Most of the lodges along the river offer similar activities, concentrating primarily on drives, boat trips, walking safaris, canoeing and fishing, but each has its own individual atmosphere and areas of expertise, and some specialise.
Day and night drives, both in the Chiawa GMA and into the Lower Zambezi National Park (closed November to April/May), are high on the list of priorities for most visitors. They are offered by almost all camps, whether they're located inside or outside the park – though it's worth remembering that the further you are from the national park, the less game you're likely to see; game drives on the west of the GMA can be uneventful.
Walking safaris with a professional guide, and an armed scout, are also widely available, affording the opportunity to get closer to the wildlife on their terms. There are now strict exams, organised by the CLZ (see opposite), for potential guides which match the quality and scope of those in the Luangwa Valley. I would never go walking with an unqualified guide. Most trips are 2–4 hours, and done as an activity from a lodge or camp.
Birdwatching is usually built in to most walks, drives or boating trips if you're interested. With a range of habitats it's a great place for birdwatching at any time, but especially from September to March, when migrants from Central Africa can be spotted in the area.
Fishing on the Zambezi – primarily for the protected tiger fish – is also offered by most outfits, and is particularly good during the hotter months. All lodges/camps within the GMA and the national park practise catch and release, and in recent years a deal has been struck with the local community to prevent over-fishing. In return for financial compensation for the community, it has been agreed that there will be no netting of fish either in the GMA or in the national park.
Canoeing on the Zambezi is another firm favourite for the more adventurous. It's a terrific way to relax in the open air and see the river, whilst doing some gentle exercise and game-viewing at the same time. All the operators use stable Canadian-style fibre-glass canoes about 5.7m long. These are large enough for two people plus their equipment, and relatively difficult to capsize.
Psychologically, it's great to view game from outside of a vehicle, and whilst moving under your own propulsion: it makes you feel in charge of your own trip, and an active participant rather than a passive passenger. However, there is normally only one guide to a party of four to eight canoes, so on occasions you will be much closer to a pod of hippos than to your trusty guide.
It can be confusing trying to arrange the right trip. Broadly there are two different ways to go canoeing. You can canoe as an activity from a lodge or camp, or you can canoe from A to B, sleeping at points on the bank (or islands) on the way.From a camp or lodge
Most the lodges/camps will offer options for you to go canoeing for your morning or afternoon activity, taking about 3–4 hours paddling at a time. Then, typically, you're driven upstream with the canoes, and you paddle back to the lodge.
This has several advantages. Firstly, there's no hurry, so the guide can build in time to stop and investigate the game en route; secondly, if you're at a good lodge then you're probably spending all of your time in a prime game area, within the park; thirdly, you're not committing yourself to more than three or four hours paddling; finally, you've got a comfortable bed lined up for the night back at camp.From point to point
On these trips you put all your kit in the canoe, and paddle downstream for a number of days. Typically, you'll carry tents and food, and camp en route. (However, there are a few operators who run trips like this using lodges along the way for one-night stops.)
Physically, you will feel tired at the end of a day, but canoeing down-river is not excessively strenuous (unless you meet a strong headwind), and no previous experience is demanded. To some extent that feeling of exertion often leads to a feeling of achievement at the end of the trip, which increases with the length of the trip and the distance covered.
These trips were really popularised on the Zimbabwean side, where they became big business by the late 1980s and early 1990s – and thousands of people went down the river every month. These weren't without their problems, especially given that with the volume came a need for more guides. Hence the Zimbabwean authorities allowed visitors to be taken down the river by 'canoe guides' who weren't up the high standards of the normal professional guides.Which section to canoe?
Canoe safaris are run from the Kariba Dam wall right to the confluence of the Luangwa and Zambezi rivers – where Zambia and Zimbabwe end, and Mozambique begins. If you do little but paddle, this whole trip is normally a 10-day/9-night canoe trip. However, most people who canoe from A to B do smaller sections of this whole trip.
Kariba to Chirundu is the easiest, shortest section, normally taking around 3 days/2 nights. The first few hours of this, through the Kariba Gorge, are the best part. After that there are no great attractions and very little game around.
From Chirundu to the Lower Zambezi is a more popular section, typically taking 4 days/3 nights. Obviously the more time afforded in the national park areas, the more animals you're likely to see, so quiz your chosen operator on precisely where the trip starts and finishes, and where the final camp is in relation to the national park boundary and the rivers in the area.
The final section, through the Lower Zambezi National Park and on to the Luangwa River confluence, is the wildest, with the best game and the fewest other canoes. Eventually the river passes through the spectacular Mpata (sometimes called Mupata) Gorge, before reaching the border. As you would expect, the transfers into and (especially) out of this section are expensive: this trip costs around US$700 for 5 days/4 nights.
These costs include basic camping kit, food (cook it yourself) and transfers to and from the river from Kariba, but note that they do vary seasonally: prices in July, August, September and October could be about 30% higher than this.Canoeing guides
Ten years ago the question asked about these canoeing trips was always 'Which section should we canoe?' Now the question is more usually 'How qualified is the guide?' Paddling for miles through areas with little game seems to have fallen out of fashion, and now more people are covering less mileage, but aiming to see a lot more game. They want to canoe inside the park, and they want a good guide. (Often this means more canoeing from camps, and fewer paddles from A to B.)
You should understand from the outset that canoeing on this river has a risk attached to it which no guide can ever take away. Even with the very best of guides, it's possible to get into dangerous, even life-threatening, situations with both hippos and crocs. People are killed and injured every year on this river. However, canoeing with, and listening to, a good guide who knows the river will give you the best chance of avoiding dangerous situations, and of escaping those which prove unavoidable.
On the Zimbabwean side, the differences are clear. A qualified 'pro guide' has attained the country's gold standard of guiding, and is qualified to walk and canoe with you. A 'canoe guide' has obtained a much lesser level – and having been down the river with one such guide, I would think twice about again trusting my life to some of these.
On the Zambian side the differences aren't perhaps so clear, but I would advise anyone to make sure that they canoe with a guide who is armed, and fully qualified as a walking guide. If s/he isn't competent to walk with you, then I don't think I would trust him/her to canoe with you.Canoeing operators
There really isn't the choice of trips, or operators, doing canoe trips here that there were ten years ago, but two obvious operators (with no warranty of quality implied) are:Safari Par Excellence
Harare, Zimbabwe; tel: +09 260 3 321629, 320606–9; fax: +09 260 3 326629; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.safpar.com
Sold extensively through outlets in Zimbabwe, SafPar (as it is universally known) has several different trips, mostly concentrating on the section from Chirundu to the Chongwe tributary, which is the western boundary of the Lower Zambezi National Park.
They have two different styles of trips, using different camps, but both using Canadian canoes. Their 'participation safaris' have basic fly-camps and ensure that visitors get involved with the cooking and camp chores. All the camping equipment is supplied, and carried by canoe, including tents, mosquito nets, mattresses, sleeping bags (each with liner and pillow), cooler boxes, tables and chairs, gas cookers, cooking utensils and cutlery. Typical of these is the three-night Island Canoe Trail from the Kafue River to the Chongwe River at a cost of US$395 per person. This, and the longer Three Rivers Canoe Trail, at US$540 per person, operate year round.
By contrast, the three-night Great Zambezi Trail includes accommodation in fully serviced lodges. The trip starts at Kayila Lodge, then the following day guests paddle a distance of around 15km, before stopping at Royal Zambezi Lodge. A longer, 30km stretch on the third day brings you to Mwambashi River Lodge.
Trips operate from June to October inclusive, and cost US$780 per person for 4 days/3 nights. Lion Roars Safaris
House 1, Water Wells, Kafue Rd, Makeni, PO Box 33111, Lusaka; tel/fax: 01 274901; email: email@example.com; www.royalzambezi.com
Two- or five-night trips are run by the owners of Royal Zambezi and Mwambashi along the 60km stretch of the Zambezi from its confluence with the Kafue River as far as the Chakwenga River. Luggage is transferred by boat or road to your next overnight stop at one of the lodges along the river. You'll be paddling Canadian-style two- and three-seater canoes, for which no experience is necessary, although there's a minimum age of 15. The two-night trip from Kayila to Mwambashi costs US$950 per person, and five nights from Mwambashi to Kulefu a hefty US$1,640. Tailor-made trips are available by arrangement.
Most of the camps organise walking safaris as a normal part of their activities. However, Safari Par Excellence runs three-day small-group walking trips in the Lower Zambezi for a maximum of eight guests, who are accompanied by a professional guide and a national parks game scout, as well as by porters who carry such essentials as a packed lunch and refreshments. Visitors meet at Kayila Lodge, from where they are transferred by vehicle into the national park. Accommodation on the first two nights is in established campsites with hot showers; the final night is spent at Mwambashi River Lodge. Trips cost US$940 per person, and are run from June to October.