10 Things you should know before rafting the Zambezi River

By January 9, 2018Activities
10 things you should Know about rafting the Zambezi River

1) Water levels vary seasonally-Dates for your trip are important.

Thankfully the Zambezi is a free flow river, the water level is not affected by any dams; however, it is affected by seasonal natural flow variations. Rafting trips adapt to the changing water levels by “putting on” at different entry points.

Generally Late-July to Mid-January the trips put in at the “Boiling pot” directly below Victoria Falls. At this time the Zambezi River is at a relatively low flow, more of the bedrock is exposed, creating the huge crashing rapids the Zambezi is renowned for. From Mid-January to July we operate on a “high-water” run, which is generally from rapid number 7B, rapid number 10 or rapid number 14. At this time the bedrock in the riverbed is covered and these trips are characterized by big eddy fences and boils. Highlights of a high water run are that some huge features on the river banks come into action, namely rapid 16B, a colossal set of breaking waves.

Crew dropping into Rapid 16B. High Water Zambezi.

The river is always changing so no two trips are ever the same. If you fancy big demanding water, high adrenaline, then book your trip as the low water season opens or closes, Late July/August and end Dec/January.

Interesting Fact:

The Zambezi reaches her lowest point in the gorge during the first week of November and starts to rise after that. At this time of the year, you are rafting only 5% of the rivers peak flow.

2) You should gift your friend a Nyami-Nyami necklace.

The Nyami-nyami necklace carving is a symbolic representation of the god of the Zambezi. Legend has it that wearing the necklace will grant you safe passage through the gorge. However, in order. to work the necklace must be a gift. These necklaces are available in bone, wood, stone and lately in aluminum. They are excellent keepsakes, and if you see one being worn anywhere in the world; it is an indication that the person has rafted the Zambezi River. The origins of the legend are contentious, the most well-known story is that “Nyami-nyami” is trapped by the Kariba dam wall, and his wife is downstream, below the wall. While the Kariba dam was being built, the “Tonga” people foretold of his anger at man’s folly in damming the mighty Zambezi. The subsequent floods that destroyed the first stages of the wall were seen as an expression of his anger by the local people.

In our area, it is believed that in times of great hardship and drought “Nyami-nyami” will show himself to the people, and allow them to take portions of his body to alleviate hunger. This legend perhaps has some basis in our local African grey mottled eel, which resembles the Nyami-nyami’s carving. When the Zambezi has an extremely low year, normally due to drought, some pools get cut off from the main river and these eels are hunted by the fish spear. However, it has been some time since this has happened.

Nyami-nyami necklace worn by one of our guides.

Interesting Fact:

In 1989 “The Damned River” was filmed on the Zambezi, the film crew painted a Nyami-nyami on a high rock face below rapid 5b for the movie, it can still be seen clearly today. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097146/

3) The Zambezi offers superb Multi-day options

If you plan on journeying to the Zambezi River to experience the Victoria Falls (known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya “The smoke that thunders”) and take part in the world’s greatest rafting trip. You should consider the various multi-day options available. Overnight and four-day trips let you cover more of this amazing river. There is a strong “expedition” type feel to the trips. Untouched camping spots, on remote pristine white beaches, make this a must. Explore under the Victoria Falls, soak in the serenity and raft some incredible rapids downstream from the commercial day section. The astrology is amazing as the light pollution is non-existent, easy to see how the gorge got it’s “a thousand stars” rating.

“Star Gazing”, at a camp opposite the “Shire”. Visible on the hillside are fishermen fires.


Humble Lunch under the falls


Beach living Rapid 25

Interesting Fact:

We encourage guests to sleep outside of their tents under the stars if they wish. The gorge is extremely underpopulated and underutilized. Meaning that the critters that feed on us are not usually present on our carefully selected camping spots.

4) Your raft may Flip or you may go for a “swim”

“Rapid #3”, are we going over? No-one can guarantee a “no-flip” trip.

The Zambezi is affectionately known as the “Slambezi”, as big water flips are more the norm than the exception. This is mitigated by the river conditions. The Zambezi is a “warm-pool drop” river. What “warm” means is that we don’t have to deal with the huge issues associated with cold water. If you go for a dip or have a flip we pull you back on, or one of our kayakers will rescue you and the trip continues, absolutely no big deal.

“Pool Drop” means that the rapids generally empty out into relatively calm pools. So if the raft does go over, we have time to collect everybody, get you all back on your raft and take a break before the next rapid. On other rivers of a similar class, a flip is a calamity, as the rapids often feed into each other.

Interesting fact:

If you can count “One Zambian Banana, Two Zambian Bananas, Three Zambian Bananas” and still haven’t broached the surface for a breath, beers are on us.

5) The river is in a steep-sided gorge

“Nsongwe Gorge” viewpoint, ladder visible in the bottom right of the picture.

The “Middle Batoka Gorge” on which we raft, is formed from the action of the river eroding through fault lines in the basalt rock. The result; a very steep sided gorge with limited access points. You will be required to hike in and out of the gorge to enjoy the rafting. By hike, we mean you will have to ascend steep paths for up to 30 minutes, to reach roads and infrastructure. Be sure to bring footwear that allows you to hike up and down. We have made these paths easier to transgress with “Mopani” (a local tough tree) wood ladders.

It is tiring, and in the heat, the climb can be daunting, take your time, no rush in Africa. We make sure there is plenty of water and our guides are on hand to assist you. Keep in mind that if you are considering rafting this class V river, you should be mentally and physically prepared for this challenge. The hike in and out is a great indicator of the fitness levels required for this river. The average person has no problem on these paths.

Guests ascending the Nsongwe ladder during the dry season, being assisted by Malvin Ndlewewa.

Interesting fact:

The majority of the paths into and out of the gorge have been used by our ancestors for thousands of years. The top and bottom of the paths are often “Old man settlements”. You can still find flint tools and millet grinding holes at these locations. Of note is the “Songwe Gorge” settlement at the top of the “Rapid 10” path. This heritage site was home to a large village of our ancestors.

6) There are crocodiles…but they are not a problem

The Nile Crocodile is endemic to the Zambezi River and there exists a resident and moving population in the area we raft. However, in all the years we have been rafting we have not had any issues. Renowned ichthyologist and biologist Dr. John Minshull postulates that the conditions in the upper reaches of the “middle Batoka gorge” hinder large reptile growth (they don’t get to a size that considers us prey very often).

One theory is that small crocodile hatchlings do go over the Victoria Falls and survive the drop. They survive by eating small crustaceans and insects. However, as their nutrition needs increase, along with their body mass. Their ability to move and find enough food in the small eddies, in the fast flowing water begins to dissipate. They then move further downstream, to quieter areas; out of the swift rapid areas.

Some large crocodiles do walk into the gorge from the upper river, and others do inhabit larger quieter pools, and evidence (small hatchlings in areas) suggest they do breed. Once again the theory goes that they struggle to function efficiently in fast-moving water or appear in great numbers due to the absence of food. So in some areas that remain relatively calm, we have small populations; generally, we know where these spots are and we take care and acknowledge the risk. When we do see them, they tend to be retiring and shy, a sighting is an exciting part of the day.

Picture of this croc not taken in the Gorge, but at our rafting base on the upper river.

Interesting fact:

Crocodiles, Hippos, and Elephants regularly go over the Victoria Falls at certain water levels. We often find the carcasses in the Batoka Gorge and there are some well known “bone gardens” in some locations.

7) You may be in a raft with strangers…but not for long

Rafting Crew on the side of rapid#9

We run the Zambezi in 16-foot self-bailing rafts, with crews of up to 8, but usually 6 or 7. You and your travel companions may be teamed up with people you don’t know. Not to worry, you will be under the instruction of one of our “International Rafting Federation” accredited guides. This is a great opportunity to meet new people and create lasting friendships. It is an incredible shared experience, on an incredible river. The teamwork and exhilaration of a day on the Zambezi simply can’t be explained; until you “tick it off”.  Sharing a “Mosi” beer with your fellow rafters at our rafting base, on the banks of the upper-Zambezi River, is a great way to finish the day. We call it “Beer and medal time”

Interesting Fact:

We run “Stern mounts”, rafts with oars. This is usually at the guides discretion. However, on every trip you will see at least one “stern mount”. The seat that the guide sits on, is actually a stretcher should we require it.

8) The Zambezi is class V

Dropping into the “Land of Giants”.


“Highway to Heaven” crew successfully running Rapid #5.

Worldwide trends have seen an increase in the overuse of Class-V classification on runs that are clearly below the grade.

Class-V is defined by the British Canoe Union as:

“Extremely difficult – long and very violent rapids with severe hazards. Continuous, powerful, confused water makes roué-finding difficult. Precise maneuvering is critical.”

The Zambezi is a Class-V river and it is important to give the River the respect it deserves. We have a strict 15-year old age limit in place. This is more to do with emotional stability in receiving instructions in stressful situations; not to do with body size. While we manage risk to the strict policies of the “International Rafting Federation” and with 30 years of experience. Guests should be aware of what they have signed up for.

However, the Zambezi also has something for everyone and at times of the year when the top section is full class V, guests can opt to put in lower down on the river for a class iii-iv run. We would advise you consult us regarding your expectations and the time of year of your visit.

It is also essential to ensure your Travel Insurance allows grade IV-V rafting. In the unlikely event of a “life or limb” situation we are in the position to utilize helicopter evacuation protocols. Our insurance will cover this, but at the medical facility, you will need your insurance to take over.

9) You are contributing hugely to the economy and community

Tourism is Zambia’s third biggest economic contributor. The rafting industry is a cornerstone activity in the tourism line- up in Livingstone. The industry employs a large number of the people in the area, both directly and indirectly. The tax re-numeration and benefit infrastructure, are vital to the people living here. A high proportion of our guides have been working for us for over 15 years. We are constantly training new staff in all aspects of the business. Choosing to use a local operator ensures your payment goes back into the development of the region. Safari-Par-Excellence has been operating here for the past 25 years and we are active in many developments and corporate responsibility spheres. We encourage you to “pack for a purpose” and invite you to visit the schools and projects we support. We operate on a “needs” basis so our projects are continually changing.

10) There is a dam development in progress

Originally proposed in the 1970’s the Batoka “Hydro-electric Scheme”, has been provisionally greenlit by the Zambian and Zimbabwean governments (The Zambezi forms the border between the two countries). While still awaiting ESIA completion; the Dam is mooted to be completed by 2025 according to the literature available. At the current dam wall specifications, the river will be flooded and rafting on the Zambezi River will no longer be possible. At the time of publishing the dam is still scheduled to go ahead.

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