Set adrift on the Zambezi River at sunrise

Sheriden Rhodes takes to the waters of the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe to be charmed by the local wildlife at sunrise.

I’m nursing a cup of coffee with a dash of Amarula Cream as we float in silence, watching the African sun ascend spectacularly over what’s considered the world’s oldest river. The rising sun is a hypnotic fiery ball mirrored on the mighty Zambezi River awash in rose and aubergine hues. Wrapped in blankets to stave off the morning chill, we listen as our guide Jabulami (JB for short), tells us the river flows through six countries and is the lifeblood of Southern Africa. 

Zambezi River view
Old Drift Lodge, a serene tented property, on the banks of the Zambezi River

Afloat on the Zambezi

We set off from Old Drift Lodge, a serene tented property on the banks of the Zambezi River just upstream from Victoria Falls. Away from the adrenalin-fuelled bungee jumping and white water rafting that many come here for, life moves at a decidedly slower pace. 

Afloat on the Zambezi, you can almost feel your brain reset as you submit to its calming ebb and flow. That’s not to say staying here is without its heart-racing moments. Last night I was woken by an elephant slurping up the water in my plunge pool (that staff topped up with water by sunrise). While guests must be escorted to their tents lest they stumble across a hippo or lion looking for a drink. 

Local elephants take to the tent’s plunge pool

Meeting the ‘river horse’

We can safely observe hippos – Africa’s deadliest animal – in their natural habitat. JB steers the boat towards a pod of 20 hippos, only their nostrils and small ears visible on the waterline. Cutting the motor, we listen as they snort, snuffle and yawn warningly – their pink eyes carefully watching us. Known as the ‘river horse’, hippo pods as large as sixty can be found in the Zambezi waters. Extremely territorial, it’s wise to give these water-loving herbivores a wide berth.

Hippos share the river with the Nile crocodile, which can live up to 100 years. JB points out several sun baking crocs on the river bank. “I once saw a five-metre crocodile across from the lodge,” he tells us. Yet another reason not to venture too close to the water’s edge. Aside from hippos and crocs, the river is also home to many birds. These include the African fish eagle, white-faced whistling duck, African finfoot and the rare Egyptian goose. Elephants are also regularly seen swimming between islands and playing on the riverbank. 

Zambezi River sunrise
Sunrise cruising © Sheriden Rhodes

The magic of the early hour

Given most visitors to the town straddling the Zimbabwean and Zambia borders opt for a sunset cruise, we practically have the river to ourselves at this early hour. We float as far as a marker where hazardous rocks and the falls prevent boats from venturing further beyond shallow waters. “We call the river ‘kasambabezi’, meaning only those who know the river can bathe in it,” JB explains, turning back for the lodge, as swallows swoop and dart in the water wash. 

Zambezi River bathtub
Bath time on the private deck of the exclusive tent suite

After breakfast at Old Drift Lodge, I head off for my morning’s ablutions. After seeing the river’s inhabitants for myself, I opt for a safe soak in my freestanding bath. Which is privately nestled on the deck of my tented suite (one of the 14 suites on site). I’m not taking any chances with my scant knowledge of the river.

Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of South African Airways and Old Drift Lodge.

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