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The Zambezi River

THE ZAMBEZI RIVER

The Zambezi River itself travels 2,574 kilometres from its source on the Central African Plateau to its huge coastal delta on the Indian Ocean. The Zambezi directly flows through, or along the borders, of Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique before reaching the Indian Ocean.

The Zambezi's most well-known geographical feature is the Victoria Falls. Other notable falls include the Chavuma Falls at the border between Zambia and Angola, and Ngonye Falls, near Sioma in Western Zambia. Man-made features include the Kariba and Cahora Bassa Dams.

Major tributaries of the Zambezi include the Kafue, Cuando (or Kwando), Gwayi, Manyame, Mazoe, Luangwa and Shire Rivers.The present-day Zambezi system can be divided up into three separate sections, each differing in its landscape characteristics, its geological history and its biodiversity. These are the Upper Zambezi, the Middle Zambezi, and the Lower Zambezi.

Upper Zambezi 

The Upper Zambezi is geomorphologically the oldest part of the basin and has probably not changed substantially for some 2-5 million years. 

From humble beginnings, the Zambezi rises as a small bubbling stream near Mwinilunga in the Kalene Hills, north-western Zambia, close to the borders with Angola and the Congo. The source is located 1,524 metres above sea level. [See Hallowed birthplace of our great river (Zambezi Traveller, Issue 06, Sept 2011) for more on the source of the Zambezi.]

From its source the Zambezi flows south-west and into Angola for about 240 km, where it is joined by a much larger tributary, before turning south and back into Zambia. When it re-enters Zambia the Zambezi is approximately 400m wide. At Chavuma Falls, a few kilometres downstream from the border, the river is forced through a narrow gap in an outcrop of hard volcanic rock and tumbles over a three metre high waterfall. These falls are drowned each year under the high seasonal water levels. 

From its source to Chavuma, about 350 km downstream, the river drops about 400 metres. From here to the Victoria Falls, 800 km distant, the level of the basin is very flat and uniform, dropping only by another 180 metres. 

The river is wide and slow flowing through this section, travelling over a thick mantle of sand, evidence of the past northern extension of the Kalahari Desert, and forming the vast Barotse Floodplain which extended for some 200 km. In the rainy season the width of the flooded river can reach up to 25 km.

This is the domain of the Lozi people, who live, farm and fish on the floodplains during low water and whose lives are dominated by the seasonal flood cycle of the river. During the rainy season when the plains are in flood, they move to higher ground and forest fringes to escape the flood waters, led by their king, the Litunga, in an annual migration ceremony known as the Kubomboka.

South of the settlement of Senanga the Ngonye Falls are worthy of note. Situated a few hundred kilometres upstream of the Victoria Falls, near a small town called Sioma, they are formed by the same geological process as the Victoria Falls, with cracks in the underlying basalt riverbed being eroded away to form the drop. Their height is only 10-25 meters, but the width of the falls forms a broad crescent, interrupted by rocky outcrops, creating an impressively picturesque scene. Upstream of these falls, the river is broad and shallow as it flows across Kalahari sands, but below the falls extensive white water rapids exist, as the river is hemmed in by gorges cut into basalt rock, much like the Victoria Falls but on a smaller scale. 

Further south, the Zambezi turns east and briefly forms the border between Zambia and Namibia's Caprivi Strip before emerging from the Caprivi Swamps along the Botswana border, where it is joined by one its major tributaries, the Cuando or Chobe River.  

Here, the Caprivi-Kavango region of Namibia reaches out to meet the Zambezi and the river briefly forms the border between Zambia and Namibia before emerging from the Caprivi Swamps, where it is joined by one its major tributaries, the Cuando or Chobe River. Here four countries meet - Zambia, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. [See The great enigmas (Zambezi Traveller, Issue 13, June 2013) for more on this part of the Zambezi.]

It was in this region during the mid 1800s that the Makololo established dominance over the Lozi, eventually subjugating their whole kingdom. It was during this time that Dr David Livingstone first explored this region, discovering the river and being the first to link it with the known river mouth of the Zambezi on the east coast. The Makololo were later overthrown by the Lozi who regained their kingdom.

At Katima Mulilo the river is crossed by its first major transport bridge (opened in 2004), linking with Sesheke in Zambia.

Kazungula marks the official border and river crossing point between Botswana and Zambia. About 20km downstream from Kazungula the swamplands end and the Zambezi traverses the Katambora rapids, with swirling white waters for several kilometres, before again entering a section of calmer waters.

Kazungula town is the tourism access point to the Chobe National Park, one of Africa’s great safari destinations. 

Flowing east from the swamps the Zambezi River's valley and flood plain is wide and broad, ridged by sandstone hills, through which the river gently meanders. Here the river lies at an altitude just over 900 meters above sea-level, on the basalt sheet of the south-central African Plateau. As it continues eastwards it suddenly reaches a chasm which cuts directly across the width of the river bed, over which it flows creating the spectacular Victoria Falls.

Middle Zambezi

The Victoria Falls are known as one of the largest, or greatest, waterfalls of the world.  Whilst by no means the tallest, or largest in terms of annual flow, the combination of height and width and flow in seasonal flood, and spectacular geological formation and setting, make it certainly one of the greatest. The tourism needs of this natural wonder are served by the small tourist town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, and tourism hub of Livingstone in Zambia. [See The smoke that thunders (Zambezi Traveller, Issue 13, June 2013) for more on the Victoria Falls.]

Below the Falls the Zambezi zigzags in a southerly direction through the steadily deepening Batoka Gorge, as it descends some 260m, its power and flow concentrated in the narrow channel and flowing over 60 rapids, and one waterfall, the Moemba Falls (some 50 km downstream of the Falls), until it emerges from the basaltic plateau and turns east where it is drowned under the waters of Lake Kariba and its dam, 240km from the Falls.

Lake Kariba was created in 1959 following the completion of the Kariba Dam, drowning the Gwembe Valley, home of the Tonga people. It is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, and the hydroelectric power-generating facilities provide electricity to much of Zambia and Zimbabwe. The flooding of the river valley displaced over 50,000 Tonga people from their traditional lands.

The small tourist town of Kariba nestles on the Zimbabwean side of the river. The lake offers many tourism options, and transport connections to the Zambian side. [See The Middle Zambezi (Zambezi Traveller, Issue 13, June 2013) for more on this part of the Zambezi.]

Below Kariba, the Zambezi is swollen from the north by the Kafue River as the Zambezi runs between Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools and Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Parks. At its junction with the Luangwa River, and after forming the international boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe for approximately 500 km, the river enters into Mozambique and joins Lake Cabora Bassa.

Lower Zambezi

Formerly the site of dangerous rapids known as Kebrabassa, and which had blocked the early navigation of the river into the interior, the lake was created in 1974 by the construction of the Cahora Bassa Dam, and provides hydroelectric power to South Africa. Located a short distance downstream of the Cahora Bassa Dam is the regional centre of Tete on the main transport highway connecting Zimbabwe and Malawi.

From Cahora Bassa to the Indian Ocean, 650 km, the river is shallow in many places during the dry season, as the river enters a broad valley and spreads out over a large area. Only at one point, the Lupata Gorge, 320 km from its mouth, is the river confined between high hills. Here it is scarcely 200 metres wide. Elsewhere it is from 5 to 8 km wide, flowing gently in many streams. The river bed is sandy, and the banks are low and reed-fringed. At places, however, and especially in the rainy season, the streams unite into one broad fast-flowing river.

On approaching the ocean the Zambezi splits up into a number of branches and forms a wide delta before eventually reaching its journeys end, escaping into the Indian Ocean. [See The Zambezi’s final triumph (Zambezi Traveller, Issue 13, June 2013) for more on this last section of the Zambezi River.]

Read about the Zambezi Region on the following pages:

The Zambezi Basin

Formation of the Zambezi

Exploration of the Zambezi