Wild river: Kayaking Africa’s mighty Zambezi

Zimbabwe CNN  — 

I picture a placid paddle, just a smooth morning skimming along under the sun, exploring one of Africa’s most famous waterways at a slow pace.

I get something else entirely.

“We’re headed 11 or 12 kilometers in the direction of Victoria Falls,” my guide says, a smile in his voice as he pats me on the back. “I see you didn’t pack a parachute, so we don’t plan on going quite that far!”

Home to hungry crocodiles and big herds of hippos – one of Africa’s deadliest animals – the Zambezi is perhaps the most storied waterway on the continent.

The river that spirited 19th century explorer David Livingstone to the heart of Africa, it runs some 2,500 kilometers, from Zambia to Mozambique and its final outlet in the Indian Ocean.

Livingstone was accompanied by an entourage of local experts.

I have Rob Shattock, a man who pioneered canoe safaris in Zimbabwe and has been plying these waters for more than 45 years.

Shattock, it seems, is something of a character.

During my first night at Zambezi Sands, a luxury tented camp on the banks of the river, we sat chatting over a whisky at the bar.

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Thirsty for blood

The banks of the Zambezi are home to many wild animals.

Mid sentence, and without warning, he decided to impersonate a lion – one, it seemed, thirsty for my blood.

Turned away from me, he picked up an ice bucket and roared, using the silver bucket to amplify his fearsome call, declaring, in a faux-ominous voice: “Tim, I’m coming for you!”

The next morning, as we set off toward the first of four rapids in our small inflatable kayak, I ask Shattock about the dangers.

He points out hippopotamus tracks just 15 meters from our camp.

While often portrayed as goofy, awkward animals in cartoons (and board games), hippos are actually very aggressive toward humans, sometimes chomping them into three pieces using their giant teeth.

There are crocodiles too.

Shattock mentions that on one of his first canoe safaris a crocodile actually snapped his graphite paddle.

That was decades ago, he adds, and he hasn’t had any incidents since.

“Crocs aren’t usually a problem, but let’s not tempt them by dangling our hands in the river,” he says.

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Calculating crocs

Keep hands inside the ride at all times.

We’re soon crashing through the cataracts and I’m soaked to the skin by waves coming over the bow as Shattock steers us through the foam.

Soon afterwards, we veer very close to a crocodile that stares at us icily with gray eyes before dipping below the surface.

“They’re very calculating animals,” Shattock explains, noting that Zambian children are the most frequent victims.

“The croc waits until they get comfortable and think it’s safe. When they get deeper in the water, they’re just gone.”

As we take a breather in a lazier section of the river, Shattock explains that the water marks the divide between Zambia on one side and Zimbabwe on the other.

We’re actually paddling along the border.

Soon we see a group of young boys driving cattle through a shallow spot in the river, shouting and even throwing rocks to keep them moving to the opposite shore.

Shattock notes that some Zambians graze their stock on the Zimbabwean side of the Zambezi, which is national parkland, and relatively untouched.

“It’s completely illegal, of course,” he adds. 

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River of life

Hippos may be cute but they can be dangerous.

We get close to other aspects of everyday life on the river.

Kids as young as 10 paddle past us, piloting makoros, small dugout canoes.

Open-billed storks sit along the shore, cracking open mussels with their beaks.

Whole families wash their dishes and clothes in the flow.

In this part of the world, the river provides for most needs – it’s a road, a bath, a source of food and water.

They’re scenes more and more visitors to the region could soon be witnessing as this part of Africa gears up for rapid change.

Zimbabwe has struggled to stay on the tourism beat in the past few decades as the country has endured economic strife and political turmoil that continue today.

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New airport

But a $150 million upgrade to the international airport at the Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls that’ll allow wide-body jets, including the A380, to land could help the alter the country’s fortunes.

The goal is to bring direct flights from Europe and even the US, eliminating the need for a stopover in Johannesburg.

That makes sense as Vic Falls is close to Southern Africa’s main tourist spots, from the Falls themselves to major national safari parks in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana.

A couple regional carriers have already signed on with major international airlines rumored to be considering flights here.

Eventually, we arrive at our appointed takeout spot.

I’m drenched, but smiling as I climb out of the inflatable kayak, feeling like a wet dog, my back a bit sore.

With that quick smile on his face, Shattock slaps me on the back, sending tiny rivulets of river water splashing out from my shirt, and skin.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?,” he says, with his Zimbabwean lilt. “And we didn’t even get eaten!”

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Tim Johnson is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto.