Canoeing down the Zambezi might sound like an adventure suitable for those who would otherwise spend their vacations ice-climbing in Alaska or mountain biking across the Atacama Desert. But in fact, it is a serene, almost dreamlike experience that involves relatively little exertion and requires only a moderate level of fitness. After all, you are going downstream. Most of the time the great river carries you along at a steady three or four miles an hour, and often you chiefly need to steer, rather than actually paddle.
The steering is important, however, as otherwise you can find yourself swept into a pod of hippos. This is a very bad place to be, since despite their vegetarian diet and apparently easygoing lifestyle, hippos are irascible beasts and extremely territorial, with zero tolerance of waterborne intruders. Occasionally, there are also small rapids to be navigated. But generally, canoeists can relax, gaze at the inspiring scenery, watch the animals that come down to the river to drink, and marvel at the kaleidoscopic profusion of birdlife.
Among the most celebrated sights on the Zambezi are the nesting colonies of Carmine Bee-eaters — bright scarlet, swallow-tailed birds that wheel and swoop above the river by the thousand. Sometimes it is possible to approach within 30 or 40 feet of browsing elephant, which look a great deal bigger from a canoe than they do from a Land Rover. And virtually every sandbank has a neat parking lot of huge crocodiles, up to 20 feet long. (Crocodiles pose little danger to canoeists, but walking too close to the bank is discouraged, as they frequently leap out to grab unwary antelope — or tourists).
Of course, canoe safaris are not for everyone. They do require a somewhat adventurous spirit. The sun beats down during the day, and at night you sleep under canvas on the riverbank, listening to the lions roar and all the other mysterious, haunting and sometimes bloodcurdling sounds of the African night. But camp staff do all the hard work, erecting tents, transporting luggage, rigging up showers and preparing surprisingly delicious meals.
Most three-night trips start somewhere downstream from Kariba Dam, about 200 miles east of Victoria Falls, and they usually end in either Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe or Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia. (Despite all the upheaval in Zimbabwe, life on the river continues much as before.) Days begin in the uncanny stillness of early dawn, when the light is so pure and the landscape so pristine that the world seems to have been magically re-created overnight.
The two-person canoes are sturdy, stable and usually of the Canadian type. Every couple of hours, the guide calls a halt for coffee, a snack or a swim. (Crocodiles only inhabit deep water, so the shallows are completely safe, and the Zambezi is amazingly free of other tropical hazards such as the parasitic infection bilharzia.) By late afternoon, when the light is beginning to soften and the new camp swings into view, canoeists have usually covered around 15 or 20 miles.
After freshening up, it is time to find a folding canvas chair and sit with a glass of wine, waiting to be summoned to dinner and watching the stately Zambezi sliding past on its immemorial journey to the sea. Among Africa aficionados, canoe safaris are held to provide a profound, intense and indelible experience of the wild that is virtually unrivaled.
For more information about canoe trips on the Zambezi and on the Selinda Spillway in Botswana, contact the Andrew Harper Travel Office, Tel. (800) 375-4685.