Canoeing Down The Zambezi: Day 3

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Elephants 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.


When I returned from my much-needed trip to pee on hippo island, I noticed the rest of the group rising and unzipping their tents. I was exhausted from so little sleep and still coming to terms with the fact that I had been chased by a hippo in the night.

Even so, I could barely suppress a gasp of amazement as I watched the sun rise from above the towering hillocks in the far distance, their dark silhouettes contrasting with the huge, red ball of flames, which added a beautiful golden tint to the land below.

Breakfast was prepared. The guides stood behind the metallic foldaway tables, their backs to the Zambezi river which flowed past quietly. I noticed a group of hippos resting in the river, only a few metres from our island, and swallowed nervously.

I made myself a tea before sitting down on a green canvas stool to enjoy breakfast in the wild. It was hard to come to terms with where I was - sat on a sandbank in the middle of the Zambezi river, completely in the wilds of Africa. I listened to the gruff chorus of bellows coming from the group of hippos, backed by the chirping of numerous birds. Occasionally a splash would sound as a hippo yawned or a crocodile slipped from the grassy banks of the river, becoming submerged except for their beady eyes atop their prehistoric skulls.

I sipped on the hot brew that I had cupped between my hands, the steam rising up and warming my chilly face. Mornings here were very cold, far colder than I had expected, and I found myself huddling for warmth in my sky-blue fleece.

After breakfast, we began to take down our tents. I liked to think I was starting to get the hang of handling my tent and started tugging the black, metal pole out from the canvas. It was icy cold to the touch but came out with ease. Working with Lisa, we quickly folded down the tent so that it could be transported across the river on a small motor boat which went on ahead of the group.

We set out for another full day canoeing down the Zambezi. Today our third canoe-partner was switched. Instead of myself and Lisa being paired with the 60 year old gentleman, we were partnered with a young girl with shoulder-length brown hair. Maybe the gentleman felt like he needed a more reliable canoe to journey with after having a hippo trailing behind him with its jaws agape the day before.

We began rowing, slicing the icy water with our black ores. My arms felt stronger and I quickly got into a rhythm with my two companions. We were keeping up with the rest of the group with ease, rowing like it was the most natural thing in the world.

We knew how to handle the mighty Zambezi and were able to swerve out the way of hippos, giving them enough distance not to cause them any alarm. Lounging crocodiles no longer made me feel uneasy, and the thought of them swimming under our canoe at any given point no longer felt terrifying.

I noticed with awe the landscape around us beginning to shift. Majestic mountains stood proudly in the distance, tinged with blue as they merged with the clear sky on the horizon. The ridge of mountains seemed to stretch on forever, made up of peaks of varying shapes and sizes. Some were pointed and jagged whilst others were smooth and curved. Each one was filled with creases and ridges.

The Zambezi river was quiet that morning and although we were greeted by now-familiar creatures such as hippos, crocs and birdlife, there were no grand displays from some of the more elusive residents.

Propelled by a day’s worth of experience and strength, it didn’t take us long till we reached our lunch spot, a sandy bank with plenty of shade beneath a tall acacia tree, wearing thorny branches.

As I sat with sand in my shoes, biting into my sandwich, I couldn’t help but feel relieved that today was going a lot smoother than yesterday. Perhaps I was finally mastering life on the Zambezi river.

We canoed on into the afternoon. Today’s trek was longer than yesterday’s. By the time we were to reach our home for the night we would have canoed 26 km. It was quite a bit further than the 18 km we canoed the previous day.

As the sun started to set behind a nearby mountain, casting gentle orange and purple rays over the African bush, we were welcomed with a wonderful sight.

A great mountain rose up in the distance, the perfect backdrop behind tall acacia trees whose branches were full with green, fern-like leaves. These trees are icons of the African savannah, often with umbrella-shaped canopies. And beneath the great acacias, partly-concealed by lush stalks of long grass, were Africa’s giants themselves – elephants.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. There must have been over twenty elephants, all grazing just metres away from the riverbank. Their grey ears flapped happily and I caught a glimpse of beautiful ivory tusks.

I watched as an elephant made its way to the water’s edge before uncurling its long trunk until it touched the water’s soft, blue surface. Then the elephant brought its trunk up to its mouth, depositing itself a drink. Droplets of water trickled down the side if its mouth and it gazed at us through round, liquid eyes.

Engrossed by the scene before us, we all stopped paddling and allowed the river’s gentle current to take us closer to the elephants. They watched us keenly but didn’t appear too alarmed.

I almost held my breath as we drifted past, only a couple of metres between our canoes and the shore where the elephants stood.

They were so beautiful and the entire scene just felt so magical. How could this have been real? But yet, somehow it was.

We stayed watching the elephants as they ripped green leaves from trees and drank from the river for a few moments longer before continuing with our journey, leaving the giants to forage in peace once more.

Before long, we found ourselves beaching our canoes on a large island in the centre of the Zambezi. This was Mtondo Island, an expanse of sand and shrubs which was located on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

I disembarked from my canoe and began to drag it further into the island, listening as the plastic base scraped against the soft sand.

I dropped the canoe where I felt it was safe and gazed around me. This island felt a lot larger than the last. A sandy area hugged the river and beyond that was a thick expanse of trees, so great that I couldn’t see the river on the other side of the island. It almost didn’t feel like an island at all.

On the Zimbabwe side of Mtondo Island lay Mana Pools, one of Zimbabwe’s natural wonders and most renowned national parks. On the Zambia side was yet more wilderness. Although it wasn’t a national park, there were no settlements in sight and no villages in the area. Other than an airstrip close to the river’s edge in an area called Mafuta, there was nothing but pure wilderness for miles.

After a long day of canoeing, I sat down with some biscuits and a mug of tea.

We all chuckled as the first member of the group requested the poop shovel. It was funny how we could tell who had and who hadn’t pooped since leaving for our canoeing expedition two days ago. It was also reassuring to know I wouldn’t be the first one.

The last rays of sun were starting to gradually disappear after we had set up our tents. I felt like I was turning into quite the pro at erecting and dismantling tents now.

As the sun gradually disappeared from view, I started to feel nervous. How on earth would I make it through the night? What if I needed to pee again?

I glanced at the island. Well, it didn’t really look like a hippo haven. Not like the last place. I didn’t think the hippos would feel comfortable amongst the trees. But then again, knowing my luck…

I concluded it was pointless getting worked up about it. I was sleeping here tonight and whatever happened, I just had to be wise. I concluded I’d pee just behind my tent. That seemed like the safest option.

Darkness fell and I found myself lying in my sleeping bag, gazing at the blackness which encased itself around me.

I listened to the chirping of insects and singing of frogs. The sounds of the night were so reassuring and peaceful.

Just then, a spine-tingling call was carried on the air. My eyes bulged and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Another low whoop responded. It was an eerie whoo-oop and a noise I was all-too familiar with after watching countless hours-worth of nature documentaries. Spotted hyena.

I listened as more joined in, as though they were calling to one another from a distance, trying to rally together.

I tried to pin-point where the sounds were coming from, deciding they were coming from the Zambia side of the river.

I felt safe on my isolated island and so could only feel mesmerised by the beautiful calls which filled the night air.

And just when I thought the night of song couldn’t get any better, a low groan sounded up, commanding silence. It was the call of a lion.

I twitched with excitement. There was an actual lion out there! I couldn’t believe it. I had never felt so enchanted or enthralled in my entire life.

I lay awake listening to the hyenas and lion for a while, gradually becoming more and more relaxed. Until finally, I dozed off, lulled to sleep by the sounds of Africa.

Ella McKendrick on Black Rock Viewpoint, Kenmore Scotland

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