wouldn’t that be a pity? Search for your ideal safari here, or contact an Africa Geographic safari consultant to plan your dream vacation.



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 Hoedspruit 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.’



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  • Inengu Ananyatele

    Kuomboka Ceremony is round the corner it is an annual Ceremony that is performed in the western Province of Zambia. This is a movement of the lozi king called Litunga from the low lands of the Barotse plains to the higher land .The Litunga has two royal capitals one in the barotse plains Called Lealui and one at the eastern forest margin called Limulunga. This annual event does become more pictorial and colorful as the king is currently paddled by almost 180 paddlers dressed in traditional attires called liziba on which around there waists they wrap them selves with animal skins and wrappers called Malesu in silozi language. The litunga’s barge is called Nalikwanda and it is painted white and black vertical stripes in an imitation of a zebra skin. Apart from the nalikwanda are other Royal barges like the Notila, Mbolyanga, Mutungo,sabelele and other royal barges.These can be identified by traditional canopies mounted on them,they too are other barges and canoes found in the Voyage. They are three types of kuomboka ceremonies found in the region. The first one is the main kuomboka ceremony for his majesty the king of Barotseland, two weeks after it is followed by the second kuomboka ceremony and this one is for the Litunga la Mbowela who is second in hierarchy in the lozi monarch, this one takes place in Nalolo district from Nalolo royal capital to a place called Muoyo.. The third one is the one for Kalabo sikongo districts that takes place from a place called libonda to an area or capital capital called Mulundumano. The second and third kuomboka ceremonies are performed in a bit of a similar ways , the difference is that the litunga la Mboela is a Female, a Queen and also the libonda Mulundumano ‘s Chieftains is a queen, a female. These all activities does occur in the months of march or April and they are determined by water levels of the Zambezi River as it splashes it’s water on it’s tributaries and it’s banks thus causing the whole barotse plain to get flooded. On these occasions they are a lot of cultural dances and activities that are good to view,this does include the Canoe regatta done earlier thus a day prior to the kuomboka voyage. You are highly welcome to the western province of Zambia renowned as the ‘Land of spectacular migrations. +260979785719 to the Africa Geographic Magazine