Rafting the Zambezi River

I’d Turn Back If I Were You–Canoeing Africa’s Lower Zambezi in Zambia

By Marie Javins

Elephants in front of lunch on the Zambezi River in Zambia.
Elephants in front of lunch on the Zambezi River in Zambia.

If you go out in the woods today
You’d better not go alone
It’s lovely out in the woods today
But safer to stay at home
-Teddy Bears’ Picnic

“There are four things to watch out for on the Zambezi,” said Bono, the chief river guide on my four-day Shearwater canoe/camping safari. “One: crocs. Don’t stick your hands or feet in the water.

Two: hippos. They have four-inch teeth. Let them know you’re here like this.” He tapped his paddle loudly on the canoe.

“Three: visible tree stumps. Avoid them. Four: tree stumps below the surface. You can identify them by the way the water flows on the surface. Okay?”

Uh, sure. Tree stumps didn’t worry me. As a single traveler, I was partnered with Bono. Crocs didn’t worry me either — I had no plans to drape my limbs into the water.

But hippos, some of the very animals I’d come to see, worried me. The most dangerous animals in Africa are vegetarian, but they’ll still bite you in half if you’re between them and their calves or the safety of deep water.

Too Tired to Worry

A few hours later, I was too tired to be worried. I was rowing in the front — the person in the back of a canoe does 80% of the work — but I was still clumsy, sweating and wondering why I hadn’t realized that a canoeing safari would involve physical exertion.

The sun beat down and wind had kicked up against us. Our line of four two-person canoes hugged the Zimbabwean shore just north of the put-in point at Chirundu. The Zambezi’s  Zambian shore was visible on the other side of deep water, which we avoided, minimizing our risk of an unexpected hippo-encounter.

Colombian Hippos: Unnatural Terror or Eco Attraction?

After a brief stop for pink lunchmeat and cucumber sandwiches, I weakly rowed on to a flat, sandy area surrounded by African scrub, our campsite for the night. We were on a small island next to Zimbabwe ‘s “Hurungwe Safari Area” and would approach the “Mana Pools National Park” shoreline tomorrow. Zambia ‘s coast was rural but inhabited — we wouldn’t glimpse Zambia ‘s “Lower Zambezi National Park” until our final day.

Bono issued some more instructions.

“After dark,” he said, “don’t go anywhere near the riverbank. That’s where the crocodiles hunt. And at night, if you need a toilet, don’t go more than ten meters from your tent.”

This was a bit alarming, as I’d just been considering sneaking down to the shore to wash. Fortunately, the “bucket behind a tree” method was available.

Asleep by Nine

We set up our two-person tents while Bono and the junior guide, Cambell, made us a camp dinner of rice, chicken stew, and African gem squash. Everyone was exhausted and asleep on our Shearwater sleep mats by nine, in spite of the possible presence of man-eating wild animals.

In the morning, the wind was with us. Rowing was easier and I no longer had to struggle.

About a half-hour after pushing off, we encountered a huge pod of hippos that stretched from Zimbabwe to Zambia across the Zambezi’s narrow width. I was in the lead boat with Bono, and had thought this advantageous as Bono was the man carrying the loaded warning pistol. Now, as he carefully led the way through the hippo pool, I realized that being the first to potentially surprise a hippopotamus was less than ideal.

To intimidate us, the hippos emitted ominous roars that sounded like the disembodied Jolly Green Giant.

“Ho ho ho,” said the hippos.

“I’d turn back if I were you. That’s what they’re saying,” I thought.

Bono slowly paddled us into the middle of the pod. He kept tapping his oar to let the hippos know we were coming.

“Stay close,” he said to the rest of the group.

A Massive Expulsion

Hippos were exploding out of the water around us. They can stay underwater for five to six minutes and when they come up suddenly, the result is a massive expulsion of air and water followed by a surprising pair of eyes and a pinkish snout.

I was wondering if Bono was lying to me about a legendary hippo that could bite a canoe in half when he started issuing instructions.

“Follow me,” he barked. He’s been aiming right for a hippo and now suddenly cut directly across the river.

“Paddle left,” he told me. I paddled furiously on the left. Sweat and effort didn’t bother me anymore. If we didn’t make it in time, I’d be the first one bitten by the unhappy hippo.

We made it in spite of my feeble contribution. Bono knew what he was doing and we were never really in danger, but it sure felt like we were.

Face to Face With Nature

Now, I understood the appeal of the Lower Zambezi canoe safari. It was just you and nature, face to face. And while the danger did exist, it was easy to minimize it with a qualified guide.

Enthusiastically, I quite pretending my paddling mattered and took as many photos as I did strokes. We were ahead of schedule, and Bono instructed us to slow down.

Slow down we did, observing more hippos, some evil-looking crocs, elephants, egrets, and Carmine Bee-eater birds that lived in holes along the muddy riverbank.

Late on the third morning, we paddled to the bank to indulge in more pink lunchmeat and cucumber treats. Everyone else wandered off and left me sitting on a sleepmat, scribbling in my diary.

Then, they all came scampering back, wide-eyed and agitated.


Bono had the warning pistol in his hand, and Cambell had the two-way radio. It was on.

“If an elephant charges,” instructed Bono. “Stand still.”

Was he mad? But there was no time to argue.

The elephants approached. It was hot out, and they were headed straight towards our canoes at the river’s edge for drinks and showers.

The elephants inadvertently herded us.

“Everyone over here,” said Bono, motioned us further on, out of the elephant’s path.

The elephants stared at us while we quaked. They seemed to decide we were not worth their time. They trundled on, to drink and splash about while we cowered and snapped once-in-a-lifetime photos.

Finally, the elephants left. High on adrenaline, we reclaimed our canoes.

But it wasn’t over. Five more elephants approached, shaking the berries off acacia trees as they walked. This time they approached directly, driving us up onto the bank. We were cornered, our only potential escape a leap into the croc-infested river. But the elephants didn’t care about us. They only had eyes for the cooling effects of water, squirted onto their backs by their swaying trunks.

The Elephants’ Delicate Step

The most amazing thing about the African elephant was not the size of its enormous ears, which flap to provide elephant air-conditioning. It was their sensitive, delicate step. They avoided our canoes and possessions and even the camp doo-doo shovel — without so much as a glance.

Finally, they left the water’s edge and moved away, intent on tormenting more acacia trees.

Buffalo wandered up next, along with waterbuck.

“Still want to go on that game walk?” joked Bono. We’d been pestering him for a game walk, but he’d been refusing because walking in the national park was strictly controlled.

Nobody wanted to go. Why go for a game walk when the game will come to you?

We paddled another seven kilometers, and set up camp on a sandy island.

The stars were out in force, and the Milky Way was clear. Elephants splashed nearby, hippos had a vocal social gathering, ducks quacked, and lions on the mainland roared all night. No one got any sleep and when there was enough light to spot crocodiles, we all got up.

The Friendly Hippo Pod

We packed up and drifted off. Our morning went something like this.








The whoosh and subsequent laughter was just our friendly neighborhood hippo pod, letting us know that no matter how many times Bono tapped his warning on the canoe, we could still be surprised.

It was just a short trip to our takeout point at Mana Pools. A Shearwater truck was waiting for us, complete with a cooler full of cold drinks. A two-hour safari-style drive through UNESCO World Heritage Mana Pools National Park took us to a paved road.

The group was flying out of Harare, so they headed back to Kariba for the night. I took my leave, crossing the Zambian border at Chirundu to catch a minibus to Lusaka. I was headed north to East Africa, and had a train to catch in the morning.

Zambezi River Rafting Trips

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