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Why is a canoeing safari in Africa a must for the true enthusiast?

Nicola Shepherd By Nicola Shepherd
19 Jul 2019
Zim - canoeing in Zambezi Vic Falls - Wild Horizons.JPG

One of my favourite ways of seeing wildlife in Africa is on a canoeing safari. There is nothing quite like it and Zimbabwe still offers the finest canoeing safaris on the continent!

Where are the best locations for canoeing safaris?

The Zambezi is one of the most beautiful rivers to canoe, being wide with deep channels separated by seasonal islands. This is the fourth longest river in Africa and the longest east-flowing river on the continent. Canoe safaris are best conducted either in the rapids and open fast waters of the river above Victoria Falls, or down river in Mana Pools National Park in the north-west part of Zimbabwe.

Generally inflatable canoes are used on the upper Zambezi stretches of water above Victoria Falls and one can canoe for a full day or for several days.


But the most memorable canoe trip I have ever experienced was in the Mana Pools region. Canoes tend to be Canadian style, two person kleppers. Distances canoed each day vary, but an average would be around 20-22 kms each day, which is very easy and not arduous at all.

These canoe safaris are for a minimum of three nights/four days although depending upon the route, they can be longer and one can move to a permanent lodge afterwards for a couple of nights. On the canoe trail one travels along the Zambezi River, camping each night in a different spot.


The tents are superbly comfortable and at the end of the day one arrives in camp (which has been set up ahead of arrival), disembarking from the canoe and handed an ice cold beer, glass of wine or a gin and tonic. What a way to end a day! Another day one might celebrate by simply sitting in chairs that have been placed in the shallow waters of the river, as one watches the sun set.

Why choose a canoeing safari?

The attraction of a canoe safari is infinite!  Firstly, one can explore these pristine regions with total exclusivity if one takes over a canoe safari privately, or perhaps even join just a couple of other boats. Secondly, there is no noise pollution or emissions, so it is environmentally friendly and the beauty extends to the silence and magnificent scenery surrounding one!


Thirdly, one can get relatively close to wildlife as they simply see the human form as part of the outline of the boat. We got incredibly close to both buffalo and elephant and it was exhilarating! Finally, it’s a wonderful way to get exercise whilst on safari!

What is special about the Zambezi?

The river is the centre of activity for so many species and this becomes such an immersive experience as one drifts by. The landscape is captivating, beginning with the river itself which spills out, sometimes more than a kilometre wide in parts. Then there are the river banks, along which are troops of noisy baboon, elephant, hippo and buffalo, giant king fishers, egrets and goliath herons, stopping as a herd of elephant come into view.


Wildlife ventures down the banks of the river on the Zimbabwe side and it’s marvellous to float along just with the sounds of the paddle dipping into the water, the air replete with bird song. Around September, the carmine bee-eaters nest along the river banks, the air filled with their sound, the banks turning a hue of pinks and greens as they tend to their chicks in a flurry, darting backwards and forwards to the river. It is a truly beautiful sight to behold!

Walks are also conducted on various islands. On my canoe safari with one of the finest Zimbabwean guides on the African continent, James Varden, we clambered out of the canoe and walked up to a herd of buffalo (I believe James uttered that wonderful, well known line – “Shoo!”)… And shoo they did! Afterwards, we crawled up to a termite mound where we sat and watched a large pride of lion relaxing beneath a tree. I have seldom been happier!


On my last canoe safari, we stopped as a herd of elephant came into view and watched as they quenched their thirst. After a few minutes the guide said to me that the herd would cross the river to a sand spit island, and indeed they did!  

We floated alongside them with their trunk emulating periscopes, rising above the water in the deepest part, a calf being helped by its mother and big sister when the river got too deep, until they rose onto the bank and showered us with river water (we were wonderfully close!).


These safaris also allow one to fully appreciate the terrain; on the Zambian side lies the Zambezi Escarpment, framing the valley and the Lower Zambezi Game Reserve, whilst on the Mana Pools Zimbabwe side, there are the vast, beautiful, pastel coloured Albida forests.

This is an incredible journey and I implore any true safari enthusiast to seriously consider undertaking a canoe safari in Zimbabwe – alongside a walking or a horse riding safari, this is the best way to explore Africa!

Please do feel free to contact me if you would like any more information.


 Images kindly provided courtesy of Wild Horizons and Natureways