The Zambezi is probably the best big volume class 3-4 run in the world. Yes I did say class 3-4. I know everyone has seen all the photos and videos of Number 9 and the Minus Rapids and thinks the Zambezi is nothing but full on class 5. Aside from Number 9 (which is the easiest portage in the world) the normal rafting run is class 3-4. In high water Number 7 is 4+ but easy to walk around if you don’t fancy it.
Am I good enough?
If you have a solid roll and are happy on class 4 (do you love the Ubaye race course when its high?, been to the Nile but want more rapids?, love the Orchy or the Moriston?) then you will be fine. A number of companies such as Flow Free offer guided trips with coaching for those less confident.
Am I too good?
You are never too good, go run the minus rapids, do nine laps of Number 9 or throw a kick flip off the pour-over on Number 5.
Where is it?
The Zambezi is the border between Southern Zambia and Northern Zimbabwe in Southern Africa. The rapids are in the Bakota gorge below world-famous Victoria Falls. You can stay in Zambia or Zimbabwe. I have only stayed in Zambia so all of this info is for Zambia. In Zambia the town next to the gorge is Livingstone.
How do I get there?
Two main options:
- Fly direct to Livingstone. This is the easiest option. I flew with Qatar via Doha and Johannesburg. They took my RPM Max for free as part of my normal baggage allowance. It was tight on the 30 kg weight limit.
- Fly to the capital city Lusaka. Sometimes flight are cheaper to Lusaka. Emirates take play boats and I flew down from Uganda with Rwandair with a playboat no problem a couple of years ago (I say no problem the boat arrived a day later). From the airport expect to pay $25-40 USD for a taxi to town. You will want to stay a night in a backpackers and sort out a bus ride to Livingstone the next day ca, $10-20 USD for the bus. Take pictures of your kayak to negotiate getting it on the bus. I have only taken a playboat on the bus so I’m not sure if a bigger boat would get on or not. It’s a ten-hour bus ride.
The remote nature of the gorge coupled with the $10 per day par fees and $3 porter fees (it’s their trail so you need to pay even if you carry your own boat) mean that the Zambezi is not a cheap paddling destination. For logistics there are a few options with their distinct pros and cons:
- Go with Safari Par Excellence (SafPar). They are THE best and most professional company on the river. SafPar will pick you up from your accommodation in the morning (at 7:30 am) with the rest of the rafting clients, and then you can tag along with the rafting trip from 1-21. If there is no rafting trip running they will sort out a private pickup truck for your group. Their price includes park fees, porters, logistics, snacks on the river, lunch after the trip at their restaurant/bar, gorge extraction insurance and photos/video. It’s a pretty good deal considering what you get and for a small group, it’s about the cheapest option for reliable boating. SafPar also offers boat rental if you wish to avoid the hassle of flying one out. Price $45
- Other rafting companies. Bundu and Maano are the other two operators in town. I can’t give any info on Bundu as I didn’t speak to them much about kayaking. Maano is a local company and offered to sort logistics for $10 per person per day if they have a rafting trip running. However, they don’t regularly have trips and they might cancel at late notice. This is only really a good option if you are staying in town longer and don’t mind having lots of rest days. Plus you still need to pay porters and park fees so it’s still not cheap. Price $23
- Sort your own vehicle. So this is actually way harder than you might think. The road to the take out sucks. I mean really sucks! However, it is possible to find people in town to sort logistics. We managed to hire a truck for $55-65 per day between 3-5 people. One downside is getting to the river might involve a very long detour to avoid the police due to worries that a heavy bribe would be needed for the boats on the roof. Again you still need to sort out porters and park fees. This does come with the advantage of starting at whatever time you want and having a chilled trip down the river. Price $24-35
It’s epic. I guess that’s all you really need to know!
If you are a class 3-4 boater it is well worth getting a guide for the first day/s. Best sorted through SafPar. It will make life chilled and mean you can focus on having fun. If you are an experienced class 5 kayaker then you will be fine. It’s not hard to scout and if you are going with the rafts then you are all good to go down the middle (apart from Number 9 where you need to be in the right place).
The normal rafting run at low water is from rapid Number 1-21. Normally the trip puts on around 9 am and finishes at 21 around 1 pm. There are more rapids (including some big ones) below 21 and it is possible to do a multi-day. SafPar can organise raft support but expect to pay around $350 each. We did the whole section in one day. Its 55 km long with lots of flat and the potential to get attacked by crocodiles. It was a very big day and we were too time-pressured to think about running the harder rapids and had to miss out on Ghostrider which is probably the best rapid on the section (but also requires thirty minutes extra walk out at the end). I’ve done the multi-day as a four-day trip before and it was really great. Much more chilled.
Are there Crocodiles?
Yes. When paddling from Number 1 to 21 we have only seen tiddlers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this section washes out all the big ones in high water, bear that in mind if you decide to paddle 21 onwards. For those of you who run the minus rapids with a yawn, canoe safaris of the crocodile-infested waters of vic falls national park are available for your adrenaline fix. No really, they run trips every day. Crocodiles can also be found in the restaurants of Livingston and are highly recommended.
When to go
The best rapids are numbers 1-10. These are only rafted at low water. They can and have been kayaked at high water but they get truly huge. The low water season normally runs between August and New Year. This year was a drought year and low water opened in June. It will get super low towards the middle of the season. It then starts to rise again towards the new year as the rains come in. River level data is available under the Victoria Falls tab here: www.zambezira.org/hydrology/river-flows
As a rough guide here is what Sean from SafPar said about water levels: ‘The lowest time of the year is the first week of November. August and December are the rise months and the best for big water mayhem!’
What boat should I take?
Big volume = little boat, but the question is how little? First time I took a Jed, it was good fun and made everything pretty spicy. At lower water 12B is a good play wave as is Number 3. This time I took my RPM Max (which has found a new home out there). It was fricking awesome. There are a million good taily spots and waves to catch on the fly. Mostly the Zam is river running so it makes sense to bring a river runner. So anything from a playboat to a half-slice like the RPM, Rewind, Ripper or Steeze and you will have fun. If you are super comfy in your creek boat and want to paddle that then go for it. There is no disadvantage to having a bigger boat on most of the lines.
Where to stay
So there shed loads of options in Livingstone depending on your budget. I am assuming as you are kayaker you want the cheaper end of the spectrum. If you are super fancy I suggest the Royal Livingstone at ca. $1,000 pppn.
- Jolly Boys Backpackers. The traditional kayaker hangout and the busiest hostel in town. About twenty minutes from the put on and near all the major things in town. It has a lively (read crazy frog playing at 10 am) vibe. Dorms are $18 pppn with every seventh night free if you book directly. It has a nice pool and bar etc … but the guest kitchen is pretty rubbish. The beds are comfy but the dorms are crowded.
- Fawlty Towers. Much better than the name suggests. It’s closer to the major supermarket than Jolly Boys, has a better guest kitchen and a much more chilled vibe. Its also cheaper, dorms are $12 pppn. The rooms are less crowded but I prefer the beds at Jolly Boys.
- Livingstone Backpackers (now re-named to Victoria Falls Backpackers). Do you want to party all weekend every weekend with a bunch of teenager who are ‘saving Africa’? well then this is the place for you. Similarly central and similarly priced to the other two. Not really my vibe but a very lively bar and the have a climbing wall. If you haven’t already guessed it’s not really my vibe.
- The Waterfront. SafPar’s hotel/campsite/rafting base. This is nearer the put on, actually on the river and super beautiful (it’s within the national park and there are often elephants at the gate). You can book accommodation here in a safari tent as part of a package deal with the kayaking and it works out at a competitive price. Probably the best option for a short trip where you don’t want any stress, plus you would get a lie-in.
Other things to know
It’s worth getting a local SIM card, so make sure your phone is unlocked. It’s easy to set one up from any of the major providers but MTN is probably best. Take your passport along when you are buying one.
There are lots of other activities to do in town from Safaris to bungee jumping. Most cost at least $100. Devil’s Pool and a booze cruise would probably be our two activity recommendations. Food is also not cheap, expect to pay at least as much at supermarkets and restaurants as you do in the UK. If you are American expect to pay more than you are used to.
Oh and go to Henry’s restaurant! He does a culinary tour of Zambia over a five-course meal: email@example.com and you should go to Bovu Island (aka Jungle Junction). It’s an island upstream of town and is the perfect place to take a rest day or two.