Zambezi: Shaken or stirred?


Paul Bloomfield and Laurianne Claase team up to take on southern Africa’s most famous river in two very different ways. Paul travelled to Zambia to kayak the upper Zambezi on a novel new offering for adventure-seeking travellers. In doing so he follows in the footsteps (and paddle strokes) of some diverse characters, starting with explorer David Livingstone and ending with the 2013 Comic Relief team of UK-based celebrities and athletes. Laurianne visits Zimbabwe and attempts a more subdued option on the middle Zambezi, canoeing the classic route from Zimbabwe’s Lake Kariba to Mana Pools National Park.

Whitewater rafting below Vic Falls (Photo by S Edington/Safari Par Excellence)

Whitewater rafting below Vic Falls (Photo by S Edington/Safari Par Excellence)

This article was published in Issue 63 (Summer 2013)

When kayaking down the upper Zambezi you can have it one of two ways: wet and tough, or dry and even tougher.

My river guide, Sven, made the point with an observation born of long experience. “Right now, late in the rainy season, the waters are high and the flow strong, so we don’t have to paddle quite so hard,” he explained. “But towards the end of the year, when the dry season bites and the river is more sluggish, you really have to work up a sweat to make any kind of distance.”

In all honesty, the benefits of being pelted with rain didn’t seem immediately obvious. Perched in the bow of an inflatable kayak, bum aching, shoulders burning, thumb blistered from three days of paddling, the arrival of a downpour didn’t seem likely to add much joy.

And yet… when the angry clouds that had amassed through the morning emptied onto the glassy waters around us, raindrops stinging our faces and bouncing off the river’s mirror-like surface like countless minuscule glass beads, I was mesmerised. That combination of sheer wonder and discomfort seemed to epitomise the contradictory experiences of river travel on the Zambezi.

It was, I mused, a feeling with which David Livingstone might have been familiar. The explorer, whose 200th birthday is celebrated this year, is both feted and derided for his great Zambezi expedition. Obsessed by the idea of planting a mission in this patch of southern Africa, in 1853 Livingstone set out from Sesheke (modern-day Mwandi) to pioneer a river route to the ocean, a highway to bring his three ‘C’s – Christianity, commerce and civilisation – to the region.

Heading first west, he battled his way some 1600km to the Atlantic at Luanda (now in Angola) but encountered obstacles that were insurmountable for a major trade route. So he turned his gaze east, following the Zambezi to the Indian Ocean at Quelimane in Mozambique, becoming reputedly the first European to cross the continent.

My own jaunt on the river was far more modest. I had joined a small group following in Livingstone’s wake along a 111km section of river, paddling mekoro (dug-out canoes), inflatable kayaks and rafts east to Victoria Falls. The trip, launched by specialist operator Charity Challenge and initially undertaken in February by the ‘Hell and High Water’ celebrity team in aid of Comic Relief, is the first such multi-day journey on the upper Zambezi.

My initial view of the upper Zambezi was at Mambova, not too far from where, in 1851, Livingstone had first been captivated by its promise. “The river indeed is a magnificent one,” he wrote, “often more than a mile broad, and adorned with many islands…the beauty of the scenery of some of the islands is greatly increased by the date palm.”

In contrast, climbing gingerly aboard my mokoro, I launched into a narrow, reed-fringed channel. The beauty, though less expansive than Livingstone’s description, was just as striking. The azure flash of a malachite kingfisher paused on an improbably slender papyrus stalk to gaze at the strange paddlers. Jacanas landed and did their Jesus impression, walking on water among the lilies. Swifts swooped to pick off red dragonflies hovering above the river, and open-billed storks languidly lifted themselves on broad wings. The stillness was broken only by the gentle splash of paddles, cape turtle doves whistling their characteristic exhortations to ‘work harder’, and the thrums and chirrups of cicadas and crickets.

An hour or two of powering a mokoro convinced me of the prowess and strength of its regular pilots. Whether poling or paddling, making any kind of headway while steering a straight course proved far from easy, and I was happy to transfer to the dubious comfort of an inflatable kayak.

Watching local fishermen aboard their own wooden craft, safety kayaker Dom explained that they were returning home with piscine bounty. “Daninga fish migrate upstream,” he told me. “Last night these men set long, conical traps in the rapids to catch them. Then, in the morning, they return to collect the traps, drying the fish in the sun to eat or sell.” They also haul in bream, catfish and mudsuckers, as well as the Zambezi’s famously feisty tigerfish that lure game fishermen to plush riverside lodges.

Emerging from the side channels, we joined a broader sweep where Livingstone’s hopes for the Zambezi as a major artery into the continent seemed more plausible. Here, the water flows wide and sluggish but implacably seawards. And a man shouting from one bank might not be comprehended on the other – not least because they wouldn’t necessarily be speaking the same language. Approaching the busy ferry crossing at Kazungula, Sven pointed out that over the next few minutes, at some impossible-to-pinpoint spots in midstream, we’d be able to dip our paddles in the waters of four different countries.

As the tip of Impalila Island drifted past we said goodbye to Namibia. Botswana then reached out a finger to briefly touch the Zambezi before Zimbabwe’s shores hoved into view. Zambia was the most loyal of the bunch, keeping us company on the north bank throughout. It’s truly a cosmopolitan river, rising in Zambia’s northwest, skirting south through Angola and bending east to form Zambia’s southern border before departing into Mozambique to complete its 2574km odyssey at the coast.

Livingstone knew that as the Zambezi surged east from Sesheke (now in Zambia), it must meet the Indian Ocean. What he didn’t know was what lay in between. Today’s transport on the river gives a clue to that answer – while ferries and pontoons cross the river, journeys along its course are limited mainly to short sightseeing cruises above Livingstone and sketchy post boats. Why? We were about to discover the main reason: rapids.

At Katumbora we encountered our first stretch of whitewater. It didn’t look too daunting – indeed, Sven’s comment that hippos and crocs don’t frequent such cataracts made it seem positively inviting. But, following an unfortunate capsize on the celebrity challenge that left comedian Dara Ó Briain clinging to a branch for the best part of an hour, the decision had been made to portage, hauling our craft overland around the obstacle.

If paddling a kayak is wearying, carrying one is another level of ouch. Considering it’s essentially a big balloon – rubber filled with air – a two-person inflatable is astonishingly heavy. So the portage was, for my paddling partner and me, a stop-start affair. The journey of a few hundred paces took at least a quarter of an hour.

Livingstone – unlike me, clearly – wasn’t a man to grumble about hardship, only grudgingly admitting the agonising and debilitating effects of malaria after being laid low himself by successive attacks. But surely he would have understood the barrier such rapids would represent to mass transport? Seemingly not – even after he reached the coast (notably, though not deliberately, bypassing the wildest rapids at Cahora Bassa to the east) he could still convince himself of the route’s merits.

We made camp below Katumbora, establishing a routine for each afternoon that repeated itself in reverse the following morning: erecting tents, sharing cooking duties and washing up, and swapping stories around the campfire.

In the evening, tall tales were shared by the crew. On our third night, camped near Simonga village, a series of bellowing roars charged the rain-muffled gloaming. “Buffalo, been hit by a car,” asserted Sven. “She won’t come here… but if she does, head for the truck or the trailer.”

One of the more timid members of our party asked grimly: “So just how many ways of dying are we facing tonight?” Sven smirked before launching into the patter. “Well, we’re camped under trees, so there’s the chance of lightning strike. A big, evil croc lurks around here. That buffalo sounds maddened with pain and irate hippos may charge. And of course there are snakes and scorpions.”

Our silence was broken only by the monotonous glockenspiel calls of reed frogs.

In truth, our camps on the Zambian side of the river were rarely far from villages, small compounds of reed-thatched huts and more substantial houses surrounded by fields of maize and finger millet. But for much of our journey the winterthorn woods of Zimbabwe’s Zambezi National Park carpeted the right-hand bank; our slumbers were punctuated by occasional lion roars and elephant trumpeting drifting across the water from the opposite shore.

Though wildlife watching wasn’t the primary goal, there was plenty to enjoy. The birdlife was profuse: emerald-backed, Zorro-masked little bee-eaters; reed cormorants hanging their wings out to dry; the swooping flight of a hornbill; and trees laden with clusters of weaver-bird nests. In the wet season bankside mammal sightings are rare, though we did encounter a squabbling troop of chacma baboons raiding a stand of waterberry trees, and spotted a clawless otter evaporating into the reeds.

On our fourth day we transferred to a six-person raft to approach the looming column of cloud on the horizon betraying the location of Victoria Falls. Whether seen from a distance or, as we did later that day, peering over the precipice from Livingstone Island in the middle of the plunging torrent, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by Africa’s greatest waterfall. The sheer volume of water hurtling 108m down into Batoka Gorge – some 10 million litres per second, more at peak flows – is dizzying.

Livingstone, though, arriving at the Falls in November 1855, was strangely matter-of-fact, writing: “The falls are singularly formed. They are simply the whole mass of the Zambesi waters rushing into a fissure or rent made right across the bed of the river.” His oft-quoted rhapsodic descriptions, claiming that “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”, were penned at the suggestion of his publisher in England much later.

Though he didn’t admit it at the time, perhaps subconsciously Livingstone recognised that these falls – huge, inspiring, terrifying – epitomised the untameable nature of the Zambezi that would contribute to the ultimate failure of his plans. There was no great trade route established along the river. Yet two centuries after his birth, his legacy endures in the commemorative plaque at the Falls, in the town that bears his name, and most of all in the transformation of Africa – for better or worse – that resulted from his efforts to open up the continent’s interior.


Going with the flow in the lower Zambezi (Photo by Laurianne Claase)

Day 1 – 18km: It’s New Year’s day and we are setting out to explore 121km of the middle Zambezi. We will be paddling from below the Kariba Dam wall to Mana Pools National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the highest recorded numbers of game and birdlife on the Zambezi. Not a bad way to start 2013.

Our guides to this African Eden are aptly named Cloud and Emmanuel. Two Canadian flat-bottomed canoes prove big enough to handle four passengers, camping and cooking equipment, food, drink and enough ice for six days. We soon come to appreciate the local fondness for peanut butter. We are on safari with the ‘Peanut Butter Boys’.

It is hot and still, and hippos and a hamerkop watch us drift off down the gorge. The river carries us at a gentle 7kph, so there’s no real reason to paddle. Soon the river is too deep for hippos and the banks too steep for big game. Crocs sun themselves on the banks and the warbling, liquid cry of the Piet-my-vrou (red-chested cuckoo) echoes down the gorge. A summer holidaymaker from central Africa, this bird is seldom seen. Its breeding call, however, is unmistakeable, exhorting people to pick up their hoes for the summer planting season. The white-browed coucal’s trickling call also heralds the rains and follows us down the river.

We stop for a lunch of salad, cheese, cold meats and Mazoe orange under the green expanse of a Natal mahogany, its distinctive red and black beans scattered underfoot. We enjoy a nearby stream and sit out the worst of the heat. Later we clamber up a waterfall to wallow in rock pools as warm as bath water.

The first night’s camp is Nyamomba Island, which is just outside the gorge where the river widens. The area along this curve of the river is punctuated by sand banks, riverine islands and sizeable pods of hippos. It is the only night we sleep on grass, rather than sand, because the hippos here don’t find this grass palatable.

Day 2 – 27km: Today is about dodging the hippo pods – they are everywhere. We tap on the sides of the boats with our paddles to warn them of our passing. Curious beasts – and territorial – they pop up to see who goes there. We strike out for the shallows, leaving the hippos the deep. They bare their teeth and grunt at our temerity.

Despite the hippo’s reputation as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, the biggest threat on the water from these vegetarian tuskers is that you will inadvertently bump into one. Deceptively placid as the river may seem, you do not want to end up in it. It is the crocs, not the hippos, that are the real danger on the middle Zambezi. The river actually has the country’s highest density of both species, with an average of 33 hippos and six adult crocodiles per kilometre of river. So do not be tempted to trail your limbs languidly in the water while floating downstream!

Day 3 – 20km: An hour’s float in the morning brings us to Chirundu, where we pay for our permits and brunch under a nyala tree by the slipway. The river quickly widens and is edged in umbrella thorn and phragmytes reed beds. Sandy islands are dotted with blacksmith and crowned lapwings and red-wing pratincoles. A lone bull elephant drinks on the far bank. We step up our pace but by the time we get there he is gone.

Past Chirundu stands the imposing, decaying edifice of a pump house that once ran the irrigation for a sugar plantation. The pump house was blown up in the war of independence and the sugar plantation subsequently died. A banana plantation took its place, only to be destroyed by elephants and baboons. Today, the pump house runs again, fuelling a crocodile farm – one of the country’s few growth industries. It is estimated that Zimbabwe earns more than US$100 million a year through the export of crocodile meat and skins to countries such as Japan, Singapore, the United States and Australia.

Banks of cloud start to roll in and the sky darkens as the river winds on. Motorboats head for home, trying to outrun the rain, and flocks of snowy egrets whitewash the sooty sky. Just around the final bend, the clouds descend and we pitch camp in the downpour. Thankfully the rain stops in time to eat dinner. Here the usual night sounds of snorting hippos are joined by the strains of Zimbabwean sungura music from a disco on the Zambian shore. Fireflies flicker and stars dot the cloud-swept sky.

Day 4 – 27km: A calm and cloudy morning ushers in the day. Bee-eaters – blue-cheeked, carmine and little – are breakfasting as we paddle along the Zimbabwean shore, past holiday houses, Mongwe Camp and a new lodge. The shoreline is edged in wild mango and ilala palms, with intermittent baobabs and showers of white leaved combretum. As we round a channel through a reed bed we surprise a hippo and narrowly escape being bumped.

We lunch next to the Nyakasanga River, which marks the border between the hunting concessions of the Hurungwe Safari Area and Mana Pools National Park. The hippo pods are so plentiful here that we strike across the river for the Zambian shore. We’ve honed our game-viewing skills by now and spot another thirsty bachelor elephant. This time we get up close and personal and are rewarded with much ear flapping and trumpeting.

It’s a quiet, sleepy afternoon so we doze on the water until we approach our camping spot. Cutting across the broad expanse of river, as clouds gather behind us and the day grows dark, we see an elephant back on the Zambian side. We zigzag back across the 1km-wide river, and enter a shallow bay clogged with dead trees and driftwood. A large croc breaks the water’s surface before quickly disappearing into the murk. As we are negotiating it, a dead tree stump and a bolshie hippo, we manage to get stuck on a sand bank. With elephants on the bank, a nearby hippo gnashing his chompers and the storm gathering behind us, it is a moment I dearly want to capture on camera. The pictures surely won’t win any competitions, but this memory will be indelible.

Day 5 – 29km: We hear the distant rumble of lion and give chase. We find them at Mana Pools’ Acacia Point – three young juveniles on the edge of the tree line – and watch as they disappear into the bush. The nearby woolly-necked storks are unimpressed.

Fittingly, it is an aggressive bull hippo who welcomes us to Nyamepi campsite in Mana Pools with toothy roars and a mock charge. Despite it being the last day on the Zambezi, his displays inspire the fastest pace yet set on this trip. We make landfall unscathed. Zvakanaka is a useful Shona word that means many things: ‘thank you’, ‘bon voyage’, ‘merry Christmas’ and ‘happy New Year’. Zambezi zvakanaka! We’ll be back.

Getting there:
Charter flights or road transfers link Kariba to Harare, Victoria Falls and Lusaka, Zambia. As most canoe trips leave in the early morning from Kariba it is necessary to time your arrival in town the day before departure.

When to visit:
May and June are the most pleasant months to paddle this section of the Zambezi, though trips during the rainy season (November to early April) are also rewarding (as Laurianne experienced). The rains are typically short, the storms dramatic and the sun always seems to follow them both. October and November can be very hot and humid.

UK visitors (and those of most non-African nationalities) require a visa for Zimbabwe. Available at arrival, single-entry visas cost US$55 for UK and Irish citizens (US$70 for multiple-entry visas). Canadians pay US$75 for a single-entry visa, while those from USA and most other European nations pay US$30 (US$45/55 for double-/multiple-entry versions).

Zimbabwe (Bradt, 1st ed, 2010) is a great guide for your visit.