A Zambezi Adventure

A few years back Mike and I went on a big adventure. We’d planned on sharing our experience by doing a talk at our church and the local sailing club but somehow the busyness of life got in the way and then babies arrived and we never did it. So I thought I might tell you a little about it here and maybe it may inspire you to go on an adventure of your own!

Mike was turning 50 and we wanted to mark it in a special way. I’d got through the cancer treatment and we were starting to contemplate the possibility of having children and so we decided if we were going to go on a big adventure now was the time to do it. We started ‘googling’ adventure and trekking holidays and sharing ideas about what inspired us and we decided we really wanted to do an African Safari.

We quickly discovered that most safaris are either horribly expensive and / or involve spending a lot of time traveling in vehicles which we really didn’t fancy. But then we stumbled on the concept of a canoe safari and found ourselves getting in touch with a brilliant company called River Horse Safaris that operate on the Zambezi river. An independent company they provide safaris to other travel companies as well as direct to independent adventurers and they are very much connected in with their local community.

We booked a seven day, six night, trip that would take us by canoe from Chirundu down the Zambezi river 163km to near the border with Mozambique. We would camp each night on islands in the middle of the river or a couple of times on the main banks. We planned our trip to go well into the dry season as that brings all the wildlife and birds to the river to drink.

The sunflower is the symbol of our local hospice. Having planned and paid for the trip ourselves we then invited people to sponsor us to raise money for the hospice which gave us so much support during my cancer treatment.

We flew out to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, a 14 hour flight via Dubai and spent our first night in a large hotel before being picked up by our transfer taxi the next morning. Enroute to the river our driver took us to various roadside shops to buy seeds and fertiliser as we’d arranged with River Horse to visit a local school that they support. We’d asked what we could help with and had brought out lots of colouring pencils, pens and other stationery with us but the school also grow crops in order to feed the children that attend the school and kind friends from church had given us money to buy the farming supplies once we arrived in the country.

The primary school serves the young children from the nearby villages, providing them with an early education before they come of an age where they have to legally attend the government run schools. The school not only provide an education but also food and clothes and a place of safety. Many of the older children still turn up each day to continue to receive those added benefits. The day we visited the Headmaster was away on a training course but his wife kindly received our gifts and introduced us to their children.

When we booked the trip we expected to be part of a larger group and wondered about who we would meet on our journey. However when we arrived at ‘base camp’ we discovered that we were the only people who had booked this particular trip and as a result we found ourselves being treated to a ‘private safari’ under the care of the company’s most experienced guide – TK.

Mike and I shared a large canoe sitting front and back on top of our mattresses. The tents for the three of us and our personal kit went inbetween. TK canoed solo with all the rest of the kit including camp table, stools, cooking equipment, and food and drink for seven days.

A typical day on the river starts at 5.30am as the sun comes up. We packed up the tents and our gear while TK made a fire and boiled some water for tea and biscuits. We then loaded the boats and made sure we’ve left no sign of our presence before picking up our paddles and making some headway on the water while the day is still a little cooler.

About 9.30am we’d pull up and go exploring the bank while TK prepared breakfast. We were surprised to discover breakfast meant a cooked feast of sausages, bacon, beans, tomatoes and toast and of course more tea! When I say exploring – this often meant going for what became known as a ‘paddle walk’… You take your paddle for a walk, you use it to dig a hole, you do what needs doing and then cover up the hole with your paddle and return!

Another hour or two on the water and the sun is high in the sky – time to stop for a light lunch and a rest in a shady spot out of the heat of the day. We weren’t always as good at resting as we should have been if there were some good wildlife spots to be had!

A couple more hours of paddling and with the sun starting to get lower in the sky TK would pick a place to stop for the night. We’d help unload the boats and then go for a quick walk with TK exploring our rest stop and witnessing stunning sunsets before setting up our tents for the night. While TK cooked our evening meal we would have a bucket wash in the dark and get straight into our PJs for a firelight supper. The meals TK produced were absolutely superb and the stars that God produced to accompany the meal were incredible.

We generally hit our mattresses by 8.30pm sleeping in tents that were essentially mosquito nets so we could see the night sky. We did sleep well but you could still wake to the sound of lions roaring in the distance or an elephant investigating the camp. One night when exiting my tent in the night for a ‘paddle walk’ my torch shone in the water and set a pod of hippos off grunting in disgust at our canoes blocking their exit from the river. Another night when camping on the main bank we were advised to bring in our shoes as hyenas were known to be in the area and like to steal them!

Everyday we would be so privileged to get close up to elephants, hippos, baboons, kudu, impala, water buck, crocodile, and so many different birds. We sadly didn’t get many good photos of the hippos as when close enough for a good snap you needed to be focussed on your paddling – a large bull hippo rising out of the water is a heart thumping experience. TK was brilliant at sharing his knowledge of the wildlife and getting us as close as possible whilst keeping us safe.

We were also privileged to spend time getting to know TK as we chatted over meals or rafted our canoes together and drifted together on sections of the river learning to enjoy some chill out time with the phrase ‘polepole’ – take it easy! We talked about what brought him to work as a safari guide and his ambitions for his children including his then twelve year old daughter who wanted to be a doctor and the obstacles that would need to be overcome to achieve that goal. We heard about the politics of Zambia and neighbouring Zimbabwe and the disparity between rich and poor. As we travelled several hours back to Lusaka by open jeep from rural Zambia and back into the city much of what TK described could be seen very clearly.

Having travelled all the way to Zambia we also really wanted to visit Victoria Falls so took an internal flight to Livingstone the nearest town. We spent three days there exploring the town and checking out the falls. When the river is in full flood the falls are reportedly just immense with the spray filling the sky and the sound deafening – one of the local names translates as ‘The Smoke That Thunders’. But as we were there at low water we were able to view the incredible geology of the area and we were able to swim with a guide in a pool at the top of the falls.

Even at low water the rapids below the falls are quite something to behold and for some reason we decided that we’d end our Zambezi adventure on a rafting excursion, We climbed down into the gorge and swam under the falls before paddling through a series of grade 3 – 5 rapids under the helmsmanship of Captain Potato (yes Potato was his real name!). It has to be one of the most frightening and exhilarating things we have ever done!

Although you could definitely call our trip a ‘once in a lifetime’ adventure we’d absolutely love to go back and make it ‘twice in a lifetime!’ I’d love to see the river and the falls after the rains and see the dry barren landscape turned green again. I’d love to meet TK again and find out if his daughter still wants to be a doctor or if his son is still determined to follow his father’s footsteps. I’d love to take my boys to see elephants, warthogs and baboons up close in their natural environment. I’d love to get a decent picture of a hippo and hear their chuckles once more. And I often feel the call to a be somewhere completely different from home. Mike feels the same and so he has started a ‘Zambia fund,’ saving for the day when we feel the boys are old enough for us to take them and show them all that we keep telling them about.

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