In a world where children rarely feel the thrill of adventure and the sheer wonder of untamed wilderness, a canoe trip down the Zambezi is an experience they’ll never forget. Words and photographs by David Rogers
Our party of 12 was a mix of boys aged between 10 and 12, and adults. We were collected from the town of Victoria Falls in open vehicles piled high with our luggage and the inflatable boats on the roof. After a short drive out of town, we entered Zambezi National Park and arrived at our campsite just as the sun was setting, greeted by a group of cheerful camp staff and a long table at the water’s edge laid for dinner. Our tents lined the riverfront. There was nothing between the wilderness and us. Baboons shouted their warning call as the boys rigged up their fishing rods in the hope of getting some ‘tiddlers’ for the next day’s fishing. Dinner was a three-course affair and tired, happy and smelling of smoke from the fire, we fell into our comfy beds lulled by the rush of the Zambezi and the occasional hippo chuckle. There is no sleep quite like that.
The day dawned hot and clear and we packed up for a day on the river. Driving up river from camp for roughly an hour brought us to the put-in point, where we were briefed on river safety and the threat of rapids, hippos, crocs and dehydration. The boys listened wide-eyed. The boats were comfy two-seaters and very stable, albeit quite difficult to steer. There was little time to adjust as we paddled straight in to a series of rapids that ran on for nearly an hour with little respite. Finally, we moved into a wide calm section of the river where we could enjoy water fights, join our boats to ‘raft’ a while, sing, chat and lap up the passing scenery. The riverine fringe of giant figs, jackalberrys, heavy-laden sausage trees and baobabs often hosted fish eagles, gymnogenes and squabbling baboons. Kingfishers and bee-eaters swooped low past our boats in colourful flashes.
The lunch stop was a great surprise – a delicious hot meal of chicken, pork-breast kebabs and potato salad were served along with the cool box of ice-cold drinks. The last two hours on the river after lunch were slow and hot. When our familiar camp came into site, the sun was already low and the boys exhausted.
The second morning, we had a restful start. After a cooked breakfast we launched into small rapids and eased our stiff muscles. Coming around a bend we suddenly saw hundreds of elephant drinking and swimming in the river! It was a sight that I will never forget. The bank was lined with them – all sizes – and the channel blocked by these playing, splashing and cavorting pachyderms. We pulled our boats onto a sandy spit and watched, enthralled, as this spectacle just became increasingly incredible, with more and more filing out of the bush. Trumpeting, rumbling, splashing – the shear energy of so many elephant so close to us was miraculous, even for the bush-wise folk among us.
On a high, we paddled the last section, and the plume of the famous Victoria Falls finally showed in the distance and we knew that we’d reached the end. Pulling our boats out the water to enjoy a last lunch, we all felt a terrible loss moving away from this river. We had felt at one with the rhythms of its giant tide, as we glided through a green wilderness, rich in life, prickling with birds, dotted with butterflies and canopied by huge white clouds pushed up against the bluest, hottest sky.
We had ridden this great river’s rapids with adrenalin and joy. We had saluted the hippos and felt the massive surge of that water forging its way towards the waterfall. Instead of feeling like spectators, we had shared its meandering channels in unity with the beasts that live beside and in it. Silent observers, the wildlife had honoured us by allowing us to gently pass through and it had shown itself to us with grace.