Zambezi Explorer

This is my first return to post-apartheid South Africa.  The trip begins with a direct flight on South African Airways from Miami to Capetown.  The change is immediately apparent: Negroes on the plane! (Both pax and crew.)

I am joining a tour that starts in Johannesburg.  Actually, we are in the northern suburbs, since whites have all fled the central city.  The new money center is the former Jewish stronghold, Sandton, home to glitzy hotels and chic shopping malls.  Armed guards are posted at every entrance and in between, indoors and out.

To bad I already paid for the trip.  The value of South Africa’s currency, the Rand, is in freefall.  

Early in the morning we board our Safari truck and head north. The truck is designed and equipped to carry eighteen, but we are only four: three aussies, me, plus our 6'7" Fabio-lookalike driver/guide/leader.  The truck is comfortable and speedy, which is a good thing because the first day we cover 500 miles, crossing the border into Zimbabwe. The roads are good; a general rule in Africa is that the condition of the infrastructure correlates directly to when the evil colonialists were last in charge.  Thus, South Africa is fairly current, Zimbabwe (the former Southern Rhodesia) is starting to deteriorate, and Zambia (the former Northern Rhodesia) last fixed its roads around 1964, the year whites left.  Over the next two weeks we will cover 4500 km (2700 miles).

This is a camping trip, but not one that involves great suffering.  (Until now, I have never camped a day in my life.)  This was a popular vacation area for South Africans, who are like Americans when it comes to demanding creature comforts.  Thus, the campsites feature hot showers, flush toilets, and plenty of staff for set-up, clean-up, etc.   In most places we are the only guests.  The food is good and plentiful, featuring lots of meat.  (Africa is not a great destination for vegetarian tourists.)

The first day was spent driving.  The second day we visit the ruins of Great Zimbabwe -- basically a pile of rocks, but a source of great pride for the Africans because it was the only permanent structure built south of the pyramids.

Then up to the eastern highlands.  It’s pleasant, but not particularly African in flavor.  It’s also cold: it's the dead of winter, and I don’t have any warm clothing.  I almost freeze to death in my tent.  As we descend and proceed further north towards the equator, the temperature becomes much more tolerable. 

I am only one in our little group who declines the opportunity to "abseil" (rappel) off a 200 foot cliff.

We drive to the capital, Harare (formerly Salisbury), where we are joined by a pair of sisters from Holland.  They have been traveling together without their husbands every summer for the last ten years.  They like adventure stuff; their hubbies prefer watching TV.

North of Harare we stay at what we call “Bedrock,” a superb campground that looks like a set from The Flintstones.  The activites include rock climbing.

It is late June, near the winter solstice, so dusk falls about 5:30 PM.  After dark there is nothing to do but gather around the campfire, get drunk, tell dirty jokes, and discuss our favorite episodes of The Simpsons.  Overhead is a solid canopy of stars punctuated by meteorites.  

We continue on to Lake Kariba, formed by the damming of the Zambezi in 1959. We take morning cruise among the hippos, then drive over the border into Zambia and on to Gwabi Lodge on the Kafue River from which our canoe trip will began.

The camping gear gets packed into the canoes and off we go, downriver to the Zambezi.  My first complaint: we are going downstream with a swift current, why do we have to paddle?  I would rather drift and enjoy the passing scenery. 

After hours of paddling, my arms are about to fall off.  We stop for a two hour lunch break on a mudbank covered with elephant dung.  I would have skipped both the paddling and the lunch.

The biggest danger on the river is not crocodiles ("Zambezi Flatdogs") but hippos. They spend the day in the water, most of the time fully submerged or with only their nostrils above the surface.   If you hit them or come too close with the paddles, they will attack.  A few months a canoe got chomped in half.  Two years ago, two canoers were killed, a fate suffered by many natives.  We have an experienced river guide who (we are told) knows where the hippos are and has a special hiss to scare them away.  

That night we stay on Elephant Bones Island, where we endure "wild" camping, i.e., no prepared campsite and no facilities.  We set up on the only clearing, which also happens to be smack in the middle of an elephant path.  All night long we listen to the lions, hippos and other beasties, our thoughts dwelling on the likelihood of getting trampled or eaten.

After breakfast we resume paddling.  We continue until we reach the confluence of the Chongwe River and our final campsite.  There are elephants here too, but they are equally courteous and don’t trample us either.


On the third day a speedboat is dispatched to take us back to Gwabi, a trip that takes only two hours.  A slower cargo boat transports the canoes and gear.

We get back on the safari truck and drive across southern Zambia.

At Livingston, we cross back into Zimbabwe, at the Victoria Falls bridge.  The tour company has a lodge here.  After over a week’s worth of camping, I am grateful to sleep in a regular bed. 

Vic Falls, has been hosting tourist for 100 years, but it's still a wild place.  We are advised to walk around at night because of wild animals, including elephants, in the streets.  A few nights before an elephant knocked down the wall at the lodge.  

Vic Falls offers a host of touristic activities.  I opt for a helicopter ride, a river cruise above the Falls, and a day’s rafting in the gorge below.

The helicopter ride is short (15 minutes), expensive, but worth it.

The upper Zambezi is a mile wide.  The river is rather placid before it abruptly falls off the end of the earth.  A sunset cruise makes its way along peaceful pools of hippos.

Below the Falls the water courses through a narrow gorge, creating the world's greatest rafting rapids.  On a scale of 1 through 6, with 6 considered unrunnable, the Zambezi has lots of 5's.  It's fairly safe because the river is 300 feet deep so there is no danger of hitting the bottom.  Between the rapids there are calm stretches where guides in kayaks retrieve "long swimmers."  All rafters have to wear helmets, lifejackets, and wetsuits.  Our raft doesn’t flip over (as lots do), but I do get pitched out over the side.  It’s not as bad as in the practice session, in which I found out that you can't climb back into the raft unassisted -- someone has to pull you back in.  Anyway, I manage not to panic and to come back up under the raft, allowing me to grab it (I only was a "short swimmer").  Overall, the trip is exhilarating!  The worst part of the day is the 750 foot climb back out of the gorge (think staircase on a 75 story building) when you are already exhausted. 

Our next stop is Hwange National Park, one of the two greatest elephant concentrations in the world.  It has 30,000 elephants, which is 20,000 more than the park can support.  The problem keeps getting worse because the international bunny-huggers keep delaying the necessary big cull.  The plan is to shoot them from helicopters in entire herds so 1) they don't become afraid of man and 2) there won't be any psychologically traumatized survivors (dead elephants tell no tales).

It's the dry season, so lots of animals of all types hanging out by the waterholes.  When the rains come, the wildlife scatters

Our final major destination is the Motobo Hills National Park, home of rhinos, giant balancing boulders, and Cecil Rhode's grave.  A very impressive place.  Then, the 500 mile run back to Jo'Burg.  The return journey seems easier than the outbound because the roads keep getting better rather than worse.

Overall appraisal: I recommend Zim to all.  The infrastructure is pretty good, the animals have not been all poached out, everything is cheap, cheap, cheap, and the natives are friendly. (Africans are cheerful, respectful, helpful, and appreciative, at least until their heads get filled with bad ideas from hopelessly corrupt governments that steal what little they have and then blame the white man.) The locals generally understand that most positive attributes of their economic lives are either a legacy of white rule or a byproduct of tourism. Consequently, one feels welcome and safe.  Somewhat less so in current South Africa, where bad ideas and unrealistic expectations are on the ascent.

Trip date: July 1999