The phenomenon of the Zambezi River is its diversity and it holds an aura of a majestic Africa that is waiting to be visited and experienced. The River is the fourth longest in Africa with only the Nile, Congo, and Niger being longer.
The 2,574 kilometers long river has its source in Zambia and flows through Angola, along the border of Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, to Mozambique, where it empties into the Indian Ocean. It also has the distinction of being the largest river flowing into the Indian Ocean.
The Zambezi is one of Africa’s last remaining wild rivers and is one of the finest and least spoiled rivers in the world. It boasts many important ecosystems and habitats: wetlands, riverine woodlands, montane forests, dry forests, savannahs, and aquatic ecosystems. The river supports large populations of African wildlife with the riverine woodland having many large animals, such as buffalo, zebras, giraffes, and elephants. Hippopotamuses are plentiful along most of the calm stretches of the river, with many crocodiles populating the river banks.
This incredible river also supports several hundred species of fish, some of which are endemic to the river. Important species include cichlids which are fished widely for food, as well as catfish, tigerfish, yellowfish, and a host of other large species. The bull shark, sometimes locally known as the Zambezi shark, normally inhabits coastal waters but has been found far inland in many large rivers, including the Zambezi.
Birdlife is abundant, with species including heron, pelican, egret, and African fish eagles present in large numbers.
Its wide diversity of species includes black rhinoceros, elephant, cheetah, lion, leopard, crocodile, lechwe, over six hundred bird species, as well as a wide diversity of trees and plants.
The river basin also has several of Africa’s finest National Parks and safari areas with the Zambezi’s most well-known landmark being the Victoria Falls. This spectacular attraction is one of the Seven Wonders of the World with its four gorges creating rapids that match any in the world for their class. Other waterfalls on the river include the Chavuma Falls at the border between Zambia and Angola and Ngonye Falls in Western Zambia.
Besides the natural ecosystems and rich population of wildlife, the river also supports millions of people, who make use of its rich fisheries, forests, water, and rich floodplain soils. The lower Zambezi in Mozambique is the most productive and biologically diverse tropical floodplains in Africa.
Yet this waterway is also one of the most heavily dammed rivers in Africa, with at least 30 large dam walls holding back its natural flow. Four of the world’s largest hydroelectric dams – Kariba, Itezhi-Tezhi, Kafue and Cahora Bassa and their huge lakes have stemmed much of the river’s annual floods.
The present-day Zambezi can be divided up into three sections, the Upper Zambezi, the Middle Zambezi, and the Lower Zambezi.
The source of the Zambezi River starts in a marshy bog in Zambia and eventually enters Angola. In this first section of its course, the river is joined by more than a dozen tributaries of varying sizes.
The river then enters a stretch of rapids after which the river meanders through the broad grasslands of the Sesheke Plain flowing past Botswana territory and finally forming the frontier between Zambia and Zimbabwe. To the Victoria Falls, the river varies considerably in width, from open wide stretches to rapids through narrow channels.
The Victoria Falls mark the end of the upper course of the Zambezi when its waters fall over the edge of the gorge.
The Middle Zambezi
The Zambezi’s middle course extends about 600 miles from Victoria Falls to Lake Cahora Bassa in Mozambique. It continues to form the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe until it crosses the Mozambique border at Luangwa. The middle Zambezi is noted for the two man-made lakes, Kariba and Cahora Bassa which make up most of this stretch of the river.
The Lower Zambezi
At the dam wall at the eastern end of Lake Cahora Bassa, the Zambezi begins its lower course, during which it descends from the Central African Plateau to the coastal plain. The hilly country is replaced by flat areas before cutting the Lupata Gorge through a range of hills, where it emerges onto the Mozambique Plain and occupies a broad valley and spreads out into a wide, flat, and marshy delta before the Zambezi River ends its journey entering the Indian Ocean.