Zambia is cut and bordered by a series of rivers, the legendary Zambezi being but one. The valleys hewn from these waters vary from shallow to sharp and deep, and the experiences they hold for the traveller are just as varied – absorb the majesty of wildlife on safari, or bow down to the power of Mother Nature while being whitewashed on a Grade V rapid.
Most of Zimbabwe resides atop a high plateau and forms the watershed boundary between the Zambezi and another of Southern Africa’s greatest rivers: the Limpopo. Though the rivers sustain incredible wildlife and provide legendary safari and whitewater opportunities, numerous mountains, particularly in the Eastern Highlands bordering Mozambique, provide innumerable trekking opportunities.
Whitewater rafting on the Zambezi River
There is rafting elsewhere in the region but nothing compares to the all-out fury of the Zambezi immediately downstream of Victoria Falls – it is one of the world’s finest whitewater rafting destinations. Best at low water from July to mid-February, the 21 rapids (many of which are Grade V) stretched over 25km will take you off some huge drops. Want more? Overnight and multiday options are possible. As the river separates the two countries here, rafting options are almost identical from both nations, the only difference being which side of the river you stop on.
Walking safaris at South Luangwa National Park
South Luangwa National Park is the birthplace of the walking safari, and it’s still the top spot in Africa to enjoy one. Follow highly trained, armed guides through the bush as they expertly track wildlife, leading you to incredibly intoxicating sightings of wild dogs, elephants, buffaloes and, yes, even lions and leopards. But these walks aren’t always about the high-adrenaline encounters – it’s often the quiet moments in-between that you’ll truly marvel at, such as when your guide delves into the minutiae of life in the wild, revealing how lion ants capture and kill their prey, for example. Similar experiences are also worthwhile in Zimbabwe's Mana Pools National Park.
Canoe safaris on the Zambezi river
With each stroke of the paddle you’ll know that you are stirring a river where giants lurk. And although the canoe is gliding ever-so-silently across the water’s still surface, you quickly get the feeling that you are being watched. Eyes of hippos and crocodiles pop up here and there, vanishing beneath the surface as swiftly as they appear. The mighty Zambezi’s banks, whether in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park or Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park, are no less dramatic, with prowling lions, hulking elephants and a plethora of birdlife. Considering the closeness of the encounters, the experience feels as intimate as it does alarming. Unforgettable.
Trekking in Chimanimani National Park
With verdant pine-covered hills and rounded quartzite peaks cloaked in mist, Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands are an African aberration, seemingly transported straight from Scotland. This region proffers countless trekking trails that will take you past waterfalls (Mtarazi Falls plummets 762m), along tranquil rivers and up to stunning panoramas of Wizard Valley in Mozambique.
It’s a stiff and steep three-hour hike from base camp to reach the mountain refuge hut within Chimanimani National Park, from where you can strike out to sites such as Skeleton Pass, Mt Binga (2436m) and the Bundi Valley. The latter is dotted with rock overhangs and caves, many of which make for great shelters to spend your nights. There are also some great, albeit frosty, pools to cool off in nearby. Infrastructure is at its most basic, so bring everything you’ll need with you.