Zambian Safari: Paddling the Zambezi

Crocodiles and hippos aside, other river hurdles include tree stumps resting just below the surface. We were instructed to keep our 20-foot-long (6 m) canoes to the shallows and steer clear of ripples in the glassy water, indicating underwater obstacles.

During the safety briefing it’s easy to lose confidence and question your capabilities, but we were promised that canoeing is the best way to experience Zambia’s enthralling wilderness. I put my trust in our guide, swallowed my thickly forming trepidation, and donned a life vest.

It took mere moments for my fear to melt away after easing the canoe into the glassy water. Our group of canoes glided peacefully down a narrow channel in silence, passing plovers, egrets and a lonesome grazing cape buffalo.

While floating downstream, time loses meaning. Everything is measured in moments as we absorb every chirp, splash and moan, every ripple in the water, every movement of grass. Did a breeze rustle that bush, or is something lurking behind it?

A lone cape buffalo bull grazes near the water’s edge.
A lone cape buffalo bull grazes near the water’s edge.

Africa is a majestic dichotomy, tranquil yet treacherous. Its magnificence soothes the soul while creating an acute alertness rarely experienced elsewhere. My mind never drifted nor daydreamed, but relaxed and discovered every sight, sound and smell. On this river deep in Africa’s belly, it’s easy to find a deep sense of peace, connection and vulnerability to the environment.

As we slid through a narrow channel, Grobler slowed his lead canoe. Hippos ahead were blocking our passageway. Two powerful gray heads breached the surface, staring at us with hard eyes and tangible frustration. One snorted loudly, and quickly submerged. We waited. He surfaced again, watching us while we watched him. Grobler sat aloof and relaxed, explaining that this was just part of the power game between the animals and us.

The hippos would submit by leaving the water, but I had my doubts, as the standoff persisted minute after long, intense minute. Finally, one brawny body relinquished control of the channel by scrambling onto shore, the other following closely behind. We quickly paddled through the narrow waterway, hugging the left side, as they stared at us from land on the right.

Invigorated by the close encounter, we paddled onward. Dead ahead was another discovery. The pungent odor found us before we saw the telltale sign of big cat activity. A half-devoured cape buffalo carcass lay at the water’s edge. We slowed our canoes, keeping a safe distance away, and docked on a thick patch of water hyacinth in the middle of the channel. A pride of female lions was resting in the shade, keeping guard over their kill.

With bloodstained mouths and bloated bellies, they panted heavily. The cats were taking a break from their gorge-fest, protecting the carcass from scavengers’ greedy jaws, such as the large crocodile that quickly slithered into the river as we approached. Feeling vulnerable yet mesmerized, we watched nature’s brutal beauty as it watched us.

The sun was getting low in the sky, sending a buttery gold light across the water, as we left the channel and glided into the wide river, allowing the gentle current to carry our canoes downstream. A young bull elephant was crossing the river as we drifted in his direction. He harshly warned us to navigate elsewhere by flaring his ears, holding his tusks high in the air and blasting a trumpeting cry.

It was an unambiguous gesture to intimidate us, and it worked. Our guide, however, remained calm as he slowly back paddled. We followed his lead, working against the current to slow our drift. Within moments, the bull relaxed and waded toward shore as if nothing had happened. “Just a young bull showing off. Nothing to worry about,” Grobler said flatly, never having flinched.

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