"Keep the Zambezi Wild" say Source-to-Sea Kayak Duo

by WildZambezi.com • 13 September 2010

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In August 2009, Zimbabwean-born Warren Willis (left) and his South African friend, Francois Kruger (right), set out to kayak the Zambezi River from its source near Mwini Lunga in Northern Zambia to its delta at the Indian Ocean.  The two men completed their epic 3186-km-long journey in May 2010, having split it into two parts, breaking just short of Lake Kariba for Warren to return to the UK in time for the birth of his first child - a son, Benjamin, in October 2009.

The pair plan to use their experience to help generate funds for conserving the Zambezi River's wild areas.  Warren writes:  "Our main observation is how lucky we are in Zimbabwe to have the small section of river we do and that we need to do everything possible it keep it wild".

The expedition had the support of conservation organization The Zambezi Society: "Tourism on the Zambezi River has the potential to generate revenue which can contribute to sustainable development by conserving the very wilderness values upon which it depends.  We believe that journeys such as the one undertaken by Warren Willis and Francois Kruger will help to bring greater awareness of the importance of the Zambezi River as a global tourism destination, with wildlife and wilderness values which deserve to be conserved for the benefit of future generations in Africa and worldwide.  So we support their efforts and salute their courage and stamina."


The first half of Warren and Francois' journey was undertaken in August and September 2009.  Warren describes their progress:  "We started at the first accessible point approximately 40km downstream from the source of the Zambezi River at Mwini Lunga, paddling a 40km section through Zambia first and then entering Eastern Angola, an area avoided by previous expeditions for security reasons. 

It took us 11 days to cover the 480km though Angola, where we encountered some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the river's length.  We had to clear away vegetation blocking our path and swim or portage our kayaks round innumerable small rapids too small and rocky to paddle down, including one rocky gorge where Mike Boon nearly lost his life in 2002.  

We were harassed by police and army officials, had our passports confiscated for 3 days and our boats completely stripped at Cazombo bridge (accused of possessing a grenade (a water filter) and having an illegal radio aerial (a telescopic fishing rod)!  We learned to keep a low profile, crossing ferry/pontoon points (all blown up and replaced by dugouts) early morning to avoid bumping into officials.  There was a great deal of fishing/netting going on with lots of huge fish traps built right across the river, even across some of the wider sections.  The birdlife was good in most of the section through Angola, the sum total of the wildlife we saw was one bushbuck and one hippo only.
We crossed into and portaged the not-very-impressive Chavuma falls with the help of Bob Young an American Missionary of 57 years who speaks Luvali the local language.  Birdlife, fish and wildlife was virtually non-existent from Chavuma to Lukulu (at the top end of the Barotse Floodplains).  At Chinyingi , we passed under a very interesting pedestrian swing bridge built by a Capuchin missionary in the 70s after he witnessed the drowning of four local people who were trying to cross the river with a sick person. The bridge is 900metres long!


Recent mining operations up the Kapombo River have polluted the river with a green slime algae which coated everything downstream for approx 50km (well into the Barotse Floodplains).  It took us 8 days to get through the Barotse.  Bird and fish life were good, but under enormous pressure, I suspect, as the area is heavily populated and is constantly burning.  We portaged the kayaks round the Sioma/Ngonye Falls and came short in some big rapids below in Sioma Gorge.   There were intermediate rapids all the way from here to the Vic Falls, ranging from scary class III's to small ones.  In this area, we counted about 6 deserted tourism lodges.  We met a South African and a Dane who are trying to develop the area for tourism (Sioma Camp), including the nearby Sioma Ngwezi National Park and for agriculture (jatropha).

Namibia/Caprivi/Zimbabwe (Vic Falls)
We resupplied in Katimo Mulilo, Namibia.  Saw zero wildlife until reaching Kazangula, with the exception of otters. Crossed the Katambora Rapids and within a few kms. of the Victoria Falls, we had two encounters with hippo, one very very close.  We reached the lip of the Victoria Falls and then used Shearwater's rafts and guides to get down the Batoka and other gorges (including the Upper and Lower Moemba Falls) as it was impossible to paddle down in our kayaks. 

An interesting fact illustrating the fascinating geology of this area is that over the approx 1000km from Chavuma to the Victoria Falls the Zambezi river only drops 180m in altitude, most of it in the last few hundred kms.  In the 130km stretch between Victoria Falls and Deka, the river drops 400m!

The first part of our journey covered almost exactly 1600km and ended at Deka where the Matetsi and Zambezi Rivers meet at the very top end of Lake Kariba.   Here we stopped, at the end of September 2009, planning to return after the rains and continue the second half of our journey.

In the intervening months, the region experienced very heavy rains.  The Zambezi River rose by metres and was in full flood by the time Warren and Francois returned in March 2010 to finish their journey, with the highest water levels recorded for many years.  

Warren continues: "The river was up by an estimated 4-5 meters, which meant that we had to launch up the Matetsi River and paddle down onto the Zambezi.   We encountered very dangerous paddling conditions until Msuna.

Lake Kariba
We planned to go straight down the lake to Kariba, and so this meant a very fast crossing, which took seven days. We battled with strong winds and freak squalls.  A full moon allowed us to paddle some of the bigger crossings (e.g. across the Sengwa Basin) early in the morning, therefore avoiding the wind.  We did not see much wildlife until we reached the shoreline of the Matusadona National Park.  Here we took some time out to walk in the National Park.  We noticed a lot of rubbish along the shoreline - by the looks of it coming from houseboats and kapenta rigs.  The wind dropped completely, allowing us to paddle from Rhino Island to Kariba via Long Island in one go (56km)!  We took two days off in Kariba before portaging the wall. With three floodgates open, we had some concern about the water conditions in the Kariba Gorge, but there was no problem - only a very fast passage!
After a final resupply in Chirundu, we pushed to Mana Pools and spent some very hairy hours negotiating the various channels that the hippos had been pushed into by the high river level.  We spent two wonderful days in Mana Pools walking.

Chewore - Kanyemba
The fast river carried us all the way to the Chewore River mouth for our next night stop, where we where chased almost right across the river by three large crocodiles.  Then through the Mupata Gorge, to Kanyemba, where we were put up and looked after by some Zimbabwean farmers.  We watched a 30 ton rig full of beer and wine being offloaded (in the Kanyemba Police Camp) and paddled by dugouts across to Zambia - therefore avoiding expensive customs charges at Chirundu. We stocked up with them!

Lake Cahora Bassa

We had a trouble-free border crossing into Mozambique but were held up in Zumbo for a few hours by very high winds.  Once through, we had our second brush with a crocodile in the swamps at the top end of Lake Cahora Bassa and had to paddle for our lives. Cahora Bassa lived up to its eerie and ominous reputation and again we faced strong winds and giant waves. The water was also brown and required filtering before we could drink it.  We paddled straight down Cahora Bassa as well and it took us eight and a half days. We noticed heavy fish-netting going on everywhere, and the presence of a lot of Zimbabwean refugees on the dam.

The last 40km up the gorge to the dam wall was stunning.   At this stage we were both very exhausted and both on strong antibiotics for infected feet.

Lake Cahora Bassa

We spent two days resting, repairing equipment for the final push and recci-ing a way down into the gorge below the dam wall. There were three floodgates partially open.  We finally set off, and, with the help of 12 porters, carried our kayaks and all the gear round the wall.  This took five hours in country that made the Kariba Gorge look like a ditch!   An epic hike!

Once back in the water again, we came across a couple of very big rapids (remnants of the same Kebrabassa rapids which halted David Livingstone's attempt in the 1860s to use the Zambezi River to open up the interior of Africa).  The water for the next 60km was truly terrifying: big whirlpools, boils and pressure points. I ended up swimming four times. On one occasion I spent 20mins hanging onto my kayak with both arms and legs while giant whirlpools tried to suck me down. Even with a safety rope on me, Francois still couldn't pull me out of the main current into an eddy!
We stopped to look round the Boroma Mission (built around 1890) just upstream of the town of Tete. This abandoned Catholic mission station is stunning and well worth a visit. 
Crocodiles and more crocodiles....

Just below Tete I had a very very close shave with a huge crocodile. Thankfully there was a pattern and we had developed evasive measures! The crocs would come at you full speed, on the surface and when they were within 10m they would lock on and dive, coming in underwater. When they dived we would hit the rudder and change direction. This would normally put a bit more distance between the croc and the kayaker. The croc would often come again, lock on and dive again, requiring more hard rudder!  Terrifying stuff.

Very strong currents and the high water level of the river allowed us, on numerous occasions, to paddle over 80km a day. Although we had this strong current on our side, it was by no means an easy ride.  It still required 10 hours of hard paddling to get this kind of progress. A far cry from the 18km paddled in the first couple of days!
The last crocodile incident occurred when we were only two days short of the Indian Ocean.  We passed the confluence of the Mazoe and Shire rivers, witnessing a large number of deserted villages along the banks in Mozambique - the local villagers having been forced to evacuate because of the floods.  There was not much evidence of fishing/netting or river traffic here.  This could either have been because of the floods, or possibly over fishing or even the presence of so many crocodiles).  We saw little sign of fish life, but plenty of birds and no wildlife at all (except a spitting cobra with which we shared our campsite one night!)
We noticed quite a lot of local fisherman along the river banks fishing with what looked suspiciously like mosquito nets! 
We paddled through the Lupata gorge (site of a controversial new dam proposal) and passed under the Dona Ana railway bridge - the longest in Africa at 3.5km.  It was very impressive.  Sadly, we encountered bad weather in Mozambique at this stage, with rain and overcast skies - good for paddling but not for taking photos.  We paddled under the amazing new 7km road bridge at Caia and stopped to visit the grave of Mary Moffat (David Livingstone's wife) at a mission nearby.  We found that the mosquitos here were so bad that we had to eat our evening meal and get in under our nets before sunset!

The Delta

We pulled in at Marromeu a sugar plantation town in the Zambezi Delta with its sugar mill currently on shut down. Here we tried to organise a ski boat to come down to the Zambezi River mouth to collect us as there are no roads to Chinde, the town at the coast approx 80km downstream. A Zimbabwean eventually came to our rescue. We camped at Marromeu that night with the intention of spending two easy days getting to the mouth.  The river here is lined with coconut trees and not as wide as I expected.  Approx 35km from the mouth, the river splits into two channels and becomes tidal.  The channel to Chinde is not very wide and is relatively unimpressive with some big crocs still present and the mangroves starting to become evident.  We were hoping to sleep around this point and have an easy paddle to the ocean in the morning but the banks were now entirely mangrove, so we decided to push on to Chinde.
The Ocean
Approximately 8km from the ocean we began to feel the ground swell of the waves, which gave us a boost.  We first sighted the ocean around 6pm on 1st May.  It was an amazing sight (even though the Zambezi River itself at this point is still not very impressive).  We pulled into Chinde harbour that evening and pitched camp.

Early in the morning, we paddled the 4km on to the ocean itself, and spent a few hours on the southern headland celebrating with a bottle of champagne and some cigars that we had carried the whole way with us!    The mouth of the Chinde channel at this point is approx 3km wide.  It was a huge relief to be off the river at last. In the last 10 days I began to seriously doubt that we would finish without one of us being hit by a croc.  We had both lost a lot of weight (I lost nearly 40 pounds on the first leg and about 20 on the second).


We drove back from Marromeu through a beautiful 25000Ha hardwood forest where we saw red duiker and vulturine guinea fowl. There is a sawmill and lodge run by an ex Zimbabwean just off the main road and on the lefthand side of the road approx 30km from Caia. It's rated as on of the best birding spots in Southern Africa and well worth a visit.

The best part of the entire Zambezi River, apart from the Zimbabwean section was Angola because of its remoteness and beauty.  The worst part was the Cahora Bassa gorge because of its truly terrifying water.

After now seeing close up the entire length of the Zambezi, the approximately 750km that touches Zimbabwean soil is by far the wildest, least spoilt and most valuable.  We have do everything possible to keep it this way. The rest of the river has its moments and some stunning sections but there is an almost complete lack of wildlife and some very heavily populated areas. It is not only the abundant wildlife and stunning vistas that sets Zimbabwe apart, its also its people. From the moment we entered Zimbabwe until we crossed into Mozambique, we were offered every kind of assistance - from the guys who gave us the contents of their coolerbox in Matusadona  (our first free beers in nearly 2000km), to the families who put us up and fed us in Kanyemba.
I also think it is time that people such as myself who have grown up on the Zambezi River started to put a little something back.  Otherwise, in all likelihood, we will lose it to the pressures of unscrupulous hunters/over hunting, oil exploration by the Chinese and general abuse.

In the future, when my son asks me where are all the buffalo/lion etc., I dont want to have to tell him that we sat back and did nothing and/or shot them all."        

Warren Willis, 2010

Comments (1)

Well done guys, it has been my son's dreams to do what you guys have achieved. They did manage 650 km in a makoro from 150km above Mongu, to below Sioma ngwezi falls, wher some villagers towed their makoro around with some cattle. They went armed with 1000 box of Quinine tablets, and bag mealie meal and salt. They traded tablets for chickens and fish. We have lived on Kariba. On Zambian side since 1981. And love it here. I very much support your stand on keeping the eco system as pristine as possible. Stop the Mining proposal in the lower Zambezi nat park being one priority. If ever your in Siavonga. Look us up. There's always a spare bed or three!

Theo Pieterse11 July 2021
Thanks so much for sharing this, Theo!

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