Day 1 on the Zambezi River: A Close Call with a Hippo

Zambezi River in Zambia Africa

I blinked open my weary eyes, rubbing sleep out of the corners and barely suppressing a yawn. It was early. Before 7am. Beyond the bottle green canvas of the tent I heard rustling and murmuring as the rest of the group rose and prepared for the day ahead of them.

Beside me Emily was rummaging around. She leaned forward and zipped open our tent, allowing early morning light to seep in.

I grabbed my clothing and toiletries and scrambled over to the tent entrance, feeling a flutter in my stomach as I laid eyes on the world outside the tent.

People were busy moving about on the green expanse of grass. Some were packing their bags, others dismantling their tents whilst others sat and chatted happily.

Beyond the grass was the mighty Zambezi, appearing eerily quiet. The sunlight lit up the shimmering grey surface which rippled gently, caressing the grassy shoreline. It was almost easy to forget about what was lurking beneath those waters. Crocodiles. Hippos. I shuddered in exhilaration.

As I freshened up in the ablution block, I recalled how this would be my last shower for several days. Today we would begin our journey into the true Zambian wilderness, setting out tent up in the wilds, with no toilet or showers. I savoured the sensation of fresh warm water on my skin and the overall feeling of being clean.

I got dressed for the day, regretting the choice in clothing I had opted for on this trip. I was a complete Africa noob and had splurged in Go Outdoors on the frumpiest, safest clothing possible, being totally terrified of Africa. I had two long-sleeved shirts with insect repellent built-in, a few pairs of long trousers with pockets galore, a brown fishing hat and the longest black shorts in existence.

I grimaced. This was not my style at all and what made it worse was the fact that everyone else was dressing normally. Oh, fuck - I was going to look like a total moron!

I threw on a pyjama top, the only short-sleeved thing that remotely resembled a T-shirt and rolled my shorts up as far as they would go. I still looked like a tool but it would just have to do.

Breakfast was served in the main camping area. I sipped on a hot tea in a metallic camping mug, feeling grateful for having such a luxury. I simply cannot function without having a morning brew so learning that I would still be having a tea every morning was a fantastic relief.

After breakfast it was time to pack up. Dismantling our tent was a lot easier than erecting it and I felt proud as I looked at our neatly folded home.

I then focused on organising my belongings into a day bag and the remainder of my luggage. As we would be canoeing, I could only have my day bag with me and would only be reunited with majority of my belongings in the evening. They would be travelling on a separate canoe, designated for luggage.

I laid out my cameras in front of me. I'd opted to take a simple point-and-shoot Canon camera which always provided me with great images. I'd been delighted with the photos it took whilst cruising round the Caribbean. I also bought my parents' Olympus bridge camera as it was just that bit more professional which would be ideal for shooting wildlife.

But would I take them both on the canoe with me today? I pondered the question for a moment. Finally I decided just to take the point-and-shoot as well as my phone. My point-and-shoot never let me down and besides, my dry bag was very small and it was risky to bring the larger camera when it didn't fit inside.

It was time for the adventure to truly begin.

I swallowed nervous excitement as I walked alongside our group behind our guides. We followed a dirt track which ran parallel to the river until we arrived beside a group of brilliant blue canoes sitting peacefully on the sandy bank of the river.

We were each handed a rather unsightly vibrant life-jacket. I placed mine over the head, scenting the musky, well-used plastic. It was large and I felt like a giant balloon but I couldn't complain. Safety first!

Safety was the priority, as seen when our guide began to explain how to stay safe on the water.

"You must never place your arms or legs outside the boats." His face was sombre as he spoke. "Crocodiles can easily grab you and drag you into the water. Once a crocodile has you..." He paused. "Well, there's little that can be done. They will drag you under and drown you."

I swallowed. Hard.

This was not some regular laid-back trip. The dangers here were very, very real.

And crocodile attacks on the Zambezi river do happen as documented here.

It was time to split into groups of 3. Naturally, I opted to stay with Emily but this meant our duo needed filling out in order for us to fill up a canoe for 3 people. It was one of our teacher's who filled the final spot at the back of the canoe.

I made my way down to the water's edge, the gentle wooshing of the cool waters against the sand in my ears. My black Converse slipped in the orange sand, not even a day into our expedition and already turning a dusty brown colour.

I rested my hand on the thick plastic canoe which was bobbing steadily in the water. Rather ungracefully I swayed as I placed one foot tentatively in the boat. I lifted my final foot and settled myself on the hard plastic chair at the very front of the canoe.

The boat rocked viciously as my two canoe-partners stepped inside. I watched as ripples appeared beside the base of our boat and dispelled gently across the murky, mirrored water.

Around us the rest of the group were settling into their canoes, giggling as people precariously boarded their buoyant vessels. It was a miracle that no one toppled into the river!

I gazed at the brown water, spying the dappled reflection of the thick canopy of trees which surrounded us and wondered what was beneath. Perhaps some small fish?... Or big ones. I had heard that sharks lived in the Zambezi. Surely crocodiles wouldn't be this close to shore. I shuddered when I remembered our guide's dire warning.

"We're going to set off soon." Our guide shouted to be heard by the group of several canoes. "When I shout 'hippo' you must be alert and follow my canoe closely. We will try and stay away from them but sometimes they are under the water for long periods so it isn't always possible to know where they are and they may appear closer to us than expected."

My head was spinning slightly. There was so much to remember!

Zambezi River in Zambia Africa

Before long, we set off, disturbing the pristine surface with gentle ripples. I lifted my heavy metal ore with a black plastic paddle at the end, allowing it to slice into the water and propel the nimble vessel forward.

Our group silently paddled into open waters, leaving the safety of the sandy bank and our camp behind. I looked about me at the other canoes, counting perhaps 10 in total.

At first I felt quite clumsy on the water but it didn't take long until our canoe managed to find a steady rhythm, each rowing in perfect synchrony.

I heard the gentle murmuring as other canoes talked calmly to one another, just audible over the sound of ores splashing through cold waves. The water was the lead singer backed by a chorus of chirping birds.

As I soaked up my surroundings, I realised just how vast the Zambezi really was. The space between each bank was so great and dotted with islets so big that once could mistake them from being the mainland.

The tranquil sound of nature was interrupted by perhaps the strangest sound I have ever heard. It can best be described as a loud bellow, reminiscent of the sound of a laughing old man with a gruff, hoarse chuckle.

I turned my head, tracing the source of the sound to some dark specks on the near distant horizon. I looked closely and made out their fat bodies which were half-submerged under the water. They had purply-brown bodies and broad heads. It was an unmistakable group of hippos. The first hippos of the expedition.

There was something awe-inspiring about sharing the river with such a powerful group of animals. Each of us minding our own businesses, living in harmony.

Can you spot the hippos? They're near the centre of the image, no more than black specks really!

"Hippo!" One of our guides was calling.

I watched as his canoe veered course to the right, further away from the hippos which I had spotted in the distance on my left. I was surprised by his caution as the group of large herbivores seemed to be lounging a great distance away, but at the same time I couldn't complain about his level of caution. It was far better to give these beasts the respect they deserved.

I recalled how our guides had instructed us to paddle faster and closer to the lead canoe after being given this warning and so increased the tempo on my rowing. Despite our best efforts, our canoe was most certainly the last canoe in the group, flanking behind by many, many metres.

"Hippo!" The guide's yells were taut with worry. "Paddle!"

I gave a sideward glance at the hippos in the distance which didn't appear much of a threat being so far away. Why does he sound so concerned? He was an experienced guide so I trusted his judgement and tried my best to propel us faster in the water.

"Paddle! Paddle! PADDLE!"

I noticed a sea of eyes staring at my canoe, their eyeballs huge with worry. Why were they looking at my canoe? And what was all the worry about?


I'm paddling as fast as I can! I wanted to scream as I forced my ore to slice through the black waves.

Other than the screams and desperate murmuring from the rest of the group, everything seemed peaceful.

So tranquil.

Too quiet.

The blue canoes were growing larger as we drew nearer to them. My eyes locked with those of a guide whose terrified eyeballs threatened to bulge out of his skull.

"Are you okay?" A girl from a nearby canoe called to us.

Of course? I didn't find the words. I felt flustered and flinched under the terrified gaze of so many spectators.

"Did you see it?" Another spectator chirped.

"It was right behind you." Someone else gasped.

"What?" I finally managed to speak as our group came to a near stand-still, only inches apart from one another on the water.

"You didn't see it?"

"No. What happened?" My heart was pounding in my chest at this point.

"The hippo," a girl began to explain. "It came right behind your canoe and it actually opened its mouth. It's huge mouth tried to bite the end of your canoe! It was right over your canoe."

What. The. Fuck?!

This actually happened?

At first I thought it was some kind of joke. Some kind of twisted sense of humour. But then the red faces and looks of shock and relief told me the truth. I watched as several nodded, all having witnessed the encounter with their own eyes.

Had I really been that close to having my canoe snapped in two by the most dangerous land mammal on the planet?

I tried to picture the gaping mouth towering above the tail end of our canoe, our teacher just inches in front. Huge grey teeth threatening to crush the plastic as easily as scissors slicing into paper. I imagined the force of the impact which would no doubt overturn the boat, releasing myself and my companions to the mercy of the mighty Zambezi and the creatures lurking beneath the surface. Floundering around in the murky depths, we'd be easy prey for a passing croc. That is if the territorial hippo didn't finish us off first.

It was hard to come to terms with and as I never witnessed the hippo I was unable to feel much fear. I could have died. I tried to convince myself of the scary reality. Still, I felt nothing expect confusion.

We continued our journey in silence, determined not to fall too far behind the rest of the group. None of us could risk another near-miss with one of Zambia's mighty animals.

Rhythmically paddling, I felt as if I almost fell into a trance. The scorching sun bore down on me, its heat softened by the gentle breeze which blew past me as I rowed.

Hippos were the most prominent animal to be seen. Any dark object protruding out of the water was far more likely to be a hippo than a log. And if they weren't keeping cool beneath the waves then the were grazing on the short grass on the banks of the river, their huge round forms visible once they were out of the water.

Also frequently spotted on the banks of the river were crocodiles, laying with their jaws agape as they soaked up the morning rays. Nile crocodiles are found throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa and can grow between 3.5 and 5 m in length. These crocodiles are far from fussy eaters and will eat pretty much any animal, hence why they are such a danger to people. It's estimated that they kill around 200 people per year with many attacks going unreported.

I heard excitement bubbling up as we passed a marshy area to our right. Standing amongst the damp, waterlogged grass were several species of bird, all standing on tall spindly legs.

I couldn't exactly join in with the excitement. I've never really understood the fascination with birds. To me they're just birds. Still, it was hard to complain as we lifted up our ores and allowed our boats to bob gently passed the tall feathered beings.

A gloriously fuzzy picture of some birds. I somehow lost the original photos form my trip so had to re-download them from my Facebook page. Thank god for social media.

After a rather hairy start to our journey, things seemed to have taken a turn for the better.

There were several times where our guide had to warn us of nearby hippos but fortunately we managed to avoid them unscathed.

The loud old man laughing of hippos became the theme-tune to the Zambezi, starting up again at regular intervals.

Every time we skirted a hippo family, another would emerge ahead, creating a never-ending obstacle course.

Despite the constant threat from hippos and crocodiles, life on the Zambezi was peaceful and laid-back. I sat back in my hard plastic seat as my eyes scanned the surrounding savannahs for signs of life. The grasslands gave little away, their orange stalks concealing whatever lay behind the shores.

However, not all animals are as easy to hide.

Up ahead I spotted some large grey blobs on the horizon, close to the banks of the river. Their tall, sturdy legs and large flapping ears were unmistakable. My first sighting of wild elephants!

"Elephants!" Someone called, unable to hide the utter glee from their voice.

They were so far away from where we were but I didn't care. Just their very presence made my belly flutter with excitement.

"We must be very quiet." A guide whispered. "Come on. Let's go closer."

Helped along by the strong river current, we made our way towards the elephants. It was clear to see there were three of them, their trunks dipped into the river. They scooped up water with their trunks before curling them towards the mouthes where they offloaded a refreshing drink.

I opened my dry bag and took out my point-and-shoot camera. The boat wobbled as I prepared my camera, turning it on and holding it up to point towards the elephants which were still a good distance away.

A sharp judder from our canoe sent the camera tumbling out of my grip, smashing against my seat before falling into a shallow puddle which was resting on the floor of my canoe.

Shit. Shit. Shit. I felt panic rising as I fumbled for my camera, praying that it hadn't digested too much water. I lifted it our of its murky puddle, grimacing as I felt how damp the device was. I held my breath as I clicked the on button. Nothing. I felt my heart sink but kept trying. Still nothing. My camera was well and truly dead.

I never did photograph the elephants.

I was at least releived that I had bought a back-up camera with me. My parents' bridge camera was in my main luggage. My main luggage! My heart sank again. I wouldn't have access to that until tonight which meant I was cameraless for the rest of the day. I was in the most amazing destination that I have ever been to and I had no working camera. How could I have got myself into such a stupid situation?

At least I had my iPhone 4.

My iPhone 4 with an absolute shit camera.

Still, it was better than nothing.

Hippos on Zambezi River in Zambia Africa

Hippos on the banks of the Zambezi

Crocodile on Zambezi River in Zambia Africa

A crocodile sunning itself

It was during our first day of canoeing that I first saw an amazing animal - elephants. I was so excited that I accidentally dropped my camera into the bottom of my canoe, submerging it in water. Needless to say the camera died. Fortunately I had my trusty iphone for backup and a DSLR in my bag which I could use later as the bags were all travelling on a separate canoe.

The elephants were perched at the water's edge, using their long trunks to get a nice refreshing drink. There were many elephants, perhaps five that I could see. We stopped rowing and silently drifted over to the elephants, trying to get as close as possible without disturbing them. After around ten minutes, the elephants were had quenched their thirst and melted back into the African bush.

At lunch time, we all stopped off on the shore. It was a remote area, completely in the middle of the bush. Occasionally I would see small little houses by the water's edge whilst canoeing down the Zambezi, but mostly we were completely in the wilds. We were able to explore the area and quickly came across a hippo skull and spine. It was a grizzly yet amazing sighting at the same time and I couldn't help but wonder how the animal met its end. Perhaps it just passed away naturally as I can't imagine many animals wishing to tackle a hippo.

Kayaking down Zambezi River in Zambia Africa
Hippos in Zambezi River in Zambia Africa


Elephant on Zambezi River in Zambia Africa
Crocodile on Zambezi River in Zambia Africa
Elephant on Zambezi River in Zambia Africa
Hippos on Zambezi River in Zambia Africa
Savannah by Zambezi River in Zambia Africa

Pristine African wilderness

Elephant on Zambezi River in Zambia Africa
Ella Kayaking on Zambezi River in Zambia Africa
Hippo Skull by Zambezi River in Zambia Africa

Hippo skull

After lunch we continued canoeing for another few hours until we eventually stopped on a small island in the middle of the Zembezi. The island was little more than sand and a few shrubs but the views from it into the wilderness were magnificent. This was where we were to set-up camp for the night. It really is wild camping.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.