Africa’s Best Canoe Safaris
So here’s the dilemma: you are planning an African safari and want a bit of adventure and a lot of wildlife. But you’d also like to reduce your impact on the environment you are visiting. And it wouldn’t hurt to have a comfortable bed and good food too.
Problem solved: book an African canoe safari. Drifting quietly down a river in a canoe not only has a zero polluting effect on the environment but it also puts you in the front-row seats for wildlife viewing. It’s a great way to go bird watching and you’ll see the otherwise hidden players of Africa’s waterways: otters, terrapins, painted frogs and aquatic antelope.
And as for adventure, African canoe safaris are the Real Deal. Imagine a day spent on the Zambezi River – elephants at the water’s edge, basking crocodiles and giant monitor lizards – while your guide keeps a watchful eye on the local pod of sleeping hippos. Then a tented camp set up on the river bank, complete with campfire and a three course supper.
Canoe safaris also give you access to the shallow floodplains and hidden lagoons of Botswana’s Okavango Delta as well as the remote wetlands of Zambia, some of the wildest places left in Africa. You’ll be led by professional guides – usually local to the area – and you can choose between multi-day camping adventures and day trips from lodges, combining the canoe experience with game drives and guided walks.
Grab a paddle and buckle up your lifejacket – here are our favourites:
Best Multi-day Canoe Safaris
🛶 Lower Zambezi & Mana Pools – Zimbabwe
Lying between Lake Kariba and Mozambique, the Lower Zambezi River is flat, wide and full of wildlife. It’s perfect for adventure, and a Lower Zambezi canoe safari certainly delivers that. Accessed from either Zambia or Zimbabwe, this is heavyweight country – elephants, hippos, buffalo, crocodiles – set against a mountainous backdrop and you can spend up to a week out on the Zambezi, camping on the river banks at night. It’s a guided, self-contained expedition and guests help run the safari by putting up their tents and packing canoes. For wildlife watchers we’d recommend a 3 or 4-night canoe safari in Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools but short 2-night canoe safaris are also available for travellers pressed for time.
🛶 Kafue River – Zambia
Lending its name to the Kafue National Park, the Kafue River feeds into the Zambezi and is a similar big-animal ecosystem. It’s a wild, relatively remote region and only recently accessible to canoe safaris, run from the comfort of KaingU Lodge in a private concession next to the park. Sitting back on a two-person inflatable canoe with your guide, you can enjoy canoe trails lasting from an hour to a full day – including options with a few easy rapids to run – but there are overnight adventures too. You’ll sleep on an island under the stars or in a dome tent after being resupplied by boat, delivering dinner, cold drinks and your pre-packed evening clothes.
🛶 Upper Zambezi River – Zimbabwe
The stretch of river between Botswana and Victoria Falls, the Upper Zambezi lies in a region with the highest concentration of elephants in Africa. It’s especially dramatic in the late dry season (August to October) when elephants and other animals are crowded at the water’s edge, and a canoe safari is the perfect way to see them. Upper Zambezi canoe safaris are set in a national park and kick off with a day trip but you can easily upgrade to a 2-night adventure, complete with grade 1 and 2 rapids to negotiate and a tented camp at the end of the day. It’s a great way to spice up a visit to Victoria Falls.
Best Canoe day-trips
🛶 Lower Zambezi River – Zimbabwe/Zambia
Full and half-day canoe safaris are available from both sides of the Lower Zambezi River: Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools and Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park. Both are classic big game country – elephants, lions, hippo and big herds of buffalo – and you’ll explore via game drives, guided walks and boat trips as well as canoe safaris and it’s easy to combine with Victoria Falls. We like Tembo Plains Camp in Mana Pools where each tent comes with a professional-quality DSLR camera with lenses plus a pair of high quality binoculars.
🛶 Selinda Spillway/Okavango Delta – Botswana
There are many opportunities to explore by canoe or traditional mekoro (a dugout canoe) in the Okavango Delta but few that take in the enigmatic Selinda Spillway. A river that periodically links the Okavango Delta to the Linyanti wetlands, the Selinda lies in prime big game country renowned for big cats and elephants. Take advantage of Okavango Explorers Camp‘s location, set in a private concession, and discover the Selinda by canoe on morning or afternoon trips, combining them with game drives and walks for a well-rounded safari experience.
🛶 Liuwa Plains – Zambia
Home to the largest wildebeest migration after the Serengeti/Masai Mara, Liuwa Plains is an extraordinary reserve. Summertime floodwater transforms dry dusty savannah into a shimmering wetland full of birds and antelope, preyed on by lions, cheetah and large packs of spotted hyena. Combine your walks and drives with canoe adventures on the Liuwa floodplains, accessing areas of wildlife that are impossible to reach by any other way. You’ll need to visit between January and April for the floods – the earlier the better – and bring a swimming costume: there are no hippos or crocodiles at Liuwa!