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The Lore of the Mighty African Zambezi River

Updated on July 5, 2015

Zambezi at the junction of four Countries

Botswana, Nambia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The Zambezi is 2200 miles (3540 km) long.
Botswana, Nambia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The Zambezi is 2200 miles (3540 km) long. | Source

I would like to share with you the magic and soul-searing intoxication of this river which I had the privilege to live next to for three glorious years of my life.

The legendary Zambezi's innocuous start from a tiny spring, in a pristine forest near the border of the Congo forests, belies it's strength as it wends its way to Mozambique on the eastern side of the African continent and into the Indian Ocean.

It symbolically bubbles up between the roots of a small tree, it does not sweep away but sinks again into an underground river which outcrops several times before it steadily flows on the surface.

It flows into Angola for around 230 km and only as it turns back into Zambia, aided by its tributaries, does the river start becoming large and powerful cutting into the rock to form the Zambezi Rapids, near Angola.

It is difficult to believe that this is the beginning of this remarkable, vast river that provides enough water for hydro power, food, economic sustenance, transport and recreation to over 40 million people!

The mighty Zambezi at sunset
The mighty Zambezi at sunset

Chirundu Bridge over the Zambezi River


A canoe trip on the lower Zambezi could have you fighting strong winds and waves that are capable of capsizing any canoe.

The dangers faced not only include the river's relentless strength, but unexpected contact with an angry hippopotamus or a crafty and hungry crocodile, may not immediately be a worry to the uninitiated.

Whilst visiting the Zambian side of the lower Zambezi Valley, the lodge owners were radioed by the guides on the Zimbabwean side, informing them that a crocodile had taken a 10 year old American girl out of the canoe she was paddling in with her father. A trip of a lifetime turned into a tragedy of a life time.

Crocodiles have, for hundred of years, taken people from riverbanks who were either fishing, sleeping or wading in the shallows. Those people were never seen again, as crocodiles drag their victim under the water, twisting around and around, quickly drowning them, then wedging them under the water to be breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The closest I have been to a crocodile in the wild (that I know of), was a walk down to the river, looking, as you are taught, for crocodiles basking in the sun. (As hippos tend to come out of the river only at dusk and return at dawn, they are not a huge worry).

Looking on my right, I thought I saw a large log, as I neared the water the 'log' jerked its head and slithered frighteningly fast into the river! It could so easily have knocked me over with a swish of its tail and taken me with him to the river's dark, rushing depths.

Flight of Angels over the Victoria Falls


Victoria Falls

Mosi oa Tunya - The Smoke that Thunders

The world famous chasm, the genuinely awesome Victoria Falls, marks the end of the upper course of the Zambezi. Here, the deceptively calm river waters suddenly rush to tumble over the two kilometer long gorge, the sensational raw energy creates a thunderous roar as the whole Zambezi wildly crashes into the abyss, creating the aptly named Boiling Pot at the bottom.

An enormous spray cloud, sometimes over a mile high, claws into the air from the water as it reaches the bottom of the seething Batoka gorge, which is twice as high as Niagara and twice as long.

In flood, the earth shudders beneath your feet, as you are deafened by the rumbling, pulsating roar and drenched by the mist.

The river becomes a heaving, swirling monster in March, April flood season, angrily throwing its might against the basalt rock as it cuts its way through eight kilometres of seven gorges, before flowing on to its next interruption, Kariba Dam and the mythical lore of the River God.

This ever changing world becomes almost placid in the height of a dry season, now every rock that studs the sides of the gorges can be seen. It's possible to walk across the river, using the rocks at the edge of the Falls to walk to Livingstone Island in the middle of the Zambezi. What a view - you may even be joined by some elephants looking for something different and juicy to eat! Luckily it won't be you!

Nyaminyami watches over Kariba


The River God and Kariba Dam

The Tonga people, who live by the river, believe the Zambezi River Spirit, Nyaminyami controls life on the Zambezi. He is described as looking dragon-like with a snake's torso and a fish's head.

Nyaminyami sometimes vents displeasure at the blocking of his life's river, as halfway down, man built the Kariba Dam one of the largest dams in Africa. The name Kariba (Kariva) means trap, which refers to a rock which thrusts out of the swirling water at the gorge's entrance close to the dam wall site, which is now buried more than 100 ft under the water.

This rock was the home of the mythical River God and should anyone venture near, they would be sucked down forever into the depths of the river. A few tremors are still felt at Kariba town, obviously caused by the mass of the lake on the earth's surface, but locals claim it's Nyaminyami.

In 1957, a year into the building of the Dam wall, Nyaminyami made good his threat and recaptured the gorge. His flood waters passed over the wreckage of his enemies work at more than 16 million Liters a second. A flood that should only happen once in 1 000 years, happened again in 1958, and a new respect was borne for the power of the river god who was only placated, they say, through the intervention of the Batonga people!

Black Mamba, usually about 2.5 metres but can grow to 4 metres.  The venom, a neuro and cardio toxin, is injected by multiple strikes at its victim.  However, this swift snake would rather leave and will only attack if cornered.
Black Mamba, usually about 2.5 metres but can grow to 4 metres. The venom, a neuro and cardio toxin, is injected by multiple strikes at its victim. However, this swift snake would rather leave and will only attack if cornered. | Source

Operation Noah

As the dam began to fill it was evident that many hundreds of animals were being stranded on islands and Operation Noah's monumental task of rescuing the animals was set up. Hazards such as submerged trees scraped the boats' hulls, and on the islands there were high numbers of snakes including the deadly black mamba, despite this, many animals were successfully rescued.

One story tells of a shirtless game ranger who climbed a tree in his swim shorts, armed with gloves and a noosed rod he caught the stranded mamba!

A marksman with a crossbow, loaded with a sedating dart, fired at a rhino and once sedated, he was rolled on to a sledge, dragged to the shore and loaded onto a raft buoyed by eighteen fuel (gas) drums. Raft and rhino were then towed to the mainland sometimes 12 miles away. Forty four Rhinos were saved in this manner, although other animals that could swim were herded to the edge of the various islands where they swam to the mainland.

Although over 7000 animals were saved during Operation Noah, there were the tragic tales of stranded monkeys perching on tree tops, stripped of leaves, and too afraid of humans to let themselves be rescued. Countless smaller animals, reptiles and insects simply drowned.

One young duiker, tired from the swim just gave up, the rangers picked her up and took her ashore. They lay her down next to fire, and while they were eating, she came round, stood up and looked around, then walked around the men three times, before wandering off into the bush. They were astounded at this behaviour, and felt that she was thanking them!

Hippo, one of the many hazards!


Cahora Bassa Dam

The resulting flood runs into the Cahora Bassa Dam, in Mocambique, which in turn opens its floodgates, sending the now raging flood waters through the Lupata Gorge which the river cut out of a range of hills millenia ago.

The river emerges onto the flat plains of Mocambique where normally, the Zambezi docilely spreads itself out to a width of three to five kilometres.

However when flooding, the voluminous waters more than doubles its size (in one hour the river can rise 6 metres), and results in the displacement of many village people, and the unfortunate loss of lives.

In January 2008 over 50,000 people had leave the area, however in floods of 2000, 500 000 people were displaced in Mocambique alone.

Interesting Facts About Kariba

Kariba lake is studded with islands, fringed by mountains and is 280 kms long, 32 km wide - an average depth of 20m and 120m at its deepest.

It took 10,000 men four years to build the dam, 87 of them lost their lives, 18 of whom fell into the concrete and four still remain entombed in the wall.

The surface area of the lake is 5 580 sq. kilometers, and the normal volume of water is 185 billion cu.litres, enough to supply greater London for 300 years!

As each of the Dam's six spillway gates let through1574 cu.m. of water per second, the respective governments must be notified, radio and press announcements made far in advance.

Mike Ross Travel The Victoria Falls and Zambesi River

How can I ever hope to evoke in you the depth and range of feeling that the relentless, imposing nature of the bush, and the heart-stirring animals provoke.

How awed and humbled you are observing the matriarch of an elephant herd, returning in temper - magnificent amidst a cloud of dust, ears flapping and trumpeting noisily, remonstrating with badly behaved teenagers who now cannot obey quickly enough!

That same matriarch leading her herd across the river, with only their trunks to be seen, every now and then one would jump up to ensure they were going straight across! How amazing is that - using their trunks as snorkels while they literally walked through the water?

When it dawns on you that it doesn't matter how many times you return to the same place, it would all be different, five minutes later the next person won't see the same thing, won't have the same experience, the realization of which overloads your emotions, filling you with gratitude that you are privileged enough to be here!


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