When we signed up for a three night canoe safari on the Zambezi we were expecting a relaxing time drifting peacefully with the current watching wild-life on the banks. We got that for sure, but it was a little more eventful than expected.
Our first day got off to a less than smooth start when our pick-up arrived two hours late as the canoe trailer had broken. Not long after setting off with a replacement trailer we came to a spluttering stop on a steep hill. The problem was eventually fixed but required a push start courtesy of the ‘clients’. When we finally made it to the river much later than scheduled there was a strong head-wind blowing, so we had a strenuous afternoon of hard paddling to reach our first camp spot just as the sun was setting.
We were lucky to be sharing the experience with a very like-minded couple from San Francisco (Ryan & Brittany), an experienced river guide (Engelbert) and an enthusiastic trainee guide (Skoo). The safari followed a wonderful routine of paddling as the sun rises then stopping on a sand bank for a fantastic fry-up breakfast, then paddling for a few more hours before stopping for a light lunch, then a little more paddling in the afternoon before stopping on another sand island for dinner and pitching our tents for the night.
The wildlife was fantastic. Huge crocodiles and pods of hippos line the banks in incredible volumes. A highlight for me was watching technicolor bee-eaters nesting in the sand banks. We also managed to get closer than we should have done to a bull elephant feeding on tall grasses by the bank. When the guide signalled to us to move away we realised that we had actually grounded out on the shallow sand bottom and so had to shuffle and rock ourselves away from the bemused elephant.
Engelbert had warned us of the danger from hippos and crocodiles, but reassured us that we would be safe as long as we stay in shallow water. Hippos and crocs feel vulnerable when they are not fully submerged so will run away rather than attack if approached in the shallows. However he seemed a little concerned about how unafraid we all were and kept asking “are you scared?” and then tutting and chuckling when we answered no. The events of day three certainly changed our attitude…
The sun was low in the sky and the evening camp was within sight. We were paddling close to the shore when Engelbert became wary of a large male hippo which wasn’t running away from us as they usually do. He instructed the group to change course to avoid the hippo and follow a shallow area near the centre of the river. Our three canoes skirted around the deep channel where the hippo was waiting with Skoo and I bringing up the rear in the last canoe. I noticed that we had drifted rather close to the edge – I could see shallow sand on one side, but deep dark water on the other. The next thing I knew there was a huge crash as if a lorry has hit us and I am thrown sideways into the shallows as the canoe tips over. Engelbert jumped out of his canoe and dragged me to safety with his paddle. As I looked back, I could see the canoe slanting to one side beached in the shallows with Skoo still sat in the back seat. Engelbert and Skoo dragged the canoe further into the shallows as water poured in through a gash in the bottom 5 inches across. I could feel myself shaking as I realised I’ed just survived a hippo attack. I was half way between laughing and crying – and concern that I was missing a flip-flop!
Skoo appeared incredibly calm (or maybe in shock) and told how he felt the hippo’s tusk brush past his leg. He says that it was only his action hitting it on the head with his paddle that prevented it closing down with its upper jaw around his legs. Engelbert and Skoo managed the situation with great poise. We lifted the bags out of the flooded canoe and 5 of us paddled to a sand island leaving Skoo behind to guard the broken canoe from the enraged hippo – which was still watching us from the deep!
Once the canoes are unloaded a rescue party returned to carry back the broken canoe on top of the two good canoes. Engelbert and Skoo spent half the night mending the canoe. Amazingly they managed to do this quite effectively using a milk carton, crisp packets and candle wax!
The next morning we managed the short paddle to the pick-up location with Engelbert pausing regularly to bail out the leaking canoe. I felt incredibly relieved once we were back on dry land. I will never feel the same about hippos and I’m in no rush to get back in a canoe! According to Engelbert this kind of hippo attack happens about once every 5 years – we were just lucky that we tipped into the shallows – things could have been different if we had capsized in the deep where the crocodiles lurk…