We sat on an island in the middle of the Zambezi River having arrived via canoe. Behind us, something stirred in the bushes, with a quick flash of my torch I could see the bull elephant keeping a watchful eye on our camp.
We turned back to our conversation, lest we disturb him. It would not be long until we were visited in the night by the waking hippos and a few buffalo. Providing us with an urgency to head fast asleep in our tents while listening to the sounds of Africa.
An Introduction to the Mighty Zambezi River
The majority of people know the Zambezi River for her crowning feat, Victoria Falls. It’s the quintessential destination for any traveler in Africa, and its roots stretch back to colonial times and tribal kingdoms. Victoria Falls swallows a huge river as it dives into a narrow gorge.
From deep below the gorge a massive plume of mist sprays high into the sky. It results in a rainforest surrounded by arid land often plagued by year-long droughts and seasonal rains.
The river continues its journey to the sea through the narrow Batuka Gorge before forming the massive man-made Lake Kariba. It is the largest man-made lake on earth and is said to trigger small regional earthquakes from the sheer weight of the Zambezi’s waters. Kariba is an area seldom explored by most travelers and holds some true gems. We tackled the Southern coast of Kariba only six months prior to this journey and witnessed some of the most spectacular sunsets at Musango Safari Lodge.
After passing through the Kariba Dam the lake slowly widens as it makes it way through a wildlife corridor of National Parks and Hunting Reserves between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Zambezi Valley is unique in its large wilderness area as the Zambezi divides both the Lower Zambezi and Mana Pools National Parks. This large wilderness creates a biodiversity hotspot perfect for one of our favorite adventures and experiences in Africa – a canoe safari.
Canoe Safari on the Zambezi River
There are plenty of adventures to be had in Africa, but none are more deeply connected to the roots of adventure in Africa than a canoe trip down the Zambezi. After all, it was the famous David Livingstone that found Victoria Falls via canoe to utter the famous line of “the smoke that rumbles.”
Now canoe safaris are a popular day activity for numerous safari lodges along the Zambezi River. However, for the more adventurous there is the option to take a multi-day canoe trip down the river. We were fortunate enough to experience this one of a kind trip with the experts at Natureways Safaris last summer.
Our canoe safari launched from the Chirundu border post between Zambia and Zimbabwe with an end goal of making it 90kms down the river to Mana Pools National Park. The Tamarind Canoe Safari is the most popular canoe safari route to take on the Zambezi River. The journey would take us four days and three nights and we had to be totally self-sufficient.
Living on the Zambezi River
As you travel further down the Zambezi River access becomes more difficult. Roads, towns, and villages slowly start to disappear and the wild reigns supreme, this is where a canoe comes in handy. Lions, elephants, leopard, hippos, crocodiles, and buffalo are at the top of the food chain here. It is “Big Five” territory, a group of animals regarded for their tendency to kill humans. Of course, this was not an adventure we could tackle alone.
There is no support team- just the guest, guides, dangerous wildlife, and an ancient river. Our guides navigated a maze of sandbanks, hippos, and islands crossing back and forth between Zambia and Zimbabwe. All while we watched wildlife from the safety of their canoe.
A common sight along the banks of the river are elephants as they cross between parks and enjoy the soft grass of the islands. Birds such as African skimmers, carmine bee-eaters or pied kingfishers would dart along the river taking full advantage of the abundant river.
It is impossible to escape the serenity of the trip, and although coming face to face with a hippo is exciting the average day is relaxing as long as you don’t mind paddling. You spend the majority of the trip sliding between narrow channels lined with river grass, if you bring your own booze you can even do it with a beer in hand.
Some of most amazing moments began with the start of a new day as the sun rises over the river. Best enjoyed with a morning coffee or tea while packing up camp. You paddle for a few hours before making a stop for breakfast or you can opt to knock out the majority of paddling and have a brunch.
After a nice siesta, you finish up the day in warm afternoon light before setting up camp on one of the many islands. Of course, not without time to take a swim in the hippo and croc-filled Zambezi River in lieu of a shower.
Night time is an entirely different experience as camping on the islands of the Zambezi allows for you to be enveloped in the wilds of the mystical river. There is nothing like spending a night on a remote island in the African bush. As the river flows by, you hear lions and hyenas in the distance and hippos munching on grass a few meters from your head.
One of the things I recall the most was a question Natasha asked one of our guides. “What do you like better, camping on these islands or being at home?” He looked around and replied, “Here, it’s quiet. There are no distractions, no lights, no loud noise, no TVs, just this…” the sounds of the bush quickly enveloped us. This may have been the moment we vowed never to live in a major city again.
Canoe Safari Tips
- Language: Most if not all safari guides and camp managers will be able to communicate with you in English.
- Health: We recommend you have current tetanus, typhoid, and hepatitis A & B vaccinations. Check if you’re going to a malaria zone (season matters). The drier the weather the less likely there will be mosquitos, as they need water to breed.
- Currency: US Dollar is the currency used in Zimbabwe after massive hyperinflation occurred.
- Visa: We opted for the reintroduced KAZA Visa. You can acquire this on arrival for $50 and it is valid for both Zambia and Zimbabwe.
- Weather: There are two main seasons – dry and rainy. During the dry seasons, temperatures vary widely and vegetation is sparse. It is considered a good season for safari as animals are easy to spot with low vegetation and they congregate around water sources. The rainy season is considered offseason and it’s hard to find an operational tour as the area becomes difficult to access, this lasts from December to April. If you go for the shoulder season you can find better rates and cooler weather.
- What to Pack: This safari packing list is a great starting point for any safari. When you’re on a canoe safari a good safari hat is a must along with sunscreen and sunglasses. I would also recommend bringing a good book for mid-day siestas.
- Tipping: Tipping your guides and service staff on safari is common practice. Your guides are working professionals who go to great lengths to be licensed and educated, all while keeping you safe. We personally tipped our guides $100 at the end of our three days on the river. Of course, it is all at your discretion.
- Cash: Have enough USD before you enter Zimbabwe. There is currently a cash shortage in Zimbabwe so cash can be hard to come by at ATMs.
- Travel Insurance: We ALWAYS travel with travel insurance. World Nomads offers flexible and great plans!
Mana Pools Park Fees
Mana Pools National Park is open all year round; however, the park is largely inaccessible from December to April. National parks in Zimbabwe are similar to many parks in Southern Africa and very affordable.
- Citizen: Adult – $8.00 USD per day
- SADC: Adult – $15.00 USD per day
- Non-resident: Adult – $20 USD per day
Private Vehicle Fees
- Locally Registered Vehicles – $5.00 USD per day
- Foreign Registered Vehicles – $10.00 USD per day
It’s one of those once in a lifetime experiences
In all our time in Africa, the canoe safari down the Zambezi remains a highlight. It’s an activity that few get to enjoy and a chance to feel like your on a true exploration once again. Mana Pools and the Lower Zambezi are easily two of the best national parks in Africa for a safari.
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