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Lion Swims Zambezi River

by Scotch Macaskill

It was extraordinary. We were standing around chatting after lunch when someone spotted a gold-colored head bobbing in the water.

But this was no Golden Lab having fun in the local pond - what we were watching was an adult male lion swimming far out in the Zambezi River, only its head and black-tipped tail visible between swells.

Lion swimming in Zambezi River
On a mission - determined lion swimming in the Zambezi River.

We were in Zambia, staying at Mwambashi River Lodge in the Lower Zambezi National Park. Here the river - Africa's fourth largest - is about 5 km wide. On the opposite side is Zimbabwe and Mana Pools National Park.

The view across the river from Mwambashi is spectacular, with the wide expanse of blue-green water broken by small, reed-fringed islands and channels.

In the distance, rising above the smaller islands, is a hazy outline of tall trees. This is Chikwenya island, a narrow but substantial chunk of land that splits the river and is large enough to attract wildlife like elephant and buffalo - and presumably lions - that swim there from the mainland.

Chikwenya Island
Reed-fringed islands with Chikwenya in the distance.

We could only surmise that the lion had made its way from Chikwenya and, before that, the Zimbabwe mainland. But its intentions were clear - it was on a mission, determined to reach our side of the river.

With Steve Martin, the Mwambashi camp manager, in the lead, we scrambled down to the river and piled into a flat-bottomed boat.

As we rounded one of the islands, we lost site of the lion. Next thing there was a thrashing in the tall reeds to our left and a massive splash as something crashed into the water, rocking our boat and multiplying the nervous tension. It was a hippo, opting for the safety of the river as we motored past.

Once in open water we again saw the lion, swimming towards an adjacent island. Although Steve slowed the motor and kept his distance, the crowded boat clearly spooked the animal. It changed course and started back-tracking, a mix of fear and anger in its eyes.

Swimming Lion, Zambezi River
Lion swimming in deep water, a mix of fear and anger in its eyes.

At this stage, with all passengers squeezed on one side trying to get a better view, the boat got stuck on a sandbank. For a crazy moment it looked like the lion was heading straight for us and I had visions of the panicky animal trying to board the boat.

Fortunately a rapid shuffling of bodies allowed us to ease off the sandbank and drift slowly away, giving the lion more space.

We watched in awe as the lion swam back to the island before rising from the water, the sun glinting on its wet, golden coat. Within moments it was back on land, apparently none the worse for wear, before disappearing into the reeds.

Lion in Zambezi River Lion steps on to land, Zambezi River
Heading for land ..... before disappearing into the reeds.

We returned to camp with mixed feelings - astonished at what we'd seen, but also feeling guilty about meddling with the lion's plans. What now if it was too exhausted to make it to the mainland?

Although I didn't see the lion again, others of our party watched in trepidation later that afternoon as it made a final dash for land. In deep water, against the strong current, a lion would be no match for any of the large crocs that lurk in the Zambezi.

But it reached land safely and, with no worries about passport control or customs formalities, headed into the Zambian bush in search of food and, most likely, the dead elephant we'd seen two days before, the sad victim of a poacher's bullet.

For more about this, see Poacher's Bullet Slays Elephant.

Technical details: All the pictures of the lion swimming were taken with a Canon EOS 350D and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS zoom lens. To achieve highest possible shutter speed for shooting hand-held from the boat, ISO was set at 800. This allowed a shutter speed between 1/1500 and 1/2000 at maximum aperture of F5.6. Focal length was 400mm, equivalent to 640mm on a 35mm film camera.

Images © Scotch Macaskill

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Contact Details: Scotch Macaskill, Dirt Road Traders, Currys Post Road, Howick, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Tel: +27 (0)82 578 2329. Privacy: Your privacy is guaranteed. See our Privacy Policy for more. This site accepts advertising and other forms of compensation - see Disclosure and Advertising for details. Site updated: 2022. Copyright © 2002 - 2022 Scotch Macaskill