On the Zambezi River — Canoeing, Part II

September 18 —

We arose at 5:30, and during breakfast said our goodbyes to our German friends who had capsized and lost equipment in heavy wind conditions the morning before. I told them how happy I was to make their acquaintance, and quickly added, “Of course, not under the actual circumstances.” They all laughed in agreement. What a great group. I was sorry to see them go. But they decided to take their leave of the river and continue on with their tour of Zimbabwe.

We set out on the river some time around 7:00 am in a light wind that was manageable. The cloud cover had vanished and the day was heating up within an hour; good reason to set out as early as possible. Also, the morning light is beautiful — soft but luminous, with the sun ahead of us as we traveled east down the river.

The escarpment to our left on the Zambia side was bathed in a warm light appearing purple, orange, and pink — perhaps partly because of the fires (agricultural burns occasionally punctuating larger visible areas of land) that leave a haze and refract the light in an ominously pretty way. Even with the breeze there was an occasional smell of smoke.

Crossing back and forth to each shore, Bono led us around the hippo pods and down arms of the river surrounding its small islands. A lot of smaller crocs darted into the water a few feet ahead as we approached.

Len and Ali behind as we moved away from a bank

We passed about 20 crocodiles basking in a tightly packed group on the opposite bank from where we paddled. It was curious to see them all together and consider any social behavior, however primeval, among them. Len and I often claim that we use our “alligator brains” when we drive on LA freeways — meaning it’s all instinct with minimal brain use. But, then, never insult a crocodile until you’ve crossed the river. Crocodilia have survived something like 80 million years because of their incredible success as predators; they can move with remarkable speed for a surprise attack, and have a massive bite pressure of 5,000 pounds per square inch, which essentially means they can put a great white shark or hyena to shame.

We often got a good glimpse of their strangely bright yellow eyes, or saw crocodiles lying with their jaws open, releasing heat through their mouths while asleep.

I also saw a malachite kingfisher with its deep bluish-purple head and bright red bill. It flew off before Len had a chance to catch a glimpse, and he’d been looking out for that particular bird for a while.

One thing about sitting in the appetizer section (in the front position of the first canoe) is that I often saw animals the others didn’t; they scurried off as we approached, even if we rowed quietly up — well, most of them.

We stopped for a bush walk after our morning break of tea and some delicious sweet bread made at camp. (It’s incredible what a movable feast the cooks accomplish.)

Bono wanted us in a straight line behind in our canoes so he could scout out what dangers might lie ahead, if any should, and it was the same with bush walks; he walked ahead, and we followed in a line behind. His apprentice, Ali, followed suit and usually brought up the rear.

This is what every guide proposes. So many animals walk single file in this way. There’s some logic to not spreading out, it seems, in that there are fewer positions from which the group can suggest frontal attack when moving behind one another. Group hunters like wild dogs spread out. Hippos and elephants often walk single file, and cut paths to and from the river this way.

Bono pointed out some things like wild basil, which locals use as a natural insect repellent.

At one point during the walk we found ourselves surrounded with animals, not close, but visible.

In front of us were a few elephants, and to our right a hippo, partly hiding behind a tree, looked over at us. Bono said it would be hungry to be out and away from the water at this time of day.

There were eland, and impala, a few of which ran off leaping in the air while kicking (pronking), looking as though they could almost fly.

We stopped and checked out the white skull of a long-dead hippo.

This was as close as I’d ever want to come to a hippo’s razor-sharp incisors and tusk-like canines, which have only one function — fighting.

We returned to our canoes, now in the baking sun, though the breeze was not altogether gone. During that stretch of the river, we saw a few elephants, one of which came close to the edge of a high bank. We crossed over to pull in tight. It was a good opportunity to get a really close look. As we paddled up, the elephant came to the very edge, raised its trunk, flapped out its ears, and looking down, screamed as I came right in front of it. There was definitely no time to photograph it, which must have made Bono laugh; I was paddling as fast as I could. But, that elephant couldn’t get to the water from that high up and we were in no danger. It was just telling us off for coming that close into its space.

When we stopped for lunch, a few male elephants a distance away slowly moved in and the oldest bull put on an amazing show for us.

He repeatedly stood up on his hind legs and reached his trunk straight up into the high branches of a tree to pull them down.

The other males with him didn’t go after a branch after he pulled one down; they stayed with him under the trees taking only what was available on the ground or within reach, and not daring to stand up on hind legs as only that one did. Bono and Ali said that only a very few older bulls will ever do this, so this was an uncommon sight.

Elephants are the largest land mammals in the world. I had read that by nature they prefer to have a solid footing on the ground, fearing being in an unstable position or becoming unbalanced, perhaps because of the design of their frame and their weight. Circus trainers have cruelly tortured elephants to force them into this position for performance.

Every elephant has six sets of molar teeth, with two sets in use at a time. (And these molars in their tough mouths can munch down rough bark and even the long, thick thorns of the acacia.) A new set of molars moves forward in the jaw to replace the set that has worn down, and so on with all six sets. Once all of its teeth have been worn down (around seventy years of age), the elephant will eventually die of starvation.

A bull has to stand while mating, but it did not seem unreasonable to me to think that an older bull with limited molars might also stand up out of necessity — to reach the fruit and the more tender leaves higher on the tree that are easier on the teeth. Maybe some small part of the larger equation of how and why the younger males defer to an older bull involves an understanding of seniority. Their social interaction is so complex I wouldn’t suppose it’s entirely about territory and domination.

Though their eyesight is poor, their sense of smell and hearing are exceptional. They can communicate over long distances by a sub-sonic rumble. The elephant’s brain is larger than any other land mammal’s; they’re extremely intelligent animals that demonstrate compassion and self-awareness. We saw a very old bull during our self-drive in Chobe National Park, Botswana, that looked as though it had become dessicated, like a pack of bones covered by skin. It stood under the relentless sun almost motionless in an area in which bones were scattered all around — an elephant graveyard.

We put our canoe seats and life jackets down in a shady area under trees after lunch and settled down for a rest to wait out the high point of the heat; and by afternoon, when we set out again, the water was quite tranquil.

We saw some elephants along the bank to our left, and Bono said, “You can relax a while, Susan.” I wasn’t aware of how hard I was paddling when there was no chop to fight, no sandbars to look out for, and temporarily no hippos to get around. We paused for a while, and watched at a distance that was comfortable to them. What a brilliant idea to just drift a while and enjoy the animals and scenery that surrounded us.

As we continued, I relaxed into a very calm, but aware state.

At the end of our day canoeing, we nosed right up by camp, which had moved ahead the twenty or so kilometers we had paddled down river since that morning.

As we sat by the fire before dinner, I had the opportunity to talk with Bono and Ali. Both are so sociable and lively, and had so many fascinating stories. Ali is from Kariba, and his grandfather worked on the dam that made the lake and brought hydroelectric power into the area. Bono, from Bulawayo, southeast of Hwange National Park also worked as a guide there and has been involved in education and anti-poaching programs.

After a relatively calm day of canoeing, I had to ask about the reality of the dangers we faced, particularly in encountering so many hippos that look up and snort as though contemplating a charge. Bono said he could write a book (I think he should), and that one in ten Zambezi river trips end with a canoe being capsized — usually by a testy hippo.

One story that made me all the more interested in respecting a hippo’s territory involved a particularly aggressive hippo bull that was not satisfied after charging and overturning one canoe in a flotilla of three — it went after and capsized all three. Another story involved an adventurous man who took his chances getting too close to a hippo and after being overturned by it announced that he was fine only to have part of a limb torn off by a croc.

I didn’t get more details on these stories. Have any canoeists been killed in a hippo attack? I don’t know. But I had already read about a fourteen-year-old American girl canoeing with her sister and father in Mana Pools in 2004. She was grabbed and pulled down by a crocodile after it attacked their canoe. She got loose and surfaced, but the croc pulled her back down; and after that she was not seen again. The guide had spotted the croc partly submerged and moved the group toward the bank to give it time to move to deeper water. After the girl was grabbed, the guide fired his gun into the water hoping that its impact would get the croc to release its victim, but that didn’t stop it. The Police and National Parks Game Wardens found two large crocs the next day, which they killed and dismembered. Indeed these crocs contained the unfortunate girl’s body parts.

My point in relaying these gruesome, troubling stories is that there is no question that some risk is involved, and paying attention can minimize it — but, even then, not always. The risk, of course, is relative — more people are killed in freeway accidents than by wild animals. However, far more people are on freeways than out in canoes in the territories of other animals. My fears were not unfounded or ridiculous. Again, no creature is always predictable. Professional guides are on the lookout for animals that show less fear of, or more interest in humans — along with a number of other signs that they’re trained to look for. Bono and Ali’s healthy respect of hippos and crocs was enough warning for me. The rigorous training that the guides of Zimbabwe receive, as well as the knowledge and intuition they develop from actual experience is impressive. I had every intention of taking their advice and directions.

We turned in fairly early being tired from a full and much hotter day. Now we missed the wind, at least inside the tent. Of course we heard hippos wailing throughout the night with their honking, blustering snorts ending in that maniacal laughing sound. Lions roared a little closer than the night before. I was used to their sounds, but still so fascinated I couldn’t stop myself from listening even in exchange for a little more sleep than I was getting. Somehow you just need less sleep out there.

September 19 —

At daybreak we were up and trying to minimize the loud cacophony of zippers (every morning at camp involves a mighty profusion of the zipping and unzipping of tents, suitcases, backpacks, clothing, etc.) until we were sure the others were awake. Camp workers were already lightly padding around getting breakfast together and striking whatever of the camp they could (to move it down river where we would end up after the day of canoeing and bush walking.) Moving camp is for them an all-day affair. It takes up to 6 hours to break it down, and about the same to reassemble it elsewhere.

By the time we set out, it was hot and there was no breeze whatsoever. We saw pods and pods of hippos — hippos, hippos, and more hippos.

And, guess what else we saw? Hippos. And a few crocs.

We stopped for a break and went out on a game walk, passing an area of adrenaline grass where we saw a number of Cape buffalo.

We left the buffalo alone and walked toward a pool a short distance from the river. A hippo with a pile of water hyacinth on its back was grazing outside the pool, looking a little ridiculous.

The pool was covered in water hyacinth. Two other hippos that were completely submerged suddenly surfaced for air with a big snort. Bono and Ali called them “retired” hippos because they’d given up the life fighting for territory, and moved to their retirement home out of the big bustling river. They now live in these lesser pools strangled in water hyacinth, (originally introduced from the Amazon as a decorative water plant, which has since become completely invasive and a particular problem in Mana Pools). Water hyacinth is unfortunately not tasty to hippos.

Some time after we got back out on the river, Bono and I had a startling encounter — a croc thumped the bottom of our canoe. I knew it wasn’t a log that we’d hit; it lifted up the canoe, just slightly but directly underneath, and it left a parting wake with a mass of bubbles on the right side of the canoe. It wasn’t a scrape, which it would have been if we’d hit a sandbar or even a harder mud bottom; besides, we were a few feet from a mud wall to our left, not a shallow bank. There might have been some kind of mud shelf that the croc was on near the edge of that wall, but from all signs it was not shallow water. Though, I didn’t put this together very swiftly. Dumbfounded, I felt compelled to ask Bono: “What the hell was that?” He answered calmly and affirmatively: “Right. That was a croc…A pretty big one.”

Let me just say here that Bono is a man of few words, chosen I think at times to minimize panic or reassure that the danger, if there really was any, has passed. So, I don’t really know if we hit the croc or it hit us; or if it was in fact accidental rather than a croc going as far as that to check out its prospect with us. Bono’s job, which he takes most seriously, is to keep us out of danger and to read all the signs that he can of any risk that can be avoided. It’s a job that requires keeping some information to one’s self — because in many situations, the outcome will be what it is — and putting anyone else in a panic could never improve the matter at hand.

I’m a little fascinated with the role that the guide plays; it’s a bit like shepherding. We’d hear, “Come on, guys, let’s stay together,” if our canoes got too far separated along the way or if someone got too far ahead. And, Ali would encourage us to do the same.

When we started out again in the canoes, Len and I decided to try partnering since I’d proven to be a perfectly decent paddler. We went through a lot of shallow areas in that stretch of the river and Len and I got stuck a couple of times on sandbars. He got out and gave us a shove off on one occasion as we hit ground in a wider spot in the river. A hippo trying to move out of the way and stay submerged, found itself suddenly too exposed on a sandbar — and it got very testy as Emily and Steven paddled out to the left directly toward it — just as we were getting ourselves unstuck and trying to pull away to the right. This happened moments after Bono had asked us to paddle fast and get to the right bank.

Emily and Stephen ahead of us

That hippo nearly charged at that moment, but the couple managed to quickly back-paddle out of its way; it also backed off and returned to deeper water.

Emily and Steven were adventurous. I would describe them as enjoying a little daredevilry; and being Canadian, they had plenty of experience canoeing. Their trip was about spending time together before starting new jobs in different locations, and their independence from the group was preferred. They sped up ahead of us or lagged behind sometimes to take things in on their own and not feel too hemmed in within the string of canoes. But I think they had a different view of the risk with hippos. Luck was on our side. But in retrospect, it’s all too easy to say that no one had tempted fate.

A little farther down while we were still navigating through some narrow, shallow courses around islands and sandbars, we passed a dead hippo. Bono said it had likely died of wounds from a fight. We had seen some crocs around and wondered how long it would be before they began to dine on its rotting flesh.

During our siesta after lunch, Len and I watched a hippo get out of the water on the other side of the river and run like hell for nearly half a kilometer, as though something had scared the living daylights out of it.

We could not figure out what in the world was going on, but marveled at how, with its massive bulk, it could just haul ass like that (hippos weigh around 3 tons).

Once we started out again, after a short distance we passed another hippo carcass not very far down the river from the first. Could this one also have died of wounds inflicted during a fight? Hippos have no other predators than humans, who hunt them for their meat, hides and ivory teeth. However, overcrowding does disrupt their hierarchical system, I’d read, and it results in even more aggression among them. And, there was no shortage of hippos around, so perhaps fighting was the most likely cause of its death. A few vultures were hanging around in nearby trees probably not contemplating the cause of death.

Soon after we pulled our canoes up to the shore near camp, some elephants walked along it just down from the higher mud bank where our tents were situated.

We’d come back to camp a little earlier and some of the guys were still readying camp. After they filled a vinyl water bag, hoisted it over the high branch of a tree where they’d situated the shower enclosure, they lowered it to the right height for showering. They’d had a particularly high tree branch to sling it over, but did so incredibly swiftly and efficiently.

We were all winding down. It was the end of our canoe tour at Mana Pools. As we had a glass of wine by the fire before dinner, we heard a lion and I mentioned how I would never forget its roar and could almost imitate one by now, but failed miserably to do so. Ali then did the lion’s roar followed by its series of rugged growls perfectly; he’d been hearing this all his life.

The cook’s assistant announced quite formally what we were having for dinner. He remained courteously by the table without anyone realizing that he was waiting for us to come serve ourselves. I looked over at him and he gave me a confidential wave of encouragement, so I jumped up to fill my plate, signaling to the others to do the same. It was another fine dinner with delightful conversation, after which we turned in.

During the night, there was some rustling and barking, lions calling all night in the near distance — and, of course, hippos wailing. As I mentioned, there are approximately 3,000 hippos in Mana Pools; and, Len had said we’d seen every one of them. If not, we’d heard them all.

September 20 —

In the early morning, two honey badgers snuffled around the mat at our tent’s opening. We’d briefly seen a younger one with a brown stripe crossing the road during our self-drive in Botswana. These badgers, which we saw in the dimness before sunrise only as the sky was beginning to lighten, were adults with white stripes on their backs. One of them had its tail straight up in the air, lending it a comical look. I hoped in any case it wouldn’t begin gnawing or clawing its way in the tent. They can be such nasty, tough creatures for their size. It hung around snuffling tenaciously, but finally left.

We packed up and breakfasted a little more leisurely. We would later meet Andy at the camp office and from there head on to the Kavinga camp at Chitake Springs.

On the way, we came upon another pack of about 30 wild dogs, again lying across the sandy road and in the bush to the sides.

This was a real treat; we could see them in daylight and at our leisure. Len was able to photograph them well this time. I took a closer look with field glasses, and said: “They’ve got blood on their faces and chests.” As I was the only one with field glasses right at hand, I passed them on to the others.

Again they were lounging after a very recent meal.

There was a perfect line-up of pups under the shade of a bush with their perky round ears all in a row, looking almost like a scene out of a Disney movie — if only they weren’t covered in blood and dust.

When we drove on, we saw Maribou storks at a pool with two hyenas behind them looking back at us cautiously, scuttling around and turning their sloping backs to us. It was the first time I’d seen them so clearly in the light.

We met up with Andy and Mike at the camp office. I took a last look at all the skulls and fetuses, and we climbed into the Land Cruiser and left for Chitake Springs where there wouldn’t be a single hippo.

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

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