The Source of the Zambezi River

– Africa’s fourth longest river originates from a burbling spring in a secluded stretch of woods.  

John Cassim

Africa’s fourth-longest river, the Zambezi, boasts an unassuming origin, a gurgling spring nestled within a secluded Zambian forest at the north-western corner. Despite its modest beginnings, this spring marks the birthplace of a powerful waterway.

The Source: A Protected Oasis

The spring emerges in a black, marshy area within a dense Miombo woodland, close to Zambia’s borders with Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The source lies in Mwinilunga District at an elevation of about 1,500 meters and is encompassed by a protected national monument forest reserve. This area teems with biodiversity, boasting nearly 200 bird species and various mammals like tree pangolins, long-footed rats, red-tailed monkeys, and African palm civets.

Exploring the Source

Elevated wooden walkways wind through the protected forest, guiding visitors towards the source and offering glimpses of the river’s initial stretch. The source itself is a small spring bubbling beneath a fallen tree. A visitor center educates guests on the Zambezi’s significance and the surrounding ecosystem. Additionally, a monument commemorates Zambia’s independence, unveiled in 1964.

Reaching the Source: A Remote Adventure

The source is roughly 54 kilometers from Mwinilunga, accessible by a dirt road undergoing improvements. Taxis from Mwinilunga or four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended for navigating the terrain. Look for signage marking the turnoff from the Mwinilunga-Ikilenge road. Camping facilities are available at the site.

The Zambezi’s Journey

The Zambezi traditionally divides into three sections:

  • Upper Zambezi (Source to Victoria Falls): From its source, the river flows southwest into Angola for about 240 kilometers before re-entering Zambia. It picks up speed at Cholwezi Rapids, Chavuma Falls, and Ngonye Falls. Over the next 800 kilometers, the river slows as it enters the Barotse Floodplain, expanding to 25 kilometers wide during the rainy season. It then turns east, forming the border between Zambia and Namibia before meeting the Chobe River and briefly bordering Botswana. It subsequently becomes the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. The area above Victoria Falls offers opportunities for kayaking, canoeing, and river cruises, teeming with bird and wildlife.
  • Middle Zambezi (Victoria Falls to Lake Cahora Bassa): Victoria Falls marks the start of the middle Zambezi. For the next 500 kilometers, the river serves as the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Victoria Falls Bridge is a popular spot for bungee jumping. Adrenaline seekers can embark on white-water rafting adventures in the Batoka Gorges, boasting the highest possible grade (5). The river then cuts through 200-250 meter high basalt rock gorges for 240 kilometers before reaching Lake Kariba. Further downstream, the Kafue and Luangwa rivers contribute as major tributaries. The middle Zambezi is a crucial wilderness area in Africa, ending at Lake Cahora Bassa, a dam constructed in 1974 that generates power for Mozambique and South Africa.
  • Lower Zambezi (Lake Cahora Bassa to the Zambezi Delta): The lower Zambezi, roughly 650 kilometers long, is navigable despite becoming shallow during dry seasons. It winds past Tete and Sena, offering opportunities to explore smaller channels. The Lupata Gorge, 320 kilometers from the delta, is the only section where the river flows through a gorge. Roughly 160 kilometers from the mouth, the Shire River from Malawi joins the Zambezi. As it approaches the Indian Ocean, the river splits into a delta with several branches. Sandbars obstruct the four main mouths, but the Chinde mouth allows for navigation with depths of 2-4 meters.

Several bridges span the Zambezi at various points:

  • Cazombo Road Bridge (Angola) – Bombed during the civil war, not yet rebuilt.
  • Chinyingi Suspension Bridge (Zambia) – A 300-meter footbridge built by the community.
  • Katima Mulilo Road Bridge (Zambia-Namibia) – A 900-meter bridge connecting Zambia and Namibia, opened in 2004.
  • Kazungula Bridge (Botswana-Zambia-Namibia-Zimbabwe) – Replaced the Kazungula Ferry upon completion in 2013.
  • Victoria Falls Bridge (Zimbabwe-Zambia) – The first bridge, opened in 1905, carries road and rail traffic.
  • Kariba Dam (Zambia-Zimbabwe) – A dam with a highway running across it.
  • Otto Beit Bridge (Zambia and Zimbabwe)- at Chirundu connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia by road, 382 metres and opened in 1939
  • Second Chirundu road bridge (Zambia and Zimbabwe) – 400 metres long and opened in 2002
  • Tete Suspension bridge (Mozambique) – it’s a 1,000 metre road bridge built in the 1970’s a new bridge constructed a few kilometres downstream is now in use.
  • Caia bridge (Mozambique)- opened in 2009, was named after the president of Mozambique, Armando Emilio Guebuza. 

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