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Canoeing the Zambezi River by Travel Blogger Beverley Lello

Canoeing Safari on the Zambezi River with River Horse Safaris by Beverley Lello, Posted - September 16, 2015:

The first day of our canoe safari was dominated by hippos. Our guide, Cuthbert said, ‘It’s the lone males you need to worry about, not the nice family groups.’ It seems that the families just lie in big raft like pods, grunting and keeping cool, but it’s still wise to give them a wide berth. Cuthbert paddles ahead, past a large pod and Chris and I follow. Then we drift and study some Egyptian Geese on the shore through our binoculars. With no warning, about three or four metres away, a lone hippo rises up out of the water emitting a very threatening, very guttural series of grunts, offering us a view of very large teeth and a pink mouth, and starts heading in our direction. ‘Back paddle, back paddle, back paddle, faster, faster, faster,’ yells Cuthbert. And we do. The hippo turns away, then swings around and charges again, but more of a feint than a real charge this time. Still, we keep back-paddling, heart’s racing, until the distance seems safer and some of the urgency fades from Cuthbert’s cries. Later, he says, ‘It almost gave me a heart attack, because I paddled the same way and just didn’t see it.’ Apparently, this was not a normal trip event.

We scanned the river more carefully after that. Mostly, you see the hippos’ eyes and ears above the water like the periscope on a submarine, but the problem is the hippo can also submerge for 7 or 8 minutes, and it’s when you can’t see them they’re a worry. Our ‘scary moment hippo’ had obviously been under water when we first drifted past the spot. Fortunately, in the three days we were on the Zambezi River, this didn’t happen again.

The crocodiles were another surprise. One basking on a rock, on the edge of the river, was easily six metres. Then we saw another equally big one. Later, Cuthbert told us that thirty-five people a year, mainly fishermen, are killed by crocodiles at Lake Kariba. He then told us, in a reassuring tone, that crocs don’t normally attack canoes. We react to this use of the word “normally” and remember that hippos don’t “normally” attack canoes either, so he wades in deeper and tells us that before they bring tourists down the river at the start of the season, the guides do a trip with rifles and shoot above the crocs to warn them to be wary of canoes. We think, what if they didn’t see all the big crocs on that trip? Did the others get the message? We paddle past and hope for the best. Apart from those two really big ones we saw maybe twenty smaller ones on our second day.

From the canoe we also saw elephants, impala, warthogs, baboons, bushbuck and waterbuck, but not in such numbers as South Luangwa. It’s really all about the hippos and the river which is very wide and flows at about 4km an hour. We did have to paddle though. This was very pleasant in the early morning and later in the afternoon, but the wind came up mid-morning and it was hard paddling into the wind. It was always a relief when Cuthbert headed to the shore and announced it was lunchtime. We camped twice on islands, slept in a tent and sat around a charcoal fire – also used by Cuthbert to cook three quite delicious evening meals and three English breakfasts. The third and final night, we stopped at a fixed camp owned by River Horse Safaris. A small tributary flowed into the Zambezi at this point and we were able to sit all one afternoon and watch the different animals come down to drink, and in the case of the elephants, wallow in the mud.

Our guide, Cuthbert, was from Zimbabwe and we learnt a lot about life in Zimbabwe during the safari. Not an easy place to live. He was reading “The Count of Monte Cristo” on his kindle and was also a Bill Bryson fan. He was so much more than a river guide.


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