Zambezi riders

Paul Bloomfield takes the rough with the smooth as he paddles, drifts, holds his breath and hangs on for dear life during a 10-day expedition along the Zambezi River

Etiquette can be a tricky thing to get right when travelling in unfamiliar destinations. Particularly hippo etiquette, as I discovered in Zambia. “Try to avoid knocking your paddle against the side of the kayak,” advised my Zambezi river guide, Sven. “Hippos don’t like that noise.”

No knocking. Right. But why, then, did our safety kayakers, Dom and Titus, regularly slap their paddles against their own craft? “That’s a warning – to let the hippos known we’re coming.”

A subtle distinction, perhaps, but I was happy not to quibble. When only a thin piece of inflated yellow rubber separates you from a tetchy three-tonne mammal, it pays to take local advice. After all, that’s what David Livingstone did when he was in these parts. And as I was endeavouring, in a small way, to follow in his wake – in a canoe down the Zambezi – it seemed sensible to do the same.

This year sees the bicentenary of the birth of the renowned Scottish missionary and explorer who, in November 1855, began an expedition that led to the falls he named after his queen, Victoria. My own quest was arguably both softer and tougher than Livingstone’s. I was one of a handful of guinea pigs test-driving – or the aquatic equivalent  thereof – a new five-day charity challenge, navigating mekoros (dugout canoes), inflatable kayaks and rafts some 110km down the Upper Zambezi to Victoria Falls. Softer, because we were supported by experienced river guides and safety kayakers, 4WD vehicles, maps and modern telecommunications. Tougher, because we were doing the hard work ourselves: paddling our craft and pitching our own tents in wild camps on the riverbanks – though to be fair, Livingstone himself didn’t go overboard on guards and servants. As for the hippos, not to mention the crocodiles, we all faced them in the same way. Nervously.

Going with the flow
Our first day began with a gentle introduction to the Zambezi: an hour or so in a mekoro negotiating a demure stretch of slow-drifting river. Once I’d resigned myself to the blisters being raised on my thumbs by the rubbing of the paddles, I became entranced by the scene. Malachite kingfishers darted, azure flashes among the slender papyrus stalks; swifts swooped to pick off the countless red dragonflies hovering above the river; open-billed storks lifted themselves languidly on broad wings. The air was still but for the splash of paddles, cape turtle doves whistling their exhortations to ‘work harder’, and the thrums and chirrups of cicadas and crickets.

Then the real challenge began. Landing above the Mombova rapids, we transferred into two-person inflatable kayaks to head out onto more testing expanses. The paddling was more demanding, the rapids more unpredictable and the wildlife toothier.

As we strapped on lifejackets and grabbed helmets, Sven doled out instructions. Steer clear of trees, we were advised (you’ll get stuck). Listen to Dom and Titus – they spot the crocodiles and hippos first. And finally, avoid falling in – but, if you do, float downstream feet-first (and with well-padded rump down to cushion any clashes with mid-river rocks).

Leaping into our kayaks, we paddled swiftly into midstream. Though ‘stream’ is quite an understatement: at this point, the Zambezi is huge and relentless. It had already swept over 1000km from its source in a swampy dambo in Zambia’s northwest, delving into Angola, to reach us. On our right-hand side lay Namibia; just a little way farther on we’d glimpse Botswana and sweep past Zimbabwe. We watched ferries crossing, and fishermen preparing to haul in daninga, bream, catfish and mudsucker. Here, the Zambezi combines roles as border, road, water source and larder.

And playground, I was reminded, as a group of children laughed and yelled greetings from the bank before leaping into the sluggish water. Sluggish, and croc-free, I hoped for their sakes.

Current affairs
We quickly fell into a daily routine. Each morning we packed down tents and washed up coffee mugs and breakfast bowls, regaled with promises of more danger from Sven. “There’ll be lots of beasties today, for sure,” he’d chuckle, as we embarked on the day’s navigation. We’d kayak for three hours or so, shoulders burning with effort when eddies impeded us or rapids dashed us, before catching our breath over lunch, watched by jaunty red bishops amid the reeds and fish eagles from their treetop perches.

Come late afternoon, we’d drag our kayaks onto the bank and pitch our tents, all lending a hand to prepare a dinner eaten with righteous appetite around the campfire. Then we enjoyed a spot of stargazing and swapping of tall tales before zipping up our tents for a hard-earned slumber – or, for the more nervous, a night of trying to identify the wild grunts and growls emanating from the undergrowth all too nearby.

After four days of kayaking and rafting, sometimes under cerulean skies, sometimes blessed with ‘liquid sunshine’ (it was the rainy season, after all), we approached a tall column of cloud on the horizon: the ‘Smoke that Thunders’ – in the Makololo language, Mosi-oa-Tunya. Livingstone dubbed its source the Victoria Falls, though I’d question whether that was an improvement. The local name is surely the most masterful piece of brand marketing in history, describing perfectly the monstrous cloud of spray and accompanying roar of the cascade.

Rapid exit
It also signalled the final challenge, saved for our last day. On the Upper Zambezi, most rapids are relatively mild. But at the Falls, the river’s transformation is sudden and spectacular as it plummets a dizzying 108m into Batoka Gorge. Squeezed into this narrow, snaking canyon, the river becomes a wild torrent, its rapids bearing names designed to tempt and terrorise: Oblivion, Washing Machine, Gnashing Jaws of Death. Successfully tackling these angry, unpredictable cataracts would depend on our ability to work together and follow instructions.

We lasted about ten minutes before the raft flipped, at Rapid 16a, nicknamed tellingly ‘The Terminator’. Tossed into the river, I struggled to hold my breath, cling on to my paddle and work out which way was up, let alone recall our guide’s edicts. Fortunately, with a safety kayaker to hand and Sven’s calm competence, we were all soon back in the raft, spluttering but relieved – and more than a little exhilarated.

I was relieved that the rest of the morning proved more sedate – less-turbulent rapids separated by longer stretches of calm where we could absorb the beauty of the gorge. More in hope than expectation, I swept my eyes across the red basalt walls, peering among rock figs and ironwood trees for Taita falcons,  a local bird speciality.

At Rapid 25 our brief taste of the explorer’s life came to an end – unlike Livingstone, who followed the Zambezi’s course upstream and down to where it meets the Indian Ocean in what’s now Mozambique.

Beaching our raft, we debated the choice of exit from the gorge: taking a cable car to the rim, or a strenuous hike up a vertiginous trail. As I dithered, a quote by Livingstone sprang to mind: “If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.”

I hiked out.

Charity Challenge (www.charitychallenge.com) offers a 10-day Zambezi River Challenge, including five days on the river in mekoros, kayaks and rafts (one day tackling the rapids in Batoka Gorge). Participants must pay a deposit of £475 and raise a minimum sponsorship of £3,850 for their chosen charity, to cover international flights and taxes, accommodation, equipment, most meals and local support team. The first trips run in October 2013.