Livingstone, Zambia

We arrived in Livingstone two days ago on the 29th. It was a short drive from Kasane to the Kazangula river crossing which takes you a short distance across the Zambezi river into Zambia. There is a sight to behold as you near the customs office. Backed up for literally km’s are semi trucks waiting to cross the river on a two truck ferry that will get them into Zambia with many continuing on to Zimbabwe. We were told they can wait up to a week before it is finally their turn to cross. There is a bridge under construction so this will obviously alleviate this crazy bottleneck. There are little bars and food kiosks along the road and surely many ” ladies of the night” plying their trade along this road and what must be a nightmare for truckers and their associated businesses. This is Africa and the infrastructure will hopefully improve over time.

Joyce came down with a bad case of food poisoning before we left Kasane and was on her last legs when we finally arrived at our lodge outside of Livingstone on the banks of the Zambezi river. Once we arrived I took a taxi into town to get a SIM card for our phone and what was supposed to be the best phone network provider has turned out to be the worst and to top it off our lodge has so-called “wi-fi” that doesn’t really work. I’m furiously typing this portion of our blog piggy backed on the wifi of the lodge next door and have been more than once kicked off and have lost everything I tried to update earlier. To make a long story short, we visited Victoria Falls today. It is the dry season so the water levels of the Zambezi river are low so we actually visited Victoria trickles falls. Disappointing and anticlimactic but we know they are spectacular during and just after the rainy season. Joyce is still recuperating so our stay here has been very subdued but that’s okay because the beers are cheap at the lodge bar and we head off on the 2nd of September to canoe down the lower Zambezi for 3 nights of camping on river islands and 4 days canoeing into the Manna Pools region which should be rich in wildlife and adventure. We are looking forward to this next leg of exploration.

 

Zambezi River canoe trip

Today we flew from Livingstone to Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia with a population of 3 million and are overnighted at a 1 1/2 star rest camp in a small A-frame hut with 25-year-old mattresses on the beds and 1/2 inch thick pillows. This might just be comfort as tomorrow we head off on a 3 night, 4 day canoe trip down the lower Zambezi River into the flood plains of the Mana Pools region in Mana Pools National Park. We’ll be camping on 3 different islands over 3 nights and there are no toilets so this is true “dig and cover” camping. Below is a map of Zambia and second map showing the area we will cover on the river, a not to big distance of approximately 75 km.

The lower Zambezi River; 4 km/hr downstream current, 30+km/hr headwinds!

We did it’ We beat the odds on this incredible 75 km journey and the odds were definitely not in our favour.

Our starting point

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.

DAY 2

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.

Day 3

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.

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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.

Day 4

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.

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Zambezi Island Canoe Trail September 2017 066

Lusaka, Zambia to South Luangwa National Park then on to Malawi

 

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We departed Lusaka on September 7th on our first organized tour ever and headed North East along the Great Eastern Road for a long drive to our pit stop in Petauke.  The drive took us through many small villages and one of the things that really stands out was the name of some of the roadside businesses. “Tell Jesus Barber Shop”, “Happy Boozing Place” and “God Willing Hair Salon and Battery Charge Station” were just a few of some very hilarious names.We had a nice little bungalow in Petauke and departed early the next morning for our 2 night stay in South Luangwa National Park. Along the way we passed through many small villages and when we slowed down the local roadside vendors tried to sell us their goodies… skewered roasted field mice. Now I am usually quite adventurous and will try pretty well anything but I decided to pass. Not enough garlic and pepper for my liking plus they were very well done when they should have a little pink in the middle!

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As we neared South Luanga National Park we entered the town of Kakumbi which sits on the south banks of the Luanga River and the point where we crossed an ancient old bridge spanning the river. The town is well-known for the dried river  bream fish they sell at roadside stalls.

Our final stop for the next two nights was Wildlife Camp. It was a great spot with camping and bungalow accommodation along the banks of the Luangwa River. We felt a big ping of yearning to be camping again, just the two of us, no schedule or regimentation that was driving us crazy with this group tour. Wildlife was abundant in the area with elephants, giraffe, monkeys and baboons wandering freely throughout the camp. We did two fantastic game drives the next morning and evening and this along with the children in Malawi was the highlight of our 10 day tour.

South Luangwa National Park

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We left at 6:00 am the next morning for our first drive and it was not disappointing. Elephants, giraffe, wildebeest, impala and lions and a leopard. As we approached a bend in the road we saw several vehicles stopped. Obviously something interesting caught their attention. As we neared I spotted the attraction, two female lions feasting on a recent kill of an African buffalo. We pulled up and were within 5 metres of the lions but there was more. In a nearby tree a leopard sat patiently, probably waiting for the lions to leave so it could get a free meal before the vultures and hyenas arrived. We sat watching for probably 15 minutes and then departed to allow other safari vehicles to get their chance to see this amazing sight. This was by all means a very successful morning drive but there was more, much more to come on the evening drive.

We actually had a few hours to relax after our morning drive and we looked forward with anticipation for the evening drive hoping to revisit the lion kill site and see some lion cubs that were reportedly seen in the morning but we had yet to see so far in any of our 3 plus months in Africa. We were not disappointed. As we neared the kill site and no more than 15 metres away we saw them. Not one, not two but four young lion cubs making their way to the kill. And as an added bonus three more lionesses had joined the party along with a huge flock(?) of vultures and nearby in the tree, the leopard still waiting patiently. What could be better than this?  You will soon see.

That was just great. Wow! We left the lions in peace and drove to the banks of the river to watch the sunset and have a small snack and sun-downer (drink). Another beautiful sunset and then we headed off with our spotter and his spotlight to see what nocturnal animals would emerge in the darkness. We saw a Civet, a white-tailed mongoose and nearly hit a very large hippo as he ran across the path in front of us. Things became a little confusing as our driver took a quick diversion from our path, dimmed his lights and drove slowly out into an open field. What’s going on we wondered? How can he even see where he’s driving? As we approached the open area the guide mentioned a leopard had been spotted preparing for a kill.  Within minutes Joyce spotted in a moment of light the leopard no more than 3 metres away from us crouched down and waiting stealthy. The truck came to a stop and we waited using red lights to see the leopard, apparently this color of light does not bother them or the nearby impala she was stalking. What a sight. We waited close to 20 minutes and then bam! It happened so fast but the leopard made its move and in a blink of an eye had made it’s kill. Incredible and this is something we were told is rarely witnessed. We watched in awe as she slowly suffocated what looked like a very large pregnant impala and then through several bursts of energy dragged the limp animal towards a large tree. The leopard made a couple of attempts to haul its prey up the tree but failed each time. In the mean time, a male leopard showed up and prowled nearby and then made an attempt to steal the prey but was thwarted by the very exhausted but determined female leopard. She made one final attempt to drag the impala up the tree and almost made it but she lost her grip and both fell several metres to the ground. Extremely exhausted at this point she decided to start eating her prey to either lighten the load or at least get something out of her kill before scavengers showed up. This is another one of those “we will never forget” moments. Amazing.