Canoeing on the Lower Zambezi

With a fellow traveler from good old Australia, I went on a two-day, one-night canoe and camping trip on the mighty Zambezi. The Zambezi is the fourth longest river in Africa and the namesake of Zambia.  As a river that changes all the time, it would have been challenging to navigate even without the hippos. Hippos are the biggest human killer in Africa. This trip may be the most life endangerment I’ve put myself through. Though exhilarating, I’m not sure I ever want to be at the water level in a slow moving boat in a river infested with hippos again. There was a long stretch of the river during our first day of rowing where we were nearly encircled by hippos: left, right, behind and ahead. Though many seemed calm with our approach, there were a few who stood up with a level of ferocity and looked like they might charge. I’m grateful for our guide and his twenty years of professional experience and my friend and I’s effective steering during those moments. Surprisingly, without barely any communication with each other, my friend and I were able to steer the canoe quite smoothly.

After a few hours of tense rowing among the hippos, we arrived at our camp site, which is a small island on the river. On one side is Zimbabwe, where it’s a national park, and on the other side is Zambia where villagers live. The juxtaposition of the sounds of hippos and other animals on one side to that of villagers drumming away to their tunes on the other side feels quintessentially African. Our guide fixed us a delicious meal of chicken and vegetable stew with rice, cooked over the camp fire. We helped him cut produce. Over dinner, our guide opened up and we discussed a range of topics, from village life and tribal politics to Mugabe and succession troubles to his experiences as a safari guide. He told the story of how he saw his first human death as a trainee, when the guide was stomped to death by elephants. He has personally been charged by lions and other wild animals that he has had to shoot down. I can’t imagine what being charged by a lion must feel like. But a perk seems to be that as a safari guide, he is a bit of a super star as people think he is Mr. Toughguy.

During the night, an elephant crossed over our island. It was amazing. Sleeping under the stars on that island is an experience that I will never forget. The next morning, we were up at the first light to marvel at the sun rise and have breakfast. Soon, we continued on to our second day of rowing. We met some fairly large rapids in some areas, where water splashed into our canoe, but there were not many hippos on our second day. It made for a calmer psyche but in a way, I missed feeling of having to fend for my life. Unfortunately, after several hours of canoeing under the scorching sun, I became quite sick and overheated. Though I was ultimately able to paddle back to our destination, I remained sick for several days afterwards.

Finally, I’m feeling much better and am able to reminisce on the once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are so many things I could say, but this is probably good for now. The Zambezi is a storied river.



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