Sunday 19 June 2016, camping at Zambezi Breezers, near Chirundu
I keep reminding myself that Eric and I are so lucky. In so many ways we have a privileged life. Here I am, Sunday morning, sitting in the most beautiful, simple campsite alongside the majestic Zambezi which is flowing past only 15 metres away, writing a post for the blog. I can hear a whole bunch of hippos (collective noun = ?) grunting away, unknown birds are twittering in the trees and I simply cannot think of another place I would want to be right now.
In the past three years we have seen so much, been to so many places, witnessed things we never anticipated, all of which have challenged us and made us think about what really is important in life. But sometimes, we just have the chance to revel in the gloriousness of our beautiful world. Sometimes we can experience something so truly wonderful that it will leave a lasting impression on us for ever.
And that is what happened two weeks ago.
The occasion was the weekend of Eric’s 70th birthday…yes, I know it is hard to believe but he was born in June 1946. We had talked for ages about how he wanted to celebrate his big birthday and in the end came down in favour of four days’ canoeing down the Zambezi – quite a choice for an old git! So before dawn on 2 June we set off from Lusaka to rendezvous with the River Horse Safaris guide at a small lodge on the river called Zambezi Breezers and just after 10am we were installed in our rugged Canadian-style canoe paddling out into the stream of this amazing river. There were two canoes, one for Eric and me plus our bags and some provisions. The other canoe was for our expert guide CB (Cuthbert) with water, tents, yet more provisions and the biggest bag of charcoal imaginable. Yes, there were not going to be comfortable lodges along the way. We were going to be rough camping!
I guess that at this point the river is around 1km wide and the first thing we did was paddle towards the other – Zimbawean (Zim) – shore. No gentle introductions here, just straight into the real deal. Actually, it sounds intimidating but it was probably better that way. With a few instructions on how to steer before we got in and how not to upset a grumpy hippo, the best way to learn was just to do it. Sure, right from the get-go there were hippos around but although we thought there were loads, we were later to appreciate that at this stretch of the river, the numbers are quite modest so it was relatively straightforward.
This was our second time out on this stretch of the river. Back at Easter we had gone a long way East on a powerboat which was a fabulous trip in its own right. But going by canoe is a completely different experience, and not just because it is slower. For a start, there is no noise except the gentle splash of inexpertly wielded paddles and the incessant murmur of the river as it slips along at about 3 knots on its long journey towards Mozambique. Secondly, you are right on the waterline so you see things from within rather than peering from above. Looking up at the little sandstone cliffs on the Zim side, no more than a metre or two tall, is incredible. You can see all the nooks and crannies, surfaces pocked with bee eater nesting holes, and clear stripes of deep red and ochre-coloured strata.
And believe me, hippos and crocs look even more exciting – and scary – when you are at the same level as them in the water.
One thing that I found astonishing was how shallow the river is. Yes, there are deep channels but everywhere there were shallow shoals where the water rippled furiously over the sandy river bed just a few inches below the surface. We regularly found our paddles sinking into the soft sand and occasionally we could feel the bottom of our canoe graze the riverbed. We quickly learned from CB how important these shallows are. The trick to staying safe around hippos is never to be on the deep side of them. They always need to be able to move into deeper water unencumbered. That way they feel safe and unthreatened. OK, that’s easy. Just stay close to the shore. But that is where the crocs like to bask in the sun and you don’t want to get too close to them, especially as they can be up to about 5 metres long in this part of the world. The other complication is that for much of this stretch, the river is littered with sandy islands that create a mass of channels to choose from and you can reach the end of the island, sticking to the shoreline, only to find that where another channel joins you are on the deep side and the wrong side of hippos…exactly what happened to us on the afternoon of Eric’s birthday.
There we were, minding our own business, paddling along with the bank of one of the islands to our left. Ahead and to our right just beyond the end of the island was a large group of maybe 8 hippos so we knew we needed to give them a wide berth. So we took a long looping arc to our left as soon as we passed the end of the island. And then, shock horror, two hippos that had been submerged popped up to our left, just behind where Eric was sitting and they were not happy! We were in a deep channel and they were in the shallows. There was much bellowing and then the charge started.
CB, who’s canoe was in front of us, took aim towards the Zim bank, a trajectory that should give a decent clearance of the bigger group of hippos whilst getting us out of harm’s way as quickly as possible. And then he shouted “PADDLE HARD!” Believe me, we did, not looking back for fear of what we might see. And then he yelled “PADDLE HARDER!” which I have to admit did put the wind up me a bit as I was paddling absolutely as hard and fast as I could. As I am sitting here typing away and all my limbs are intact, clearly it was enough but it certainly was a close call. Funnily enough, although the adrenalin was flowing hard and fast, I did not feel remotely panicked. Eric and I just followed instructions and did exactly what CB told us to do. Afterwards though, the heartrate took a little while to come back down off the ceiling!
But that wasn’t our first close call of the day. By Eric’s birthday we had arrived in the area known as Mana Pools. Mana Pools is a massive Zimbabwean national park that has been established for many years. As a result of the hunting ban that operates in the park, the number of large animals has gone up and up. That means that you are more likely to see big game like elephants on the Zim side but the number of crocs and hippos is enormous. Navigating this part of the river is therefore somewhat nerve-wracking.
So there we are, paddling along the Zim side, hugging the shoreline to keep out of the way of a large family of hippos, very aware though that the narrow sandy beach was perfect crocodile basking territory. Just up ahead there was a little tributary coming into the river and on the corner was an enormous croc. Oh goodness, we were going to be in a hippo-canoe-croc sandwich. And then out of nowhere there was a massive splash in the water alongside our canoe right between where Eric and I were paddling followed by a mass of frantic writhing and tail lashing. We can only imagine that the croc had been basking unseen on top of the metre-high cliff and had launched himself into the water, doing his best to frighten us off or, in a worse-case scenario, capsize our canoe. With two five-metre crocs within a matter of yards of each other I wouldn’t have fancied our chances if we had capsized and I doubt CB would have been able to do much to help us.
As it was, we were lucky and just paddled like fury to get out of the way and fortunately the croc stayed put. CB was by then dealing with the second beast, standing up in the canoe with paddle above his head, trying to make himself appear as big and scary as possible. Eventually the croc slid into the water and disappeared. We paddled along gingerly until we were confident that there was clear blue water between us and croc central when we could let out a collective sigh of relief.
So we had two close calls in one day but please don’t think that our lovely guide was at fault. This is clearly a dangerous trip. You cannot spend time up so close and personal with big, fearsome animals and not expect to have hairy moments. And some people do come a cropper. 15 years ago, our guide himself was dragged out of his canoe by a large crocodile that came up behind the canoe and snatched him by the elbow. He spent a long time in hospital and even now his injury plagues him when the wind gets up and the going gets tough. Fortunately he got to his bowie knife and managed to hurt the croc enough that he let go otherwise it could have been a very different story. We know of others who have come off worse in a meeting with an angry hippo. So no, I would never recommend this trip to anyone. You must do it because you want to, after lots of research, lots of thought and weighing up all the risks. But oh, the rewards, even of those close encounter moments, will stay with you forever. You will never want to see another zoo and believe me, your admiration for David Attenborough and other hardy naturalists will increase to even higher levels.
And now you might understand why, in comparison to other posts about water-based trips that have been full of photos, we have relatively few pictures from the canoe. It was simply too important to stay alert and watchful. You did not want to get caught out with your hands full of camera rather than the paddle if danger called and we were far too busy checking what was going on in our vicinity to go madly clicking away. We certainly have no photographic record of our two close calls!
Would I do it again? Absolutely yes, though only with an expert guide like we had this time. And maybe I would think twice about going through Manna Pools where the densities are so high. But give me a chance and I would be out there again tomorrow. It was a trip worth all the risks.
Read the next post to find out more about our Zambezi journey. It wasn’t always so adrenalin-packed, though full of other equally memorable moments.