Hippos and Headwinds on the Zambezi

Carrie Hampton negotiated the Zambezi river, full of hippos and crocs, in a flimsy fibreglass canoe and against monumental head winds. She lived to tell the story.

By Carrie Hampton

In a complete panic I was paddling forwards while my companion in the back was trying to reverse. We zig-zagged on the spot going nowhere while a huge hippopotamus burst through the water towards us with mouth agape, baring mammoth teeth and puffy pink gums.'Oh no, we're going to die,' I whimpered. 'I'm not ready yet,' I mumbled. It seemed my partner was in accord with this, so together we mustered the kind effort that comes from sheer terror and paddled in unison for just long enough to speed out of the old bull's territory.Our sighs of relief were ruined when we were told to make a better plan for the next time as there was sure to be one.

Grumpy Hippos & Huge Crocs

We were eight adventure seekers and two river guides paddling up a remote stretch of the Zambezi River between Mana Pools in northern Zimbabwe and Kanyemba on the Mozambique border. Teeming with grumpy territorial hippos and huge crocodiles imitating floating fallen trees, we felt very vulnerable in our little blue 2-man fibreglass canoes.Moments after my close encounter with the man-eating hippo (herbivorous my foot!), the guide suggested we all have a swim. Like sheep to the slaughter we followed him to a shallow sandbank in the middle of the river and cautiously stepped out.Creating the most bizarre of scenes we sat knee deep in swishing Zambezi water on little folding canvas stools, eating our lunch of ham and cheese rolls. A yellow billed kite with grasping claws cruised above us and dropped like a missile each time he spied a piece of meat thrown into the air, the wind off his wings whistling past your ear.We got used to these little stops and became quite complacent about sloshing about in hippo and croc infested water.

Wind in the Willows

'It's very nice to see you paddling Madam,' shouted an old sun-dried Zambian fisherman who, for propriety sake, hurriedly put on his T-shirt, which consisted of only a collar and a few straggling pieces of cloth.His broadly smiling face was one of many curious and friendly Zambians who came to wave vigorously at us and run along the banks of the river forming the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. These riverbank villagers did not see too many lilly-white canoeists bumbling about on their river and took the opportunity to barter for some fishhooks or a loaf of thick white bread.The guides had their canoes stuffed full of goodies so we parted willingly with bread and biscuits while comparing their skill at handling the long thin wobbly dug-outs with out erratic efforts.Paddling against a determined current was bad enough but when the wind came howling towards us, funnelled in fury by the high narrow gorge and forming white caps on the water, I felt like giving up.The khaki clad manager of a remote well hidden fishing lodge for seriously keen tiger fishermen, did nothing to ease my spirits as he shouted to us that he had never seen the river this windy before.We were experiencing surfable waves but in the middle of absolutely nowhere, giving up was not an option. So ever onwards until my hands were sore, my shoulders stiff and my mood battered into submission.

Giant's Footprints

I opted to sleep in a tent that night, rather than a mosquito net hung from an up-planted paddle, and laid my exhausted bones on my little mattress after a good feed and too many swigs of red wine.Overnight the wind contorted the tent into a lumpy pancake but I emerged well-rested into peachy sunshine and a light breeze and quickly forgot how bad I had felt the day before.Not a meter away from the tent door were a giant's footprints. An elephant had paid a pre-dawn visit but its huge yet silent feet woke no-one.

Wandering Beasts

The better weather transformed the river scene into an idyllic Eden of wandering beasts slurping up the fresh water. Buffalo waded slowly through budding water hyacinth and waterbuck skipped about with their distinctive bulls eye mark on their rear. Elephants snorkelled completely submerged, crocodiles sunbathed and hippos creaked their deep door opening noises.We drifted past weavers nests dangling centimetres from the water and flurries of stunning pink carmine bee eaters nesting in a thousand hidey holes in the bank. A floating log sported a pair of beady eyes and submerged quickly into the murky water from which we drank to no ill effect. Creepy crawlies were few and mosquitoes even less.After 5 days of hippo dodging, my partner and I were a demon team able to manoeuvre in any direction on command and avoid any hazard. We had not fallen out once, unless pushed, and felt well adapted to river life.Having forgotten the hardships of a few days before, we wanted to paddle on for ever, but isn't it always the way, when you want to abandon ship you cannot because of the raging current and hippo soup, and when you want to continue you can't because the others have abandoned ship for an permanent smoko and beer break.Copyright © Carrie Hampton. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.

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