Take it slow on Zambia’s upper Zambezi
A water safari, either in a canoe or in a large raft, is an excellent way to explore the upper Zambezi. (Lanz von Horsten/Getty)
There is always much more to a tempest than its terrible thunderclaps. While all eyes and ears are trained on nature's feistiest displays, a host of overlooked things work at gentler rhythms right alongside. It is no different with the Zambezi, the fourth-largest river system in Africa after the Nile, the Zaire and the Niger.
Of the Zambezi River's full 3,540km length – running south and then east from northern Zambia all the way to the Indian Ocean via Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique – most travellers only experience its greatest wonder, Victoria Falls. Also known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, the “Smoke that Thunders”, the world's largest falls channels the Zambezi's impressive water volume into a 250km-long zigzag spectacle of rock-eating cataracts and steep-walled gorges perfect for the extreme adrenaline rushes of white-water rafting, kayaking, river boarding and more. Some people call the area, including the nearby twin towns of Livingstone (Zambia) and Vic Falls (Zimbabwe), the adventure capital of Africa.
Away from all this high-octane hoopla, however, the upper reaches of the river are just as enrapturing, albeit often in a more languid way. Unbeknown to most, you do not have to travel far from Victoria Falls for a complete change of pace. Just a few kilometres upstream are serene riverside lodges that allow for the easy ogling of birds and big game, including hippos, crocodiles, giraffes and elephants; while the calmer waters bring the more gentle pursuits of canoeing, drift rafting and river boating.
Tranquil water safaris
A water safari is an excellent way to explore the upper Zambezi. Glide along in a solo inflatable canoe; or, if you are more inspired by a group experience, take a seat in a large raft. With a paddle in one hand, camera in the other, your senses are bristlingly alert – undisturbed by the drone of a boat motor – to more than 350 bird species and the bush enlivened by munching, grunting and shuffling wildlife. When you make welcome landfall on the beaches of, say, Katombora Island, one of many on the upper Zambezi, you find sand so pure it squeaks beneath your feet. As dinner cooks, watch the local villagers drifting past in their makoros (dugout canoes), the waters teeming with tiger fish. After a colour-wheel sunset, a canopy of stars decorates the skies.
When the water level is low, trust your guide to navigate the shallow channels and avoid the grumpy hippos. At high water times (February to May), even small rapids, while no challenge to negotiate, may set your heart aflutter. A two-day trip, with half- and one-day options possible, can be organised though Bundu Adventures, located at Maramba River Lodge in Livingstone.
Relaxing river cruises
Several stately triple-decker catamarans ply the Zambezi’s waters, leaving from and returning to the landing of The Royal Livingstone hotel, just south of Livingstone town. Although built in the 21st Century, the African Queen and African Princess look like river boats from the early 20th Century, finished in teak and beech wood with polished-brass touches.
On both ships, seating for 80 to 120 passengers (depending on the boat) hardly detracts from the two-hour float along the river edge of Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, a perfect vantage point for spying wildlife. The animals are most active at sunrise and sunset – and the sunsets are unforgettable – but the cruise experience is lovely at any time of day.
In the evenings, the luxury liners share the river's currents with “booze cruises”. This combination of sunset-viewing plus wildlife- and bird-spotting with an on-board barbecue and open bar have made river-borne evening entertainment options very popular on the Zambezi; try Taonga Safaris, whose launch site is at the River Shack, next to the Livingstone Boat Club.
Secluded river lodges
Rather than spending the night in Livingstone or Vic Falls, head out of town to a room on the quiet waterside fringe of the Zambezi. Mama Out of Africa and Kayube Zambezi River House are two self-catering and eco-friendly properties located on a 90-hectare private estate about 20km west of Livingstone that looks straight across to Zimbabwe's Zambezi National Park, a treat to both bird- and wildlife-watchers.
Mama Out of Africa, parked right on the banks of the river under a large thatch roof, is an old bus converted into lodge for up to four people. Driven here from Germany many years ago and dubbed the “Okavango Mama” along the way, the bus has had many lives, including one as a mobile dressing room during the filming of Out of Africa. You could be relaxing where Meryl Streep or Robert Redford once sat. Surrounded by lawns and towering old-growth trees, the two-room Kayube Zambezi River House is a private luxury accommodation, complete with housekeeping staff.
Special local tours and activities can be booked from both lodges through in-house tour operator victoriafallszambia.travel, including private river safaris, guided visits to traditional villages, bike or horseback rides and, when accessible due to changing water levels on the river, picnics on the adjacent Chundu Island.