There’s more to the Zambezi River than its mighty cascade down a 1.7km (1mi) wide gorge to form Victoria Falls. Africa’s fourth largest river draws adventure seekers from all over the planet for Africa’s most thrilling whitewater rafting on powerful Grade Five rapids.
However, whitewater rafting is not the only way to have fun on the Zambezi’s rapids. For more adventurous thrills, there’s river boarding, where you surf the rapids on a bodyboard and jet boating over the water at 100kph (62mph).
The river also offers more relaxing activities to match high-intensity adventures. The Zambezi courses its way through beautiful landscapes of national parks on either side of the border, supporting a variety of wildlife and bird species.
Paddle along the river on relaxing canoe safaris, which get you close to elephant and buffalo drinking on the banks, or do the Livingstone drift tour, where a guide paddles you down the river in an inflatable raft. The famous sunset river cruises are a must. Explore the river at a languid pace on a big boat and take in a glorious sunset with cocktails and snacks.
Highlights of the Region
whitewater rafting on the Zambezi River is said to be the best in Africa, and with nearly half of the river’s rapids classified as Grade Five, tackling the river is a wild, white-knuckle ride. Between the thrilling rapids, there are stretches of calm where you can soak in the dramatic scenery from the bottom of the gorge.
whitewater rafting can be done in Zambia and Zimbabwe on half-day or full-day excursions, but you can also sign up for overnight or multi-day trips, where you camp out on beautiful beaches in the wilderness. Riverboarding is another heart-pumping whitewater ride: don a wetsuit, helmet, shin guards, and flippers and jump on top of a bodyboard to cruise the rapids and navigate the rocks of the Zambezi face first.
It’s a close contender with whitewater rafting and bungee jumping for the most thrilling adventure you can have at Victoria Falls. If speed is your thing, book a jet boating ride in either Zambia or Zimbabwe on a super-powered jet-propelled boat, which shoots over the Zambezi and its rapids at 100kph (62mph).
Jet boats can cruise in shallow water, so you can explore parts of the river that are inaccessible to bigger boats. A thirty-minute ride includes a visit to the Boiling Pot at the base of the falls, a couple of rapids, and tricks such as 360-degree turns.
Paddling down the Zambezi and its many channels on a canoeing safari with a qualified guide is a beautiful way of birdwatching. Spot more than 400 species and wildlife, such as hippos, crocodiles, and antelopes, on shore. You’ll be able to get closer to the big game – such as elephants – than you would in a game drive vehicle, so it’s a wonderful way to experience the bush on half or full-day trips.
You can also do multi-day adventures, where your nights are spent camping under the stars on riverside beaches.
An even more sedate alternative to canoeing trips is the Livingstone Drift: float in an inflatable raft and get paddled down the river by a guide who will point out animals and birds while you sit back and sip on a beer.
Cruises on the river are offered on both sides of the border, with the large African Queen on the Zambian side, which takes more than 100 passengers, and smaller boats on the Zimbabwean side. You can get cocktails and snacks or a full dinner on boat trips.
There couldn’t be a more relaxing way to take in the magnificent riverside scenery, spotting wildlife such as hippos, crocodiles, elephants, buffalo, and some of the hundreds of species of birds that populate the region.
Fishing excursions on the Zambezi are a must for keen anglers. The river is home to over 75 species of fish, the most famous of which is the Tigerfish. This giant predator – weighing up to 15 kg – is regarded as one of the best freshwater fighting fishes in the world, and it’s the most prized catch on the river.
Fishing trips can take anything from a few hours to a full day, and even if you don’t catch anything, you’ll have a great day out on the river exploring channels and pools and spotting birds and wildlife.
Practical Advice About the Region
Whitewater rafting is not a year-round activity. From March/April to July, when the Zambezi River is at its highest, you can’t go rafting at all. August to December is the best time of year for whitewater rafting (because the low water levels mean the most exciting rapids), with August and September being the optimal months.
You need to be pretty fit to do whitewater rafting as it’s quite a serious adventure, and the walk in and out of the gorge is strenuous (bring good walking shoes along for the hikes).
While you can do whitewater rafting in Zambia and Zimbabwe, a benefit of the Zambian side is that you don’t have to clamber out of the steep gorge at the end of your rafting adventure because there’s a cable car lift that takes you up the side.
The minimum age for riverboarding is 13, and for whitewater rafting, it’s 15. At the same time, the canoeing safaris on the Upper Zambezi are pretty easygoing, so children aged seven and above are allowed to join trips.
If you’re after Tigerfish, late May to December is the best time of year to try to catch these ferocious predators, while August to November is the ideal time for fishing generally because of the low water level of the Zambezi.
What Sort of Traveller Should go to the Zambezi River?
Trips on the Zambezi River are definitely for the adventurers: tackle challenging rapids on whitewater rafting trips and riverboarding adventures or shoot over the river at high speed in a jet boat.
Solo travelers can join groups for whitewater rafting, jet boating, fishing trips, and canoeing safaris, and the sunset river cruises are very social.
Zambezi River trips are great for families too. While there’s an age limit of 15 for whitewater rafting and river boarding, children only need to be seven and above to go on the canoeing safaris, and river cruises are for all ages.