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1st time Africa: Zambezi Rafting & more - what do I need to know?

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I didn't see any recent threads in a search of the forum, so thought I should start one.

My SO has a trip to raft the Zambezi on his bucket list. I have the FF miles to get there, so we are looking at this for a trip possibly next year.

My SO is taking his first trip abroad, to the UK, this October. I have travelled to the UK and France, and that is pretty much it, so I am not sure what I need to know as we start to plan a trip to Africa. From a cursory review of online information, it looks like many people stay in Livingstone, and take their tours from the Zambia side. While there, we want to do a half-day rafting on the Zambezi. We have rafted class III & IV on the Ocoee many times, and understand the Zambezi is a leap up in difficulty & danger, but at least we're not completely new rafters.

I am a photographer, so I'll also want to go on a wildlife watching tour that provides photographic opportunities. I think my So would also enjoy a helicopter tour.

So here are my recommendation requests:
-I have read that July through December is best for rafting; any recommendations on the best month to go?
-Is Livingstone the best base for our activities?
- Rafting guides: I have heard SafPar & Bundu are good; any other suggestions or places from which we should steer clear?
-I have read some stories about inferior floatation devices provided by outfitters; should we pack our own vests/helmets?
-Photo Safari guides: any recommended operators?
-Accommodations: what do we need to spend for clean, safe accommodations? Any recommended hotels or lodges? (Note: in the US we typically stay at Marriott or Doubletree; in the UK I've used small hotels in the $150-$200 per night range)
-We are planning for rafting, photo safari and possibly a helicopter tour; what other activities do you recommend?
-For those who have been to Africa, what do we need to know as first-timers?

Since I have not planned any adventure travel before, I thought I should start asking questions now. I expect to start planning upon return from the UK in October. I appreciate any constructive feedback or suggestions. Thanks in advance.

Jenny

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    I can only help with the wildlife portion. From either Vic Falls or Livingstone, you can easily get to Chobe in Botswana or Hwange in Zimbabwe. The best wildlife viewing is in their winter, so June-August, but September is still good but starting to get hot. You will spend more on a lodge in a safari area than you are used to, but there are many options in all price ranges. They include all food and activities and are in the bush! Don't be concerned about safety on safari either. I haven't been to the Zambia side of VF, but know there are many hotels that will work for you.

    VF has lots of fun things to do. I'm sure with your research you've seen a lot. The helicopter tours, and most activities, can be arranged before you go or upon arrival.

    If you would like to add a mokoro (canoe) trip, look into Mana Pools. There might also be some in/around Chobe.

    Any experienced safari agent can help you. Two local agents that get good reviews here are a Sun Safaris and Wild Wings. There are many.

    Just my two cents - that's a long way to go for a half day raft trip! How long do you plan to spend in Southern Africa? Are you flying through JNB or Lusaka or other? That way we can be more help with your plan. There's not a lot different about going to Southern Africa than anywhere else - it just takes longer to get there. And where else can you see lions, elephants and zebra?

    Sounds like a special trip. Have fun planning.

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    Thanks christabir! We may well end up doing a full day, but the whole trip is around rafting the Zambezi and seeing Victoria Falls (a bucket list twofer for us both). We are not set at all on staying in Livingstone and open to using someplace else as a base. We would also be open to flying into someplace else and taking a regional flight to this are for the rafting trip and an overnight. The photo safari is something I've always wanted to do and this trip would provide the opportunity. We will be using miles for the flights so we can go any place that One World flies.

    Sorry all if I am not being clear enough or asking the right questions, but I just don't know enough about this part of the world to know what to ask. That is the very reason I came here, to the experts who've done it before. :)

    Thanks again.

    Jenny

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    I hate flying to S Africa with One World miles!! Since you have to use British Airways, you have to fly through heathrow to Lusaka or Johannesburg and spend WAY too much for taxes and fees. It's such a rip off. If there's a cheaper way on OW I haven't found it.

    There are some multi day Zambezi rafting trips. I don't camp, but if you do you could look into that. Livingstone seems to be the most popular starting point - you can't start above the falls, so that makes sense. Livingstone is proud to be the adrenaline capital of the world, with lots of nutty things to do if you are into anything like bungee jumping and zip lining over the falls.

    Anyway, let us know how long you plan to be in the area so we can help you. Three days? A week? More? An idea of a budget would be helpful, too.

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    I first became acquainted with Ruckomechi Safari Camp in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, twenty-five years ago when my sister and I took a five-day canoe trip down the Zambezi as far as the Mozambique border. Since then, I have stayed at Ruckomechi a number of times, as much as five nights, although, because of the circumstances of life, I have not visited there in the past ten years. Nonetheless, its location on the Zambezi, its daily canoe trips, and the possibility of arranging overnight trips from camp (they were offered earlier) make it a candidate for investigation. Ruckomechi is my favorite destination in Africa. ZZ

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    Thanks Zambezi! I will definitely put Ruckomechi on my list to check out!

    Christabir, I think we will probably fly out one Saturday, and need to be back the following weekend, so a roughly a week's stay.

    I am hoping to pay less than $200/night (USD) for accommodations, so maybe $1500 for accommodations and $1500-$2000 for activities would be the top of my budget. Beyond the rafting, we might do zip lining, probably not bungee jumping so much, and of course we want to have a great wildlife experience while we are there.

    Can anyone recommend the best book to get an idea of what is on offer in the area? I typically like DK Eyewitness guides and Fodor's guides, but am open to other suggestions.

    Thanks,

    Jenny

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    I am astonished that you want to accomplish all the things that you mention in a maximum of one week. And, I don't know if the one week includes flying time or time on the ground in Africa. Consider focusing on one country and on a few activities within that country. Since I've mentioned Ruckomechi, that would mean flying in/our of Harare, going to Victoria Falls, maybe to Hwange, and to Mana Pools (Ruckomechi). Or, you could go to Zambia, visit Vic Falls at Livingstone, go canoeing at a camp along the Zambian side of the Zambezi, and finish with a safari in the Luangwa Valley. Africa is a big place and there are challenges in travel. ZZ

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    With one world - to LVI, (this all depends on where you live, but usually how it goes) you will get a flight on Saturday to LHR, arriving early on Sunday. The flights to JNB leave Sunday evening, arrive JNB in the morning for your connection to LVI on Monday afternoon. Then if you need to arrive home by Sunday, you will have to get the late flight in JNB to LHR and then a connection to your home on Saturday or Sunday, depending on where home is. Like I said, it's far. That's almost five days of travel for your raft trip. And getting the flights you want with miles are very difficult to get - there are few FF seats on every flight that are available. It's just the nature of using miles these days. We always plan our trips around the flights - either to save money or to use FF miles. Flights first. Check into flights through Lusaka and Harare - they recently ended the direct flights on BA, but maybe they restarted them or will next year. Just expect to pay a lot more than you expect for those "free" flights.

    As I said above, Mana Pools, Hwange and Chobe Parks are all nearby - near enough for ground transportation. You will have to research what areas and lodges affordable for you. Activities, food and some drinks are included at most safari lodges, so they will be above your budget. Most way above your budget. Books are already obsolete before they are printed - I prefer websites. Before you buy any books, check the library. I haven't seen or heard of any that have good info for Zim and Zam. I love guide books, but for Zim and Zam they are generally not very good except for VF and usually only cover the higher end lodges. Online you can find some of the affordable, less fancy options. I don't think any books would include good info about rafting - certainly not what you are looking for.

    I don't stay at any safari location for less than three nights. Less than that doesn't give you enough time to relax, enjoy it and increase your chances of seeing the available wildlife. It's not like a zoo, you have to be patient and those perfect pictures in the perfect light are few and far between.

    I don't think Ruckomechi will fit in your budget. You will probably find options in Chobe that might work for you, but you really have to look hard! Just remember when you start to plan that most safari lodges in the area are closed mid November to mid April. Since you will probably be flying through JNB, you could go to Wildside in Entabeni a few hours north of JNB or Pilanesberg a couple of hours west more affordably in addition to Chobe. Chobe has great elephants!

    Enjoy your planning.

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    Hi Photo_Traveler!

    Sounds like you have some great ideas for a trip! The Zambezi is well known for incredible white water rafting and the surrounding area of Victoria Falls offers adrenalin-packed activities. And you don’t have to go very far from there to get great game viewing and photographic opportunities!

    For rafting, high water runs February thru July (give or take) and low water runs July thru January (give or take) with July being the transitional month. Most people say that rafting is at its peak from August to Nov thereabouts.

    There are many providers and you have mentioned 2 good ones. Some rafting providers, such as Shearwater Adventures and Wild Horizons, also offer other activities which can be bundled into packages at a discount. That might be a good option for you to keep your costs down. So, for example, you can pick a helicopter ride (Flight of the Angel), white water rafting and a Zip line canopy tour as your package. Depending upon the time of year, if you go on the Livingstone Island Tour, you could jump in Devil's Pool and get that iconic photo at the edge of the Falls - talk about an adventurous shot!

    I'd recommend that you stay 2-3 nights in Victoria Falls. Your arrival day and that first night would be about settling in. You would then spend those next 2 days enjoying the adventure activities of the area. One day would be the rafting (bear in mind that you often spend time hiking in and out so it can be a full day anyway). You could even do one of those nights as an overnight camping/rafting trip. What an opportunity to camp and raft the Zambezi even just for one night! These activities should be planned out and booked in advance - it's really more about working with the provider closely on a schedule that works for you and building a package.

    From Victoria Falls, given your budget and length of trip, I would recommend that you consider Chobe, Botswana for your game viewing. A place that might work well for you would be Chobe Safari Lodge which is on the Chobe River in nearby Kasane (an easy transfer you can book out of Victoria Falls). It offers game viewing on water and land and it works with your budget. Clients have been pleased with their accommodations. There are other options too but the key here is that, based upon your suggested budget and number of days, you're not spending time and money transferring/traveling far which means you are spending more time enjoying the area and doing what you want to do instead!

    Another idea to consider would be Pangolin Photo Safaris. They offer everything from a few hours to a few days to a much longer multi-day trip. Price point is also manageable for a safari with photographic help. They have specially fitted boats and vehicles for camera equipment. This also has worked well as an option!

    These are just a few ideas... Happy to help!

    Best
    Dianne
    Africa Direct USA

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    Thanks, Dianne! Those are some great recommendations! It looks like I have a lot of research ahead. :) I will definitely explore some of the companies, and I have bookmarked your website as well.

    Thanks so much to everyone for the feedback and benefits of your experience! I have already sorted out the combination of redeeming airline miles to JNB and understand I'll pay for flights from there to my final destination.

    I know this is a lofty travel goal, and we don't have the time and financial resources that many would feel necessary for such a trip. However, I am a worker bee; I may not ever have the financial freedom to take off weeks at a time for luxury travel. Still, every time I travel, whether it is a weekend road trip for a Ted Drewe's Concrete, or as a solo traveller exploring the village in which my Mum grew up, I grow as a person. I would rather go now, while I am young and healthy enough to enjoy it, knowing I may spend 4 days travelling to spend 3 days in my destination than wait for a someday that may or may not ever occur. Call me crazy if you will - you'll be in crowded company.

    Happy travels everyone!

    Jenny

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