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more on the river

Posted Aug 25 2010 10:48am
(Pioneer Lodge, outside Lusaka, Zambia)

I haven't written much about life over the last few days because I've been far too busy living it, the breaking bones and sucking out the marrow kind of living.

Causemore told us that you haven't experienced Africa until you've canoed the Zambezi. I think he might be right.

Day One
We dropped in around 10:30, moving slowly away from the lodge where we'd stayed the night before. The sky was, typically, a cloudless blue and the current carried us along. We took most of the day just to get accustomed to paddling and steering, learning how to avoid tree stu8mps and swirling eddies in the water. This is not as easy as it sounds, especially when neither one in your canoe has any experience. (I am not counting the three days I spent on the Delaware when I was fourteen. There in no comparison even remotely possible.)

When it was time for lunch, we pulled our canoes up a sandy beach and Causemore directed us through the untying of tarpaulins and collecting of water and chopping of vegetables since our canoes turned out to be carrying crates filled with utensils and food and folding stools and even a small metal table. In what would become a routine over the next days, we all busied ourselves at whatever tasks Causemore alloted to us. I think that was the best sandwich I've ever eaten, sitting in the bright sunshine on the bank of the Zambezi River.

After lunch, we pushed off again and it wasn't long before we began to encounter wildlife of the larger variety, birds having already been our constant companions. The most memorable of these encounters (at least for this first day; things got better later on) was when we came upon a herd of about tn or so bull elephants. I would have been content watching them munch on the tall grass from the far side of the river, but Causmore directed us into the shore, not thirty feet from where they were. We could hear them chewing, the water splashing and the grass being ripped out by their agile trunks.

We watched them for a while, feeling incredibly small next to their massive bulk and then Causemore direted us to paddle up a small channel, putting us face to face with a young bull about twenty feet away. He looked up from his meal, flapping his ears in warning and then started to charge, water spraying everywhere as Causemore relaxed in his canoe and I seriously considered jumping ship and swimming away through croc-infected waters.

Causemore, it turned out, had the right reaction. A young bull isn't tough enough to charge for real and, in true form, the one stampeding towards us pulled up short after a few steps and shook his trunk once more before turning and ambling off.

That experience set the tone for the rest of the trip.

That night, we camped on a tiny island in the middle of the river, all sand and reeds and hippos surrounding us in the water. We made a fire and Causemore cooked us some dinner and we relaxed while the moon rose, throwing our shadows across the sand.

It was a good day.

Day Two
Today was a day for hippos. They're Julle's favourite animal, and the one we were guaranteed to see on the river. This stretch is wide enough that you really do have to pick sides; either stick to the Zambian side and canoe past villages or brave the Zimbabwean side, where you'll have to paddle through a place Causemore has named Hippo City. He explained to us later that he doesn't take everyone through Hippo City; if he can't be sure they'll stay safe, he stays on the Zambian side. But we had somehow proved ourselves yesterday (maybe it was staying in the canoes while being charged by an elephant, I'm not sure) and so we steered towards the right bank, heading for Hippo City.

This, I have to admit, was nerve-wracking. It's one thing to steer a canoe when there's no danger. It's quite another to do the same when Causemore's voice takes on a note of real urgency and you know that there are hippos lurking in the water, some that have been described as "naughty" because they like to chase canoes and tip them." Needless to say, I spent much of the day not breathing, since something in my brain told me that holding my breath would protect me. (As a side note, this doesn't work and makes it much harder to paddle fast when told to do so; it's not a technique I recommend.)

Since one day on the river is much like another (breaking camp, paddling, stopping for meals and naps under shady trees, paddling some more and then making camp again and waiting for the moon to rise), there's no point in my explaining those part of each day. I'll skip on to the excitement, which came at lunchtime.

We had pulled out on the side of the river just across from a large male hippo basking in the sun. A little further downstream, on the same side as us, a whole school of them were in various stages of relaxing, half in, half out of the water. We ate our lunch and then I looked over and realized that two of the hippos were fighting. Causemore took this as a challenge, and told us to put on our shoes.

Like I said before, I had no idea what I was getting myself into on this trip.

I found myself creeping across the grass towards these two massive animals, close enough that I could hear their teeth cracking against each other and see the blood inside their mouths. When we were far closer than I thought was safe, Causemore dropped to his hands and knees and we followed suit, crawling through the dry grass until the only thing that separated us from the action was a small channel and a few more feet of grass.

The power of those two animals was incredible. At one point, one of the hippos had been driven into the water while the other was still on land. The one in the water hooked his teeth into the other's and pushed hard, driving up onto the bank, lifting the second hippo up on his back legs. I have no photos of this because I was crawling towards them while it happened, wondering whether or not I'd gone completely crazy and coming to the conclusion that I was probably just having a good time.

Once the fight was over and both hippos had splashed into the water, we stood up and strolled casually away, grinning like idiots since Causemore, a guide who's been on the river for twelve years, had never even seen something like that before. It was par for the course for us, really. Almost every day, someone told us. You don't see that every day!

Day Three
The last day on the river, we decided to canoe the rest of the 65 kilometres to the pull-out point, something we weren't supposed to do until the following morning, so that we could wake up in time to go on a small walking safari on our final morning. The day was relaxed; after the excitement of the elephants and the hippo fight, just canoing past schools of them wasn't causing us much stress. We went for a wander through the woods a lunch, but didn't see much in the way of wildlife. In a way I'm glad; it leaves something for me to look forward to if I ever get to have an experience like this again!

Day Four
We were supposed to be canoing today, but since we had pulled out early, we went for a game walk in the morning and saw some baboons and monkeys and impala grazing in the golden light of sunrise. The drive back to where we had left our luggage was long and dusty and had me wishing I was still on the river, paddling through the cool water and stopping for siestas under acacia trees. When we pulled back into the lodge, I felt like an entirely different person than the one that had left just four days before.

It's hard to explain, really, but I felt bigger, somehow. I fee like I've learned more about the world over the past two weeks than I have in the first twenty-seven years of my life, and it's like I've had to expand in some intangible way to hold it all. I never had a place in me for storing the beauty I've been witness to, never needed a compartment for the sound of elephant tusks crashing together as they fight in the water, never worried about whether or not I'd forget the way the Southern Cross looks in the night sky.

But now all this is mine to hold, and hold it I will, with all my tenuous strength. And when I grow old, I pray there's someone there to sit at my feet at hear the stories about how granny crawled through the grass to watch hippos fight, paddled away from charging elephants and sat under the light of a moon so bright she almost couldn't sleep at night.

Up next: South Africa.

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