Zambezi Adventures: Into the Hippo’s Mouth

“Paddle harder!”
I don’t answer aloud, but my brain’s powered by adrenaline, and I have time to growl inside my head, “Ya think I’m brain-dead? If I could paddle any harder, clunkhead, I’d be doing it!” Men – really!

The river babbles and swirls as it sweeps through a narrow channel, swift-flowing, dragging the canoe with it in spite of the best efforts of myself and my trip mate, Grinny. The three men in the other boats have made it back to calmer water, but there’s nothing they can do to help us; if they try to rescue us, they’ll be swept downstream with us. Straight into the waiting mouths of what my fevered imagination has magnified into several hundred wide-jawed hippos.

Hippo disapproves!
Hippo disapproves!

Actually, there are probably only about a dozen or so, but hey, just one is enough to destroy a canoe, and they’re totally blocking the gap between two islands. I sneak a look over my shoulder, without breaking the strong rhythm of my paddling. They’re close; far too close, grunting and snorting, one or two with their great mouths open. The swift-flowing current makes a mockery of our frantic work with the paddles.


The men shout encouragement and instructions. Do they think they’re being helpful? Fear and frustration drive the muscles in my arms to work beyond what I’d believe possible.

The canoe swings, and suddenly we’re in the lee of a rocky outcrop, and the current is slower. A few more strokes, and we’re able to point the nose into the bank. I grab an outreaching branch and hang on for dear life. At last, I have time to turn around and assess the situation. Yes, there are about a dozen hippos, no more than a few metres away, heads up and eyeing us with great interest. Their open mouths and chortling grunts give the impression they think that, as entertainment, we’re hilarious. All very well for them; they’re bigger than us. Luckily, they’re in a good mood today. They usually are, but if they happen to get angry, they can snap a canoe and its occupants in half within seconds. I apologise for invading their territory. They seem to accept it.

Hippo Roadblock
Hippo Roadblock

Half paddling, half pulling ourselves along with the help of overhanging branches, Grinny and I make our way back to the men – Grinny’s dad Mick, and the two river guides. Time to give them what they deserve for their most unhelpful comments!

Scary? Yes, definitely. I’m not an adrenaline freak, but I’ve always believed that if you allow fear to stop you doing something you enjoy, life would very quickly become boring.

So was the trip worth the fear? Do I regret choosing to canoe down the Zambezi? Absolutely not. We’ve had four days of delight, paddling lazily with the current that takes us from Chriundu bridge to the wildlife paradise of Mana Pools.

View of the Zambezi

We slept on the islands, with a wary ear open for hyenas. We picnicked by the river, and were enchanted by a myriad of carmine bee-eaters nesting on the banks – a mass of fluttering bright scarlet.

Zambezi Sunset
Zambezi Sunset

The fish eagles set the river echoing with their haunting cry and the hippos soothed our dreams with peacefully-grunted night-time conversations. A shower of shooting stars added to the magic of the moonlit river.
And we’ve had close encounters with elephants. Well, mine might have been closer if I hadn’t been sharing a canoe on that day with Mick. Grinny and the guides pulled in for a closer look at the magnificent creatures wading in the shallows. They’re fantastic to watch, still managing to be majestic as they play like a bunch of kids in a paddling pool.

Elephant playing in the water

I worked as hard as I could to get in closer too, but the current seemed to be defeating me. I turned around. It wasn’t the current, it was Mick. Believing that discretion is the better part of valour, he was paddling the other way. He gave me a sheepish grin and kept paddling. Turned out he was the sensible one, because a large bull elephant took exception to the canoes, and the guides had to strive for Olympic standards to escape in one piece.
A host of memories that will stay with me all my life.

Yes, it was worth it. Perhaps, one day, I’ll be lucky enough to do it again. Will you join me?

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