Canoeing Down the Zambezi: Day 2

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Elephant on Zambezi River 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 blinked open my weary eyes, rubbing sleep out of the corners and barely suppressing a yawn. It was early. Before 7am. Beyond the bottle-green canvas of the tent, I heard rustling and murmuring as the rest of the group rose and prepared for the day ahead of them.

Beside me, Lisa was rummaging around. She leaned forward and zipped open our tent, allowing early morning light to seep in.

I grabbed my day clothing and toiletries and scrambled over to the tent entrance, feeling a flutter in my stomach as I laid eyes on the world outside the tent.

People were busy moving about on the green expanse of grass. Some were packing their bags, others dismantling their tents whilst others sat and chatted happily on camping chairs.

Beyond the grass was the mighty Zambezi, appearing eerily quiet. The sunlight lit up the shimmering grey surface which rippled gently, caressing the grassy shoreline. It was almost easy to forget about what was lurking beneath those waters. Crocodiles. Hippos. I shuddered in exhilaration.

As I freshened up in the ablution block, I recalled how this would be my last time in a bathroom for several days. Today we would begin our journey into the true Zambian wilderness, setting our tent up in the wilds, with no toilet or showers. I savoured the sensation of fresh, warm water on my skin and the overall feeling of being clean.

I got dressed for the day, regretting the choice in clothing I had opted for on this trip. I was a complete Africa noob and had splurged in Go Outdoors on the safest clothing possible, being totally terrified of Africa. I had two long-sleeved shirts with insect repellent built-in, a few pairs of long trousers with pockets galore, a brown fishing hat and the longest black shorts in existence, brushing against my kneecaps.

I grimaced. This was not my style at all and what made it worse was the fact that everyone else was dressing normally. Oh, god - I was going to stick out like a sore thumb!

I threw on a pyjama top, the only short-sleeved thing that remotely resembled a T-shirt and rolled my shorts up as far as they would go. I looked ridiculous but it would just have to do.

Breakfast was served in the main camping area. I sipped on a hot tea in a metallic camping mug, feeling grateful for having such a luxury. I simply could not function without having a morning brew so learning that I would still be having a tea every morning was a fantastic relief.

After breakfast it was time to pack up. Dismantling our tent was a lot easier than erecting it and I felt proud as I looked at our neatly folded home.

I then focused on organising my belongings into a day bag and then the remainder of my luggage. As we would be canoeing, I could only have my day bag with me and would only be reunited with majority of my belongings in the evening. They would be travelling on a motor boat which journeyed ahead of the canoes, designated only for luggage.

I laid out my cameras in front of me. I'd opted to take a simple point-and-shoot Canon camera which always provided me with great images. I'd been delighted with the photos it took whilst cruising round the Caribbean. I also bought my parents' Olympus bridge camera as it was just that bit more professional which would be ideal for shooting wildlife.

But would I take them both on the canoe with me today? I pondered the question for a moment. Finally I decided just to take the point-and-shoot as well as my iPhone. My point-and-shoot never let me down and besides, my dry bag (waterproof bag) was very small and it was risky to bring the larger camera when it didn't fit inside.

It was time for the adventure to truly begin.

I swallowed nervous excitement as I walked alongside our group, behind our guides. We followed a dirt track which ran parallel to the river until we arrived beside a group of brilliant blue canoes sitting peacefully on the sandy bank of the river.

We were each handed a rather unsightly, vibrant life-jacket. I placed mine over my head, scenting the musky, well-used plastic. It was large and I felt like a giant balloon but I couldn't exactly complain about staying safe.

Safety was the priority, as seen when our guide began to explain how to stay safe on the water.

"You must never place your arms or legs outside the boats." His face was sombre as he spoke. "Crocodiles can easily grab you and drag you into the water. Once a crocodile has you..." He paused. "Well, there's little that can be done. They will drag you under and drown you."

I swallowed. Hard.

This was not some regular laid-back trip. The dangers here were very, very real.

And crocodile attacks on the Zambezi river do happen.

It was time to split into groups of three. Naturally, I opted to stay with Lisa but this meant our duo needed filling out in order for us to fill up a canoe for three people. A man in his 60s ended up filling up the final spot at the back of the canoe.

I made my way down to the water's edge, the gentle lapping of the cool waters against the sand sounding in my ears. My black Converse slipped in the orange sand, not even a day into our expedition and already turning a dusty brown colour.

I rested my hand on the thick, plastic canoe which was bobbing steadily in the water. Rather ungracefully, I swayed as I placed one foot tentatively into the boat. I lifted my final foot and settled myself on the hard, plastic chair at the very front of the canoe.

The boat rocked viciously as my two canoe-partners stepped inside. I watched as ripples appeared beside the base of our boat and dispelled gently across the murky, mirrored water.

Around us, the rest of the group were settling into their canoes, giggling as people precariously boarded their buoyant vessels. It was a miracle that no one toppled into the river.

I gazed at the brown water, spying the dappled reflection of the thick canopy of trees which surrounded us and wondered what was beneath. Perhaps some small fish?... Or big ones. I had heard that sharks lived in the Zambezi. Surely crocodiles wouldn't be this close to shore. I shuddered when I remembered our guide's dire warning.

"We're going to set off soon." Our guide shouted to be heard by the group of several canoes. "When I shout 'hippo' you must be alert and follow my canoe closely. We will try and stay away from them but sometimes they are under the water for long periods, so it isn't always possible to know where they are and they may appear closer to us than expected."

My head was spinning slightly. There was so much to remember!

Before long, we set off, disturbing the pristine surface with gentle ripples. I lifted my heavy, metal ore with a black, plastic paddle at the end, allowing it to slice into the water and propel the nimble vessel forward.

Our group silently paddled into open waters, leaving the safety of the sandy bank and our camp behind. I looked about me at the other canoes, counting perhaps ten in total.

At first I felt quite clumsy on the water but it didn't take long for our canoe to find a steady rhythm, each of us rowing in perfect synchrony.

I heard a gentle murmuring as other canoers spoke calmly to one another, just audible over the sound of ores splashing through cold waves. I paid attention to the serenity of the sounds, noting how the water was the dominant noise, the lead singer backed by a chorus of chirping birds and buzzing insects.

As I soaked up my surroundings, I realised just how vast the Zambezi really was. The space between each bank was so great and dotted with islets so big that one could easily mistake them for being the mainland.

Just then, the tranquil sound of nature was interrupted by perhaps the strangest sound I had ever heard. It can best be described as a loud bellow, reminiscent of the sound of a laughing old man with a gruff, hoarse chuckle.

I turned my head, tracing the source of the sound to some dark specks on the near-distant horizon. I looked closely and made out their fat bodies which were half-submerged under the water. They had purply-brown torsos and broad heads. It was an unmistakable group of hippos. The first hippos of the expedition!

There was something awe-inspiring about sharing the river with such a powerful group of animals. Each of us minding our own businesses, living in harmony.

"Hippo!" one of our guides was calling.

I watched as his canoe veered off course to the right, further away from the hippos which I had spotted in the distance on my left. I was surprised by his caution, as the group of large herbivores seemed to be lounging a great distance away, but, at the same time, I couldn't complain about his level of cautiousness. It was far better to give these beasts the respect they deserved.

I recalled how our guides had instructed us to paddle faster and closer to the lead canoe after being given this warning and so increased the tempo of my rowing. Despite our team’s best efforts, our canoe was most certainly the last canoe in the group, lagging behind by many, many metres.

"Hippo!" The guide's yells were taut with worry. "Paddle!"

I gave a sideward glance at the hippos in the distance which didn't appear much of a threat being so far away. Why does he sound so concerned? He was an experienced guide so I trusted his judgement and tried my best to propel us faster in the water.

"Paddle! Paddle! PADDLE!"

I noticed a sea of eyes staring at my canoe, their eyeballs huge with worry. Why were they looking at my canoe? And what was all the worry about?

"HIPPO! COME ON! PADDLE FASTER!"

I'm paddling as fast as I can! I wanted to scream as I forced my ore to slice through the black waves.

Other than the screams and desperate murmuring from the rest of the group, everything seemed peaceful.

So tranquil.

Too quiet.

The blue canoes were growing larger as we drew nearer to them. My eyes locked with those of a guide whose terrified eyeballs threatened to bulge out of his skull.

"Are you okay?" a girl from a nearby canoe called to us.

Of course? I didn't find the words. I felt flustered and flinched under the terrified gaze of so many spectators.

"Did you see it?" another spectator chirped.

"It was right behind you," someone else gasped.

"What?" I finally managed to speak as our group came to a near stand-still, only inches apart from one another on the water.

"You didn't see it?"

"No. What happened?" My heart was pounding in my chest at this point.

"The hippo," a girl began to explain. "It came right behind your canoe and it opened its huge mouth and tried to bite the end of your canoe! I thought it was going to get it. It was so scary!"

What. The. Hell.

This actually happened?

At first I thought it was some kind of joke. Some kind of twisted sense of humour. But then, the red faces and looks of shock and relief told me the truth. I watched as several nodded, all having witnessed the encounter with their own eyes.

Had I really been that close to having my canoe snapped in two by the most dangerous land mammal on the planet?

I tried to picture the gaping mouth, towering above the tail end of our canoe, the 60 year old gentleman just inches in front. Huge, grey teeth threatening to crush the plastic as easily as scissors slicing into paper. I imagined the force of the impact which would, no doubt, overturn the boat, releasing myself and my companions to the mercy of the mighty Zambezi and the creatures lurking beneath the surface. Floundering around in the murky depths, we'd be easy prey for a passing croc. That was if the territorial hippo didn't finish us off first.

It was a hard fact to come to terms with and, as I never witnessed the hippo myself, I was unable to feel much fear. I could have died, I tried to convince myself of the scary reality. Still, I felt nothing except confusion.

We continued our journey in silence, determined not to fall too far behind the rest of the group again. None of us could risk another near-miss with one of Zambia's mighty animals.

Rhythmically paddling, I felt as if I almost fell into a trance. The scorching sun bore down on me, its heat softened by the gentle breeze which blew past me as I rowed.

Hippos were the most prominent animal to be seen. Any dark object protruding out of the water was far more likely to be a hippo than a log. And if they weren't keeping cool beneath the waves then they were grazing on the short grass on the banks of the river, their huge, round forms visible once they were out of the water.

Also frequently spotted on the banks of the river were crocodiles, laying with their jaws agape as they soaked up the morning rays. Nile crocodiles are found throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa and can grow between 3.5 and 5 m in length. These crocodiles are far from fussy eaters and will eat pretty much any animal, hence why they are such a danger to people. It's estimated that they kill around 200 people per year, with many attacks going unreported.

I heard excitement bubbling up as we passed a marshy area to our right. Standing amongst the damp, waterlogged grasses were several species of bird, all standing on tall, spindly legs.

I couldn't exactly join in with the excitement; I'd never really understood the fascination with birds. To me they were just birds. Still, it was hard to complain as we lifted up our ores and allowed our boats to bob gently past the tall, feathered beings.

After a rather hairy start to our journey, things seemed to have taken a turn for the better.

There were several times where our guide had to warn us of nearby hippos but, fortunately, we managed to avoid them unscathed.

The loud, old-man-laughing of hippos became the theme-tune to the Zambezi, starting up at regular intervals.

Every time we skirted a hippo family, another would emerge ahead, creating a never ending obstacle course.

Despite the constant threat from hippos and crocodiles, life on the Zambezi was peaceful and laid-back. I sat back in my hard, plastic seat as my eyes scanned the surrounding savannahs for signs of life. The grasslands gave little away, their yellow stalks concealing whatever lay behind the shores.

However, not all animals were as easy to hide.

Up ahead, I spotted some large, grey blobs on the horizon, close to the banks of the river. Their tall, sturdy legs and large, flapping ears were unmistakable. My first sighting of wild elephants!

"Elephants!" someone called, unable to hide the utter glee from their voice.

They were so far away from where we were, but I didn't care. Just their very presence made my belly flutter with excitement.

"We must be very quiet," a guide whispered. "Come on. Let's go closer."

Helped along by the strong river current, we made our way towards the elephants. It was clear to see there were three of them, their trunks dipped into the river. They scooped up water with their trunks before curling them towards their mouths where they offloaded a refreshing drink.

I opened my dry bag and took out my point-and-shoot camera. The boat wobbled as I prepared my camera. I turned it on and held it up to point towards the elephants, which were still a good distance away.

A sharp judder from our canoe sent the camera tumbling out of my grip, smashing against my seat before falling into a shallow puddle which was resting on the floor of the vessel.

Shit. Shit. Shit. I felt panic rising as I fumbled for my camera, praying that it hadn't digested too much water. I lifted it out of its murky puddle, grimacing as I felt how damp the device was. I held my breath as I clicked the ‘on’ button.

Nothing.

I felt my heart sink but kept trying.

Still nothing.

My camera was well and truly dead.

I never did photograph the elephants.

I was at least relieved that I had bought a back-up camera with me - my parents' bridge camera was in my main luggage. My main luggage! My heart sank again. I wouldn't have access to that until tonight which meant I was cameraless for the rest of the day. I was in the most amazing destination that I had ever been to and I had no working camera. How could I have got myself into such a stupid situation?

At least I had my iPhone 4s.

My iPhone 4s with an absolute shit camera.

Still, it was better than nothing.

After roughly two hours of canoeing, it was time to stop off for some lunch. I couldn't help but feel relieved when the guide announced we'd shortly be taking a break. I wasn't used to canoeing so my arms were weary with rowing and my stomach was grumbling.

"Now you have to be very careful!" a guide called from one of the lead canoes. "The lunch stop is going to appear on our right. You must turn very quickly into it and not get dragged by the current. Also be aware that hippos like to rest just off shore so do not get too close to them."

My mouth felt dry. Every single thing about this expedition was a challenge. I’d barely made it away from a hippo unscathed this morning and now I could potentially have another encounter.

I eyed the river nervously, paying attention to how fast the water was flowing. So far the strong current had worked in our favour to propel us gracefully down-stream, aiding our rowing. But now the very thing that had helped us pick up speed had the potential to drag us away from our lunch spot and the rest of the group.

What would happen if we missed the turn? I imagined our lonely canoe drifting steadily downstream without anyone to assist or guide us. It wasn't a fun thought.

Our guide pointed out our lunch spot. The river bent slightly to the right and upon that bend was a narrow channel of water which led to open savannah. This channel was our destination.

This was going to be a balancing act, I decided when I spotted the group of hippos lounging in the shallows just before the turn-off to the channel. Turn too soon and we risked bumping into hippos. But turn too late and we risked being dragged away by the river.

It was quite a predicament but we had no choice. We'd just have to try our best.

I watched as the first canoes turned into the channel with ease. My heart pounded as I used my ore to navigate us through the water, bending the vessel slightly.

It was a huge relief when we skirted the group of hippos and somehow managed to make it to the channel. It was the perfect aim! We rowed steadily down the centre of the channel, safe from the strong current here.

Now that I knew we were safe, I was able to admire our surroundings.

To my right was a narrow strip of land which was a mixture of grass and sand. Green grass hugged the river and turned more and more orange the further away it was. Beyond this stretch of land, the mighty Zambezi slipped by, dazzling midday sunlight catching the surface. The river seemed to stretch on forever with the far bank in the distant horizon.

To my left was an endless stretch of pristine African wilderness. To be honest, I felt like pinching myself. It was like I had found myself within a nature documentary. Yellow grass growing from dry, sandy earth stretched on, dotted with occasional spindly trees. Some trees had vibrant green canopies whilst others wore valiant thorns.

What struck me the most about this vista was the fact that it was raw, untouched nature. It was easy to believe that no human had stepped foot here before. They certainly didn't leave a single trace that they had.

Water disappeared from beneath us and our canoe rubbed against compact sand with a jarring thud, coming to a sudden halt. I almost felt wobbly as I exited the canoe and allowed my feet to step in the sand. I'd been on the water for so long that not feeling the ground sway beneath me was a strange feeling. Alongside my canoe-mates, we grabbed the blue boat and tugged it so that it was safely away from the water, with no chance of being swept away.

I was mystified as I followed the group to the shade of a group of acacia trees, which was to be where we would be eating. As I looked about me at the trees and shrubs, I wondered what animals were in the area. Any animal could be nearby and the thought made me want to squeal with utter glee. I loved not knowing what was out there and the possibility that it could be anything from a lion to a zebra. Nature could be so mysterious and it’s that very mystery that drew me in.

The Zambezi river was the border between Zambia and neighbouring Zimbabwe. If one took a look at any map, they would see that the border between the two countries often runs through the centre of the river. Now, being perched on the southern side of the Zambezi, we were actually in Zimbabwe.

We were situated at the very northern tip of an area of Zimbabwe known as Hurungwe Safari Area, located just to the west of Mana Pools National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). It was an area of land where hunting was sadly permitted. Several operators ran hunting safaris in this area. It was the only area of Zimbabwe where hunting was permitted up to the lakeshore. All of the land which we had passed so far on the Zimbabwe side of the river was part of this safari area. More specifically we had been passing an area within the safari park called Mongwe, where a community of fishing camps could be found as well as safari lodges. We had passed some on our journey down the river.

We lay down on brown, foam mattresses, which some people had been using as extra padding in their canoes, under a shaded patch which was sheltered by a cluster of trees. There was a steep incline in the ground here so we found ourselves dotted along a hill. Shaded from the sun, we were able to indulge in some sandwiches which provided us with some much-needed energy.

This afternoon's stint on the water was to be even more demanding. We'd have to row for roughly another three hours until we reached our campsite for the night.

After eating some lunch, we were able to have a brief wander around the area. I walked through the dry, yellowing grass, listening as it crunched beneath my footsteps. The sun warmed my skin and a gentle breeze ruffled my hair. In the distance I could hear the distinct bellow of hippos. It sounded like they were mocking me with their presence, letting me know what I couldn't escape their danger.

Then I came across a surprising yet eerie sight. Lying in the grass was the top half of a hippo skull. It was yellow and cracked with two vacant, black holes where the eyes once sat. I shuddered as I stared at the empty sockets. It was like it was still watching me, even in death.

It was surreal to think that this great beast died in this spot, the reason for its death completely unknown. It seemed unlikely that another animal would tackle a hippo for food.

Perhaps it was killed by another hippo in a fight for dominance. Or maybe it had succumbed to old age or disease. It would forever remain a mystery.

A few feet away, hidden behind an expanse of long, green grass near the river was a relatively intact spine with large, sharp ribs attached. Due to this size, it was easy to assume this was part of the same hippo.

Finding animal bones only a few metres away from where we stopped for lunch was a reminder that we were really in the wild.

It wasn't long until we resumed our canoeing expedition. Not long after we were back on the water, we were greeted with a very special wildlife sighting.

To the right of the river was a vibrant green marsh, quenched stalks of grass surrounded by shallow waters. Tall, white birds known as egrets stood proudly amongst the waterlogged grass and standing just by the water's edge was a huge elephant. It's great ears flapped in satisfaction as it fed from the river. Behind it were several more, an entire family of elephants. I counted five in total.

Our guides beckoned for us to follow silently as they positioned their canoes so they would drift close to the elephants. We stopped paddling, allowing our vessels to glide quietly, to try and cause as little disturbance to Africa's largest land mammal as possible.

I was surprised but impressed to see how calm the elephants were as we drifted only a couple of metres away. I couldn't believe how close we were!

I took in the grey creases in their skin, their ivory tusks and lengthy trunks.

It was almost difficult to believe that I was there in front of one of the most majestic animals on the planet. Not only that but this was the true wild. I was not standing in some zoo. It was a very humbling experience.

For the rest of the afternoon, we canoed peacefully, spotting numerous crocodiles, birds, baboons and hippos as we went. On top of the many wildlife sightings were stunning views of untouched wilderness. We passed small patches of forest which sometimes hugged the riverbed with their branches and roots overhanging into the water, and in the distance we spotted huge, majestic mountains dotted with shrubs and trees.

We did pass the occasional settlement along the riverbank but it was always a private lodge and they were few and far between.

Our camp for the night would be on an extensive sandbar that was located in the centre of the Zambezi river. The border between the two countries ran down the centre of this sand bar. Just outside of view from Chiawa village in Zambia, this sand bar was sometimes referred to as Chiawa island.

We approached the island from the Zimbabwe side of the river. As our canoes brushed against the thick, golden sand, I felt relief that we had made it. The day had been long and tiring. We'd been rowing for 18km and for someone with no experience rowing and who did next to no exercise, I was, quite frankly, exhausted. You can imagine my delight when the guides announced it was time for some tea and biscuits.

Wandering around the sandbar, which was barren expect for some long swathes of grass, was a surreal experience. I know I must be saying that everything I experienced was surreal but that's how it felt. Every time I adjusted to my surroundings, something else would bring me back to an awestruck state.

My feet dug deep into the sand. In front of me were a set of huge tracks, not left by any human.

"Hippo," one of our guides observed.

As I looked about me, I realised there were numerous hippo tracks leading to and from the river. This was clearly a favourite spot of theirs. Was it right to camp in their home? I realised, with a jolt, that we would be sharing our home for the night with a group of hippos, one of the most dangerous animals on the planet. I suddenly felt slightly nervous.

Tonight was our first night of wild camping. Our tents had been carried here via a motor boat and one of our first tasks was to set up our tents. They were laid out in a semi-circle facing the Zimbabwe side of the river, the Zimbabwe bank only a stone-throw away from us.

I watched a family of hippos relaxing just a few metres away, in the river. Their small, purple ears flapped and every so often one would open its huge, intimidating jaws, revealing huge, tusk-like teeth as it let out a yawn, before snapping its jaws shut again.

Once I had set up my tent, I quickly rummaged through my luggage which I had now been reunited with. Finally, I can use a camera again! I smiled as I brought out my parents' bridge camera. It wasn't quite a DSLR as you couldn't change the lens but it was a similar size and took lovely images.

I pressed the ‘on’ button. Nothing happened. My stomach dropped. What?

I tried again but still the camera refused to wake up. The battery must have been dead! I flicked open the bottom of the camera to lay eyes on 4 disposable batteries. So I couldn’t even charge it! What kind of camera uses disposable batteries? I wanted to wail.

Of course, I didn't have any with me and I doubted anyone else did either. I sighed deeply, feeling utterly defeated. My first time in Africa, on an adventure of a lifetime, and I don't even have a camera!

I looked regretfully at the iPhone 4s beside me which was losing battery-life at a scarily fast rate. There were no chargers in the bush so I'd have to use it so sparingly. It was a crushing blow for someone who loved photography as much as I did.

Above us, the sky was darkening. I gazed in wonder as the blue sky morphed into a deep purple before shifting to blood red. The wilderness around us was tinged with a pink glow and it felt utterly mystical. Once again I felt like pinching myself. How could it possibly be that I was here? Somewhere where I'd longed to travel since I was so small.

In the centre of our semi-circle of tents, the campfire had been lit. Large orange and red flames lapped at the cool evening air. I sat gazing into the flames, a mug of hot tea and a biscuit in my hands. Tea and biscuits had never tasted so good. The fire crackled soothingly, only just managing to muffle the laughing of hippos which seemed to encircle us. I realised that this would be the symphony of the night and I allowed it to feel familiar.

There was something so liberating about wild camping. The guides simply selected a section of earth where we were to camp. There were no boundaries, no nothing. It was a type of freedom that I had never known. It also came with its own fear-factor. No boundaries meant that we were completely within nature. Any animal could simply wander into the camp. We were, after all, guests in their home.

Another uncomfortable aspect of wild camping was not having a bathroom. You simply had to squat in the open for a number one and if you wanted to take a number two then you had to, rather awkwardly, request a shovel from a guide, which would enable you to dig a hole for your business and then cover it back up again. No one wanted to be the first person to request the shovel.

As dinner was served under the cover of darkness, I couldn't help but feel my stomach knot-up in nervousness. My small bladder was terrifying me. I may have managed to make it to the bathroom last night without meeting any wildlife but we had been at a designated campsite.

How on earth would I cope tonight? What if I ran into trouble? I didn't know the answer to these questions.

I could only hope that, for the first time in years, I wouldn't need the toilet in the night.

Ella McKendrick on Black Rock Viewpoint, Kenmore Scotland

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