Dr Jonny Cave, surgical hero, had insisted that the canoe trip from Chirundu into Mana Pools National Park would be the highlight of our trip. Somers’ extensive telephonic chasing had ensured that we were on board this expedition. We awoke positively tingling with excitement. Over the next four days we would cover 70 kilometres of river, pass hippos galore, swimming elephants and some of the most spectacular scenery on God’s green earth. For the duration we would carry all we needed, we would sleep on islands in the middle of the river and awake on one such island on Christmas Day.
We sat through a less than standard safety briefing that included such gems as ‘what to do if your guides die,’ ‘what to do if a crocodile attacks your boat’ and ‘what to do if capsized by an angry hippo.’ The answers to the last two are; if you swim away you might die and if you hold on to your boat you might die. But Somers and I had inside knowledge. If a crocodile attacks it generally drags you down stairs and spins until you drown. He can hold his breath for 30 minutes, I can hold it for 43 seconds, small lungs, Somers reckons she’s good for a full minute; he lives in water and we live on land; he’s made of muscle whereas I’m about 3 percent muscle, Somers has a better ratio but her overall weight means she’s no match either. So basically, the odds are in his favour. However, the standard eye gouge that first comes to mind won’t work, he’s a reptile with a brain like a chestnut programmed by dinosaurs to be on auto pilot where dinner is concerned. But, like I mentioned, we had the inside line; while he’s spinning you around, all you need to do is reach inside his mouth and pull his tongue forward. That opens his airway and he starts drowning as well. He lets go, you swim away, simple. With that in mind we were essentially bomb proof as far as crocs were concerned. Hippos would be another matter, but they are ‘river horses’, and I work with horses so I decided my actions would come naturally when the time came.
With our knowledge banks hardly added to, we boarded a land cruiser with Teki, our driver and trainee guide and, we set off for Chirundu. It wasn’t long before the wheels rolled to a halt behind a rather large truck that was now parked at a precarious angle in a ditch on the side of the road. This angle was perhaps preferable as the other side of the road was an unfenced steep drop into the valley. What made this truck unusual were the huge letters emblazoned on its side. ‘Danger. Explosives.’ Who crashes a truck filled with dynamite? Fortunately we arrived as the recovery team were retrieving the lorry from its three day ordeal. The drivers’ brakes had failed going down-hill; he’d literally had to ditch the vehicle to avoid a firework display in the valley. Imagine the fear...
We’d met two Swedish ladies at our briefing; Maria and Tesso would be captaining one of our Armada. The fifth and final public member of our rapscallion outfit was Ryan; a Zimbabwean by birth who had been living in New Zealand for the last seven years. His description of New Zealand was that it was a ‘sterile country... with too few people... and a noticeable lack of culture. The crime rate amongst the indigene was far higher than that of the general population... and that Africa was a real continent with real experiences and vivid life.’ I apologise if my imperfect memory has paraphrased any of this. He was a man who had left his heart behind as he exited Zimbabwe out of necessity. He had been doing the 6 night 7 day trip and we were joining him for the latter two thirds.
Arriving at our start site, the Chirundu Bridge lay behind us linking Zimbabwe to Zambia across the Zambezi. Ryan stood before us, with a grin as wide as the river, a 5kg Tiger fish in his hand and some of the most spectacular, and surely painful, sunburn caressing his feet, shins, forearms and face. His shins looked like they’d slough and you’d see bone any time soon. Our guides introduced themselves, Mr Anywere ‘Kebo’ Chibungwa and Mr Cloud Magondo who would be our head guide. Kebo and Mr Magondo were, first and foremost, nice guys who just so happened to be brilliant guides. Kebo was twenty nine, enthusiastic as a mouse with cheese and all knowledgeable about the birdlife, plant life and animals in his territory on this river. He was a human textbook, the bird, the call, the migration status, and the migration route; the number of offspring per clutch and its feeding habits. Any call, any bird, at any distance, he could fill us in. He was in the lead boat with Ryan. Mr Magondo, in his early fifties was slender and ripped, there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him and he found it all too easy to keep up even though he was alone with the heaviest boat, omniscient at the back. He was the all seeing eye, observing disaster before it arrived and directing us on the best route. Maria and Tesso and Somers and I formed the remaining two pairs in our open Canadian style canoes. The adventure was on.
We came across our first hippo pod minutes after leaving. Hippos would be the defining animal on this trip. We would see far in excess of a thousand of them over the next seventy kilometres. The thrill of sharing their water was scintillating, the stories we’d heard about them chomping men in two made it even more exciting.
That same afternoon we enjoyed our first ‘wallow.’ And what a wonderful thing it is to wallow. Pulling into our first sandbank, Mr Magondo ploughed ahead of the fleet. Suddenly he leapt from his moving boat into one foot deep water and hurtled through it towards a lazing crocodile. He actually bent down as if to try and catch the creature as it was speedily evicted from its domain. He turned and smiled, “I’m getting slower.” This newly croc-free section of river was ours. The heat of the sun was incredible, the waters’ coolness was amazing and we jumped in fully clothed, lying, rolling, giggling and splashing. Someone produced a bar of soap and we promptly had a quick wash before re-boarding and continuing. As we reached our first island we’d had a quite brilliant afternoon.
We struck camp, leaving the flysheets off our tents; the starlit sky was too pretty to hide behind canvas and there would be no rain. Kebo made tea and coffee and Ryan told me he had two fishing rods and I could borrow one for the trip. He had given the big Tiger away; Mr Magondos’ family would be eating it for Christmas, but Ryan had already bagged a couple of Chessers whose fillets would do nicely as bait for the Tigers. Superb.
The stars looked sublime, the hippo pod just thirty metres from shore grunted an evening chorus and the occasional splash of a leaping Tiger fish quickened our anticipation for the trip ahead. The beer and wine softened our insides and the chicken curry filled our bellies.
We awoke at day break, slipped on some clothes and began fishing. With my first cast I landed a one and a half kilogram Nkupe, quite how it got its tiny mouth around my massive hook was a mystery but its fate was Tiger food. Into the cool box it went.
The days’ structure was to rise at first light, cast rods (optional) and break camp whilst coffee and biscuits were prepared. We’d then canoe for around two and a half hours, avoiding grumpy hippos, to a suitable breakfast spot where we would enjoy a fry up and fish some more. Another two or three hours canoeing and we’d find a lunch spot for some more fishing and then a siesta in the shade away from the animosity of the midday sun. After lunch a couple more hours canoeing into the evening would take us to another island and we would strike camp once more.
The river was filled with hippopotamuses. We’d zigzag between pods only for a head to pop up right in the middle of our path. The characteristic wet blow of an exhaling hippo as it surfaces caused our heads to swivel towards it instantly as our heart skipped a beat and our stroke rate increased. Hippos supposedly kill more individuals than any other African creature, bar for the mosquito. According to Mr Magondo and Kebo, this might not be wholly true. They’re herbivores and so they have no business eating man steak. What seems to happen, so our guides informed us, is that the hippos will be disturbed by people who encroach their territory, (us,) and they will upturn a boat like a piece of driftwood in a waterfall. The individuals then start splashing and panicking and a submersed crocodile completes the disappearing act. Anyone who sees the accident says a hippo was responsible and their reputation is solidified. Meanwhile the stealthy croc has its fill reappearing with a man shaped belly twenty minutes later. As a general rule, for the most part, as long as you’re not between the hippo and high water, or between a mother and calf and as long as you’re near the bank, (so they can’t get beneath the boat,) you’ll be fine.
So when we rounded a dead tree that had fallen from the bank and we suddenly spotted a big male in the shallows, we were in deep water in both senses. Kebo shouted, “Paddle hard.” Mr Magondo shouted, “Faster.” The splashing was loud and close and less than five metres to our right as the hippo crashed forward towards the deep water. We were blocking its route and were paddling furiously. “Not fast enough,” shouted Magondo, a mild sense of urgency building in his voice. The feeling of fear; of blood coursing through your body, of oxygen filling every muscle cell, of the splashing and grunting ringing in your ears as time slows and sphincters clench was exhilarating. We gained speed and crossed the river, lengthening our distance from the unhappy chappy. Grins all around betrayed the fear that had just danced through our souls.
Huge baobabs lined the banks like wise old men who have seen so many moons they don’t have enough branches to count them. Crocodiles lay silently on the banks or floated with only their eyes and snout visible, disguising their two metre length waiting patiently below the surface. Fallen tress interrupted the water-carved mud walls of the banks. Dead hippos interrupted our journey, lying on their sides, bloated to the point of bursting, their rotting, gas filled, turgid insides contained only by their six centimetre thick skin. One floated by, dislodged from its sand bank, dead, distended and malodorous in the extreme, it still moved occasionally as crocodiles nipped at the thick decaying flesh that formed the one and half tonne floating carcasses’ hull.
One live hippo raced from the left bank towards Mr Magondo’s canoe; Magondo’s boat moved faster as the hippo continued. Apparently he knew it was only a mock charge, his smile didn’t break, but even as the water got deeper the hippo continued towards him. Even though his stroke rate didn’t appear to quicken, the boat quickened as his strokes became longer and more powerful.
Lunch on day two was a splendid affair. As we prepared sandwiches a small herd of five elephants appeared at the far end of our bank. Slowly they meandered towards our party; they climbed the bank behind us, stopped for an inspection and then walked around to our other side before plunging into the river becoming almost fully submersed using their trunks as snorkels and swimming to the far bank for richer grazing.
On our third day we stopped for another wallow in the late morning. Our paddles were driven into the sand and, with them acting as anchors, we tied our boats up. Our wallow became an impromptu lunch spot and a table and chairs were set up in the water. We ate sandwiches whilst sat in the river, and, afterwards, as the team siesta’d under an acacia, Ryan and I went fishing. I caught my first Tiger fish, snapping my borrowed rod in the process. It was a beauty, almost three kilograms perhaps, but since I was alone and had no camera we’ll never know. My priority was to get it back in the water; Somers appeared just as I unhooked it; at least I hadn’t been the only one to see it.
Christmas Eve was to be the best fishing so far, even with a significantly shortened rod. At the eastern end of the island, two deep fast flowing channels converged and that was where those Tigers would be hiding. The half-rod still managed to get the line out into the channel and it played out into the thick of it. Feeling the rod twitch is a feeling like no other. One tug, a second tug, then, bang, the drag whistles as the line is pulled out. The Tiger leaps out of the water on the end of your line, a powerful fish fighting for its life. You bring it in, play it out and reel it closer, fighting all the time and protecting your line. I caught a couple of two kilogram fish and one time, as my rod was almost pulled from my hands, the line suddenly went limp, my hook, line and sinker were taken clean by what looked to be a monster, he ate the lot in one bite.
One of the Tigers had been destined for the pot and I’d put him on the bank, to suffocate. But, after five minutes he was still alive. That was bloody good going for a Tiger given our previous experiences. He was a fighter, and his tenacity was pulling my heart strings. I decided he deserved a second chance and so crept down towards the waters’ edge, looking for crocodiles, and placed him in the water. He turned upside down which isn’t normally a good sign for a fish. Maybe he would be dinner after all, but as I turned to put him back on the bank his hellish fanged mouth opened. I changed my mind again and held him upright in the water pushing him back and forth to get the water flowing over his gills. It took five or six minutes, back and forth, always looking for crocs, but slowly he came to and eventually after about ten minutes he groggily swam off back into the river. An ‘expert’ in fish resuscitation, now there’s a niche market for a vet. As night came and the light died I put my line out one last time and settled down for a few beers, when I finally gave up and reeled it in just before dinner there was a cheeky little Catfish on the end. Three Tigers and a Catfish, not bad for a Christmas Eve spent fishing in Zimbabwe! And better still they all survived; four fish and no fatalities. Times were good.
After a special candlelit dinner, candles and extra rations of drink to celebrate the season, we exchanged stories with the guides, finished a few bottles of the Christmas wine and drank until late. The night was to be a little rougher than the previous two. A mean wind kicked sand into the tents, the rain came and the flysheets went up, the tents flapped and the precipitations’ pitter-patter softly maintained our consciousness.
We awoke on Christmas day to see the sunrise, but today the light entering our glazed eyes hurt our heads. We packed up and set off for breakfast at our final landing site at Mana Pools’ Main Camp Site. After breakfast we visited the main office at the camp site and found elephant femurs as high as my chest, elephant foetuses the size of a rat preserved perfectly in jars of formaldehyde and any number of skulls, tusks, horns and teeth.
As we drove out of the park we momentarily spotted Tracey and Kenny again and exchanged excited waves. They were a lovely couple, it was a real shame we wouldn’t see them again. The drive back to Kariba took five hours. The latter half of which we watched, bemused, as huge lorries overtook each other up hill on blind crested corners. One truck started to overtake us only to screech as the air brakes whistled and brake pads over-heated. A huge lorry carrying iron ingots hurtled downhill around the corner ahead. The uphill driver grinned as the iron truck had to half mount the verge to avoid a collision. In a fight between two 16- ton trucks, little old us would have been crunched in the cross fire. We ate Christmas lunch, sandwiches and cokes, under a huge baobab and arrived back to Redvers and our pre-booked boma (cottage) at about three.
Christmas dinner consisted of mixed nuts, a mince pie, some Christmas chocolate, melon and mango juice. We sang Christmas carols in the humid warmth and danced around our boma. Christmas phone calls were placed, through Colin, late in the afternoon before we passed out on the bed, exhausted beneath our mosquito net.