Sound ceases except for the front of the canoe brushing through an awning of six foot high bulrush draped into the river as we drift downstream along the bank. The guide’s eyes beam ahead and we are all laid flat on our backs with our paddles extended lengthwise down our bodies. We cannot see past the front of the canoe, as the displaced grass reveals what lies ahead at the pace of the river’s current, and then the trembling sound of elephants stomping through the grass, ripping it from its roots. The sound is visceral, its intensity awaking a primitive fear of close encounters with monstrous wildlife.
Flies are now buzzing around us, and suddenly from above, our grass canopy is ripped away by a lumbering trunk exposing smooth ivory tusks, framed by ears flapped outwards like spinnaker sails. A herd of eleven elephants in grazing right on the side of the river, and emulating a giant piece of drift wood, we silently float right under them. We can see their eyelashes, and pupils expand, and they take giant slow motion steps back from the bank. We bother them, but they are not scared. With every motion in the tall grass, the whole environment around them reverberates with their size. Egrets take flight, and soil avalanches into the water.
Then the current has taken us past them, but the adrenaline from floating right under their heads remains. It is just a couple hours after dawn and we still have a full day on the river ahead of us, a river that commands focus and commitment. The Zambezi river serves as the northern border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. It is full of crocodiles bigger than our 18 foot canoes, in fact our guide tells us it is estimated that there is one every 100 meters, and we are on a four day journey down the river averaging 26 kilometers a day, which means we need to successfully navigate over 10,000 of them.
The other source of constant excitement is the pods of hippos that inhabit the river. They are notoriously in a foul mood, weigh around 7,000 pounds, and kill more humans in Africa every year than any other animal. The guide regularly taps the paddle on the fiberglass canoe, a sound which penetrates down into the water, and urges hippos lying underwater to surface to investigate its origin. Sometimes they emerge right next to the canoes, opening their mouths wide at 180 degree angles, exposing canines around two feet long. Sometimes in the shallows they charge the canoe, and the guide stands erect in the back of the canoe waving the paddle above his head to discourage them.
After one of these charges, I told the guide how glad I was that that technique worked so well. “Not always”, he responded with a grimace. As we navigate down the river, he is constantly pointing out places where crocodiles have taken people, hippos have overturned canoes, or Zambian raiders have attacked his camp in the stillness of the night.
The river is so large, that there are islands strewn through it, and that is where we pitch camp every night. Setting up the tents we see hippo prints in the sand, and the first night an elephant swam to the island, and walked within meters of our tent. “They usually respect domiciles” assured our guide.
During the heat of the day it is nice to get off the river for a while, and venture through the bush surrounding the river. As we enter Mana Pools National Park, there are lions and leopards and herds of other wildlife. Paddling for four days is hard work, but it is hardly noticed amidst the adventure of piloting through such intimidating territory. The trip is not for everyone, but for those seeking a truly wild safari, this is not one to miss.