As a five year old growing up in Zimbabwe, I remember my parents showing me photo-slides from their amazing experiences canoeing with friends along the Zambezi River. I decided then, that one day when I was older I would jump into a canoe and do just that.
22 years later, after countless memories seeing the great Zambezi from the banks of Zimbabwe and watching with envy as safari canoes drift serenely past, I decided it was time!
After consulting the fantastically helpful WildZambezi online travel guide, and listening to some local advice, we decided that Natureways was the best option for the sort of trip we wanted.
My partner (a park ranger) and I (an ecologist) now live in Australia and both love the outdoors, especially with added thrill and adventure, so we booked a three night “Explorer canoe safari” with Natureways from Chirundu to Mana Pools (known as the “Tamarind canoe safari”) in August 2016, during a visit home to see my family in Harare.
On arrival at Makuti, our meeting place with the friendly Natureways crew, we jumped into the back of the safari vehicle and began the dusty drive towards Chirundu, the northern-most border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.
As we wound our way down into the Zambezi valley, the canoe trailer bumping along behind us, the scent of mopane hit us; a tree characteristic of the lowveld sand plains of the Zambezi region. Big towering baobabs flew past as, naked in the dry season and scarred from hundreds of years of thirsty elephants, scratching and tearing at the tree’s fibrous bark and swollen trunks, desperate to access the water reserves within.
Zera, the professional guide who would be leading the trip, gave us a run down on Natureways, his experience working as a guide and on the logistics of the trip ahead. His big white smile and fantastic sense of humour was contagious and by the time we got to Chirundu, we were smiling ear-to-ear and ecstatic about what adventures lay ahead.
During a quick but delicious lunch of cold meats and salad sandwiches, laid out exquisitely under a Tamarind tree (the source of the trip’s identity) by Zera (who I am convinced, is a gourmet chef in his spare time!), his guides-in-training, Ranga and Trust offloaded and packed up the canoes, tying down all the gear. A resident hippo poked his head out of the river just out from the boat ramp, and snorted in greeting. We soon discovered he would be the first of hundreds of hippos, some of which not quite as friendly as this one!
After a safety talk and paddling lesson from Zera, we pushed off the bank and began the 75 km paddle toward Mana Pools.
We glided soundlessly along the river, ripples lapping gently against our canoe, following the current that pushed us gently downstream.
Jason and I opted to paddle together in one canoe (rather than with a guide), giving ourselves a bit more responsibility and work, but resulted in a more realistic rather than luxurious experience, which was the sort of trip we were after! This decision soon became quite amusing to the guides when we came across our first pod of hippos, situated exactly in the narrow channel we hoped to paddle through.
“Keep up, keep up!”
Zera shouted back to us as we lagged behind, snapping excitedly away on our cameras at the hippos 30 metres away, thinking this was a ‘close-encounter’.
“Jase, go more left you’re drifting towards them!”
I said, raising my voice slightly as I started panicking, throwing my camera onto my lap, lens cap flying off and disappearing under my seat.
“Faster, we need to keep up!” I grabbed my paddle, desperately trying to untangle it from my binoculars and started shoveling river as fast as I could trying desperately to turn a 14 foot canoe around from the front seat, splashing everything including myself and Jason in the process.
“We’ll be ‘right” Jase says gently in his Australian twang whilst paddling slowly, “stop panicking” he says, as he quietly performs the ‘rudder’ maneuver bringing us instantly towards the bank behind Zera without any effort at all.
“You should join an Olympic rowing team” he says defiantly, “I’ve never seen you move so fast!”.
I sat back panting, ignoring his cheeky remark but feeling quite exhilarated by the thrill of having 15 hippos rocket towards us, bow wave crashing against each other, huffing and snorting in protest at our intrusion of their evening snooze.
Safely past the indignant hippos, Zera turned around grinning with amusement, “This is why we offer to steer for you, I’ll give you 10 dollars if you guys are still talking to each other by the end of this trip!”
Needless to say we accepted the challenge and after I eventually stopped panicking in the face of hippos 20 metres away, we remained both canoe-buddies and on talking terms for the entire trip!
We pulled in to camp that evening just as the sun set behind us, landing on a tiny sand island called Kakomarara, 18 km downstream of Chirundu. The island was lit up by the setting sun, casting a warm, orange glow across the sand, bouncing off the footprints of elephants that had crossed over the night before on their way to sleep on safer islands away from predators.
Light disappears fast in the valley, and so we set up camp as quick as possible, Jason and I, struggling with our canvas tent, were rescued by Ranga who showed us how the experts did it, as smells of food wafted over to us from Zera and Trust as they cooked us up a storm for a well-deserved dinner.
With darkness came the stars, and my goodness was it a sight! Not an ounce of artificial light, the Milky Way stretched from one horizon to the other, twinkling and beaming down on us insignificant beings deep within one of the wildest parts of Africa.
“Can I offer you a beer”, says a voice, far away as we drag ourselves back to reality, just in time to see Zera in our torchlight, hand us two ice cold Zambezi Lagers straight out of the cooler box. I look at Jase and we grin. Accepting the beers, we raise them until they clink. This is going to be the most awesome adventure we’ve ever had!
The next morning we awoke to the hauntingly beautiful call of the African fish eagle, interspersed with the gurgling grunts of hippos downstream from our camp. First light appeared over the horizon, reflecting a soft purple hue over the river, as the smell of coffee drifted over to us from the camp stove.
Caffeinated, camp re-packed and pockets stashed with biscuits, we pushed off silently from the banks, trickling our way towards a breakfast spot 10 km further downstream. There was not a breath of wind breaking the surface of the water, the only sound was the dipping and trickling of our paddles as we glided effortlessly along with the current. The rising sun dipped from red to gold, warming the mist as it lifted off the water, and threw shards of light over the Zambian Escarpment.
An African Skimmer, one of the Zambezi's rarest birds, warmed and preened itself on a sandbank nearby, in preparation for a morning of gliding over the water, skimming the surface for small fish and tidbits. As we paddled close to shore, a Nile crocodile slipped into the water disappearing entirely except for his eyes and nostrils breaking the surface, watching us closely, waiting for us to pass so that he might return, undisturbed to his basking spot in the sun.
But with the warmth came the wind, and as we began our final approach across the wide expanse of water towards our breakfast spot, white-capped ripples broke against our bows as we paddled hard to keep moving forward.
Eventually we reached land, shoulders aching and bellies grumbling, we realized the importance of an early start to take advantage of the calm water before the wind woke up.
Not only was the sunrise paddle beautiful, but the wait was worth it; the crew jumped ashore, chose a spot beneath a towering Ilala Palm tree and, after a quick but fruitless scan for animals in the vicinity, immediately began unpacking the gear and sizzling up an enormous English-style breakfast.
Content, with bellies full of bacon, we jumped back in our canoes and (thankfully, without sinking) made our way down the river.
A little way downstream, we paddled slowly alongside a sand bank towering in reeds, watching tiny but extraordinarily beautiful malachite king fishers darting in and out, blurs of blue and orange hovering and diving delicately into the shallows in search of tiny fish, before watching in shock as they smacked them brutally against a branch and swallowed them whole!
A rustle in the reeds ahead made us start, Zera gestured for us to look. A shadow appeared above a small sand cliff, a flap of an ear, a swish of a tail. Silently, we glided towards it allowing the current to take us slowly past. Another flap of an ear, a rustle of reeds and a young elephant bull (our first!) burst out ceremoniously from behind the reeds, trunk swishing ears flapping in surprise as he saw us floating past a few mere feet away.
Realizing we were no threat, the young elephant bull soon ignored us and once we passed by, began to amble clumsily down the sandy cliff towards the water for a much-needed drink, chunks of cliff breaking off precariously under his feet and rolling with a splash into the river before we floated round a bend as he disappeared behind the reeds.
As the afternoon light dipped into its golden glow, we took a short cut through a narrow channel between two islands. The river was still flowing but was calm, not a breath of wind broke the surface as we dipped our paddles and gently steered our way through between the banks. From amongst the reeds, water birds watched us cautiously as we flowed gently passed them. Little Jacanas trotted along between the lily pads, egrets as white as snow against the lush, green, grassy banks, stood silently ignoring us, staring into the water waiting for a fish to swim by.
It was bird watching paradise here, brilliant flashes of blue and purple darted between the reeds as Lilac breasted rollers hunted out insects for their evening meal and rare water birds nestled amongst the water hyacinth like hidden jewels as we glided soundlessly past, seen only because of Zera’s incredible bird spotting skills.
As the river widened and we drifted out of the reeds, a stretch of sand lay before us, heavily laden with dung and footprints; another dawn highway for the elephants, and another perfect camping spot for us. After a quick routine camp setup, one of the guides handed us each a camping chair and a cold beer (what more could you want, really?).
As we sat watching the sun go down over the escarpment, sipping our Zambezi Lager and marveling at another incredible day full of life and adventure on the river, the hippos in the channel next to us snorted in unison as if in agreement and the final call of the African water dikkop echoed nostalgically over the Zambezi valley.
For an incredible trip of a lifetime along the Zambezi River, whether you’re into luxury or adventure, check out Natureways Safaris!