June 9, 2001

Well, here we are in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe.  As you may have noticed, we have deviated from our itinerary slightly as we found we had extra time at the beginning of the trip.  So since flexibility is an asset for any international expedition, we decided to do our canoeing on the Zambezi River before the eclipse and come back to Lusaka after visiting Malawi.  So for the last week we have been canoeing on the lower Zambezi River and viewing wildlife from as close as we could possibly get.

Our adventure started on Sunday when we crossed the border from Zimbabwe into Livingstone, Zambia to catch a bus north toward Lusaka.  We were running late as the border crossing opened late (Africa time, as the locals call it), then we had to hitch a ride to town as there were no taxis.  We were the last people on the bus and Don had to get on as the driver started to leave.  Whew!

We got off the bus in Kafue and caught a minibus back south toward Chirundu.  (Follow along on the Zambia map) Over the course of the hour trip, the bus collected an additional 16 people plus their various babies, bags and bundles.  It was quite a crowded van!

After arriving in Chirundu, we caught a taxi to Gwabi Lodge to spend the night before beginning our canoe trip down the river.  

We were met at the lodge at noon and after lunch we were given some instructions on how to behave with the animals that we might encounter on the river:  

When approaching hippos in shallow water, approach single file and give them a wide berth.  When approaching hippos in deep water, go toward the shore.  These rules apply because hippos are very territorial and when threatened will flee to deeper water (they also have been known to surface under canoes).  When approaching crocodiles, approach quietly and they should not respond aggressively toward the canoe (although we did hear one story about a guide who had his paddle bitten off by a croc).  When approaching elephants, approach quietly and follow the guide's instructions.  If you should fall out of the canoe, unless you are very close to shore, do not swim.  Splashing in the water will attract crocodiles.  As quickly as you can, climb on top of the canoe and wait for the guide to tow you to shore.  

OK, that was enough to get my adrenaline pumping!  Take a look at the photos.

We began on the Kafue river which is a tributary to the Zambezi.  With the current flowing at about 4km/hour, we quickly flowed into the Zambezi.  At this point the river is only about 1km wide, but there are areas on the flood plain where the river is an incredible 6km wide!  (1km is .62 miles).

During the 2000 rainy season, the rain was very plentiful.  Zimbabwe had been having a severe drought for several years prior but last year the rains finally returned.  As a result, Lake Kariba, the lake formed by a dam built on the Zambezi in 1958, is at capacity and water is being released.  Thus the water level on the lower Zambezi is very high and the water flow very fast.  We didn't have to paddle very much to make our daily distances.

Our first afternoon on the river passed quickly and was pretty quiet.  We did see some hippos from a distance, but they were submerged and we could only see their eyes and ears.  We could certainly hear them though.  They have extremely loud voices and they sound like a car engine revving up.  And boy does sound travel over water! 

We headed for our first campsite just before sunset and passed a huge crocodile just before making landfall.  He must have been 6-8 feet long.  He didn't even bother to move as we went by.  We set up camp on an island in the river and as the sun set, we looked forward to our first full day on the river.

We rose at 6:30am and compared notes with our guide on the sounds we had heard the night before.  There were hippo, elephant, baboon and all sorts of sounds from birds.  There were also huge hippo tracks all around our camp.  Very exciting.

OK, time to hit the river!  We set out paddling and shortly came upon a pod of hippos lounging in the sun.  They warily watched our approach and moved into the water as we came close.  None acted aggressively and we continued on our way.  We saw monitor lizards on the shore and lots of birds including African fish eagles and gray herons.  The drift down the river was very relaxing and beautiful.  We continued to see hippos either on the shore or in the water and they were very unconcerned about us.

After lunch on an island and a break to let the heat of the afternoon pass, we continued on our way.  Because the afternoon was warm, the animals started coming to the water to drink.  We spotted a group of elephants drinking and approached them cautiously.  The lead canoe with our guide and another guest approached first and we were second.  

Most of the elephants moved back up the bank as we came closer but two of the younger males decided to hold their ground.  As the first canoe came within 15 feet of the elephants, one of them turned toward the canoe trumpeting and charging forward.  As the guide was telling the other guest to remain calm, the elephant came right to the edge of the river and stopped his charge.  Snorting and unhappy he trumpeted once more and moved quickly up the bank to join his friends.  Once our hearts were beating again, we celebrated our close encounter with cheers and found an island to make camp and swap stories.

Our third day included more encounters with hippos including one that surfaced unexpectedly close.  We had to move quickly to avoid an encounter.  We also were treated to a wonderful sight of six elephants (including a baby) swimming in the river.  

We made camp early on another tributary called the Chongwe River and watched the baboons and antelope come down to drink as the sun set.  It was an absolutely idyllic African experience.  But the best was yet to come.  As we were sitting around the fire, our guide suddenly asked everyone to get up and move to a nearby open-sided, roofed enclosure.  As I turned to get up I saw an elephant walking through our camp, not more than thirty feet away.  At the time, he was right next to our tent!  We quickly moved to the enclosure and watched as a second elephant passed about 15 feet away!  Do you know how much noise an elephant makes walking down a dirt path?  None!  I couldn't believe it.  If our guide hadn't seen the elephants coming, we never would have heard them pass behind us!

Our trip ended the next day with a 3 hour drive to Lake Kariba.  On the drive we saw more antelope and elephants.  We got to experience a hand-cranked crossing of the Kafue river on a "pontoon" (ferry) and we crossed over the great Lake Kariba dam wall and watched one of the flood gates releasing water from the lake into the river.  It was an awesome sight and a wonderful way to end our river experience.

Arriving in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, we enter the world of politics.  Politics and economics are a common topic these days in Zimbabwe.  The political party currently in power is called the ZANU PF party.  The opposition party is the MDC.  Currently the situation in Zimbabwe is quite volatile as the ruling party has made some unpopular decisions that have affected the stability of the economic situation.  As a result, there are shortages of fuel and food as well as tourists and the value of the Zimbabwean Dollar has dropped 100%. 

The official exchange rate for the U.S. dollar is currently about 56 Zim to 1 USD.  However the unofficial rate is anywhere from 100 - 120 Zim to 1 USD.  While this has been helpful to us, the lack of tourists has certainly affected everyone that we have come into contact with and they are all unhappy with the current situation. 

The poor exchange rate combined with the government's actions has also had an affect on the farms.  With fuel costs soaring and the farmers' fear of farm invasions by "war veterans", few farmers have actually planted anything.  On our drive into Harare, we passed miles and miles of fallow, unplanted farmland.  Talk is of possible food shortages in the future.

Elections for a new president are still one year away, and the consensus among the locals with whom we meet is that things will likely get worse before then.  We feel for the people's problems and hope things get better.


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