, , , , , , , , ,

Down the Mighty Zambezi in a Canoe

Our two-seater canoe had hardly been launched into the Zambezi’s waters when a strong wind came up.  I was rowing at the back and steering was difficult.  Conditions and inexperience had separated our canoe by around a hundred metres from the other three, not a desired configuration.  A strong cross-current in the river bend was also bedevilling matters.  That was the moment my rowing partner at the front, who had never rowed before and had come on the trip with qualm and reservation, saw the hippopotamus on which we were inexorably bearing down.  His head bobbed above and below the surface, all the time fixing his gaze on us.  She also knew that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other mammal, so departed into a complete panic, shouting and thrashing about backwards with her oar.1  I tried my best to redirect the canoe but, in the uncoordinated activity that fear occasions, she was frantically counteracting my steering.  We were getting nowhere fast, but ever closer to the hippo.  TK, the guide, at this point stood up in his canoe downstream and started shouting instructions with the others looking on.  Quite a pickle.

01 Zambezi Vastness

Zambezi Vastness

The dangers on the river in order of importance, according to TK’s pre-trip briefing, are:  1. Floating logs in the river, especially submerged ones (aka. logodiles)  2. An over-turned canoe  3.  The sun  4. Hippos  5. Crocodiles.  What he did not say was that a combination of these factors intensifies the risk, and if you add panic to the mix things can get scary indeed.2,3  Hippos, though, are particularly aggressive and they teem in the Zambezi.  We learnt to show great respect for them on the trip.  Hippos were the factor that most pre-occupied TK and the rest of us over our four days on the river, especially after ‘the hippo incident’.  There were hundreds of them on the stretch of the river we negotiated, which for the large part separated the Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia and the Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe.

06 Zambezi Hippopotamus05 Zambezi Hippopotamus - too close for comfort

Oh those hippos!

I eventually managed to settle my rowing partner by hissing clear commands and taking firm control, and we steadily veered away.  As soon as we caught up with the rest, TK beckoned us to the bank.  He was going to call for reinforcements.  We were to wait for the wind to die down and have some brunch while he called for an assistant guide, or more accurately an expert rower, to join us on the expedition.  My rowing partner was to go with TK in his canoe, and the new guy with me.  Our new man Best arrived an hour later by speedboat.  Best is young, strong and confident.  He also proclaims himself to be the best.  This is reassuring.  “Excellent, Best!  So glad you’re here.  We’re going to have a smashing time down this river together.  I shall play a de-intellectualised Indiana Jones at the front, hat at an angle, hip flask and all, while you plough on at the rear.  All good?”  “All fine” says Best.

Things thenceforth calmed from a disorientated panic to a low-keyed tension.  Confidence is a magical thing.  Off we canoed, Best at the back and me in front, down the waters and into truly Wild Africa.  The mighty Zambezi is a vast river.  One gets a sense of remoteness and feels the pulse of nature in a very immediate way in these untamed parts.  Wildlife abounds.  Apart from the hippos and crocodiles which are very much in evidence, you can see elephant, predators, monitors, buck species, warthog, monkeys, baboons, herons, eagles, fish…  And there were trees, forests of trees, many overhanging the river and connected to earth by only a few roots.  At one stage TK said he could smell a fresh kill from the canoe.  I couldn’t, but caught sight of vultures overhead.  It was the ultimate safari.

33 Zambezi River bankZambezi Bank07 Zambezi Crocodile TracksTracks, Crocodile and Human

Towards the end of the first day our canoes ran aground in knee-high water and we had to drag them to the island on which we were to camp.  It was hard going.  TK told us that on Sundays the Kariba dam upstream generates less electricity and therefore releases less water downstream, hence water levels are lower.  The following morning would be easier going as the turbines would be running again and water levels would rise, he said.  Even here, man intervenes.

23 Zambezi TK and Best

TK and Best

20 Zambezi Low Water Canoe Dragging

Running Aground in Shallow Water

We camp on islands as they’re reputedly safer than the mainland.  You want to camp where animals are less likely to go at night.  We find a spot just behind some fresh crocodile tracks.  Those are the ones with a wavy line traced by the tail between the claw prints.  It did nothing to make us feel safer, but it added to the thrill of being in the wilderness.  I’ve last camped decades ago so have no idea how to pitch a tent.  Best does it with his eyes closed.  “Thank you very much, Best.”  “You’re welcome!”  “‘You’re welcome’ is very American”, I say.  “With British and other people one should rather say ‘my pleasure’ or something to that effect.  “Oh?  It’s a pleasure,” says Best, beaming a smile.  “Good, Best.”  “You’re welcome.”

Supper was what I suppose to be the usual camping fare.  One should once a decade or so allow baked beans, tinned sweet corn and Ricoffy instant so-called coffee to pass one’s lips.  Nietzsche said that what does not kill you makes you stronger.  But I drew the line at the red, red Vienna sausages that screamed ‘danger, danger!’4  The tents were cosy enough, though.  Hotel accommodation can get too much after a while, I suppose.  Luckily I had lugged along some passably fine wines from duty-free to those river banks, which helped.  It was special to see both sunrise and sunset on three consecutive days, probably a first for me, and to luxuriate fully in the waxing of dawn and the waning of dusk.

21 Zambezi Night Camp22 Zambezi Misty Sunrise

Zambezi Sunset and Sunrise

On the second day we rowed to a bank to take a closer look at three elephants on an island.  One of the elephants came to investigate our canoes, or rather the noises from our canoes as some people didn’t shut up.  He towered over us, trumpeted and then mock charged.5  That sent a few frissons through the canoes, had some people talking even louder and shot up the panic levels again.


09 Zambezi Mock Charge

Mock Charge

We were up before dawn on the third day to the glories of a mist-covered Zambezi, and to trek onwards.  Just before lunch we spotted a pod of hippos which we tried to avoid as always.  TK knocked with paddle against canoe to alert them to our coming.  The hippos looked up and submerged, then popped out again and grunted.  While they were up and one could see them, all was fine, but when they stayed submerged the tension rose – were they staying put or coming towards one?  A speedboat then came roaring up alongside them, causing widespread disturbance.  The pod submerged again in a channel some twenty metres away from us.  We glided along.  I was in the back canoe with Best.  Suddenly we heard a loud bang and saw the canoe in front of us get clean lifted out of the water by half a metre or so.  A hippo jumped up and roared loudly, and a few others also emerged with a ferocity around the canoe.  Alarm, mayhem.  TK, who was in front, frantically shouted for us to paddle away at full speed.  “Paddle! Paddle hard!” blasted Best from the back.  I paddled my lungs out.  It was a hippo attack, only the second one TK had witnessed in over twenty years of guiding.  A speedboat came over to assist once we had gotten out of danger.  It had been close.  Had the canoe tipped, things would have been rather different.  Over lunch TK inspected the canoe and found two holes where the hippo’s teeth had perforated it.  TK and Best took time to patch up the canoe while the rest of us had quite a lot to discuss.


08 Zambezi Crocodile

Zambezi Crocodile

32 Zambezi Water Monitor

Zambezi Water Monitor

Apart from these incidents and perhaps a fear that an animal would trample down our tents at night (a hippo came close on the third night, TK said) all was sweepingly grand.  As long as we kept at least three metres from the water’s edge while camping, we would be safe from crocodiles.6  People who ignored this rule had been taken.6


03 Zambezi Baobab


31 East African Black Kite

East African Black Kite

30 Zambezi Stick Insect

Zambezi Stick Insect

All the drama was worth it, though.  Go canoeing down the Zambezi, take the risk.7  You’ll get an excellent outing, fresh air, fabulous sightseeing, majestic vistas, a raw beauty and a silence that you will not only feel but see.  Nature is still unspoilt here, but not for long.  Another three hydroelectric dams are being planned along these forceful waters which will destroy the riverine ecology and further deprive the planet of its truly wild spaces.  You have perhaps five years in which to do it.


41 Zambezi Elephants

Real Close Elephant Herd

99 Zambezi End of Tour

End of Safari

I’m certainly going back quite a few times before that happens.  Back to the Zambezi, my favourite river! 8

100 Zambezi Chronicler

Zambezi Chronicler


  1. Mosquitoes are, of course, the biggest killer
  2. See Laurence Gonzales – Deep Survival. He gives tense accounts of how expeditions go utterly awry from seemingly perfect initial conditions.  Some quotes from the book:“The word ‘experienced’ often refers to someone who’s gotten away with doing the wrong thing more frequently than you have.”
    “Everyone who dies out there, dies of confusion.”
    “To survive, you must develop secondary emotions that function in a strategic balance with reason.”
  3. In case you think I’m dramatising the danger of the wild, see the story of a recent hyena attack on a fifteen year-old boy in the Kruger Park: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/27/teenager-in-serious-condition-after-hyena-attack
  4. Colourant E127 I think, erythrosine. Banned in the US and Norway.  You no longer get the bright red Vienna sausages in South Africa either.
  5. Why a mock-charge and not a full-on charge? Apparently when elephants charge with their ears out, it is just a form of warning, and this elephant had his ears out wide.  When an elephant truly charges, he flattens his ears to the side of his head and goes in for the kill.
  6. I kept five metres away from the water’s edge, just to be safe.
  7. On the last night, TK regaled us with some battle stories of his life as a river guide. He told us that on his second trip as an assistant guide, a tourist, having repeatedly been warned against swimming in the river, ignored the advice, bragging that he had been in water with sharks, and dived in before they could stop him.  When they looked again he was gone and did not emerge.  The senior guide ran to the water’s edge and saw that a crocodile had gotten hold of him by the shoulder.  The croc had been lying in wait in a deep groove just off the water’s edge, had taken him and was trying to pull his prey, or the fool, into deeper water.  Undaunted, the guide dived in and grabbed the crocodile by the tail.  TK got hold of a knife, also dived into the water and they managed to wrest the guy from the croc’s jaws.  The guy was bleeding heavily.  The flesh on his shoulder had been ripped off and his collarbone had been broken.  Luckily there was a doctor in the group with a medicine box.  The doctor staunched the blood, put him on a drip and the whole party boarded their canoes to set out through the night to get the guy, whose life was in danger, to the next stop.  TK stood on the front canoe shining a torch to guide the flotilla through the darkness.  It’s dangerous.  The guide kept on calling to TK in Tonga as to which channel to take, but TK could not always see it.  They made it, not without incident, through the night, and early the next morning a helicopter picked up the victim and took him to Harare.Things took a rather bizarre twist after that.  The Minister of tourism lauded the guide and gave him a medal for saving his client’s life.  But the Parks Board revoked the guide’s licence, blaming him for not having protected his guest.  He lost his job.  That’s harsh reality; life can be cruel at times.  The guest, who recovered after months in hospital, wrote a thank you letter and apologized months later, but too late to save the guide’s job.  The moral of the story: don’t be frigging stupid in life, and twitch your danger tentacles when it’s all around you.
  8. Canoeing tours of the Zambezi are organized by River Horse safaris. See http://www.riverhorsesafaris.com/.  We had a good experience with them.