|Country||South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique|
|Source confluence||Marico and Crocodile|
|• location||Botswana/South Africa border|
|• elevation||872 m (2,861 ft)|
|Gaza Province, Mozambique|
|Length||1,750 km (1,090 mi)|
|Basin size||415,000 km2 (160,000 sq mi)|
|• average||170 m3/s (6,000 cu ft/s)|
The Limpopo River rises in South Africa, and flows generally eastwards through Mozambique to the Indian Ocean. The term Limpopo is derived from Rivombo (Livombo/Lebombo), a group of Tsonga settlers led by Hosi Rivombo who settled in the mountainous vicinity and named the area after their leader. The river is approximately 1,750 kilometres (1,087 mi) long, with a drainage basin 415,000 square kilometres (160,200 sq mi) in size. The mean discharge measured over a year is 170 m3/s (6,200 cu ft/s) at its mouth. The Limpopo is the second largest river in Africa that drains to the Indian Ocean, after the Zambezi River.
The first European to sight the river was Vasco da Gama, who anchored off its mouth in 1498 and named it Espirito Santo River. Its lower course was explored by St Vincent Whitshed Erskine in 1868-69, and Captain J F Elton travelled down its middle course in 1870.
The drainage area of Limpopo River has decreased over geological time. Up to Late Pliocene or Pleistocene times, the upper course of the Zambezi River drained into the Limpopo River. The change of the drainage divide is the result of epeirogenic movement that uplifted the surface north of present-day Limpopo River, diverting waters into Zambezi River.
The river flows in a great arc, first zigzagging north and then north-east, then turning east and finally south-east. It serves as a border for about 640 kilometres (398 mi), separating South Africa to the southeast from Botswana to the northwest and Zimbabwe to the north. Two of its tributaries, the Marico River and the Crocodile River join, at which point the name changes to Limpopo River. There are several rapids as the river falls off Southern Africa's inland escarpment.
The Notwane River is a major tributary of the Limpopo, rising on the edge of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and flowing in a north-easterly direction. The main tributary of the Limpopo, the Olifants River (Elephant River), contributes around 1,233 million m3 of water per year. Other major tributaries include the Shashe River, Mzingwane River, Crocodile River, Mwenezi River and Luvuvhu River.
In the north-eastern corner of South Africa the river borders the Kruger National Park.
The port town of Xai-Xai, Mozambique is on the river near the mouth. Below the Olifants, the river is permanently navigable to the sea, though a sandbar prevents access by large ships except at high tide.
The waters of the Limpopo flow sluggishly, with considerable silt content. Rudyard Kipling's characterization of the river as the "great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees," where the "Bi-Coloured Python Rock-Snake" dwells in the Just So Stories is apt. Rainfall is seasonal and unreliable: in dry years, the upper parts of the river flow for 40 days or less. The upper part of the drainage basin, in the Kalahari Desert, is arid but conditions become less arid further downriver. The next reaches drain the Waterberg Massif, a biome of semi-deciduous forest and low-density human population. The fertile lowlands support a denser population, and about 14 million people live in the Limpopo basin. Flooding during the rainy season is an occasional problem in the lower reaches. During February 2000 heavy rainfalls due to a cyclone caused the catastrophic 2000 Mozambique flood.
Vasco da Gama, on his first expedition, was probably among the first Europeans to sight the river, when he anchored off the mouth in 1498. However, there has been human habitation in the region since time immemorial -- sites in the Makapans Valley near Mokopane contain Australopithecus fossils from 3.5 million years ago. St Vincent Whitshed Erskine, later Surveyor General for South Africa, traveled to the mouth of the river in 1868-69.
A Zambezi shark (Carcharhinus leucas) was caught hundreds of kilometres upriver at the confluence of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers in July 1950. Zambezi sharks tolerate fresh water and can travel far up the Limpopo.