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Canoeing Down the Zambezi: Day 1

Cattle in Zambia Africa

This is a travelogue, a personal essay from my canoeing expedition down the Zambezi River between Zambia and Zimbabwe. View more diary entries from this trip here.


I’ve always had a fascination with this content. For as long as I can remember, I would sit eagerly in front of the TV screen, flicking between the Discovery ChannelAnimal Planet and National Geographic for anything Africa-related.

The continent just seemed to scream my name. The wildlife, the vast untouched wilderness, the unique cultures, the rawness. Everything about it captivated me.

I had made it to 17 years of age without ever setting foot on the continent. Too long, I thought.

But all that changed today.

After a long plane journey, changing flights at Amsterdam and then Nairobi, Kenya, I touched down in Zambia.

I disembarked from the plane and breathed in the African air for the first time. Fresh, warm and with a hint of sand, I could feel the essence of the country already. Finally – I was in Africa!

I was in Zambia on a group tour organised by River Horse Safaris.

The expedition consisted of seven days camping along the Zambezi river, located in the very south of Zambia. The Zambezi river was the fourth-longest river in Africa and ran along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It’s mostly notable for the beautiful Victoria Falls, located on the border between Zambia, Zimbabwe and close to Namibia and Botswana.

Our first campsite was a two and a half hour bus ride from the bustling capital of Lusaka.

I soaked up the new sights and smells, leaning out of my open minibus window. The busy streets were coated in a thin carpet of sand. Tall buildings gleamed in the background against clear blue skies whilst women in colourful attire sold fresh produce at the side of the road.

Our engine juddered as we came to a halt at some traffic lights. I noticed several people in the central island in the road, and watched as they approached cars in traffic, trying to sell things.

Before I had time to think, a young boy – perhaps only nine or ten years old – appeared beside my open window.

“Please, Ma’am,” he began to in a sorrowful tone, placing his open palm close to my face. I stared into his round, sad eyes. “Please.”

He didn’t ask for anything specifically but I knew he was begging for money.

I had never been one to be affected by culture shock before but something about this encounter stunned me.

I stared at the boy for a moment, unable to speak. I couldn’t rip my gaze away, although, he wouldn’t have been able to tell if I did as I hid behind my large-framed sunglasses. My mouth was dry and I tried to find the words but they wouldn’t come.

I felt sadness. Yet I had nothing for him.

I was also certain that giving into begging like this wasn’t the right thing to do. It would only encourage more begging and I’d heard that sometimes young children collected money only to hand them in to their ‘bosses’. This system runs because people are more likely to give money to children.

The lights turned green and the minibus let out a loud groan before taking off again.

I wound my window up after that.

It was just as well as the same story seemed to unfold at every set of lights we stopped by. Young children would approach cars, tapping on the glass. I learnt to turn my head away.

Once we left the city behind us, I began to relax again.

After I had recovered from my culture shock, I allowed myself to embrace the new sights and sounds.

I sat gazing out of the window, fascinating by everything. I was engrossed by this completely new world.

The tarred road snaked through swathes of savannah, thorny trees and shrubs littering the long, yellow grass. We passed distant mountains and hillocks, their vast cliff-faces wearing numerous scars. I saw herds of black cattle with huge, curved horns, roaming freely by the side of the road. I watched as women stood behind their stalls at road-side markets, colourful fruits placed tantalisingly in wooden boxes. I noticed how the houses looked so different to anything I’d seen before, comprised of some kind of sandy clay and tin roofs, and in some cases, round huts, walls made of mud with straw roofs. The houses got ever smaller the further we drove, exiting the suburbs and entering rural Zambia.

About half-way through the drive, we had a brief stop at a supermarket. I felt a wave of excitement rush through me. I knew exactly what I wanted to purchase from this shop. It may have been my first time in Africa but it was not my first time trying African food.

I purposefully strolled towards the butcher’s counter in the supermarket, my mouth beginning to salivate as I took in the huge sign that read biltong.

Biltong was a dried meat snack which has its origins in South Africa. Dad lived in South Africa for a few years, long before I was born. He fell in love with biltong and, as a result, I was introduced to it from an early age. I’d even go as far as to say it was my favourite food in the world.

I couldn’t believe the amount of biltong in front of me. There was so much! I was completely spoilt for choice. In the end I purchased some traditional beef biltong strips and some droëwors (biltong sausage).

I had expected to get funny looks when I arrived back on the bus.

“What on earth is that?” People screwed their faces up. “It looks weird.”

I didn’t care. I loved my South African snack. And those who were brave enough to try it actually ended up loving it too.

I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as we continued driving down the dusty Zambian roads. The biltong was some of the best I’ve ever had – in fact it was the best I’d ever had. That’s not all that surprising really as I’d never had fresh biltong before, straight from southern Africa.

We arrived at the campsite towards the end of the day.

Our home for the night was a campsite perched upon the Zambezi river called Zambezi Breezers. The campsite was just north of a Zambian town called Chirundu and, being based on the Zambezi, was only a stone throw away from Zimbabwe. In fact, all land that I could see on the right of the river was Zimbabwe.

Our group spilled out onto the short, vibrant green grass which hugged the river. Collapsed khaki-coloured tents dotted the field.

Our first lesson of the trip was how to set up our own tents. Fun. But before we got stuck into this activity, we needed to choose a tent-mate.

My tent-mate was Lisa. Lisa was slender with long, brunette hair and piercing blue eyes.

I’ll be the best tent-buddy ever! I decided, as she made her way over to me.

However, it became clear very early on that I was never going to be the best tent-buddy ever, no matter how much I wanted to.

I was utterly useless at setting up the tent.

When we gazed around us at everyone’s immaculate and intact tents, I’m certain Lisa was regretting agreeing to buddy-up with me. Ours lay in a crumpled heap with black poles sticking out from awkward angles.

But we got there in the end.

Completely exhausted, I was more than delighted to indulge in my dinner. Dinner was served from a BBQ in the centre of the campsite. Flames lapped at the cooking food and lit up the otherwise black surroundings. Night had arrived and the insects of the night had begun their symphony.

Before bed, we were given a safety briefing for our first night of camping.

“Be careful,” one of the guides warned. “Hippos do sometimes like to wander into the campsite in the night.”

I swallowed.

The ablution block was a good few hundred yards away, beside the main lodge area, and I was notorious for having a terribly weak bladder. In fact, I hadn’t gone a night without needing to pee in it at least once for perhaps five years. And now I was learning that I may encounter hippos on the way to the bathroom.

Hippos are one of the most dangerous animals in the world. They are the most deadly land animal and kill around 500 people per year in Africa. They are frequently described as aggressive and territorial, especially at night.

I decided I’d be lucky to survive the night.

I had my shower – the last I would have for several days – before I got ready for bed. I unzipped the green tent before stepping inside. It was a cosy little tent, just big enough for the two of us. We set up our sleeping bags and hung our mosquito nets over our new little beds.

I lay listening to the sounds of the night, cringing slightly when the heavy bellowing of hippos reached my ears. Their calls were unmistakable, like a laughing old man.

Please don’t need to pee. Please don’t need to pee, I silently begged myself.

Lulled by the chirping insects, I finally drifted off to sleep.

I awoke a few hours later, the urge to pee unmistakable.

Oh, I hate you, bladder!

I listened carefully for any signs of life in the campsite. The insects hummed and a bird called but otherwise it was blissfully quiet. Surely hippos would make a racket, right?

I didn’t really want to find out but it looked like I was going to have to. There was no way I was going to be able to get back to sleep with my bladder feeling as much pressure as it was.

But there was no way I was making this trip alone.

I gently nudged Lisa.

“I need to pee,” I hissed.

Poor Lisa. She had kindly offered to accompany me on my bathroom excursions when I told her about my pea-sized bladder the night before.

I fumbled around in the darkness for my head-torch. Rustling beside me told me that Lisa was doing the same.

Once my torch was securely on my head, I risked unzipping the tent.

I poked my head out, making out the outlines of other tents nestled amongst the trees.

I breathed out a sigh of relief to see there were no hippos.

Satisfied the coast was clear, Lisa and I made a dash towards the toilets.

It was a relief to have emptied my bladder and to be on my way back to the tent. Our journey had been uneventful – peaceful in fact.

Shadows danced around us as our head-torches swung with each stride. A frog was chirping from a nearby bush and I looked up to see the beautiful night sky. The milky-way was out in full force, not dampened by any light pollution.

We really were in the wild here, far away from civilisation as we knew it.

I allowed myself to smile as we safely returned to our tent. I couldn’t believe I was really here. I was really in Africa.

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