Crocs and hippos are like icebergs. It’s tricky to tell how much of them there is floating beneath the river’s surface. Topside, you might spot a patch of reptilian spine, or a glimpse of quizzical eyes. But underneath? Hippos can top three tonnes. Like an iceberg, you don’t want your boat – or, in my case, kayak – to run into that. And crocs? Well, a guide once told me that you can estimate the size of a croc by measuring the distance between its eyes. In my opinion, if you’re close enough to accurately gauge that gap, you’re too close. Much too close. In any case, it’s not so much the distance between the eyes that’s important, but the look in them: calm or crotchety, angry or alarmed. Or hungry.
Telling the difference, of course, isn’t easy. Which is why, on hippo-heavy day three of our kayak-convoy down the Upper Zambezi, I was very glad to be accompanied by Sven, Titus and Dom – three guides with long experience reading the moods of Africa’s aquatic inhabitants. It was a day punctuated by foaming rapids and boisterous demonstrations of might from big male hippos, which reared their alarming, pink-tinged bulks above the water before flumping away with a tsunami-inducing splash. Yet it was a journey that had started so much more peacefully.
Just like Livingstone – I’d cast off from the Zambian shore at Mambova two days earlier on a Charity Challenge expedition. The first of its kind, it would see four novices (myself included) tackle a nokm stretch of the Upper Zambezi by inflatable kayak and raft, culminating in a spot of whitewater rafting below Victoria Falls. Though the ‘beasties’, as Sven dubbed them with jocular understatement, were certainly hazards, the real Challenge – capital C – was in the physical hardship of paddling and wild-camping on the riverbank. It’s an unusual choice of activity for a visit to Zambia, which is justly famed for its walking safaris and spectacular terrestrial wildlife. Yet my five-day, paddle-powered odyssey would truly constitute a safari, or long journey’ in Swahili, following in the wake of David Livingstone’s Zambezi expedition of some 160 years earlier.
We started, aptly enough, in the same type of craft Livingstone had used: a mokoro – a traditional dugout canoe. Pairing up nervously on the riverbank a two-hour drive west of Livingstone, my partner in incompetence and I clambered into the rolling vessel. Our chaperone, a local poler called Costa, helped us launch into a narrow, reed-fringed channel. My first thought, wobbling upright at the bow, was that poling a mokoro isn’t as easy as it looks. My second thought, once I’d swapped places with my boat-mate Mark and hunkered down with an oar in the middle seat, was that paddling a mokoro isn’t as easy as it looks. Standing, my shoulders ached; sitting, my rump throbbed even more. My wrist quickly started to seize, and both pole and paddle soon chafed a blister in the crook of thumb and forefinger.