We did it’ We beat the odds on this incredible 75 km journey and the odds were definitely not in our favour.
The lower Zambezi River is a canoeing paradise during the months of August and September. Lazy warm days slowly paddling downstream aided by the 4-5 km/hr downstream current. Elephants drinking on the shoreline, hippos wading and frolicking in the calm sand bars and eddies swirling in the glistening sunshine and very large crocodiles lazily sunning themselves on the shorelines.
NOT!!! We set off at around 11:00 am on the 3rd of September faced with what felt like gale force winds blowing straight at us as we headed East and downstream on the Zambezi. This is very unusual for this time of year we’re told. Oh goody! Within a very short period of time our shoulders were aching and we still had 74 km to go. What have we gotten ourselves into? The canoe trip was advertised as having a maximum of 9 guests and 5 canoes. Not sure why 9 guests and not 10 but we lucked out and there were only 5 of us. CB our guide and lead canoe and Rob and Wendy from South Africa currently working in Zambia. We could not have asked for a better couple to share this adventure with. We have a lot in common and it made for a very enjoyable experience and it made the experience a whole lot more bearable than it might have been. We made a really good team and they are a big part of the reason why we completed this journey.
The wind was blowing against the current causing very large waves and choppy water which was very similar to canoeing in rapids. The hippo pods which were extremely abundant couldn’t be easily identified in the choppy waters and this added a very big level of stress and danger on top of the capsizing concerns. Hippos cause more deaths in Africa than any other wild animal. I kid you not. Fortunately our first day plan was to cover 15 km with a stop for lunch along the way. I believe we were all thinking ” what have we gotten ourselves into, this isn’t fun” after our first 15 minutes but we persisted and finally stopped for a long lunch break for rest and some shade from the hot afternoon African sun. Our canoes were good old Canadian designed vessels but we were loaded down with enough freight to make a cross Atlantic container ship captain envious of the load we could carry. We had a draft/surface to top clearance of no more than 8″ which allowed for plenty of bum wetting water ingress as we crashed through some of the larger waves and because of our load we also ran into several situations where we became stranded on sandbars and had to either get out and push ourselves free or use our paddles to push out. Oh the joy but we finally made our first stop for the night, CB cooked up a very nice stew, we had some cold beer and wine in the coolers, the sunset was magnificent, our camping spot was perfect, the hippos grunted nearby and lions roared in the distance on the Zimbabwean side of the river. We got to know Rob and Wendy a little better and before crashing quite early I think we all agreed we made a good team and thank God neither side was of a nationality that is hard to deal with. We’ve met several so far.
The morning came early and we were up before sunrise hoping an early start might be calm and hopefully the whole day would be calm. CB cooked bacon, eggs and beans, Rob brought his coffee press so all was good to go for the “dig and cover” trip that had to be made far back into the island reeds before our departure. Fortunately the camp was up wind because the wind it did cometh and with aching shoulders (Rob had major back spasms, what a trooper!) we set forth on a 25 km journey of a not so enjoyable trip down the spin you around eddie current hippo infested “lazy” Zambezi. After about 1 1/2 hours we stopped on the river bank and contemplated. CB suggested we stay for a while, maybe the winds will subside but they didn’t so we continued on, and on, and on. Waves crashing, wind howling, shit, this is really difficult. The Queen of the Zambezi sat stoically in front of our canoe. Looking left, looking right, looking very worried. I could tell she was a little stressed but she paddled on, especially if hippos were in sight. There was a lot of beautiful scenery and occasional elephant sightings but we didn’t have the luxury of taking any time to enjoy the sights let alone take any photos. We pressed on and finally made landfall for our second camp sight at around 5:00 pm. It was a perfect spot. A small sandy island surrounded by hippos.
Not to worry. You really only need to worry about hippos when they are in the water. CB prepared another great meal, there was still beer and wine in the cooler, another beautiful sunset, a full moon lighting up the sand and the night and then bedtime exhausted at 8:00 pm. It was an amazing day but second thoughts were creeping into our psyches.
We awoke before sunrise to a dim sky of red and yellow and within minutes the giant red ball of daylight peeked over the reeds and greeted us with calm winds. CB was busy cooking up breakfast and we headed to the cover of the reeds for our morning “dig and cover”. We had our fingers crossed. Maybe today the winds will be calm. We had paddled 40 km so far and had about 27 km to paddle today. Our shoulders were tired and achy but surprisingly not that bad considering what we had to deal with the two previous days. Luck wasn’t on our side. The winds kicked up again before we finished breakfast. We packed our tents and supplies and pushed off for another 7 hour journey. Now I have to mention here that when we first arrived at our sandy island the night before, we rudely interrupted a sleeping hippo right next to our camping spot. He later showed his displeasure and territorial instincts by attacking another hippo on a sand bar right in front of our beach. His beach really. It was a sight to behold in the darkness illuminated by my 1,000 lumen flashlight but, the other hippo was now a defeated hippo and he was camped out in the waters right where we had to launch our canoes. So the wind was blowing, the hippo was pissed off and we had to find a way between him and the sandbar and the current pushing us in his direction. A great way to get the blood flowing first thing in the morning.
All went well and we paddled our bloody arms off against the wind until we made a break stop to relax, have a pee and strategize our next moves. There really wasn’t much strategizing to be done. Do we wait for the wind to subside, not likely, or move on so move on we did to a lunch stop that ended up being a major highlight of our journey. At this point, day 3 of our trip, the four of us seriously discussed throwing in the towel. To date we had covered probably close to 55 km or so, it was a workout rather than a leisurely paddle down a lazy river and our lunch stop had a small camp that could be used as a take out point. As we approached our riverside landing a herd of elephants were drinking in a small inlet carved out by the river. We pulled our canoes up to the shore just around the corner, moved into viewing distance which was no more than 20 metres away from the elephants and set up our lunch spot. We spent the next 1 1/2 hours watching one group of elephants after another come and go for a drink and a mud and sand bath. In total there were probably more than 40 different elephants that entertained us during our break. It was fantastic and we were so close and they were totally relaxed around us. Finally as we were ready to leave the last herd of about 8 elephants slowly wandered off into the forest and we were able to depart. The little inlet had a strong current so we were pushed up close to the shoreline where the elephants were so the timing was perfect. The experience added a new energy and right there and then we decided we would not give up so we hit the waves and wind and continued on for several hours to our next sandy island pit stop.
Another early morning, another beautiful sunrise and not too far to go before we would reach our final destination. As luck would have it, the final hour or so of paddling was idyllic. There was absolutely no wind. The waters were calm and we drifted along with the current in awe of the speed we were travelling with little to no paddling effort. This is how it was supposed to be for our four-day journey but alas it was not. We pulled up to our take out point, our boat ride back was waiting and we all hugged and high-fived. It was truly an accomplishment. It was tough both mentally and physically. On our way back upstream we passed a group of paddlers who had left a few hours later than us on the first day. They were a group of teens and they had given up and were waiting to be rescued from their ordeal. They made it to our 3rd day morning rest stop. We were later told that many groups give up mid way whether due to the paddling conditions or the hippos. We didn’t give up and we were very proud of ourselves and we made two new great friends along the way. Our hats are off to Wendy and Rob because without the mutual support among us things may have turned differently.