Carrie Hampton experiences moments of both fear and hilarity as she canoes this famous river, dodging hippos and passing through some of Zimbabwe’s most scenic landscapes. Photographs by Christopher Scott
Knowing that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other wild animal, it’s frankly terrifying when one rears out of the water and charges towards you with its mouth agape. Dodging hippos becomes quite an art on any canoe journey along the Zambezi, and my first encounter had me wondering if I would survive the five-day paddle from Mana Pools in northern Zimbabwe to the Mozambique border at Kanyemba. It stands to reason that both occupants of the two-man canoes should work towards the same goal: to paddle away from said hippo. But we were each doing our own thing — me paddling forwards and my companion trying to reverse. We zigzagged awkwardly on the spot, going nowhere. “Oh no, we’re going to die,” I whimpered. Fortunately, we then mustered the kind of effort that comes from sheer terror and paddled in unison for just long enough to speed out of the old bull’s territory. Our sighs of relief were cut short as our guide told us we had better come up with a better plan for the next time this happened, as there were sure to be further similar incidents.
Anyone for a swim?
Hippos don’t like deep water and with the river up to a mile wide in places, the middle seemed to be the safest place to set a course. There I felt carefree: dragging my fingertips through the tepid water. Our guide noticed and pointed to a floating log ahead, uttering just one word: “Crocodile!” Later, when she suggested that our group of eight might like a swim, I thought she must be completely mad. Nevertheless, we followed her to a shallow sandbank in the centre of the river and cautiously stepped out. In one of my more bizarre travel moments, we sat knee-deep in the swishing Zambezi on little folding canvas stools eating ham-and-cheese rolls and throwing pieces up to yellow-billed kites that dropped like missiles to catch each morsel. We got used to these little stops and became quite complacent about sloshing about in water infested by territorial hippos and giant Nile crocodiles.
No one else around
In contrast to the large and dangerous river-life, Zambezi birdlife is risk-free and colourful. More than four-hundred species have been recorded along this river and twitchers come with high hopes of spotting the Pel’s fishing owl, African finfoot and Goliath heron. But for me, no sight surpassed that of a flock of carmine bee-eaters fluttering in a pink haze above us as we floated quietly past a steep riverbank shot through with hundreds of nesting holes. Catch them at sunset and the whole scene blushes with an amethyst hue, like the very stones found in Zambia and Zimbabwe’s rocky veins. It felt good to be surrounded by such beauty in a true wilderness, with barely a human being to be seen.
“How are you, Madam?” said a sun-dried fisherman with a broadly smiling face who had popped out from behind a baobab tree. Hurriedly, he put on his t-shirt consisting of only a collar and a few straggling pieces of cloth. The fisherman was one of many curious and friendly Zambians who waved vigorously when they saw us, running alongside the river that forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The villagers took the opportunity to barter for fishhooks and some of our thick white bread, and in return we scored some fresh fish for supper. As they took to the water we couldn’t help but compare our erratic efforts in stable, upright fibreglass canoes to their masterful handling of long, thin, wobbly dugouts.
Some of their skill on the water would have come in handy on day four of our trip: a hurricane-force headwind had built up, which funnelled itself into a fury through a narrow gorge. A khaki-clad manager of a remote tigerfishing lodge, standing on his riverside deck, waved us by with obvious pity on his face, admitting he’d never seen the river this windy. Even the elephants and buffalo we had floated past so often — always holding our breath due to their proximity — were nowhere to be seen. “You need a fair level of fitness for encountering these occasional headwinds,” says Jenni Van Zuydam of Natureways Safaris, which specialises in Zambezi canoe trips. But this was a freak storm and we had no option but to soldier on until our hands were sore, shoulders stiff and moods battered into submission.
That night, rather than sleeping under a mosquito net hung from an upturned paddle I opted to sleep in a tent. Tour operators usually provide two-man dome tents, camping mattresses and a sleeping bag with an inner lining, as well as all your meals. After a feast, and rather too much red wine, I lay down, exhausted and aching. By morning the wind had contorted my tent into a lumpy pancake but I emerged well rested into gorgeous sunshine and a light breeze. A surprise was awaiting me: not a metre away, there were some very large footprints. No one had been aware of the silent, pre-dawn visit from a large lone elephant who had tramped right through the camp as we slept.
Calm weather transformed the riverine scene into an African Eden, with jackalberry trees lining the raised northern banks and reeds on the southern side. Wandering beasts slurped up fresh water: buffalo waded through budding water hyacinth; waterbuck grazed deep in marshy grasslands; and fully submerged elephants snorkelled across the river. Crocodiles sunbathed and hippos creaked with a sound like a heavy door opening. All was well on the Zambezi.
With spirits high, a bout of weed-throwing turned into a full-on mud fight. When humourless Hans discreetly removed his red Lycra swimming trunks to disgorge the sandy sludge, they were whipped from his hands and thrown into the current. “Return zem at vonce, zey are French,” he cried. “Oo la, la,” came the retort. The newly crowned river god, Andrew of Aberdeen, called a truce and Hans had to make do with a pair of shorts from the mildly repentant culprit.
After five days of hippo evasion, we had become a demon team, able to manoeuvre in any direction on command. Having forgotten the hardships of a few days before, we wanted to paddle on forever. Isn’t it always the way? When you want to abandon ship you can’t because of the raging currents, hungry crocs and angry hippos, and when you want to continue you can’t, as time has run out and your adventure has come to an end.
3 More canoe journeys
• Orange River This fun trip along the river that forms the border between South Africa and Namibia is beautiful, suitable for families and has some small rapids thrown in.
• Kunene River On the border of Namibia and Angola, this waterway has some large rapids, so is best suited to the more adventurous traveller, but is still manageable for courageous amateurs.
• Selinda Canoe Trail This expedition takes you along Botswana’s Selinda Spillway, which has only flowed since 2009 and will dry up again at some point. You can camp on riverbanks wherever you find yourself, but the price tag reflects its exclusivity.
From source to mouth
The Zambezi has always inspired Larry Norton. Here he tells us about one of his most memorable river adventures…
Since I began painting full time in 1988, so often my points of inspiration have been found on canoeing and walking expeditions.
In 1995 I travelled the length of the Zambezi from source to mouth by motorboat, kayak and canoe, covering 2500km. My journey began on foot at the source of the great Zambezi in a wetland near Mwinilunga on the Zambia-Congo border. We walked from there to near where the river enters Angola, but were forced to fly over Angola’s 250km section of the river to avoid the war.
Where the Zambezi re-enters Zambia we used a motorised inflatable boat to navigate the next part of the route to Victoria Falls. From there we kayaked and rafted the Batoka Gorge to Deka, crossed Lake Kariba by motorboat, and continued to Kanyemba, on the Mozambique-Zimbabwe border, by canoe.
Once in Mozambique, we were nearing the Indian Ocean. We purred across Lake Cahora Bassa in a motorboat and continued by sea kayak from just below the city of Tete through the Zambezi Delta to the port of Chinde and the sea. We completed our three-month quest by paddling 100km north up the coast of Mozambique to the town of Quelimane.
Although my own journey was quite extreme, I would recommend a boat trip on the Zambezi to anyone, even if you cover only a short section. There’s no doubt it is one of life’s great adventures.
• Getting there There are many flights from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls. From there you can fly to Mana Pools. Safari Logistics flights depart three times a week, stopping at various points, including Hwange, Matusadona and Kariba. Confident travellers can self-drive from Victoria Falls (552km), which is a whole adventure in itself, or Harare (388km), but Mana Pools is far from any town and is off limits to vehicles during the rainy season from November to April. It helps to book through a tour operator, such as canoe specialist Natureways Safaris, which can arrange everything for you. Visas for Zimbabwe and Zambia are available on arrival at most airports. You can also buy a KAZA Univisa, which gives you multiple entry into Zimbabwe and Zambia, for just US$50.
• When to go The best time to paddle the Zambezi is during the dry season (April to October); be warned, it can be cold at night from June to September, so pack accordingly. The rainy season (November to March) can be beautiful and is superb for birding, but expect it to be hot and humid.
• What to pack On most canoe trips you can only carry up to 10kg with you, so pack light. Essentials include: a torch, binoculars, suncream, insect repellent, dry bags, sunglasses, swimwear, shorts, shirts and t-shirts in neutral colours, long trousers, sandals, walking boots, a hat, a jacket for cold evenings, waterproofs and a kikoy or sarong to protect your legs from the sun.
• Health Visit your local GP or travel clinic to get the appropriate antimalarials and other vaccinations. Take plenty of insect repellent with you and wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers in the evenings.
• Further reading Zambezi: The First Solo Journey Along Africa’s Mighty River by Mike Boon; Bradt Guide to Zimbabwe (2nd Edition)