Follow Livingstone’s epic journey on a canoe safari along the Zambezi in a tranquil bird- and game-watching opportunity like no other. Skirting half-submerged hippo and lurking crocodile, majestic elephant and thirsty impala as you drift placidly along its course, you’re bound to experience the wild of Africa like never before.
The 2,574km-long Zambezi River – which starts in Zambia and spills into the Indian Ocean off Mozambique – has always held a sense of awe for me. It was known as the ‘Great River’ by the Tsonga people and ‘God’s Highway’ by Victorian missionaries … one of whom was David Livingstone, who explored the Zambezi and its tributaries in the 1850s, travelling mostly by canoe.
I stood on the edge of this mighty watercourse after a safety briefing and wondered if my desire to experience the wild of Africa on a Zambezi River safari had been my wisest decision so far. My partner looked confident, however, as did our guide, Mike, so I determined to push my nerves aside and submit to the forces of nature, much as Livingstone must have done many eons ago.
We’d opted for stable Canadian canoes, and without further ado we set off in single file, rowing in tandem (well, most of the time!)
A kingfisher darted into the water in front of us, snatching a fish from the clutches of the Zambezi in a single swoop. I was soon mesmerised by the ripples of the water as our oar dipped into it, in almost meditative repetition. My thoughts drifted away with the currents until Mike let out a warning signal, telling us to stop rowing.
A pod of hippo was just before us, wallowing in the water with just their eyes and ears sticking out from the top of their head, following our every movement. Mike told us to follow his path, sticking to the shallow water so they have an escape route and don’t feel threatened. A timely snort and harumph from the hippo after this statement echoed my skepticism, but as we paddled closer they did indeed move off into the depths, allowing us to pass unscathed.
As we continued to paddle along, Mike drew alongside us and told us about the local mythology of the river. ‘According to local legend, the Zambezi is protected by Nyaminyami, a serpent-like god with the head of a fish and the body of a snake, one of the most important deities of the Tsonga people. During the building of the Kariba Dam, a source of hydroelectric power to Zambia and Zimbabwe, flooding and the inevitable construction-related deaths were attributed to Nyaminyami’s wrath,’ he said.
Soon we reached a tiny island where we stopped for a leisurely lunch, surprising a crocodile basking in the sun. As we ate, a yellow-billed kite circled above us while a bateleur eagle soared in the thermals.
Mike then told us about the festival of Kuomboka. ‘When the Zambezi floods the low-lying plains’, he told us, ‘the Lozi people of the upper Zambezi pack canoes with all their belongings and, led by the chief and his family, make their way to higher ground in colourful costumes, accompanied by traditional songs and dances.’
While we determined to return to see this, in the here and now the wildlife show didn’t stop. As we glided back in the water, a blacksmith plover dive-bombed just ahead and a lilac-breasted roller flitted past us; our guide calling out the names as they made their guest appearances.
As the Zambezi branched into various channels, we followed a smaller course that meandered to the left, drifting along the water with little effort. We chanced upon an elephant grazing alongside the water’s edge, feeding on water hyacinths with evident enjoyment and ignoring us completely. We got so close we could see the folds of its grey skin.
A crocodile glided past ominously but we kept our course, slowly dipping our oars into the water with rhythmic precision (at last!). Though we saw baboon, warthog, waterbuck and impala on the banks of the water, it was the birdlife we found most astounding: white-crowned plover and several fish eagle, pelican, egret and even the brilliantly-coloured carmine bee eater.
Too soon we were back at our pickup point, now hardened explorers at the end of our quest. To truly see, hear and experience the African bush from the many waterways and channels of the mighty Zambezi – rather than on a game drive or a fast-paced river rafting experience – left us quieter, more reflective, and, I like to think, more attuned to nature. Few people are intrepid enough to experience the Zambezi this way, and I’m humbled to join Livingstone in this, even if only fleetingly.