Limpopo River Southern Mozambique

The Limpopo River – A Magnificent Southern African River With A Unique Nickname created by British Author Rudyard Kipling. 

 Jonathan Hemmings

The “Great Grey-Green Greasy Limpopo River” is a name that certainly has a ring to it; a somewhat odd one, to be sure, but the words do roll off the tongue quite pleasingly. Of all the nicknames for the great rivers in Africa, and likely the rest of the world, it has to be one of the strangest nicknames out there. So how did this massive Limpopo River – one that you’ll see with your own eyes for those on an Alexandra’s Africa Limpopo Explorer Safari – get its nickname?

Main photo credit: Cary Humphries/U.S. Department of Defense (000310-F-5772H-512)

The name was penned by one of the most well-known British writers of the late 19thand early 20thcenturies: Rudyard Kipling. He did not likely intend, however, for the name to stick! The phrase was used in one of his Just So stories, entitled The Elephant’s Child, which describes how elephants got their long trunks. In the story, a young elephant sets off on a journey and comes “to the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees”.

Much like Kipling’s Limpopo, the actual river is full of crocodiles and hippopotamuses (and the occasional Zambezi shark), but the real river is not actually greasy! Especially in today’s era of industrial-scale pollution, the word “greasy” conjures images of chemically-blighted landscapes, and a tragic sheen of industrial oil glistening on the sludgy waters of a chemically-killed river. However, the Limpopo River is very much alive supporting and abundance of animal and birdlife. Kipling’s “greasy” description likely stems from the fact that the river’s flow is generally sluggish, and the silt content of the water is high – which together make it appear somewhat ‘greasy’.

The Limpopo River – that “great grey-green greasy” body of water – along with the Nile, the Zambezi, the CongoLimpopo River - the course and the Orange is one of the great rivers of Africa.  Arising in South Africa, it flows first northeast on a semicircular course and then east for about 1,100 miles (1,800 km) to the Indian Ocean. It serves first as the border between Botswana and South Africa, and then Zimbabwe and South Africa, and it finally flows through Mozambique and drains into the Indian Ocean.

In addition to being an artery of life-giving water to the regions it flows through, the Limpopo River also supplied water to a great ancient Southern African civilisation: the Mapungubwe kingdom. This kingdom, which flourished between 900AD and 1300AD, traded internationally with other medieval powers as far afield as China. The ruins of the Mapungubwe kingdom are now a UNESCO heritage site.

As you can see, the “Great Grey-Green Greasy” Limpopo River and the areas through which it flows have a lot to offer for travellers who love wildlife, natural beauty, history and culture. The sight of its winding passage through an unspoiled landscape, and its calm waters dotted with hippopotamuses, crocodiles and birds of all kinds, is one that will stay with you for a lifetime.


Special Note on this Topic:

The British author Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was considered by some as a man of genius and fine intelligence and one of the most popular writers of his time, revered as a journalist, writer, poet and novelist. Kipling’s works according to this source – include The Jungle Book (1894), Kim (1901), and many short stories, including “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888). His poems include “Mandalay” (1890), “Gunga Din” (1890), “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” (1919), “The White Man’s Burden” (1899), and “If—” (1910). Kipling’s subsequent reputation during the 20th century changed according to the political and social climate of the age resulting in contrasting views about him which continued until his death.


We have decided to unearth some of the stories behind the legendary name of this mighty river as we are so often asked and it serves as the focal point for a number of Alexandra’s Africa Safaris.

Headshot of Jonathan Hemmings with sea shore in background

Jonathan Hemmings






Written by Jonathan Hemmings

Alexandra’s Africa is a local independent, niche Safari Tour Operator based in the New Forest in Hampshire, UK – offering a range of small-group hosted Safaris and Retreats. For information or to contact:  W: or T: UK 02380 861278 or E: