The Zambezi river. Home to Victoria Falls, Zambian bush safaris and a host of adventure activities, including some of the world’s most extreme river rafting. Landlocked, 1500 metres above sea level, this might be the last place you might expect to see a surfboard, but you would be wrong. Occasionally, the water levels and currents align perfectly on a stretch of the Zambezi River, creating a perilous but exhilarating wave for any surfer brave enough to take it on.
Standing river waves are an oddity of nature that occurs when a fast river flows over a natural or manmade riverbed gradient just right and shapes the current into surfable waves. River surfing is growing in popularity worldwide and these waves are being discovered everywhere from Ohio to Norway. Yet not many people are aware that one of the world’s best, and most dangerous, river wave lies somewhere along the mighty Zambezi in Africa.
Most river waves are host to a few minor hazards, such as shallow rocks and boulder gardens or concrete pylons – and of course, tumbling rapids just downstream. But unlike the comparatively gentle foam balls of the more popular river waves (such as the one at Eisbach in Munich, Germany for example), the Zambezi river’s standing wave arguably offers surfers challenges and risks like no other.
In fact, it is hardly surprising that anyone who tries to surf this wave can expect to get rolled like a rag doll. Zambezi is home to several Class V river rapids, which is the second highest level on the international scale of river difficulty. This grading is applied mostly to “extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids” – mainly by the kayakers and river rafters addicted plunging down them.
So here, deep in the Zambezi gorge, literally up the creek without a paddle, the threat for a surfer of being smashed on the rocks or even drowning in this wave’s thundering rapids is very real. Also known as Rapid 11, the Zambezi River wave is essentially a large, submerged bedrock, polished smooth by aeons of water rushing down Africa’s fourth longest river – which thunders down it at several hundred thousand litres per second.
After eddying through a deep pool upstream, the river then accelerates through a narrow gap, increasing in velocity before it smashes into and folds across Rapid 11, causing a tubing river wave that rivals the intensity of any ocean-borne wave.
And as if that wasn’t enough, though there are no sharks within a thousand kilometres – getting clamped in the jaws of a lurking African crocodile is also a distinct possibility here.
Welcome to river surfing, African style.
Whirlpools and Tombstones
Located just outside the iconic African town of Livingstone, the Zambezi river standing wave is no secret to those in the know. Reached after a long bush hike – that includes a staircase on the final stretch with nearly 600 steps made from Mopani stakes – its spiralling tubes and curving rapids have been ridden sporadically for the past couple of decades by both kayakers (who first discovered it) and surfers, including some of the world’s top professionals.
As the Zambezi river wave is only suitable for surfing at most maybe a few times a year, when the water levels and water speeds come together most ideally for stand up riders, it is rarely actually surfed by the best, adding to its mystique as one of the world’s most enigmatic river waves. Recently, however, a crew from South African surfing magazine Zigzag, including former professional surfer Royden Bryson, travelled to the Zambezi to ride the wave in Zambia.
For a start, though ocean surfing is often practised in spectacular natural coastal settings, Royden was blown away by the natural beauty of the area – and the power of the river in comparison to the sea. “I have done exploration surf trips all over the world,” says Royden, “but never to a destination that is so unique and serene in its setting.
“The abundance of wildlife is unbelievable,” continues Royden.
“The intensity and power of the water that flows down the Zambezi was also a surprise – I had no idea it would be so powerful. I have spent my whole life in one or other form of water, but never have I ever seen it come together in a such a brutal display of power and splendour quite like the Victoria Falls.”
Getting used to the river wave was a huge challenge, even for this freakishly talented surfer who just a few years ago mixed it up with the world’s best on the World Surfing League professional tour. To get onto the wave, the surfers have to paddle jump from the rocky river bank and paddle out in front of the submerged boulder.
From there, they basically get sucked backwards into the heart of Rapid 11 – and must time their entry and take off on the wave perfectly, lest they blow it and get pitched into the maelstrom behind it to get rolled, and rolled... and rolled again.
“I think the complex way that you have to get onto the wave is the main difference,” confirms Royden.
“In the ocean, when catching a wave you are moving with the flow of the water to catch it. On the Zambezi river wave, you have to move against the natural flow of the water to catch the wave. It took me a day to get into it. The first day I was either too close to the breaking part of the wave or too far on the shoulder. After you get one where you get it, right then you have pretty much got it.”
Royden and fellow South African surfer Koby Oberholzer spent the next couple of surfing sessions getting the Zambezi river wave wired. By the final day, they were carving and jiving like seasoned river surfing veterans for the cameras, across its spiralling brown facade – and occasionally tucking under its lip for a quick tube ride, a surreal experience, given they were a kilometre and half above the sea.
But it is not surprising that neither surfer dared venture into the water without a helmet and life jacket for protection from the ferocious vortexes of the Zambezi. Indeed, their mastery of the wave did not come without punishment, the river occasionally reminding them who was boss by dishing out a severe battering and dunking.
On one particularly bad fall, Royden’s board did the dreaded ‘tombstone’ – poking skyward vertically as its owner was plunged so deep his two-metre ankle leash was stretched to the max for too long for comfort.
“It’s pretty aggressive,” describes Royden, “and you are definitely not in control of what’s going on while you are underwater. What spun me out a bit at first was you get these whirlpools, so you will surface and then all of a sudden you start going around in circles and then sucked right back down – surfboard, lifevest and all. It is completely different to wiping out in the ocean, but you apply similar principles. Just be submissive, conserve your oxygen and relax.”
Timeless and wise advice in any scary situation, to be sure. But a little harder to apply in the untamed, precipitous Zambezi gorge, a long hike from civilisation of any form, where the river and its creatures hold sway, making it difficult to chill too hard.
Dangers are constantly close by, such as the enormous African crocodile baking on a rock near the crew. “He seemed to be just basking in the sun a couple of hundred meters away and didn't move the whole of the second day,” says Royden. “There is so much water flowing through Batoka Gorge is hard to imagine how he even got there.”
While Royden and Koby can count themselves among a small handful of surfers that have experienced the splendour of this part of the river – and survived the incredible adrenalin rush of riding Rapid 11 – they may also be among the last.
After originally proposing the hydroelectric project here in 2016, despite much pushback from the Livingstone tourism community, the Zambian government it seems are again moving towards implementing this controversial scheme. Though it will generate much-needed power and jobs for the country, it apparently will also mean that a large dam will have to be built upstream – effectively killing of Rapid 11 and negatively impacting much of the adventure tourism based around this part of the river.
Though the hydroelectric scheme may yet take some time to appear, if it ever goes ahead, it does provide a good incentive, if any were needed, to travel to Livingstone as soon as you can to sample its many delights. You can jump right in with our upcoming tours departing from Livingstone.
However, whether your adventures in Livingstone include surfing the standing wave, may be dependent on your level of surfing skill. Andy Davis, the editor of Zigzag, accompanied Royden and Koby on their recent trip. He is a highly competent surfer himself, but after watching them get tumbled and pitched over and over again, even Andy felt it was beyond his ability. “I stayed on the river bank,” says Andy. “That wave is strictly for the professionals.”
Of course, there is a multitude of other water-based and adventure activities in and around Livingstone to enjoy. The town itself is set in a picturesque location and offers travellers a wide variety of accommodation and a selection of bars, taverns and restaurants along its tree-lined avenues in the small urban centre.
Usually, elephants roam the riverside camps and from here, you can embark on a bush safari, or set out to take part one of many adventures activities on offer, which include canoeing, kayaking, river rafting, quad biking, horse riding, swimming in rock pools under Vic Falls, bungee jumping, hiking, angling, microlight flights and helicopter rides.
For the more adventurous, African Budget Safaris offer the 4 day Victoria Falls Adventure Tour Package (Zambia), as well as several packages other centred in and around Livingstone, including the 5 day South Luangwa Tented Camping Safari, the 10 day Botswana Highlights & Vic Falls Safari and 7 day South Luangwa Tented Camp Safari.
Getting to Livingstone for Zambezi River & Vic Falls Adventures
The best way to get to Livingstone on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls is to fly via an international hub (Dubai or Doha) and one of the major African travel hubs, such as Nairobi (Kenya), Johannesburg (South Africa) or Lusaka (Zambia).
In Livingstone, you can join one of our affordable short tours to experience Victoria Falls on a budget. Hop on one of our upcoming tours departing from Livingstone. For tours that include wildlife safaris in Botswana's Chobe Park and/or Zimbabwe's Hwange Park, browse our upcoming tours departing from Victoria Falls town on the Zimbabwean side of Vic Falls.
To compare more options, see our Victoria Falls Safaris which range from 4-days to 56-day long itineraries featuring Vic Falls along the way. To make your trip easier and cheaper, our short Victoria Falls Tours (in Zambia and Zimbabwe) include adventure activities on the Zambezi River, a helicopter flight over Victoria Falls waterfall and a game viewing day trip to Chobe Park in Botswana.
Talk to one of our Africa travel experts to get the most out of Victoria Falls on a budget.
Travel Tip: If you're looking for a remote Zambezi River experience these Zambian trips are for you: Lower Zambezi & Mana Pools Exclusive Camping Safari and the Zambia & Malawi Small Group Safari which includes canoeing on the Lower Zambezi River.