Laurianne Claase visits Zimbabwe for Travel Africa Magazine, and canoes the classic Middle Zambezi route with Natureways Safaris from Zimbabwe's Lake Kariba to Mana Pools National Park.
"DAY 1 - 18km It's New Year's day and we are setting out to explore 121km of the middle Zambezi. We will be paddling from the Kariba Gorge below the Kariba Dam wall to Mana Pools National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the highest recorded numbers of game and birdlife on the Zambezi. Not a bad way to start 2013.
Our guides to this African Eden are aptly named Cloud and Emmanuel. Two Canadian flat-bottomed canoes prove big enough to handle four passengers, camping and cooking equipment, food, drink and enough ice for six days. We soon come to appreciate the local fondness for peanut butter. We are on safari with the "Peanut Butter Boys".
It is hot and still, and hippos and a hamerkop watch us drift off down the gorge. The river carries us at a gentle 7kph, so there's no real reason to paddle. Soon the river is too deep for hippos and the banks too steep for big game. Crocs sun themselves on the banks and the warbling, liquid cry of the Piet-my-vrou (red-chested cuckoo) echoes down the gorge. A summer holidaymaker from central Africa, this bird is seldom seen. Its breeding call, however, is unmistakeable, exhorting people to pick up their hoes for the summer planting season. The white-browed coucal's trickling call also heralds the rains and follows us down the river.
We stop for a lunch of salad, cheese, cold meats and Mazoe orange under the green expanse of a Natal mahogany, its distinctive red and black beans scattered underfoot. We enjoy a nearby stream and sit out the worst of the heat. Later we clamber up a waterfall to wallow in rock pools as warm as bath water.
The first night's camp is Nyamoumba Island, which is just outside the gorge where the river widens. The area along this curve of the river is punctuated by sand banks, riverine islands and sizeable pods of hippos.
DAY 2 - 27km Today is about dodging the hippo pods - they are everywhere. We tap on the sides of the boats with our paddles to warn them of our passing. Curious beasts - and territorial - they pop up to see who goes there. We strike out for the shallows, leaving the hippos in the deep. They bare their teeth and grunt at our temerity.
Despite the hippo's reputation as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, the biggest threat on the water from these vegetarian tuskers is that you will inadvertently bump into one. Deceptively placid as the river may seem, you do not want to end up in it. It is the crocs, not the hippos, that are the real danger on the middle Zambezi. The river actually has the country's highest density of both species, with an average of 33 hippos and six adult crocodiles per kilometre of river. So do not be tempted to trail your limbs languidly in the water while floating downstream!
DAY 3 - 20km An hour's float in the morning brings us to Chirundu, where we pay for our permits and brunch under a nyala tree by the slipway. The river quickly widens and is edged in umbrella thorn and phragmytes reed beds. Sandy islands are dotted with blacksmith and crowned lapwings and red-wing pratincoles. A lone bull elephant drinks on the far bank. We step up our pace but by the time we get there he is gone.
Past Chirundu stands the imposing, decaying edifice of a pump house that once ran the irrigation for a sugar plantation. The pump house was blown up in the war of independence and the sugar plantation subsequently died. A banana plantation took its place, only to be destroyed by elephants and baboons. Today, the pump house runs again, fuelling a crocodile farm - one of the country's few growth industries. It is estimated that Zimbabwe earns more than US$100 million a year through the export of crocodile meat and skins to countries such as Japan, Singapore, the United States and Australia.
Banks of cloud start to roll in and the sky darkens as the river winds on. Motorboats head for home, trying to outrun the rain, and flocks of snowy egrets whitewash the sooty sky. Just around the final bend, the clouds descend and we pitch camp in the downpour. Thankfully the rain stops in time to eat dinner. Here the usual night sounds of snorting hippos are joined by the strains of Zimbabwean sungura music from a disco on the Zambian shore. Fireflies flicker and stars dot the cloud-swept sky.
DAY 4 - 27km A calm and cloudy morning ushers in the day. Bee-eaters - blue-cheeked, carmine and little - are breakfasting as we paddle along the Zimbabwean shore, past holiday houses, Mongwe Camp and a new lodge. The shoreline is edged in wild mango and ilala palms, with intermittent baobabs and showers of white leaved combretum. As we round a channel through a reed bed we surprise a hippo and narrowly escape being bumped.
We lunch next to the Nyakasanga River, which marks the border between the hunting concessions of the Hurungwe Safari Area and Mana Pools National Park. The hippo pods are so plentiful here that we strike across the river for the Zambian shore. We've honed our game-viewing skills by now and spot another thirsty bachelor elephant. This time we get up close and personal and are rewarded with much ear flapping and trumpeting.
It's a quiet, sleepy afternoon so we doze on the water until we approach our camping spot. Cutting across the broad expanse of river, as clouds gather behind us and the day grows dark, we see an elephant back on the Zambian side. We zigzag back across the 1km-wide river, and enter a shallow bay clogged with dead trees and driftwood. A large croc breaks the water's surface before quickly disappearing into the murk. As we are negotiating it, a dead tree stump and a bolshie hippo, we manage to get stuck on a sand bank. With elephants on the bank, a nearby hippo gnashing his chompers and the storm gathering behind us, it is a moment I dearly want to capture on camera. The pictures surely won't win any competitions, but this memory will be indelible.
DAY 5 - 29km We hear the distant rumble of lion and give chase. We find them at Mana Pools' Acacia Point - three young juveniles on the edge of the tree line - and watch as they disappear into the bush. The nearby woolly-necked storks are unimpressed.
Fittingly, it is an aggressive bull hippo who welcomes us to Nyamepi campsite in Mana Pools with toothy roars and a mock charge. Despite it being the last day on the Zambezi, his displays inspire the fastest pace yet set on this trip. We make landfall unscathed. Zvakanaka is a useful Shona word that means many things: "thank you", "bon voyage", "merry Christmas" and "happy New Year". Zambezi zvakanaka! We'll be back.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
When to visit:
Getting there: Charter flights or road transfers link Kariba to Harare, Victoria Falls and Lusaka, Zambia. As most canoe trips leave in the early morning from Kariba it is necessary to time your arrival in town the day before departure.
May and June are the most pleasant months to paddle this section of the Zambezi, though trips during the rainy season (November to early April) are also rewarding (as Laurianne experienced). The rains are typically short, the storms dramatic and the sun always seems to follow them both. October and November can be very hot and humid.
UK visitors (and those of most non-African nationalities) require a visa for Zimbabwe. Available at arrival, single-entry visas cost US$55 for UK and Irish citizens (US$70 for multiple-entry visas). Canadians pay US$75 for a single-entry visa, while those from USA and most other European nations pay US$30 (US$45/55 for double-/multiple-entry versions).
Zimbabwe (Bradt, 1st ed, 2010) is a great guide for your visit."
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