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.
Dawn broke in Zambia, welcoming my final full day in the wonderful country.
Memories of yesterday still swam in my mind. Memories of the waterbuck we saw in the forest on the way back to our campsite after our morning in the village. Memories of the mother elephant we saw with her calf, just a couple of minutes away, by vehicle, from our campsite. Memories of the dozens of elephants that stopped off to drink on the bank opposite our campsite.
It had been magical to watch so many elephants perched only a couple of metres away from our campsite, water sparkling in the evening light as they lifted it to their mouths with their trunks and quenched their thirst.
Further down the river, a group of elephants were jostling in the river’s shallows. They rolled in mud, their ears flapping playfully as they pushed against one another.
Impala and kudu also made an appearance by the river. Alert for any signs of danger, they delicately dipped their heads to the pristine water’s surface and drank.
As twilight turned to nightfall, the campfire was lit. The wood crackled violently as flames licked at its flaking bark.
That night we enjoyed some marshmallows. We stabbed them with sticks and hovered them over the dancing flames, rejoicing as the marshmallows began to lose shape and become sticky before finally devouring them in hungry gulps.
We could have stayed up for hours, talking round the campfire, but I was feeling sleepy. So myself and Lisa retired for the night.
When morning came, cries of alarm jolted me from my tent. I strained my ears, hearing sounds of a commotion near the breakfast area.
As I made my way over, feeling the streaks of dawn light on my skin, I discovered that a member of our group had walked bare-footed over the embers of last night’s fire. I winced as I lay eyes on her. She was sitting down, her face twisted in pain and her feet wrapped in blankets.
The embers of a fire were not to be underestimated, even if they were, like this one, several hours old.
After breakfast we had just enough time to pack up our things.
I gazed around our campsite by the river which we were about to leave behind.
Sunlight dappled the floor by the bottle-green tents as it streamed delicately through the canopy of trees. Birds sang in the topmost branches, welcoming a new day.
It was certainly sad to be leaving such a beautiful pocket of wilderness.
Today we would journey back to Zambezi Breezers which had been our first campsite for the trip. The following morning we would make our way to the airport, saying goodbye to Zambia altogether.
I heaved a sigh.
I wasn’t ready to leave.
I jumped up to the open-topped vehicle, settling myself beside Lisa. Protruding branches clinked against the metal poles at the side of our seating area as we began to journey through the forest down the narrow dirt trail which I had just begun to become all too familiar with.
The forest passed us by and I narrowed my eyes as I scanned between the trees, searching for signs of life. I felt heavy with sadness when I remembered the mother elephant and her calf which I had spotted in this forest the previous night. It had been such a beautiful, tender moment to see them so close to our vehicle. Alas, they were not there this morning.
Our journey would take west us through the village of Chiawa. From Chiawa we would join a wider road which would take us to a river crossing at the Kafue River.
Our jeep rattled as it bumped down the narrow track which carved its way through the open savannah.
We passed through the wooden fence that led to Chiawa village. Quaint huts and waving villagers began to appear beside the road. It wasn’t long before our convoy turned in beside one of the village’s wells.
People were milling about. Adults filled their plastic, yellow containers with water and children chased each other through the orange sand.
We hopped down from our cars and began to approach the villagers, who greeted us with warm smiles and open arms.
“Welcome!” They smiled.
We were stopping off at the village today to hand over a sizable donation of clothing. These had been donated by members our group – I had contributed to it too.
I watched as the villagers’ faces lit up at the sight of the bundles of clothing. They accepted the donations with a nod of gratitude and some delighted handshakes.
The atmosphere was buzzing.
I gazed at an interesting looking toy which was being pushed through the sand. It was the outline of a car, created from strands of wire fencing that had been tied together. A long wooden stick was attached to the end of it and it’s wire wheels spun slowly. I certainly admired the creativity. It was beautifully crafted.
A scrawny, tan-coloured dog with a grey muzzle made its way to the front of the crowd, its tail beating gently against its back legs. I watched as a member of our group bent down and cautiously stroked its head.
As much as I was an animal lover, I’d been warned about the dangers of rabies and wasn’t prepared to take any chances. Rabies isn’t just spread by an animal bite. If an infected animal licks your skin and there’s a wound, even a small one, you can still catch rabies.
I’d received the rabies vaccinations but all these do is bide you time. Instead of having around 24 hours to reach a hospital to get treatment before you die, the vaccination gave you an extra 24 hours.
It wasn’t long before we were back on the road, our narrow dirt track widening to more of a main road.
We had left the wilds of Zambia behind and settlements became a frequent sight, nestled in between Zambia’s green forests. We also passed numerous vehicles, each one spraying up clouds of dust, something which we hadn’t seen for days.
The drive was a long one. Too long for me to finish without a toilet stop. I grimaced as we bumped through another dip, my bladder painfully full.
Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one in dire need of a toilet-stop and so our convoy pulled up at the side of the road, beside a dense area of woodland.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I leapt from the high vehicle and bounded into the trees.
Eventually the road came to an abrupt stop beside a great expanse of flowing, blue water. We had arrived at the Kafue River, the longest river that lay wholly in Zambia.
The 4×4 juddered to a halt and our driver pushed open his door and stepped onto the sandy track.
I looked around curiously, wondering what would happen next.
Our entire group was ushered out of their vehicles and told to take shelter in the shade. We made our way towards a steep embankment, underneath a swathe of trees with thick canopies of leaves. I took a seat on the sandy earth and gazed out over the river.
I finally laid eyes on the pontoon. It was a flat, wooden boat-like structure used for transporting vehicles and people from one side of the river to the other.
A few cars were due to use the pontoon before us and so we had to wait our turn, which was no bother.
Time seemed to pass slowly.
Countless birds chirped from the forest behind us and the Kafue River gurgled gently along. The pontoon’s engine spluttered noisily in the background.
Finally, we were summoned.
I skipped down the dusty embarkment and made my way towards the riverbank where the pontoon now stood. Black smoke puffed out of its ancient engine which spluttered and juddered violently.
We were advised to wait until the 4x4s had driven onto the pontoon and then stand nearby.
I stepped onto the wooden raft and gazed out over the river, it’s clear surface glistening under the midday sun. I narrowed my eyes against the brilliant light of the sun, feeling the powerful rays on my skin.
Before long, we were gradually making our way over the river, white, frothy water churning up behind the moving platform.
Despite the constant humming of the engine which sent vibrations beneath my feet, it was relatively peaceful.
A great bird flew overhead and I couldn’t help but admire its strikingly large wingspan. It veered downstream towards the Zambezi river, which was where the Kafue was heading.
Soon enough we were back on dry land and loading ourselves in the 4x4s once more.
From the river crossing it was only a 10 minute drive south to the Zambezi Breezers campsite.
The sun was still high in the sky when our Land Cruiser came to a halt beside the lush, green lawn which bordered the Zambezi.
Memories of my first night in Zambia came flooding back to me as I disembarked from the safari vehicle and I felt a stab of sadness take hold of me. My journey through Zambia was coming to a close. I was now standing right where it began, all those days ago.
It was a strange feeling I felt as I worked with Lisa to erect our forest-green tent for one last time. Only five nights and 84km worth of canoeing had passed since we had been here last but during that interval I felt like I had changed.
I didn’t feel like the same naïve girl who had wobbled into a canoe without the basic knowledge of life in the bush. I felt stronger, more culturally-aware and had a new-found yearning for life.
I had always dreamed of travelling to Africa, of tasting the dusty air and hearing the cries of the wild. The real thing had exceeded expectations. Africa was raw, wild and enticing. I hadn’t quite expected it to get under my skin and into my bloodstream as much as it had. I didn’t want to leave.
I wanted more adventure and more excitement.
I knew that when I returned home I would pull out my laptop and start researching possible trips I could take next year. I had to visit the continent again next summer. I knew it with such certainty that it scared me.
Our group settled ourselves down on our green camping chairs, forming a wonky semi-circle which faced the cooking area. Behind the guides, who were busy rustling up our last dinner, the mighty Zambezi flowed, turning a rosy purple as the sun began to set.
The light was starting to fade. The sun was wavy on the horizon, burning red as it gently touched the distant treetops. It reflected on the rippling surface of the river which acted as a distorted mirror.
Around me, the chorus of frogs and night insects started up and I felt the corners of my mouth turn up in the start of a smile.