For all the off-road capabilities of our Land Cruiser, some Zambian bush highways cannot be reached in a 4×4. These are the tributaries and sandy lagoons of the Lower Zambezi National Park: thoroughfares for hippos, crocodiles and elephants, and, at certain times of the year, Anthony Elton and Tavengwa Kangwara.
Anthony and Tavengwa pioneered canoe expeditions on the Zambezi three decades ago, and now lead clients on multi-night canoe journeys through the backwaters, sneaking past hippo pods by day, camping on uninhabited river islands by night. And these trips are not without incident.
On one outing long ago, Anthony woke up one morning looking up at the underside of an elephant. On another, he pretended to be asleep as a pride of lions peed on him, one after the other, to mark their territory.
“Some people in Zambia think a canoe safari is dangerous,” says Tavengwa, stocking the boats with tents and supplies. “But I have been paddling here for 21 years. I still have all my arms and legs.”
We drift with the current on its slow procession to the Indian Ocean, listening to the slosh of the paddes and the calls of fish eagles from the treetops. The Zambezi changes character with each mile it travels. At first, it seems as wide and serene as the Thames, woods of acacia and winter thorn the boundary between water and sky. Then, it turns into a muddle of channels, with crocodiles basking on the sandbanks, and hippo pods blocking the way, baring their tusks.
Tavengwa soon spies a herd of elephants watering upstream. We paddle against the current until the folds of metallic grey skin are just metres away. There is nothing more likely to restore a childlike sense of smallness than seeing a herd of elephants from a canoe, your body measuring only two or three feet tall from the water line, gazing up into a forest of legs. Among the elephants are juveniles spurting water over each other, and a matriarch – maybe 50 years old – ponderously scratching her backside on an acacia tree.
In the 50 years since this matriarch first arrived in this world, the number of elephants has plummeted by two thirds across Africa. Most recently, a poaching epidemic has annihilated elephant populations across the continent. The Lower Zambezi population is healthy, but, not far away, poachers have targetted elephants, lacing waterholes with cyanide-the poison shutting down a heart the size of a car engine.
The current takes us out of sight and the sound of faraway trumpeting carries downstream. At moments like this, safari feels an experience more precious and profound than seeing millennia-old pyramids, or wandering museums filled with centuries-old artefacts. For the big beasts of the Zambian wilderness are masterpieces of evolution hundreds of millions of years in the making. They are Mother Nature’s Mona Lisa, its Michelangelo’s David, Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat – but living, breathing, roaming the bush highways of Africa and scratching their backsides on acacia trees.