A canoe safari on lower Zambezi / Zimbabwe (2009)
‘Knock, Knock, Knock’…. A paddle is knocking on the canoe’s rail – silence - and again… ‘Knock, Knock, Knock’…. The answer comes with a “blub, blub, blub, … ” Five heads of a hippo family emerge from the water. Ten wet eyes watching us, water spouts, snorting and polyphonic grunts echoing over the river… slowly and with respectful distance, our canoes are gliding past the animals; one by one they submerge again. Reassured, we paddle on for a while stopping only for “knocking” at the next hippo territory.
"polyphonic grunts echoing over the river"
I’m on a 10-day budget canoe trip on mighty Zambezi with Bono Lunga a professional safari and river guide. We are a small group of six - four guests, Bono, the head guide and Champ, an apprentice guide. Canoeing downstream, Bono is searching the most secure way to navigate our group through ‘hippo town’.
Hippos always have the right of way!
I had previously canoed in Germany and France and I loved it. So I booked this canoe safari more or less spontaneously while doing some volunteering in Zimbabwe with James and Janine Varden, who do horseriding Safaris in Mavuradonha. Fortunately there was space left in a canoe group. Only after the booking, I began to realize that canoeing among Africa’s big game might be a bit more dangerous than European paddling destinations.
Preparing our canoes for the departure, our guides took their pistol belts – Huh! Achem…! I reminded myself: the hippopotamus is the third-largest land mammal and weigh up to 1500 kilograms. As large as they are and as sluggish they seem, when they feel threatened, you may have massive problems to contend with. Not to mention the crocodiles resting along the shoreline just waiting for a meal; dangling your hands or legs over the side of the canoe is not advisable. During the day, the hippo families are resting under water and they don’t like troublemakers – so you have to respectfully ‘knock on their door’. By doing so you will kill two birds with one stone - first they know you are approaching, second you know where they are resting and you can keep a safe distance.
Hippo family grazing on the Banks of Zambezi
So here I was…
Our 10-day canoe-safari started near Kariba Dam. On this trip we carried all our equipment with us in the canoes, there is no backup car or staff to prepare our camps or supply us with the usual luxury food you get in safari lodges or tented camps – all over Africa. A canoe safari on lower Zambezi means you move with your camp each day, you have to set up and take down your tent by yourself and you prepare your meals together. For your shower you get a bucket full of Zambezi water behind the tent and for the toilet you get a little spade and you do your business somewhere behind a bush, a tree or a log – this is what I like to call the real origin of an adventure in the middle of the African bush.
We got a short introduction from our guides about the do’s and don’ts and then we set-off in our canoes. I was lucky to sit in the same canoe with Bono. As the lead for the group, our canoe was in the front and as he was steering from the back, I was sitting in front and the whole river lay before me. In Kariba Gorge, we encountered a heavy upstream wind, causing higher waves and paddling made my muscles ache. After 20 kms, the Gorge opened up and there it was - the beautiful wide and wild Zambezi valley. The wind stopped, the water calmed and we stopped paddling – letting the canoes go with the flow. We just sat back and soaked-in the sudden peace.
The first hippos were emerging – but I felt really safe. Bono made it easy for me to feel comfortable in his canoe. He knows the river inside out. By 2009, Bono was already doing canoe safaris on this stretch of Zambezi for 12 years. He crowned his river guiding career by earning his full Professional Safari Guide licence. Bono is a confident, soft-spoken man with a calm, peaceful air about him. As his guests, we always came first, he always hung-back and gave us the opportunity to fully enjoy undisturbed moments by ourselves.
Bono in his element
Around 5 p.m. we were heading for Cat Island – the first sandbank we would spend the night on. While everybody was busy setting up tents, Champ was preparing dinner for us. The African night falls fast and it was already pitch dark when Champ opened the “Zambezi Sandbank Restaurant”. On a little folding table, he served Chicken curry with rice and melted butternut squash. What a feast after a long day of paddling!
Camp on a Sandbank
After dinner we sat in the sand enjoying the star–bright night. Except for Robert, one of the other guests, nobody was talking; but soon he gave us some peace since no one was listening to him. We all just enjoyed the sounds of the African night.
Daylight comes early – 5:30 and Champ had already prepared tea for us. We took down our tents, packed the canoes, enjoyed the tea and some cookies and an hour later we set out on the river again looking forward to discover the secrets of mighty Zambezi.
We paddled passed buffalo, waterbuck, bushbuck and elephants. Huge crocodiles were sunbathing on the sandbanks. Birdlife was abundant. A pair of fish eagles circled majestically above us. Their call would follow us for the next days. Flocks of carmine bee-eaters sprinkled colourful dots in the air. African skimmers were cutting furrows in the mirror-like water’s surface. Storks wading gracefully in shallow water. Giant herons patiently waiting in the reeds as stiff as statues.
Encountering big game close up
Southern Carmine Bee-eater
NO, this is NOT Robert! ... This guy here knew his Job ...
Encountering local fishermen
For the night, Bono chose Twin Log Island. After we set up camp there was still time to stroll over the sandbank and stretch our legs on a little walk. Amazingly our camp was just opposite an elephant beach. They came after nightfall. Judging by the sounds, they thoroughly enjoyed their bath. Later I could hear them coming through the river, and playing in the reeds next to my tent and then they strolled right through camp heading to the other side of the sandbank.
Over the next few days the river kept changing his face but we were getting in a comfortable routine, in camp and during our breaks everybody knew what to do and how to help. During lunchtime we were always waiting for Robert to catch a fish. In the morning we set out again. With a few strikes of our paddles we reached a good current and the canoes were gliding towards the sunrise.
Magic moments! When the bush recovers from the night and water seems like liquid silver in the early sunlight. Even Robert kept quiet.
We passed closely by elephants in the tall grass, paddled through narrow channels or the vast width of the mighty Zambezi River. We meandered our way through Hippo town, criss-crossing from the steep riverbanks to the shallow meadows of magic Mana Pools. We stopped for a short walk on one of the sandbanks and Bono guided us close to a bachelor group of elephants. It is getting hot; the wind no longer cools the sweat on our skin.
Elephant in the reedgras
Towards the end of the trip Bono spots a pack of wild dogs teaching their pups a lesson in sneaking up on some waterbucks. We are still waiting for Robert catch a fish for dinner.
If you hear his call, you will come back
On the last day the Zambezi again squeezed its water through a narrow Gorge. The upstream wind was catching up and waves were high. The canoes were taking water. It was good that we had our gear packed in waterproof bags. Before we passed the famous red cliff, we had to stop twice to bail out the water.
Quite exhausted, we finally reached Kanyemba where the car and trailer waited for us. The next day we were transported back to Kariba. One last time I heard the fish eagles call; and I knew I would come back. Back to Zimbabwe, back to the Zambezi.Maike Bieber
October 2009 on Lower Zambezi in Zimbabwe
P.S.: Robert never got us a fish for dinner ;-) but I guess he has lots to talk about.
In 2009 Bono Lunga was working as a head guide and canoe trainer for a well-known canoe-safari company. 2012 Bono organized his first own canoe-safari on lower Zambezi and since then he offers 3 – 8 day canoe trips combined with some days walking in Mana Pools. If interested please look up DryLand-Safaris.
I like to thank my friend Peter Barber who edited this text for me. Peter is the Author of the book: GET UP AND GET GOING
A Practical Guide for the Mature Would-Be Traveller
A Practical Guide for the Mature Would-Be Traveller