Home to huge rapids and waves, hidden in the depths of a huge canyon, the Zambezi's rapids emerge directly from the base of Victoria Falls, a 100 m high, 2 km wide wonder of the world. With huge friendly rapids, warm water, and elephants hiding in the bushes, the Zam promises to be a whitewater paradise.
The Zam has been on my list of places to go kayaking since I first picked up a paddle, but ironically it was this threat of a hydro project which finally got me moving. Several months of emails, hassling, and some last minute flights saw a group of eight office monkeys (coincidentally including Palm’s entire marketing department) assembled for a two-week visit to Livingstone, Zambia. Here’s what we learned …
It’s dead easy to get to the Zam, with flights from around £450 direct to Livingstone in Zambia (a ten minute drive from Victoria Falls). We flew with Kenya Airways who don’t take kayaks, but with a bag, a bit of finessing, and an optional team disguise, will take a windsurfer for free. Alternatively, save stress and hassle, and fly with an airline who are happy to carry kayaks.
With dreams of huge waves and radical freestyle moves, we put out the search for longer, slicier playboats from the early 2000s (Think Orbit Fish, ZG54, Super Ego etc). Although there are some classy waves, the Zam is really not a park and play destination. The long sections of flat water and cool downriver moves had most of us wishing we had something even longer (if I went back I’d genuinely consider my beloved RPM).
Paddling big volume in a small boat will, for most people, involve a lot of time looking at the sky, and most probably the bottom of the river too. Although it’s warm and mostly friendly, the size of the river takes some getting used to. Our group’s paddling technique on day one was largely reminiscent of a paper bag on a windy day.
The Zam isn’t the cheapest place to go paddling, especially when compared to Uganda’s White Nile. The put on is in a national park, the shuttles are reasonably long, and you will want a porter to take your boat in and out of the gorge (see below). expect to spend 40 – 50 USD per day for transport and fees ...
At the put-in, the gorge is just over 100 m deep. At the takeouts it’s closer to two hundred. Given that the air temperature is around fourty degrees Celsius, carrying yourself out of the gorge will have you well on the way to heatstroke. The three dollars a day it costs for a porter will seem like the best value ever.
Nshima (with a silent N) is a polenta style paste made from cornmeal. The food palace is right in the centre of Livingstone, dead cheap, and equally popular with locals and tourists alike. Order a beef curry with Nshima and you're sorted.
Some people will tell you there are no crocs on the Zam. Others will tell you tales of being followed by crocs. We relaxed and swam around comfortably throughout our two week trip, and then saw two crocodiles above rapid seven, on our last day. 60% of the time, you will never ever be eaten by them. (Apparently the only ones in the gorge are all far too small/scared to eat people.)
On a boat with drinks and dinner included in the price, this is a relatively cheap way to see elephants, hippos, crocs, Water buffalo, warthogs, giraffes and even ducks whilst enjoying a civilised gin and tonic or three.
With all the aforementioned shuttles and faff, the best way to experience the Zambezi is to take two or three days over it, and to camp in the gorge along the way. It was surprisingly mosquito free down in the gorge, and if you phone ahead, then the lovely folks at the Rose Rabbit Camp (below rapid 23) will carry in beers and cook up a very reasonably priced dinner.
this is an all singing, all dancing warm water wonder of the world. As a kayaker you have easy access to stand at the base of Victoria Falls, and you absolutely should. There cheaper places to go, there are better freestyle waves, there are longer rivers, better multi-days, deeper gorges, but the Zambezi is special, and adds up to so much more. Call yourself a whitewater kayaker? You won't find a better playground than this.