Ten tips: Surviving a Canoe Trip on the Zambezi

Watch out for lurking hipposHerds of elephant, zebra, gazelle and giraffe grazing on the river bank, lurking crocodiles, charging hippos and lions chasing down young buffalo. Camping on the bank in pink sunsets, listening to not so distant lions roaring from the 'safety' of your tent and protecting your food from cheeky monkeys. It all sounds like a National Geographic special, perhaps, but it can all be on the menu for a journey into Africa.

I can’t guarantee that you’ll experience all this while paddling your canoe on the Zambesi River, but witnessing even one of them would make the trip more than memorable. Following my own paddling sojourn down the great river, I put together the following ten tips that will hopefully contribute to a enjoyable - and safe - trip.

1. Stock up on drinking water. Sure it can be a heavy load when lugging it all on board but you can never have too much of it. The local guides we used didn’t seem to mind when ours ran out with still a day and a half to go as they were partial to Coca Cola. Either they had a secret camel's hump hidden somewhere or they scored the secret advantage of having local DNA that enables you to go without water. There are no shops along the way for replenishing stocks so you will have no choice but to boil the Zambezi itself. Once suitably cooked, even with the floaty bits, it won’t actually do you any harm.

2. Carry plenty of sun protection. We measured 51 degrees Celsius on day four of our week long paddle. You will fry like a sausage without the right sun protection. You will then shrivel up like an old piece of leather. Lather yourself in it and cover up with long sleeves and a wide brim hat, even long cotton pants if you can handle total coverage. Good quality sunglasses will also protect your eyes from the glare off the water. Squinting into the sun for a week won’t help those crow’s feet one bit.

3. Keep cool. Wear a cotton scarf around your neck. Not only for extra sun protection but it can be dipped constantly into the cool water and retied. Sun stroke is unpleasant.

4. Watch out for lurking hippos. I once heard a statistic on a TV documentary saying that more people are killed by hippos than by London buses so keep a constant eye out for them! Not the lazy ones who just blob around in the deep but the grumpy ones who are generally the older males that have passed their fertility use by date and have been cast out of the family pod.
There’s actually no way to tell the difference, so unless you can channel David Attenborough, just keep watch on all of them. Their beady eyes and cute little ears will disappear beneath the surface and the next thing you know they’ll be charging your canoe and you will have to paddle like an Olympian. A tip here is to keep close to the bank. Speaking of banks – never, I repeat never stand between a hippo and the water (or a hippo and the bank). You will be flattened.
The ‘hippo runs’ are the well worn areas of bank where they enter and exit the water. Also don’t be stupid enough to pitch your tent near a hippo run. Again, you will be flattened. I think I’ve made my point here.

5. Use a professional guide. An absolute must. Would you really want to wonder into the African countryside without a guide and his rifle? Not that I advocate shooting the wildlife and I certainly don’t approve of game sports, but you just never know when you might be confronted by a bull elephant or a territorial lion. A single shot in the air could save your life. The local guides are also a wealth of expertise and knowledge and no trip of this nature would be the same without that. Without our guides, we would have assumed that the Tonga women with no front teeth who were waving to us from the Zambian bank just had poor dental hygiene. Instead they actually had them knocked out purposely when they got married.

6. Beware of drug traffickers. The same in so many countries. Here young lads in dugout canoes will paddle like mad to catch up with you and try to sell you their wares. They are persistent but polite and not at all shy about pulling out a scrunched up paper bag from down their shorts. In it will be some home-grown marijuana. The guides were unperturbed and there are no river police so you decide for yourself if you’re going to give it a try.

7. Protect your camera. Forget it, lose it, break it, have it stolen or drop it in the water and you will hate yourself forever. You will miss those lions chasing down the herd of buffalo on the river bank, or that bull elephant hiding in the trees, or that baby crocodile making itself comfortable in your campsite. Invest in a zip lock bag if yours isn’t waterproof. Even if it is, it wouldn’t be a
good idea to dive in after it. See below for the tip on croc bait.

8. Swim at your own peril. Only dip your flesh into the water when you’re on a large sandbank. The crocodiles will enjoy you otherwise. Again the knowledge of the local guides is imperative here. You will bake beyond all recognition without being able to cool down in the water. Also handy for a wash as after the first day you will stink.

9. Don't stray from the camp. As with tip number 8, stray out of the confines of safety at your own risk. You will hear the lions roaring in the distance so why the hell would you want to wonder off and find them. Cheeky baboons will chase you and many other animals will simply eat you. Then you won’t have any wild travel stories to tell, will you.

10. Remember the insect repellent. The tsetse fly is a nuisance and, along with its buddy the everyday mosquito, spreads malaria. A good repellent containing ‘Deet’ will do the job. Prolonged use will probably make your skin drop off but for a week on the Zambesi you’ll be ok. Otherwise a very long time with malaria in your system will not be enjoyable. 

About the Author
Tina Spice hit the global trail with her husband and daughter before falling in love with Berlin, where she is the ultimate 'slash': writer-slash-teacher-slash-photographer plus snowboard gumby and wine lover. She loves that first smell of a new country when she first steps out of an airport, and the feeling of total anonymity that goes with it. Her musings can be found at www.wherenobodyknowsyou.com.

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