Taking it easy on the Zambezi

Join Michael Woods as he messes about on the Zambezi river... African style

5 mins

We had formed a raft of the four canoes as we drifted gently down the Zambezi in the soft late afternoon light of our final day on the river.

On the right of the channel the flared pink nostrils, protruding eyes and flicking ears of several pods of hippos showed warningly above the water’s surface. A baboon barked in alarm and, across the flat flood plain between us and the distant woodland, three impala stood taut and alert. A large cloud of dust rose in the direction of their gaze.

“I can see a lion,” said Tafara, one of our two guides, pointing towards the dispersing red dust.

Rapidly the raft broke up as James, the lead guide, made a plan. After a quick dash between two groups of hippos, digging deep with our paddles, pulling hard and praying, we dragged our canoes onto the grassy bank and quickly pulled on our boots. Then, in single file we set off at a trot across the 400 metres of dry open ground between us and the cats. Already we could hear a continuous chorus of deep irritable growls coming from the dip in the ground.

We had not anticipated the old water courses which snaked across the plain. Filled with a mixture of suppurating mud and animal dung and covered with water hyacinth, they were yet another barrier between us and our objective. Off came the boots again and one after another we plunged into the squidgy black morass, sinking in well above our knees and releasing an appalling stench.

There was no time for boots on the other side and we picked our way quickly across the crunchy stumps of grasses to a second and then a third water course. There was a slight rise and a low termite mound from the flanks of which we could see the reason for all the noise.

Three lionesses and five almost-grown cubs lay in a tightly packed group around some poor beast. Their faces were dark with blood and gore and there was a constant squabbling – snarling, snapping and paw lashing – as each of the cats tried to get the most from the carcass.

It did not last long. After about 20 minutes, the wind direction changed almost imperceptibly and carried our scent to the lions. Even though their nostrils were clotted with the stench of death, they still picked out our presence. Pairs of amber eyes turned unnervingly in our direction and the five cubs were on their feet and away up the bank in seconds.

The cannier females took slightly longer but carried with them a leg and half a ribcage, all that remained of their unfortunate victim. It was a fitting and dramatic end to our journey of almost four days down Zimbabwe’s lower Zambezi River.

Walk on the wild side

Our voyage had begun to the west of Mana Pools National Park, a World Heritage Site and the only national park in Zimbabwe with dangerous animals where visitors can walk unaccompanied. We put the canoes in the water in mid afternoon and, unlike most African safaris, said goodbye to any form of motorised transport for four days.

Our first stop was a carmine bee-eater colony. These beautiful birds, with wonderful rose red plumage and blue and light green trimmings, migrate to Zimbabwe to nest in the steep earth cliffs of river banks. As we drifted closer, they popped out of their high-rise nest holes one by one to rest on the lip of the bank and on a fallen tree in the water, which looked increasingly like an exquisitely jewelled Christmas decoration.

Just downstream, we came to elephants, several bulls knee-deep in marshy grass. The bows of our canoes nudged the bank almost at their feet, but they barely gave us a glance. When they were younger, they might have made a song and dance, holding their heads high, trumpeting and flapping their ears against the sides of their necks with dusty slaps like tarpaulin snapping in a high wind. But these guys were older and wiser.

There wasn’t much point in wasting energy on something that posed no threat and, in any case, what would they do next? Either leave in disgust in the middle of dinner or follow through with a mock charge, altogether too much effort in the glutinous mud. So, with total disdain, they ignored us and kept on eating, tearing thick bunches of wetland grasses out of the soil and putting them carefully into their pink mouths. Then, with a skill born of years of practice, they bit off the roots and let these drop to the ground while chewing up the rest.

Quite soon we encountered our first pod of hippos. These huge animals can weigh as much as a female elephant and have the reputation for killing more people in Africa than any other vertebrate species. Large numbers of them live in the Zambezi and their hollow laughs seemed to mock us as we paddled towards them.

Often what appeared to be just two heads would suddenly become 20, as hippos resting on the bottom came exploding to the surface when we drew near. Sometimes when the channel was narrow, they would all disappear from sight and the theme from Jaws would play in my head as we slipped downstream, hugging the opposite bank.

Once a pair stood up and actually ran towards us across a sand bank covered with shallow water, but they were only trying to reach a deeper pool. We treated them all with respect and were never once bothered by them. When canoe safaris first started in this area more than a decade ago, the hippos were much more troublesome, but now, just like the bull elephants, they know it is rarely worth the effort.

For the last two miles on that first afternoon we paddled down a narrow channel with marshy flood plains and rafts of water hyacinths on either side. These places were always wonderfully rich in birds and, in addition to egrets, herons and storks, there were noisy plovers, sandpipers and stilts. African skimmers, tern-like birds with their lower beak longer than the upper, skimmed the water, their lower mandibles just under the surface as if ploughing the river.

Then it was ‘leg over time’...

A speciality towards sunset when the four canoes would raft up with the occupants draping their legs into the next door boats. This made a stable and sociable craft on which all of us could enjoy sundowners, and watch the sun, a fiery crimson ball, dip slowly behind the mountains of Zambia, throwing a glittering orange streamer over the Zambezi’s flickering surface.

Vundu Camp, like the three which followed, was perched in a carefully selected shady location on a river cliff. A bucket shower, a pair of long trousers to ward off the insects and a gin and tonic made a perfect start to the evening. We ate sumptuously under heavens so packed with stars that in places there seemed to be sheets of continuous light. There are a hundred thousand million suns up there and we could see a good few of them from the river bank.

Occasionally there was a splash, the growling laugh of a hippo or the high-pitched giggle of hyena but always we could hear the quiet rippling waters of the Zambezi swirling towards the sea.

Each day followed much the same pattern. An early morning walk, breakfast and a couple of hours’ paddling, sometimes into a cooling head wind which clawed at the river’s surface and splashed rogue waves onto our legs. Any unusual occurrence took us ashore – the alarm snort of an impala, the glimpse of a shy nyala retreating into the jesse bush, the corpse of a dead elephant.

Lunches were always brilliant, eaten on a sandbank about six inches deep in water. After what was optimistically called a swim in water too shallow for crocodiles and for anything other than an all over soaking, we would sit on stools and feast on delicious salads and quiches freshly cooked in camp before setting off.

The river was forever changing

Dividing into narrow channels and then reuniting to form a single broad expanse of silver. The Zambian bank always had the beautiful hazy backdrop of peach-coloured mountains, while Mana’s famous acacias and mahoganies arched their branches to create cathedral coolness on the Zimbabwe side. The best moments were silent drifts down side channels when we slipped gently past birds busy at the water’s edge, seeing them in a unique way.

But the Zambezi is not always so tractable in its 2,740km course from the source in Zambia to the sea on the coast of Mozambique. The most famous piece of discontinuity is the magnificent Victoria Falls, and below them the fierce rapids of the Zambezi Gorge. The great reservoir of Kariba almost slows the river to a standstill before it escapes again through the dam and on to the Mozambique border, after which there are still more falls to come before the river finally succumbs to old age and reaches the ocean.

The character of the river above Victoria Falls is quite different from that at Mana Pools. There are no Zambian mountains here, and because there is no national park on the Zambian side, lodges and farms line the bank. On the right bank, the Victoria Falls National Park has none of the grandeur of Mana and, just inland from the green curtain of tall riverside trees, it deteriorates into low, open scrub.

What the river loses in terms of landscape, it makes up for by being more interesting to canoe. This upper stretch is more rocky and consequently there are rapids here. These are mostly graded 1 and 2, and are relatively slight. Nevertheless, the inexperienced could have problems paddling a normal canoe here, so we used inflatable canoes. These are strange craft, like very elongated rubber dinghies paddled with double kayak paddles. The seating position is much higher too, but they are practically unsinkable. The price paid for this is that they are lumbering craft, far less sprightly than a standard canoe and more difficult to paddle.

A not-not-so-wet but wild ride

Nevertheless they took the rapids well and only got very full when the toughest line was selected by our guides. Otherwise, by keeping to the sides of the main channel, we managed to remain reasonably dry. After running the first significant rapid, we took all the gear out of the canoes and went back to play in the fast running water, trying very hard to surf on the stopper wave but managing only to fill the boat up so that we seemed to be paddling a full bath.

Again there were elephants by the water and, as it was Sunday, we came across several fishermen, including a pair at the water’s edge surrounded by about 20 of the animals. They seemed unperturbed despite the fact that they were cut off from their car and had nowhere to retreat. Instead they concentrated on their fishing and let the elephants go by undisturbed.

Perhaps the best sort of canoeing above the Falls, however, was a sundowner cruise which I took one afternoon. Unlike the great, square booze cruisers on their pontoons, sluggishly pushing up river to the burble and smell of a diesel engine, canoe cruises can take the peaceful back channels. Each carries two passengers, a paddler and a cold box; we slipped between islands under the canopies of water berry trees whose bitter fruit is conveniently tasty in gin and tonic.

There were big flocks of migrating open-billed storks on the sand banks and five species of kingfisher to be seen between sips of beer and the relaxed chat of late afternoon. With no lions here to disturb the serenity, it was all wonderfully tranquil.

When to go: Winter (May-Oct) has warm, sunny days and cool, clear nights. These are the main months for canoeing trips, and also the best time for seeing wildlife. Temperatures average around the mid to high 20s.

July to January are the best months for rafting, but it is available year-round. The peak tourist season is July to September; higher prices may be charged and you need to book in advance.

Getting around: Canoeing and rafting on the Zambezi can be done from Zimbabwe or Zambia. Trips can be organised from the UK, or at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, or Livingstone in Zambia.

Health and safety: This is a malarial zone, so take precautions against being bitten, as well as prophylactics.

Rafting should only be undertaken in full knowledge of the risks involved. The Zambezi is one of the most demanding rivers in the world. Check that your insurance policy covers you.

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