What’s It Like to Canoe Down the Zambezi River?

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Elephant on Zambezi River in Zambia Africa

My ores sliced through the gentle waves with careful precision, propelling my blue canoe effortlessly forwards. A ring-necked dove cooed rhythmically in the distance, just audible over the gentle gurgling of the river. I glanced at the swathes of savannah which flanked the mighty river, long, yellowing grasses rustling in a warm breeze. Beyond the expanse of scrubland stood majestic mountains, tinged a beautiful purple colour as the morning light caught them in its rays.

I was canoeing down the Zambezi River on a 7 day expedition, covering over 65km of river. The activity was based in the African country of Zambia, although the mighty Zambezi runs along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and part of the expedition would take me to Zimbabwean soil.

This expedition marked my first time in the African continent. In fact, this was the first large trip I had taken without my family. There were a lot of mistakes I made with this trip from packing mishaps to forgetting to keep my cameras in a dry bag (yes, I wrecked my camera!) and so, in this article I aim to tell you everything I wish I knew before I took to the Zambezi River in my canoe.

An Introduction to the Zambezi River

The Zambezi River is the fourth longest river in Africa. This great river flows on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and is famous for housing Victoria Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world.

The river is 1,599 miles long, starting in Angola before flowing through Zambia to the border between Zambia, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Victoria Falls lies close to where these four countries meet. The river then runs on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe (where our trip takes place) before running through Mozambique and then finally entering the Indian Ocean.

The Zambezi is home to a host of wildlife including crocodiles and hippos. African savannahs flank the river for much of its journey. In fact, the river flows through many national parks including Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe and Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia.

Zambezi River, Africa

Why Go on A Canoeing Expedition Down the Zambezi?

I’ve been on many trips in my lifetime but few stand out to me as much as my canoeing trip down the Zambezi. The trip was fascinating, providing me with many unforgettable moments. 

1. A Great way to get Close to Nature With Minimal Disturbance

One of the great things about canoe safaris is you can get pretty close to wildlife without disturbing them. Frequently we’d see elephants drinking from the river and were able to slowly bob past them, no rumble of diesel engines to spoil the moment.

Viewing wildlife from the river allows a unique and intimate view of the animals which you are passing, which you can’t get with game drives. We passed more hippos than I can count, all wallowing in the river. It was crazy to be in the same river that they were! Their bellows were unmistakable and their never ending presence made them a key part of the trip. We saw elephants rolling around in the mud at the side of the river, jostling with each other playfully.

2. Canoeing Provides Good Physical Exercise

Canoeing expeditions are not just great for wildlife viewing, they are good for your physical health too. Canoeing takes physical exertion. You can expect to canoe over 10 km a day on your expedition. It builds up muscles and stamina.

3. Tours are Flexible

When looking for appropriate tours to take, you’ll soon learn that there’s something for everyone. Expeditions range from a mere 2 nights all the way up to 7 nights.

4. Opportunities to Be At One With Nature With Wild Camping

Several night’s on a canoeing expedition often include wild camping. Wild camping is an amazing experience and one that will stay with me for the rest of my life. There’s nothing quite like setting up camp in the middle of the African wilderness, falling to sleep to the wooping of hyenas and roaring of lions.

5. Opportunities to Support Wildlife Conservation and Local Communities

Tours often come with volunteer opportunities which take up a couple of days of your expedition. These opportunities include clearing the bush of snares and helping out at local villages.

I spent a morning walking through the bush removing snares and then an afternoon at a local orphanage, playing and getting to know the children. The following day I spent the entire day at the village, helping to harvest crops, prepare food for cooking and spending more time with the children. I also donated some clothing to the village.

Volunteering at an Orphanage in Zambia Africa

How to Arrange a Canoeing Expedition Down the Zambezi?

Several companies offer canoeing expeditions on the Zambezi. Here are a few of them:

River Horse Safaris – A family business that has been offering canoeing safaris for over 20 years. My tour was with this company.

Exodus – A large tour company which works like a middle-man in booking trips. Although you book through them they will arrange their trip with a smaller company (such as River Horse Safaris). I in fact booked my trip through Exodus and they then worked with River Horse Safaris to carry out the trip.

There are other companies which you can use to book your canoeing expedition. However, I have not used them so I wouldn’t want to recommend a company when I am unsure what they are like.

What to Expect Whilst Canoeing Down the Zambezi: Typical Itinerary

Below is the itinerary which I had for my expedition. Depending on who you book your trip through and length of time in which you go for, your itinerary will likely vary. Still, this gives a good idea of what to expect.

Day 1

Arrive at the first campsite and get prepared for the trip. The campsite at the start of my trip was a 2 hour and 30 minute drive from Zambia’s airport. On this day you can expect to be briefed by your guides and to meet the rest of your group. You will be taught how to put up your tents before setting up camp for the night. Dinner will be prepared for you.

Day 2

Breakfast will be served and you will take down your tent. This is your last opportunity to use a shower or toilet as today you will be starting your expedition and wild camping for the next few nights.

You will have time to organise your things into a day bag and dry bag (which you can take with you on your canoe) whilst the rest of your luggage will be transported by motor boat.

Canoeing will commence at roughly 10am. You will be in a canoe with 1 or 2 other people.

Roughly 2 hours later you will stop off for some lunch which the guides have prepared. After lunch canoeing will continue until the late afternoon.

At around 5pm you will arrive on a remote island or sandbank in the Zambezi and set up camp.

You can expect to canoe roughly 18km on this day.

Day 3

Today’s itinerary is much the same as yesterday except that more canoeing will take place. You can expect to cover a distance of roughly 26 km on this day.

Day 4

This is the final day of canoeing. You should finish canoeing in the early afternoon, arriving at a permanent tented campsite with showers and toilets.

In the afternoon you will have opportunities to go on game drives or bush walks.

Day 5

Morning bush walk (including removing snares) followed by an afternoon at a local village orphanage. The village is roughly 1 hour’s drive from the tented campsite.

Day 6

Full day at a local village. Activities could include harvesting crops, preparing meals, playing with children and much more.

Day 7

Drive back to the first campsite. The drive takes roughly 2 hours.

Day 8

Departure after breakfast.

Elephants on Zambezi River in Zambia Africa

Essential Packing List for a Zambezi Canoeing Expedition

Below is a list of essential items that you will need for your canoeing expedition.

Clothing

It is worth bearing in mind that there are no washing facilities available during the expedition, so you may wish to bring more clothes than you would normally pack.

Days in Zambia are hot but the nights can be bitterly cold. Therefore you will need to pack a range of cool clothes as well as layers so you can wrap up at night.

  • 2 or 3 T-shirts (depends how sweaty you get!)
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • A pair of sturdy, comfortable shoes for walking
  • Enough socks and underwear to last for the full expedition plus spares
  • Flipflops or water shoes to wear in public showers
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat (for sun protection)
  • 2 thick, warm jumpers
  • 2 pairs of warm, long trousers

Personal Accessories

  • Head torch (for evenings and nights)
  • 2 reusable water bottles (always good to have a spare!)
  • Dry bag (for electronics and other valuables whilst canoeing)

Electronics

It’s worth noting that there will not be any electricity for sections of this trip so there will be limited opportunities to charge electric devices.

  • Camera with a zoom lens (lots of wildlife to photograph!)
  • Spare camera batteries (days between wild camping have no power so you won’t be able to charge devices)
  • Phone
  • Power bank for phone (due to no electricity)

Camping Equipment

  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping bag liner
  • Camping pillow
  • Mosquito net (to hang in your tent)

Personal Safety

  • Suncream
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Antimalarial tablets
  • Any of your usual medication
  • A first aid kit filled with plasters, bandages, antiseptic and commonly required medicine (paracetamol, imodium etc)
Hippo in Zambezi River, Africa

Know Before You Go

The Basics

Getting to Zambia: Several airlines fly to Zambia. I flew with KLM via Amsterdam, Netherlands and Nairobi, Kenya. 

Visas: You need a visa to enter Zambia. For updated information regarding entry requirements, see here.

Local Currency: Zambian kwacha

Languages Spoken: English is the official language of Zambia

Safety

Canoeing down the Zambezi and wild camping involves being close to wildlife. There are risks involved in this activity so it is important you take relevant precautions and are sensible. Below are some tips to staying safe on this trip:

Staying Safe Whilst Canoeing

  • Do not place your arms or any part of your body outside of your canoe at any point.
  • Stay close to guides and listen carefully to what they are saying.
  • Be alert and aware at all times of what is around you.
  • Do not canoe too close to any wildlife. Give them a safe, respectful distance.

Staying Safe Whilst Wild Camping

  • If possible, do not leave your tent during the night.
  • If you must leave your tent to go to the toilet, bring a flashlight and do not go alone. Check your surroundings before exiting your tent, making sure no animals are near. Finally, go to the toilet as close as possible to your tent. It is not worth venturing further away, trust me – I learnt this the hard way when I encountered an angry hippo and barely made it back to my tent.
  • Do not keep any food in your tent. The smell could attract wildlife.

Staying Safe Whilst walking in the Bush

  • Do not walk in the bush alone. Always go with a guide.
  • Stay close to your guide and listen carefully to what they tell you.
  • If you are not on safari and do not hope to see any wildlife, make lots of noise as you walk. Talk, whistle or even sing!
  • If there is a log in your path, always step onto the log and not over it. Snakes love resting in the shade of logs and by stepping on it, you are not allowing your ankles to ever get too close to the log.

Final Thoughts

Canoeing down the Zambezi provides a unique, memorable experience. I am definitely glad I took part in this activity but it is indeed not for everyone. A moderate level of fitness is required and the activity does come with some risks.

If you are interested to hear more about my experience canoeing down the Zambezi, you can find my detailed diary entries on my trip here.

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