Top 10 African rivers to discover and explore

Morning fog on the Sangha River, a tributary of the Congo River in Central Africa

African rivers are the veins of the continent.

Millions of people rely on these rivers for fresh water, food and transport. Millions of African animals are dependent on African rivers for their survival.

Without the rivers, Africa would probably not be a land of lions, rhinos and other magnificent wildlife.

In this article we dive into ten magnificent African rivers, with five lesser known facts on each of them.

10 Incredible Rivers of Africa

Nile river in Luxor, Egypt

1. The Nile – the longest of them all

This Africa river is over 6000 km long and it links a bunch of  countries – Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi!

It’s the longest river in the world and the link from East Africa to North Africa. It’s a river that brings life to the desert.

Another well documented tale of the Nile involves a tiny baby, placed in a basket to escape persecution. The baby was Moses, of course, and he escaped certain death after the Pharaoh ordered the execution of all male Hebrew babies.

Did you know?

  • Pasquale Scaturro was the first explorer to travel the length of the River Nile, taking 114 days to complete his mission in 2004.
  • Most of the water carried by the Nile originates in Ethiopia.
  • Approximately 160 million people depend on the Nile river for fresh water.
  • The Nile is a popular white water rafting destination – check out the rafting in Jinja, Uganda.
  • People disagree as to the source of this African river and have done for centuries.

2. The Okavango – pure wildlife magic

Aerial photograph of the Okavango Delta in Botswana

The origin of the Okavango is Angola. Known there as the Rio Cubango it flows from the highlands down through Angola, Namibia and Botswana. Unlike other African rivers, the Okavango does not flow into the sea.

Instead it broadens, floods its banks, and forms the world’s largest inland delta, spreading more than 20 000 square kilometres across Botswana’s Kalahari Desert.

It creates the Okavango Delta and one of the planet’s greatest wildlife experiences – discover it all on a Botswana safari.

Deserts are arid and dry. But the Kalahari supports one of the greatest abundances of wild African animals, all thanks to the Okavango River and the Okavango Delta it creates.

Did you know?

  • The Okavango serves as a border between Angola and Namibia.
  • You’ll find over 400 species of birds on this African river.
  • Geologists believe that the Okavango, the upper Zambezi and Limpopo rivers were all joined around 2 million years ago.
  • Scuba diving with Okavango river crocodiles is a thing – people do it in June and July.
  • The Okavango is also known locally as the river of life.

3. The Congo – the African rainforest river

Women fetching water from the Congo River, Katanga

The Congo is one of Africa’s most mysterious and fascinating rivers. It’s the second longest river in Africa and flows through the second largest rainforest in the world.

Most of it remains an unknown, as it twists through thick forests where very few people have ever ventured.

Diogo Cão, the Portuguese explorer entered the Congo estuary in 1482 and claimed the territory for his King. It’s fair to say that the history that followed along the banks of the Congo River is nothing short of horrific.

It’s therefore not without irony that the Congo River and basin is now considered absolutely crucial to the ecological health of the African continent.

Did you know?

  • The equivalent of 13 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water flow into the Atlantic Ocean from the Congo River, every single second.
  • The freshwater fish diversity is immense with 686 known species.
  • The Congo crosses the equator twice.
  • It’s home to the Gates of Hell, a 120-kilometre long canyon of rapids, not a chapter from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
  • The Congo basin has been home to people for over 50 000 years.

4. The Zambezi – creator of Victoria Falls

Three elephants cross the Zambezi river at sunset

The mighty Zambezi river is one of Africa’s most celebrated rivers, winding its way through six different countries before ending in the Indian Ocean.

The pièce de résistance is Victoria Falls. At the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia the Zambezi meets a 100 m vertical chasm, creating what the locals refer to as the smoke that thunders.

Here’s our complete guide to Victoria Falls and things to do on this African river.

Did you know?

  • Archeological sites confirm people have occupied the land around the Zambezi for 3 million years!
  • Bull sharks, which normally live in coastal waters, have been known to swim far up the river.
  • You can bungee jump from no man’s land between Zambia and Zimbabwe above the Zambezi River.
  • The spray from Victoria Falls can be seen up to 48 km (30 mi) away.
  • Nyami Nyami is the local guardian and God of the Zambezi River Valley.

5. The Luangwa River – hippos and antelope

Ballet of carmine bee-eaters along the banks of the Luangwa River

The Luangwa River is one of the major tributaries of the Zambezi. It starts in northeastern Zambia then flows in a southwesterly direction towards the Zambezi.

As it flows through the Luangwa Valley, antelope can be seen sheltering under thorn trees, or roaming the plains with predators skulking in the shadows. Hippos bathe in the river and monkeys shout from treetops along the banks.

Did you know?

  • Most of the economic activity in the Luangwa Valley depends on the river.
  • Game protection in the area began in the late 19th century and the river is the lifeblood for most of the country’s big mammals.
  • The Luangwa is home to over 1000 hippopotami!
  • The Luangwa is a breeding ground for carmine bee-eaters.
  • Natural hot springs can be found in several areas around the river.

6. The Tugela River – something that startles

Another beautiful day ends along the Tugela River

Tugela is a Zulu word meaning “something that startles. It’s the main river in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. This modest little river eventually finds its way to the Drakensberg where it leaps over the edge of a cliff.

At 948 m Tugela Falls is the second highest waterfall on the planet, after Angel Falls in Venezuela. This guide to the Drakensberg explains how you can experience these falls.

Did you know?

  • The Tugela River is 502 km long.
  • The Orange and Vaal Rivers are both tributaries of this South African river.
  • You’re likely to find Nile crocodiles in the Tugela.
  • The Tugela is a popular fly fishing spot.
  • After the falls, this river flows into the Indian Ocean.

7. Niger River – West Africa’s essential vein

Pinasse boat on the Niger River in West Africa

Wearing the title as one of the most dangerous rivers in the world, this African river wiped out 30 000 animals and thousands of people when it burst its banks in 2010. The Niger River is the principal river of West Africa.

With its source in Guinea, the Niger runs through Niger, Mali, Benin and Nigeria before widening to a large delta. It’s the vein that supports much of the wildlife in West Africa.

Did you know?

  • The river’s boomerang shape continues to baffle Western geographers.
  • The Niger Bend brings water to the Sahara desert.
  • The Niger Delta is also referred to as the oil river.
  • The name Niger was first published in Italy by Leo Africanus in 1550.
  • Four of the big five inhabit areas around the Niger River – unfortunately there are no rhinos.

8. The Chambeshi River – an unknown 4700 km Africa river

Yellow-billed stork fishing in the Bangweulu Swamps

A small stream begins in the northern mountains of Zambia. Eventually it will become the Chambeshi. It stretches over 4700 km through ten African countries – but hardly anybody has heard of this African river.

Did you know?

  • The Chambeshi is one of the deepest rivers in the world, with sections reaching 240 metres!
  • A 2007 flood turned this African river into a 20-km-wide lake!
  • One of the world’s great wetland systems, the Bangweulu, is fed by the Chambeshi.
  • The Chambeshi floodplains are used for growing large quantities of rice.
  • Fishing is the main source of economic activity around the Chambeshi.

9. The Orange River – rafting and wildlife

Canoe on the Orange River, South Africa

Flowing across the arid plains of Southern Africa, the Orange river is a very popular destination for adventure seekers and wildlife enthusiasts.

You can go rafting down this African river and discover a wonderful assortment of birds, along the border between South Africa and Namibia.

Did you know?

  • The first diamond discovered in South Africa was on the banks of the Orange River by 15-year-old boy, Erasmus Jacobs.
  • There are no large or dangerous animals on the Orange river – one reason it’s such a favourite rafting destination.
  • The hottest temperature recorded on the Orange river is 47.8º C in 1939.
  • The Orange river is home to 189 bird species.
  • This Africa river is over 2000 km long.

10. The Kasai River – an unhappy past

Dima church on the Kasai river

The Kasai starts in Angola and stretches 1800 km before flowing into the Congo River.

The history of this river is not an entirely happy one.

Slave traders used the Kasai to navigate equatorial rainforests then transport captured slaves back to the Atlantic Ocean, where their ships would await.

Thankfully this history does not define the Kasai. This is another African river home to a wonderful array of wildlife.

Did you know?

  • The Kasai has rich deposits of alluvial diamonds.
  • The river bulges to 4 km wide for stretches of up to 700 km.
  • It’s rich in fish with over 200 known species.
  • More than 60 species of frog hop across this river, including the African bullfrog.
  • The Kasai river and Mai-Ndombe river cross each other, but never mix.

Your Adventure on Africa’s Rivers

A selection of ten awesome rivers in Africa, some you may have had the pleasure of experiencing, others you probably never had heard of.

Be it white water rafting or gently kayaking to an overnight camp site, these African rivers are majestic works of nature.

Rich in history, wildlife and culture, each Africa river has its own unique story to tell. They are the veins of Africa and a wonderful way to connect with your wild side.

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