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Zambezi – her name means a Great River. It’s flow divides South Africa, giving life to this ancient continent


Zambezi River in Africa. Zambezi-her name means Great River. Its flow intersects South Africa, giving life to this ancient continent.

Various people live alongside Zambezi River while it changes during seasons. For millions of years the river controls the lives of many wild animals that live along its course.

Zambezi is the least know of the four major African rivers (Nile, Zaire, Congo, Niger). Although people exploit its power Zambezi stays wild just as the creatures whose life depends on its water. In the delta freshwater mixes with saltwater from ocean, the long course of this river is like a mirror of life.

The story of Zambezi is a story of Africa

From its source in the hills of Zambia, the Zambezi flows powerfully growing southward. With the seasons its water level changes and floods the vast plains. While it thunders over the edges of Victoria Falls its direction is dictated by the ancient rocks. At the gorge of Karibs, power of the river is controlled, but the surrounding life is still dependent on its water. In Mozambique the river expands into a vast delta after which it fades in to the Indian Ocean. But this river still affects all the life around herself.

Animals on the Zambezi River
Animals on the Zambezi River

For millions of years, the river manages the lives of wild animals that live along its course

Source of Life

In a lush forest on the north-western hills of Zambia Zambezi River is born. Winds of northern and southern hemisphere meet here and together they form storms over the land that is ruled by river and rain. Spreading only 1,500 meters above the sea level, this hills have a profound impact on a large part of southern Africa. While the rain falls through the leaves it marks the beginning of a long journey. Great Zambezi is born on the slopes of the hill facing the hill. Its flow is almost negligible here, but this water will travel for 3,000 km before it’s journey ends.

Zambezi is born in a hidden place in the woods in the hills of northwestern Zambia
Zambezi is born in a hidden place in the woods in the hills of northwestern Zambia

Like the river, wild life around it is often hidden. Reptiles such as chameleons and deadly poisonous Gabonese snakes hide inside dense woods struggling for survival.

Reptile chameleon
Reptile chameleon lives on the Zambezi River in Africa

Vervet monkeys live and move through the trees that cast a shadow over the place where the river is born. Many small rivers and underground water help the Zambezi to flow stronger and faster. Zambezi flows south through the forests of Zambia. Through the forests of Angola the river is zig moving, this part of Africa is also one of the last strongholds for the saber antelope. In the dry season water is scarce and the saber antelopes don’t move from the river bank surrounded by grass. Everybody is waiting for the rain.

Sabre antelope
Sabre antelope

The dry season is in October. It disturbs the wildebeest. The small groups form a large herds and this event signals the beginning of the greatest migration in the whole Africa.

Few hundred kilometers away from its source the Zambezi flows through the area Barotsilend, part of Zambia and home to the Lozi people. The river changes its course and engraves its flow through the wide expanse of pastures. The plains of Liuwe are located there and they owe their existence to the Zambezi River.

Liuva plains with grazing herds of wildebeest
Liuva plains with grazing herds of wildebeest

The rain has not started yet, but the African buffalo has to drink every day. Puddles that remain attract the flocks like a magnet. Buffaloes remain faithful to the same area for generations, and their constant trampling encourages the growth of grass. For the people of Lozi Barotsilend is their home for more than three hundred years. Catfish are stranded in several puddles left by the last flood. It’s similar like going to the fridge.

A man from the tribe Lozi in Barotseland Catches of catfish
A man from the tribe Lozi in Barotseland Catches of catfish

After the hunt while going home the fisherman are always followed by the hyenas, eager to get their teeth on the catch. The fishermen are not worried about the hyenas but are still eager to get home before dark.  Beside humans, hyenas are the top predators in the plains of Liuwe.

Hyena prey

In November the seasons change, you can feel the rain in the air. The hot months of the dry season are now like a distant memory. Seams as the floodplains are waiting for the flood that will come, waiting to be filled with life again.

He's about to rain in the Zambezi valley
He’s about to rain in the Zambezi valley

The first rains are sporadic and the ground absorbs them like a sponge. But as the season progress the rain intensifies in the upstream. The Zambezi is also getting bigger, the flood is coming soon. The wildlife senses that the changes are coming so it starts moving. The rain season is a time of movement for both rain and for the animals.

After the first rains fresh grass grows for the herds, and insects are there for the birds.  The rains are stronger now and often a large amount of water flows to Barotsilend and the floodplains. The mood of Zambezi changes, the ground becomes saturated and it can no longer absorb the water that begins to spill.
Zambezi will make the biggest change, big waves of water come and the serious floods start.


The substrate under the plain helps to retain the water for months, as long as the floods don’t withdrawn and the water gradually disappears. This helps to maintain the flow of the river through the entire year, it’s as the plains are the second source of Zambezi River.

It has been raining for almost three months. Once golden plains are now a shallow sea. Birds come in thousands, there are spoonbills, herons and ibis. All find food in different levels of the shallow water so there is little competition among them.

Besides the birds everyone else is leaving, buffalos go to the higher ground.

Buffaloes flee the flooded areas of the river Zambezi

Herd paves the way through the impending water, wildebeest are also on the move. The antelopes are leaving the flooded fields, hyenas with them. Soon the water is everywhere it’s as the river is drowned too. Parts of the Zambezi are now 25 kilometers wide, and the large parts of the pastures are as islands in the ocean.

Width of the Zambezi flood after over 25 kilometers
Width of the Zambezi flood after over 25 kilometers

But some islands defy the flood. The Lozi people live with the growth of Zambezi for centuries, and they know the mood swings of the river.

Island nations Lozi on the Zambezi
Island nations Lozi on the Zambezi

Their villages become flooded first and then gradually sink. The Lozi are accustomed to movies. It is believed that they came to this plains from the Congo basin in the 17th century.

Lozi people in the Zambezi in the submerged village
Lozi people in the Zambezi in the submerged village

Now they have to move once a year due to the flow of the Zambezi River. The period of moving is called “ Kuomboka” – time when the king, queen and their people leave the flooded fields. It is a traditional festival which shows the peoples loyalty to the king and how the rise and drop of the Zambezi level defines their lives. It is interesting that in this case the king is made like an elephant and the queen in shape of a crane.

Kuomboka festival
Kuomboka festival Lozi people

When the royal ship touches the remote coastline the ceremony ends.

The flooded villages are now empty, abandoned by people and their livestock. Where there was once laughter, gossip and smoke from cooking, now is only silence which won’t be disturbed by the human voice until the flood withdraws. Then the cycle starts again and the Lozi can plant their crops (millet, cassava, and corn).

After a while the floods begin to recede. It once again becomes dry, the shallow sea disappears and the river continues its way to the distant ocean.

Further course of the river heads east where it is joined by the river Chobe coming from Botswana.
As it flows further east it now becomes the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, the landscape is changing. Zambezi leaves the plains and begins flowing through rocks created millions of years ago by strong volcanic eruptions. This part of Zambezi is well known to the people of Toka lei.

Toka Leja
The people Toka Leja fishes

They are fishing using traps made of woven baskets, using an thousands of years old method. It is really simple, whatever is brought by the river current stays captured in the mouth of the basket. The traps are left over night and in the morning the fisherman collect the catch.

Toka Lea people live with the Zambezi for centuries, but they are still newcomers. God of this part of Zambezi is called “Niaminmi”, he takes care of the people, river and the creatures in it.

The further course of the rivers goes towards a “curtain” that looks like a smoke. In front of it is something powerful something maybe even more powerful than the God. For people of Toka Lei on this place live the spirits of their ancestors.

In the local language, the place known as Mosi Oa Tunia – “smoke that thunders”. The first European who saw the waterfall in 1855 was less poetic. He called them the Victoria Falls.

Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls

Zambezi falls a hundred meters into the gorge below.  Year by year, inch by inch the lips of the waterfall gradually withdrawn as the erosion of water gently washes the stone.

Upstream from the waterfall water of the Zambezi River have traveled 1.300 kilometers. There, where the smoke really thunders, the raw power of Zambezi is at its peak.

See some more photos of Zambezi River

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