On the Zambezi River — Canoeing, Part I

Bono, River and Walking Guide, and apprentice, Ali

September 17 — Soon after we arrived at our new river camp, the wind was still blowing strong. A group of 6 canoers, who had all capsized, were brought in by boat unexpectedly. They were still wet, wringing out their clothes and checking what they’d managed to prevent from being lost in the river. Our plan was to get out on the river just after lunch, but the other couple we would be canoeing with arrived much later at the camp than expected. Emily, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, and Steven, the founder of a business management consulting group had just climbed Mt Kilamanjaro in 3 days, and made transit from Tanzania to Zimbabwe, (and exhausted, had slept in late somewhere between here and there!) before making their appearance. We did not set off until around 4 pm by which time the wind had calmed significantly and I felt less hesitant.

Still some chop on the Zambezi after the wind began to subside.

Len and I asked Bono if I should partner with him in a canoe since he was an expert and I had no experience. He said that would be best, enthusiastically enough for me to think he might feel relieved about guiding a newcomer this way. (Of course, that meant I’d have no one to watch canoeing in front, which might help me pick up on how to best handle the paddle. Sitting first in the lineup of everyone in our string of three canoes I’d having nothing in view ahead of me but the river and creatures as we encountered them — mainly hippos and crocodiles.)

Bono steering our canoe

I already had a rock-solid impression of Bono, and his professionalism — of his being an observant, and thoroughly conscientious guide. After the numerous years of study and apprenticeship involved in receiving both a River and Walking Guide license (particularly rigorous in Zimbabwe), and many more years of practice, his experience now ranged more than 16 years. I knew we could depend on his decision-making. (That he carried a rifle — I don’t recall the caliber, but it could take down a buffalo — and a handgun packed in a leather case attached to his belt, always readily available, was also of comfort.)

Len and Ali partnering in a canoe

So, we headed out against a wind he assured me was quite manageable.

It took some time to feel my way around using the paddle, but I caught on, and if nothing else I had strength enough in my shoulders (from swimming) to offer some pull from the front of the canoe or glance us off a bank with my paddle as Bono steered and scouted from the back.

We’d heard hippos honking, wailing, and snorting for hours as we sat waiting to go out. (It’s difficult to describe the enormity of that sound and its menacingly territorial vibe, the end part of which Len describes as a thunderously demented chuckle). And, we saw plenty of them immediately (there are about 3,000 in that area of Mana Pools). From the front position, I began to suspect that I might very well be in the bull’s eye position for any territorially hellbent bull, or an appetizer for a desperate crocodile of which we had begun to see a few gigantic specimens. I am glad to report that aside from one loud hippo that Bono encouraged us to speed up and pass (he referred to it as grumpy and received a laugh from me after we were quite clear of it), there was no incident on that first stretch of about two hours of paddling down river.

From my front position, I’d felt alone and consequently asked Bono a thousand questions, at first trying not to ask too relentlessly which direction we’d take before he had discerned that.

As guide to our group, Bono was constantly busy scouting and reading where the hippos were and toward which direction they could be most comfortably edged as we passed. He frequently stood up in the canoe and glassed the area everywhere around — both river and banks. He tapped his paddle on the side of his canoe regularly in the same 1 + 2,3,4 beat at blind bends as we turned into them — code to let the hippos know we were coming and give them time to move. He tapped out code frequently, particularly when the river widened and there might be hippos submerged ahead — at times I suspect to suss out where a lone bull waded at a distance from the rest of the pod. As he explained, a bull hippo presides over a pod of a number of females and their young (up to about 30), protectively, but also defending the territory from other males who may challenge his position and fight to the death to gain control. An area is partitioned into individual mating territories by mature bulls (over 20 years [hippos live up to about 50 years]), who defend sections of the river up to about 75 meters in length. Other males can lounge nearby on a stretch of the river as long as they remain submissive, but now and again, one of them will try to overtake the bull’s position.

One rule of thumb is never to come between a hippo and the water while you’re on land, but hippos are extremely territorial in water, and can be very dangerous; though less interested in us, they will most often just move away. We generally hugged the shores, which varied from high banks to sandbars, leaving a wide berth for the hippos to move in deep enough water but still be able to touch bottom. Bono could read their behavior within their environment extraordinarily well, but he did ask us to stay together and alert because no animal is ever entirely predictable — and that includes humans. A bull can get testy over territory without much warning, and the loss of a baby can send a cow on a rampage. Hippos will mock-charge when they feel vulnerable, and fully charge when they feel threatened.

That first stretch of river was remarkable. Aside from the crocs and hippos, we saw numerous animals on the banks: waterbuck, buffalo, kudu, zebras, elephants.

water buck

Along the way we passed the Kavinga camp where we’d spent the previous night, and waved hello to Rod and Mike, but the banks otherwise had very few other campers; it felt as though we had that whole stretch of river almost to ourselves.

We passed the nests of a colony of Carmine bee-eaters within holes in the tall mud banks that other animals couldn’t too easily reach. They flew out of their nesting holes en masse forming into a cloud out above the river. I spotted a water monitor — as it darted into the hollow of a large tree branch extending out over the bank — a large one, a little over a meter in length. Storks, herons, egrets, sandpipers, and other birds were busy in the sand and  trees along the banks, too numerous to identify as we passed swiftly by in our canoes. Fish eagles cried out their peculiar turkey-calls. Kingfishers — giant and pied — took wing from the shores and we glimpsed an occasional dive.

Somehow an hour and a half flew by and we nosed up to a low-sloping bank where we were greeted by some of the other camp workers. They quickly helped Bono and Ali unpack, load, and secure the canoes onto a trailer, which was then attached to the back of the truck we’d be driven back to camp in. We sat up in the high seats above the bed of the truck behind Emily and Steven and bounced our way back to camp as Bono drove with Ali in the cab in the shotgun seat to his left. It was remarkable how expertly and swiftly Bono negotiated the narrow, winding, deeply-pitted dirt and sand roads hauling those canoes behind as the sun dropped below the horizon leaving a beautiful overall soft luminosity, though not much light on the road. But Bono and Ali seemed to know their way around every nook and cranny.

En route we saw the pack of wild dogs. They were lounging fat and happy and stretched out all across the road, apparently after a recent kill. The carcass was probably somewhere near, but it wasn’t light enough to see very far into the bush. The dogs propped themselves up, looked at us for a few moments, then lost interest and plopped down again like sacks of potatoes in the dirt, sprawling out comfortably or rolling around lazily.

Their fur, colored in irregular blotches, short snouts, and tall round ears give them a comical, harmless look. As they lay at their leisure, they seemed unlike predators that will “mercilessly” pursue and exhaust their prey, (as noted in our pocket guide). But they are among the most proficient predators because of their jaw size and bite force relative to their mass, along with their coordinated pack hunting in long, open chases. It was hard to imagine them relentlessly “covering several kilometers” to chase down impala or kudu as they lounged cozily in the dirt.

We were losing light and couldn’t stay very long, so Bono nosed the vehicle up to push the wild dogs up and off the road. They moved away slowly and reluctantly and gave us enough distance to pass, but they clearly didn’t want to move away from their chosen spot. I turned around and watched them lie back down close to road as we drove off.

The group of German friends, whose canoe tour had come to an end after capsizing, had settled in by the time we returned. Tents had been put up for them and they’d gone on a game drive. We showered in turns and sat by the fire with drinks exchanging stories before we moved to the table for a nice dinner together. What a remarkable group of friends — they all studied geography together at the University of Bonn — and had come on holiday to Zimbabwe where one of them lives. Christoph  based in Mutare works for an NGO there — a food security organization promoting production of foods appropriate to regions in sub-Saharan Africa and encouraging cooperative trade among them. Their holiday had been ruined with their canoes overturning, but their spirits hadn’t completely sunk along with various cameras, sleeping bags, tents, and even one of the canoes.

from left to right – Georg, Dennis, Christoph, Alex

I had the opportunity to speak more in depth with 4 of the 6 friends. Among them, Alex, who ironically works in the travel and tourism industry probably had quite a shock at how their canoe tour had turned out; he had almost lapsed into hypothermia after capsizing. But, they were remarkably cheerful for having suffered a bit of trauma floating aimlessly that morning wherever the wind and river took them for about 45 minutes, not moving a muscle for fear of baiting crocs.

Uwe and Karina

Uwe, who works in urban planning (near the Berlin area, if I heard correctly), explained that the game drive and spotting the wild dogs earlier was not as purely enjoyable as it might have been; they were a little exhausted and still processing the accident. I was fascinated to learn from his girlfriend, Karina, of her work evaluating tree rings not only for the purposes of archeology, but also for the signs they can indicate of climate change. Two more friends were among the group, Georg and Dennis, but I had, unfortunately, less opportunity to talk with them and hear their stories. All together these friends were a delightful, intelligent group, and the discussion was so enjoyable and interesting.

They knew my trepidation and were happy that the wind had died down, and they seemed relieved to hear it went well with us. But they were finished. Too much of their equipment, along with their desire to continue, had been lost; it made no sense to go on. (We were on tour with a mobile camp that was set up ahead as we canoed down river, whereas these friends carried their own equipment and set up their own camp as they went.) The consensus among them was that their guide made a mistake taking them out against such a forceful wind, (the apprentice guide, who partnered with Karina, had little canoe experience, as she came to learn).

I felt extraordinarily grateful to have such an expert guide as Bono, as well as his right-hand man, Ali, (who after four years of apprenticeship has remaining only a test to take to receive his full license).

I suspect Ali will ace the licensing test and become a wonderful guide.

© Susan Robinson – 2011 All Rights Reserved. Content and photographs require permission for all third-party use.

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