The Zambezi River’s beauty attracts visitors from all over the world, providing breathtaking wildlife viewing, water sports and adventure. Running through six countries on its way to the Indian Ocean, the Zambezi is Africa’s fourth largest River system, after the Nile, Zaire and Niger Rivers.
The length of the Zambezi River is less developed with settlements, in comparison to other major African rivers. Many stretches of the River also enjoy ‘protected’ status which allows for many populations of animal and bird to flourish as they should, and have always done. The sheer power of this mighty river has also carved out the spectacular Victoria Falls and the winding Batoka Gorge.
The Great Journey of the Zambezi
Running for a length of 2700kms, the Zambezi River begins it’s journey as a little spring in the corner of north-west Zambia. It bubbles up very close to the border where Zambia, Angola and Zaire meet. Along the way lie two major catchment areas, namely Lake Kariba (between Zimbabwe & Zambia) and Cabora Bassa Dam in Mozambique.
The Zambezi then enters Angola for about 230kms, where it accumulates the bulk of its headwater drainage, and re-enters Zambia again at Cholwezi rapids, flowing due south but substantially enlarged by the entry of various tributaries.
This upper part of the river is thinly populated by pastoralists, farmers and fishermen and although wildlife is sparse it is remarkably free of pollution. This is also the scene of the remarkable Ku-omboka Ceremony where thousands of inhabitants move annually to higher ground as the Zambezi floods into the low lying plains. It passes through the flat sandy country of the Western Province, then traverses the broad, annually flooding Barotse Plains, where much of the water is lost to evaporation, then over more rocky country where it’s tranquil course is interrupted by the Ngonye falls and rapids.
As the River turns to an easterly direction it forms the border between Zambia and Namibia and eventually joins up with the Chobe River in the Caprivi Swamps, briefly forming a border with Botswana. For the next 500kms it serves as the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe thundering over Victoria Falls and through the narrow, steadily deepening Batoka Gorge, providing a fantastic playground for white water rafting, kayaking, river boarding and jet boating. From here the steep sides of the gorge eventually flatten out at the broad Gwembe Valley.
The Zambezi then flows into Lake Kariba for 281kms – it’s width at one point being 40kms. From the dam wall the river travels due north, heading east again at Chirundu. Here it is flanked by the Lower Zambezi National Park on the Zambian side and Mana Pools National Park on the Zimbabwean side. This middle zone supports one of Africa’s most important wilderness areas, and is where the Lower Zambezi Lodge has the privilege of looking out over.
After the Luangwa confluence, a much larger Zambezi flows into Mozambique, into the Cabora Bassa Dam, and then out towards the Indian Ocean, having provided power, food, pleasure and transport for many and a home for untold numbers of wildlife along it’s journey.
The Lower Zambezi National Park spans 4092 square kilometres and holds within it’s borders 120 kilometres of breathtaking river frontage. The first people to inhabit and lay claim to the Lower Zambezi area were the local Nsenga Bantu people.
The Nsenga occupied the area from Chongwe all the way up to the confluence of the Zambezi & Musensenshi river upstream. They controlled much of the valley floor of what is now the Lower Zambezi National Park, until the colonial Government began to administer the area from Feira (now Luangwa).
The history of the Nsenga people was characterised by movements in and out the area due to sleeping sickness outbreaks between 1940 and 1945. By 1946, large numbers of people had been evacuated to the lower Rufunsa, or westwards to the Chakwenga. A second outbreak in 1952 resulted in 1000 people being evacuated from Mwambashi River to Luangwa. Almost 400 people refused to go to Luangwa and dispersed elsewhere; some merged with the Goba of chief Chiawa.
The status of the park in terms of its recognition as a protected area dates back to 1951 when an area slightly smaller than the present park was declared a first class controlled Hunting area.
In 1969 a concession to hunt the area was granted to the Zambia Safaris company who held the concession until 1971. In the same year, the area was gazetted as Zambezi Game Management Area (GMA) number 16.
In 1973 the area was granted the status of an international park under the jurisdiction of Wildlife Conservation International (WCI). G & G Safaris (Cumings) and Zambezi River Safaris (Games) commenced operations inside the park in 1989 and 1990, creating and developing a tourist product between the Chongwe and Mwambashi Rivers. In 1995, the Zambian Government tendered sites allocated for tourist development inside the park, based on an EU funded management plan. All sites offered were leased, except for two plateau sites. The Lower Zambezi National Park Management Plan is dated July 2001, and was signed on the 1st November 2001. This remains the current working document.
The Lower Zambezi wildlife is astounding in its variety, let’s take a closer look at what one can expect to find on a visit here.
Healthy populations of large game such as elephant and African buffalo can be found along the Lower Zambezi. These great animals move across the interior and the river, which is dotted with islets, between the banks of Zambia and Zimbabwe. One of the most spectacular sights to experience is flying over the Lower Zambezi National Park and Zimbabwe’s Mana pools on your way to one of the area’s landing strips. Large troops of elephant can be seen grazing and moving across the river. Lower Zambezi wildlife also boasts an abundance of water lounging hippos, crocodiles, other reptiles and over 380 species of birds.
The main predators of the Lower Zambezi region are lion, leopard and spotted hyena. Both in the Lower Zambezi National Park and beyond its boundaries you can be treated by sightings of these beautiful creatures, with the terrain and sufficiency of prey meeting their basic needs. Wild dogs can also be spotted, however can be more elusive sadly due to their dwindling numbers over the past 30 years.The African wild dog is listed as one of the most threatened carnivores in the world. The wild dogs den both within the National Park and outside its borders.
Large herds of spritely impala can be found spread out across the region, and there are also healthy populations of bushbuck, kudu, eland, zebra, wildebeest, waterbuck and more sporadically, duiker. In addition, the area is home to smaller animals such as vervet monkeys, warthog, tortoise, porcupine, monitor lizard and many more. You wont be dissapointed!
When to visit Zambia & the Lower Zambezi
An anglers delight on the Lower Zambezi
The Lower Zambezi – A bird lovers paradise
A sunset cruise on the Lower Zambezi is a highlight on any trip to this region. Not only does the expansive river offer a welcome coolness from the heat on land, but the islets and sandbanks throughout the waterways are teeming with wildlife. The setting of fresh water, muddy banks and greenery also make for capturing gorgeous photographs of birds, animals and the landscape in its’ entirety.
On my recent trip to the lodge I was delighted to see an abundance of hippo, elephant with calves, croc, heron, baboon, warthog, fish eagle and kingfisher, as well as the breathtaking escarpment set against a massive setting sun in fiery gold, orange and red hues. On our sunset cruise we passed local fishermen, fishing villages, lodges and fellow visitors & guides who all offered cheery greetings from across the water. The cool spray off the river and the arrival of early evening provides welcome and refreshing coolness for both man and creature.
Returning back to the lodge after sunset, we are welcomed by a campfire and a refreshing beverage or two.At 7.30pm a delicious dinner is served overlooking the gently lapping river. Hippo start to frolic as the light fades and a male lion’s powerful call can be heard from across the other side of the river, in Zimbabwe. The perfect ending to a memorable day on the Zambezi.
If you are an early riser, you can really take advantage of the welcome coolness of the Lower Zambezi at dawn. Around 5.30am the majestic call of the kingfisher can be heard across the vastness of the river. Boisterous baboons can be heard on the Zimbabwean side, and hippos offer the occasional grunt, unwinding after the nights activities. The sky graduates from a hazy gold to pastel blue and the water starts to glisten in ripples, as fishermen and visitors head upstream for the promises of the new day.
After a welcome cup of coffee or tea, and a snack, its time to hop into the vehicle for an early morning game drive in the local GMA (game management area) or Lower Zambezi National Park. The wildlife is often most active in the cooler morning hours of the hotter months, where day temps can hit 40 degrees!
Expect to see an abundance of impala and elephant as well as nimble waterbuck, warthog, wildebeest, crocodile, zebra, lion and more. I also saw plenty of carmine bee eater, varieties of hornbill, yellow billed egret, guinea fowl and a couple of fish eagle perched high on bare and exposed tree branches. What I was most struck by was the relaxed nature of the wildlife on the Lower Zambezi, especially the lion and elephant. This made it a pleasure to capture beautiful photographs and take in the experience fully, without feeling like an intruder.
By 9am the heat is building rapidly, and the most natural thing to do is head back to the welcoming shade at camp, and enjoy a late and relaxing breakfast overlooking the river.