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Zambezi River Safaris – Where & When to go

The Zambezi River is Africa’s fourth largest and no fewer than seven different countries have a relationship with it. Rising in central Africa, the Zambezi is home to or near several of the continent’s most iconic destinations – Victoria Falls, Chobe River, Lake Kariba – and offers the fullest range of safari activities: drives, walks, flights, river cruises – plus white-water rafting and canoe adventures. Zambezi accommodation includes just about everything from tented bush camps to boutique lodges and grand hotels.

Zambezi River Safaris in canoe

A Zambezi River canoe safari is the real deal – from one to four days.

There’s a lot to consider if you are planning a visit. And since this is a river with wildly differing levels of water throughout the year, you’ll need to decide not just where to go for a Zambezi river safari, but also when to go. Activities such as rafting, walking and canoeing are seasonally dependent, and the quality of wildlife watching is also affected by the time of year.

Confused? Don’t be; just read on.

ZAMBEZI RIVER SAFARI – WHERE TO GO

Start by dividing the Zambezi River into three travel regions: upper, middle and lower. The rule of thumb is that, for the visitor, the river gets wilder as you travel downstream. The Upper Zambezi is where you’ll find Victoria Falls, luxury lodges and sunset cruises. The Middle Zambezi is based around the enormous man-made reservoir – Lake Kariba – with its fishing and wildlife; and the Lower Zambezi, known for its big game reserves and classic canoe safaris.

Victoria Falls aerial view

Spectacular Victoria Falls divides the upper & middle Zambezi River regions.

UPPER ZAMBEZI

Centred around Victoria Falls, the Upper Zambezi is fast-moving before it plunges over the precipice. The tumult of water below Victoria Falls delivers the adrenalin-based activities here – principally white-water rafting – but the river above the waterfall is the setting for national parks and accommodation, almost up to the edge of the waterfall itself. Depending on where they are based, these lodges also offer game drives and boat safaris, and generally the closer they are to Victoria Falls, the more luxurious they become, complete with private plunge pools and sleep-out decks.

  • 🙂 Pros? Huge range of accommodation and activities on both sides of the river, great for families – read more about Victoria Falls activities here

  • 🙁 Cons? Busy in peak season, river can get crowded, local wildlife viewing relatively limited

 

Sunset at Lake Kariba

A classic African sunset at Lake Kariba in the Middle Zambezi.

MIDDLE ZAMBEZI

With the damming of the Zambezi at Kariba, the river now spreads out into an enormous lake. The focus here is on houseboat holidays (ideal for relaxing and fishing) and safaris at Zimbabwe’s Matusadona National Park. The lake is good for hippos and elephants but it’s Matusadona that delivers the best big game; known for its predators, it is also a destination for big herds of elephant and buffalo. Popular with honeymooners and couples – this is big sunset country.

  • 🙂 Pros? Great safari lodges & guiding, good wildlife & birding, off-the-beaten path adventure

  • 🙁 Cons? Limited window for safari due to seasons

Predators during a Zambezi River Safaris

From Upper to Lower, the Zambezi River is a great place for predators.

LOWER ZAMBEZI

Now the river slows to a lazy meander through a flat landscape; perfect for wildlife, perfect for canoeing. The Lower Zambezi is where the safari experience is best expressed: Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools and Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Parks are both famous for their big game and there is accommodation in each, much of it aimed at couples. It’s also walking country – with a guide and armed ranger – as well as one of the best places in Africa for a multi-day canoe safari.

  • 🙂 Pros? Best wildlife watching on the Zambezi, widest range of activities, top birding destination

  • 🙁 Cons? Limited safari season, some lodges are ‘bush camps’ with bucket showers

 

ZAMBEZI RIVER SAFARI – WHEN TO GO

Now it gets important: the flow of Zambezi River rises and falls with the year, and that has a huge effect on what you can do and where you can do it. And it’s not just the river level that goes up and down: so does the malaria risk, and so does the number of wild animals at, or at least near, the river.

Rafting on the Zambezi River

White-water rafting is a classic Zambezi experience during the low water season.

Firstly match your expectation of Victoria Falls with the time of year: Victoria Falls is accessible all through the year but the waterfall is in peak flow between March and May and almost dry in November and December – read more about how Victoria Falls works here. The mild dry months of June through August are best for both comfort and wildlife watching as well as river rafting; September and October are hot but great for a safari, especially in next-door Chobe. Visitor numbers are greatly reduced in the rainy season (November to April) but remember that – generally – the wetter the month, the higher the malaria risk will be and fewer activities available.

Zambezi River Safaris on foot

Dry season Zambezi is the best time for walking safaris.

MIDDLE ZAMBEZI

High summer rainfall and temperatures plus a malaria risk make the Middle Zambezi difficult to access between January and April and besides, both the fishing on Lake Kariba and the wildlife viewing in Matusadona National Park are best in the dry winter season from May to October, and in increasing degrees. The annual lake Kariba tiger fishing tournament is held in October and it’s the later months of the dry season – September and October – that see the most wildlife at water and provide the best time for game drives and boat safaris.

Sundowner along the Zambezi River

Low water levels reveal the Zambezi floodplain & its wildlife.

LOWER ZAMBEZI

Like the middle, the Lower Zambezi region is best avoided in the depths of the summer rainy season. Most lodges close from January to April when water levels are high, vegetation is thick and green and the malaria risk at its highest. Go from May onwards when temperatures drop, the river slows down and the rain dries up; now it’s time for that walking or canoeing safari, sleeping out under the stars and enjoying the year’s best wildlife viewing at Mana Pools and Lower Zambezi National Parks. Choose May through July for the mildest temperatures; August through October are hot.

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