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 awoke to see gentle rays of sunlight filtering into the tent.
I rubbed my sleepy eyes, not quite believing dawn could have broken.
I stained my ears, hearing the faint murmuring of people who were already moving around. I heard the crackle of the campfire and the morning songs of familiar birds.
It really was morning. And by some way of a miracle I had made it through the entire duration of the night without needed to pee! I smiled. Maybe I was finally overcoming my curse. Maybe I wouldn’t need to pee in the night again. Maybe I’d actually make it home alive!
The morning commenced, following the same pattern as the two previous days. We packed our belongings away, flattened our tents and enjoyed breakfast under the glorious morning sun.
Then it was time to take to the river.
I slipped into the vibrant blue boat, feeling it wobble slightly on the shallow water as I settled.
Silently moving downstream, we fell into an even rhythm and once again found ourselves mesmerised by the sights and sounds that played out in front of us.
Today’s day on the river was going to be considerably shorter than yesterday’s.
We spent the morning rowing under the blissful heat of the African sun and listening to the symphony of birds and the gentle gurgle of water flowing downstream.
We passed a duo of hippos who were standing proudly on the banks of the river. I nearly gasped in amazement when I took in their huge size. Submerged in water most of the time, it can be hard to gauge how large these beasts really are. Outside the water, it was clear to see how formidable they stood. They were taller than I was expecting, with enormous, round bodies sat on chunky legs.
I thought back to the night when I was chased by a hippo and shuddered. It was a miracle that I had survived my encounter.
These two hippos were grazing cheerfully in the lush, green grass. The dense forests of Mana Pools stood a few hundred metres behind them.
As the sun crawled higher in the sky, our guide informed us we were going to make a stop on a nearby bank for lunch.
My stomach rumbled and I felt my mouth dry out at the thought of food. The river seemed to get stronger the further downstream we travelled and it was taking its toll on my arm strength.
“We have to be very careful,” our guide spoke sombrely, his canoe bobbing in the rough waves. “I can see there are a group of hippos very close to our lunch stop. Just a bit farther downstream, near the bank. The river is also very rough there, with a strong current.”
I tensed at his words. Hippos and strong current sounded like a terrible combination.
His dark gaze rested on each canoe in turn as he continued, “You will have to be fast. Stay close to me. We need to reach the shore before there is a chance to get caught in the rapids just beyond.”
Why did I feel like this wasn’t going to go well?
Without much time to think, the guide set off, making a bee-line for the right-hand bank. His ores sliced purposefully through the black waves which, as he predicted, were getting ever stronger.
The rest of us took off after him, noting how the river pushed us further than it had ever done before, and that journeying to the bank was almost battling against the current.
I laid eyes on the hippos. Sure enough, they were very close to the golden, sandy shore, their ears flapping and taunting bellows escaping their huge jaws.
Our guide had made it to the riverfront. His canoe slipped gracefully onto the sand and not far behind him were other members of the group, their canoes gradually starting to fill up the edge of the beach.
Our canoe was trailing at the back of the group. Typically. I felt no fear as my ores hit the water, trying their best to propel us forwards, towards the rest of our party. With quiet determination, we put strength behind each stroke. But somehow the shore never seemed to get closer. If anything, it was getting further away.
Cold dread spread round my body when I realised the beach was drifting further out of grasp. The river was strong and had a hold of our small canoe, dragging it closer to the rapids. The round forms of the hippos grew larger. Oh, shit! We were getting caught in the strong current.
A guide in one of the canoes towards the back of the group turned around to check everyone was okay. I watched as his face went pale and his eyes grew round with worry. Then he opened his mouth and a familiar chant echoed round the Zambezi.
Oh, shit. Not again!
“PADDLE!” It was the voice of many, their cries frantic and filled with terror.
I was paddling as fast as I could. With each movement of my ore, I felt my strength gradually start to ebb away. The current was so strong. It felt like every bit of energy we gave was quickly swallowed by the river. The bank was slipping away from us.
Our canoe jerked violently as a powerful wave smacked against its side. I was panting, my eyes growing hazy. Hoarse breathing behind me told me that my canoe-mates were also struggling. Fighting the ever-increasing current felt hopeless.
“Paddle!” Their cries were growing quiet.
Oh, gosh. What happens if we get dragged downstream? I started contemplating our fate. Would a guide come after us? Or was it too dangerous? Would we just be left for dead?
The hippos loomed closer. There was no escaping those brutes. I’d fled them twice already. Perhaps a third escape would just be too much to ask for.
No. I steadied my nerves, feeling overcome by nothing but determination. This is not how it ends.
I found a burst of strength and began to beat my ore against the waves, using more muscle-power than I ever knew I had to propel us forwards, fighting against the rapids. Suddenly, the sandy bank seemed that little bit closer. Yes! We can do this! Driven by a hint of success, I continued to battle against the waves, gaining ground slowly but steadily.
All other canoes had made it to safety and they were standing on the sand cheering us on, trying to hide the looks of concern that were etched across their faces.
Our canoe found a steady yet powerful rhythm. By working as a uniformed team, we managed to gain traction. Come on. Come on. We were so close now!
Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, our canoe collided with the sand and letting out a huge sigh of relief, I lifted myself from my canoe, my legs trembling. I was alive!
Now that we were all together once more, it was time to walk down the beach to a suitable lunch-spot.
We had stopped off in Mana Pools national park. My shoes sank into the thick, white sand as we made our way to the shade of a great acacia tree.
We sat down and tucked into our well-deserved lunch. A thick stretch of sand stretched out before us and beyond that was the majestic Zambezi, the sound of water slipping over rocks and crashing into the bank loud and commanding.
Behind us was wide open savannah, stretching on like an endless canvas. A carpet of yellowing grass coated the floor, disturbed by the occasional acacia.
Gazing at the peaceful wilderness, it was easy to forget about the danger which we had been in before. With the sun gently caressing my skin, I found myself sinking into relaxation.
Just then, something caught my attention, shifting in my peripheral vision. I turned my head just as a series of excited murmurs and gasps came from the rest of the group.
Strolling majestically out of the cover of trees were two elephants, just metres down the bank. They strode into the river, the waves barely lapping at their knees, and gradually began to make their way across.
I was transfixed.
They tackled the mighty Zambezi river as if it were a shallow stream. Their ears flapped calmly as they made their way towards the centre of the river. Being the largest mammal in Africa was certainly on their side, making them too large for a crocodile or hippo to even think about tackling.
The leading elephant was a lot larger than the second one. Perhaps the following elephant was a youngster. The river didn’t quite brush against its belly but wasn’t far off. It followed in the footsteps of its elder, its tail grazing the water’s surface behind it.
Mesmerised, we watched until the two elephants appeared on the opposite side of the river, climbing up the bank before finally disappearing into the trees.
The final stretch of canoeing was a short one. We stopped off on the Zambia side of the river only a couple of kilometres downstream, pulling our blue canoes out of the water for a final time.
I couldn’t help but heave a sigh of relief. After a few too many hairy encounters on the river, I was ready for a change in activity. Perhaps the second half of our trip would play more to my strengths.
Our canoeing adventure ended on the outskirts of Lower Zambezi National Park. This area of wilderness was declared a national park in 1983 and, up until that point, it had been a private game reserve for Zambia’s president.
Sitting opposite Mana Pools, the two parks were a haven for wildlife and the animals were free to move between the two, just like the elephants we saw earlier. The parks sat on the Zambezi flood plain and were ringed by towering mountains.
Lower Zambezi National Park has many times been described as one of the last areas of true wilderness.
Several Toyota Land Cruiser safari vehicles awaited us, standing atop a steep sandy bank. The canoes strapped to a trailer behind and our group loaded safely on board, the jeeps began their short journey west to our home for the next three nights.
Our campsite was nestled on the banks of the Zambezi river, at an opening to a narrow estuary. The site was a permanent campsite with several large tents dotted around the forested bank. The tents housed two twin beds – yep, actual beds.
The site also had its own ablution facilities including an open-aired toilet and shower.
After two nights of wild camping it felt like utter luxury to have such facilities.
As we turned off the main road, bumping ungracefully down the dirt track towards the campsite, we were forced to halt in our tracks.
My eyes sparkled as I laid eyes on an elephant standing only a few metres away. Its long, grey trunk swung smoothly as it turned its head, staring at us with its black, curious eyes.
I noticed movement behind the elephant and my eyes danced toward a low shrub. Sure enough, cloaked by vibrant green leaves was a young elephant calf. Standing less than half the height of its mother, the youngster was determined to conceal itself. It trotted to its mother, being sure to stay behind her and out of sight of prying eyes.
I couldn’t believe such majestic animals were living so close to our camp!
The sun was setting when we arrived at our new camp. The great ball of red flames sank into the river, turning the sky a magical purple colour.
The chorus of the night started up: frogs, crickets and countless other insects, all crying in perfect harmony.
Shadows danced in the last rays of sunshine. There was just enough light to soak up our beautiful surroundings. I listened as the Zambezi river trickled passed gently, gurgling as it met with rocks.
“Don’t leave any of your belongings outside of your tent tonight,” a guide’s voice started up behind me. “Hyenas like to travel through the campsite and it’s not unheard of for them to steal shoes.”
Hyena-what? My heart stopped. He spoke so nonchalantly.
“Lions too,” he added. “Don’t keep any food in your tents.”
My eyes widened as I thought of my biltong which I’d purchased on my first day in the country. It was in my backpack on my bed. Would it really tempt a hungry predator looking for an easy meal? It’ll be fine, I told myself. It’ll be just fine.
I pictured hyenas and lions prowling about the campsite, their trails winding round tents with sleeping people inside. Such fantastic predators so close to helpless people.
“Right,” his voice changed to a more cheery tone. “Who’s ready for some dinner?”