Sunday 19 June 2016, camping at Zambezi Breezers, near Chirundu
As you know from the last post, Eric spent his 70th birthday paddling down the Zambezi in a canoe. None of the normal trappings of a Big Birthday were there. No cake, no candles, no Champagne, no party, no presents. Indeed, it was a day like any other, yet a day like no other before nor will be in the future.
I suppose the best place to start is late on the previous afternoon.
The plan was to camp on a low sandy island in the middle of a mass of other similar islands. We were paddling down the channel only a matter of a few inches deep and maybe 10 metres wide between our destination island on the left and another island on the right. Suddenly our guide CB pointed his canoe towards the left bank and drove it into the reeds. We followed suit and ended up alongside him. There in the tall grass, and by tall I mean up to 2 metres tall, were elephants, lots and lots of elephants, all grazing away, completely ignoring the fact that we were there. They munched and mooched, munched and mooched. Some crossed the shallow channel to explore the other bank. It was mesmerising watching them.
Eventually, we pushed off back into the channel and headed downstream to a beach just a few hundred metres further along. A gap in the reeds opened up onto a massive circle of open sand surrounded by high grass in full flower. There we pitched our tents and settled down for an evening of pasta, a can of beer, a sky full of stars, the call of hyenas and an early night.
The next morning started early, getting up with the dawn. My first trip was to find a quiet patch with a bit of privacy to do what most people do first thing in the morning. On the way there, and back, I was looking at all tracks that had appeared overnight. Right behind our tent was the clear evidence of an elephant. Just around the corner were the tracks of hippos and crocs that had traversed the island during the hours of darkness. Clearly we had not been alone.
CB was already hard at work, knocking up one of his mammoth and delicious breakfasts. We were sitting at our little camp table tucking into bacon and beans laced with peppers and onions, lashings of toast and large mugs of steaming tea when CB pointed behind us and told us to look. In the grass, right near where I had recently visited, were a group of elephants, five of them contentedly grazing. As we munched, they moved closer and closer until there was nothing between us and them bar a narrow strip of sand.
They could have charged us in seconds but we just sat still and calm and they took absolutely no notice. Our plan had been to make an early get-away but clearly the elephants thought differently. So we sat and watched absolutely in awe as these amazing creatures joined our camp. As Eric said, this was better than anything he could have wished for on his birthday morning.
Eventually the elephant family moved off across the large stretch of sand in the middle of the island to find more rich pasture. The sad news was that while the elephants were in our camp the big cameras were out of reach on a tarpaulin outside our tent so all we could do was use the little aim-and-shoot job that was on the table at the time. But never mind. The images in our heads will stay forever.
After an event-packed day, we set up camp on a delightful grassy promontory on the Zambian mainland, alongside a small inlet, backed by beautiful trees and ancient termite mounds. The sky was just beginning to lose the glow of sunlight, we had erected our tent and were enjoying a cold beer to celebrate the end of another amazing paddle as well as Eric’s special day when out of the dusk came a couple of elephants.
One was a young female and the other was a testosterone-packed young adult male. They came down the other side of the promontory to drink their fill and splash. They clearly knew they had an audience but were not at all bothered. We just sat there sipping and watching. After a little while the young female wandered back the way she came but the young bull decided to come visiting. He slowly but deliberately crossed the inlet literally only a matter of metres from where we were sitting before disappearing up over the rise behind us and into the bush.
Wow, what a performance. But it wasn’t over yet. Then a family of waterbuck and an impala came down to drink whilst a warthog scampered around, tail held high as usual. And then, wonder of wonders, another group of elephants arrived. This time the star of the show was the tiniest little elephant we have seen. Still very unsteady on its feet, it went nowhere without being flanked by two big elephants.
Clearly at a stage where it was very vulnerable, this family group was acting very much together to keep this baby safe from harm. When all the larger animals drank, it drank but being so small it had not yet mastered the trick of siphoning up the water with its trunk and so was lapping directly at the water’s surface with its mouth.
This family stayed for ages, drinking, splashing and bathing before gently ambling away in the gathering darkness.
Once they had gone we just sat there in silence for ages as the stars started to pop out in the sky. In the words of Louis Armstrong, what a wonderful world. Happy birthday Mr Eric.