Canoeing with Hippos and Crocodiles Along the Zambezi River
Miriam Murcutt is co-author with Richard Starks of several travel books including: ‘Along the River that Flows Uphill’, ‘A Room with a Pew’, and ‘Greenland for $1.99’. For more images of Miriam and Richard’s recent travels in Zimbabwe and South Africa, visit them on Facebook or at www.starksmurcutt.com If you have any questions for the authors you can also email them at starksmurcutt(at)msn(dot)com
If the Zambezi River means any one thing, it means hippos – in the water, under the water, grazing on grasses along the banks, snorting, bellowing, or yawning to show off their massive ivory canines, which can bite a canoe (and its occupants) in half, no problem.
At 2.00 p.m. our flotilla of five canoes put in at Chirundu, a mud and dust Zambezi riverside settlement on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. It was baking hot on the river bank under only thin shade and we were all sticky with sweat by the time we had stowed away our gear. But once we were on the river, paddling with the current and feeling the breeze, the heat became more tolerable.
By 2.05 p.m. we had encountered our first pod of hippos – ten of them sunk up to their nostrils in the river, pink-circled eyes balefully fixed on us as we paddled past, fighting the current to keep our distance. Nevertheless, we had clearly annoyed them. We had invaded their space, so they opened their huge maws and bellowed full-volume, a sound which the water magnified to blood-curdling levels. Then, one by one, they sank beneath the surface leaving us wondering if these notoriously aggressive animals were skulking towards us underwater to attack or were just waiting, submerged, on the muddy river bed for us to go by.
Before we launched our canoes that afternoon, our Zimbabwean guides, Takesure and Zera, had given the seven of us advice on how to survive our four-day Zambezi canoe trip, which would take us from Chirundu to Mana Pools, one of Zimbabwe’s remote national parks, which lies 70 kms down river.
The biggest dangers, they said, were hippos, more hippos, and then crocodiles – followed by submerged trees, hidden sandbanks, strong currents, white-capped waves and high winds. This sounded like a whole lot of trouble to me.
Hippos, we were assured, are grass-eating mammals, not carnivores, so they would not attack us for food. They are, however, extremely territorial when in the water, which is why we had to give them the widest of wide berths. Zera told us that when we paddled through hippo territory (which turned out to be most of the time), he would often slap the water with the flat of his paddle, or bang the blade against the side of his canoe to alert any lurking hippos of our approach. At all times, he said, we should travel as a tight group, bow to stern. If we left a gap, a submerged hippo might see the shadow of the first of our canoes go by and assume we’d all paddled past. It then might rise to the surface to check things out and come up in the middle of our flotilla or, much worse, directly under one of the canoes and certainly flip it over. On land, we were told, we should never get between a hippo and the water. If we did, the hippo would charge in order to clear its path to the river. Running away would be futile, for in spite of its 3,000 lb-or-so bulk, a hippo can put on a fair turn of speed – accelerating to 19 or 20 miles an hour in a sprint.
Moving on to the crocs, Zera warned us that they are opportunistic reptiles that are “always around and always waiting for a moment to strike.” We were told never to drape any body part over the side of our canoes, nor jump from the canoe into deep water, nor be tempted by the heat to go for a swim. If our canoe capsized, we should not splash around in panic (hard not to do) as this would be sure to attract the crocs. Instead, we should swim smoothly to the nearest bank (I mentally planned a dignified breaststroke) or simply roll into a ball and let the current take us to shore. Alternatively, since our canoes were fitted with buoyancy tanks, we could hang onto the floating hull, raise our legs parallel to it, or climb on top from either end, and wait for a guide to rescue us. (Much better, I concluded, not to capsize in the first place.)
It was some consolation to learn that Zera carried a Ruger 44 magnum revolver slung in a belt around his hips, ready to use in any moment of crisis. Better still, he was required by law to attend regular target practice. (It was even more reassuring to learn, later on, that Zera had been awarded a medal for bravery after he had snatched a Dutch tourist – who had foolishly decided, against all advice, to take a swim – from between the jaws of an opportunistic Zambezi croc.)
Crocs and hippos dealt with (at least in theory), we were then instructed to keep a sharp eye open for V-shaped eddies in the river. These could indicate water flowing around the branches of a submerged tree, which could trap a canoe and capsize it. Sand banks, meanwhile, could run us aground, currents could direct a canoe where we had no desire for it to go, and waves if met sideways rather than head on would put us in the water (yet again) where we’d be exposed to the ever-present hippos and crocs.
By this time, I was questioning if I was physically and mentally equipped to canoe the Zambezi and to face the multiple threats that surely lay ahead. But onwards…
Each day of our canoe journey we woke up in the pink light of dawn, the hills of the northern Zambezi escarpment forming a vague horizon on the Zambian side of the river, while the tinder-dry bush country of Zimbabwe stretched away in a swirl of dust to the south. We de-camped, downed tea and biscuits, and then paddled the river for a couple of hours while the air was cool and the river mirror-calm. Around 9.00 a.m. we pulled the canoes onto a bank and Takesure cooked us breakfast on his one-burner, gas-cylinder stove. Then we put back into the river and canoed for three or more hours until the heat built up (by noon temperatures hit 95 degrees and above) and all we wanted was shade. For much of the afternoon we lay idle and enervated on our sleeping mats under acacia trees. Sometimes, we stirred to monitor the hippo pods as they appeared and disappeared in the river. Through our binoculars we scanned yet more hippos slumped in tons of spreading flesh in the mud on the opposite bank, their torsos half in and half out of the water. (Takesure told us that although hippo skin might look tough as boot leather, it’s relatively sensitive to the sun. It dries out easily, he said, which is why hippos spend so much time in and near the water.) We saw elephants come to dip their trunks and squirt river water over their backs in a cooling shower. And we watched crocodiles, as long as our canoes, bask still and seemingly as innocuous as beached logs along the shoreline.
At 3.00 p.m., with the worst of the heat dissipated, we paddled off again, frequently to explore side channels and spot some of the bird life – the leggy saddled-billed stork, the white-hooded fish eagle, the lilac-breasted roller (so named because it rolls like an acrobat during its courtship flights), the goliath heron, pied kingfisher, hammerkop and (a personal favorite) the vivid carmine bee-eater whose nest holes pock-marked the mud of the river banks. Constantly, we followed Zera’s instructions to steer our canoes either right towards the Zimbabwe side of the river or left towards the Zambian bank (Zim-Zamming rather than zig-zagging) to avoid the minefields of hippo pods or to get closer to the (relatively safe) elephants and water bucks feeding on the shore.
At dusk each night, we headed for one of the islands in the river and camped on their beaches. We washed behind trees from buckets of water which one of the guides delivered to us straight from the river. We slept under skies spattered with stars and were woken often by the sounds of grumping hippos and screaming hyenas.
One evening our campsite was invaded by a bull elephant. It walked to within 50 yards of where we were sitting on our camping stools in a semi-circle around the cooking table. At first it stood and stared us out. But then it took three big paces towards us. We rose as one. It then took three paces back and we all sat down again. Zera focused his binoculars on it. “Don’t move quickly,” he said, “and don’t talk too loudly.” Dusk turned into night and the elephant became a dark presence at our backs. It wasn’t behaving as an elephant should – eating and walking, walking and eating. It moved slowly in a semi-circle a few feet behind us creating a frisson of nervousness. Time and again it took a few paces forward, stopped, then retreated in a semi-threatening dance. Finally, it turned and lumbered off, threading its way between our tents before it crashed through the undergrowth behind our campsite and disappeared. Zera put his binoculars down.
The elephant had reminded us that we are the intruders here. This is his land, his home. It’s not ours. Mana Pools is not a zoo; all the animals here are wild and all of them are unrestrained.
Zambezi River. At 2,700 kms (1,677 miles) it is the fourth longest river in Africa. Part of it forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Mana Pools National Park. It is a wildlife conservation area and a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site on the Lower Zambezi in northern Zimbabwe. It’s 2,196 square kilometers (848 square miles) in area and is part of the Parks and Wildlife Estate, which runs along the Zambezi River from Kariba Dam in the west to the Mozambique border in the east.
Safari Operators. There are a number of operators who offer canoe safaris of different lengths on the Zambezi. We chose to go on a four-day, three-night canoe journey organized by Natureways Safaris, which provided all the camping equipment, food, and two well-informed local guides.
Note: We canoed in late September, early October, towards the end of the dry season, and therefore one of the hotter times of year on the Zambezi.