When I reach the thatched cottage on the banks of the Zambezi River, an otter plops off the deck and into the reeds below. Across a wide, sunlit swath of water is an island and there’s this curious snuffling, grunting and even singing coming from it.
“Hippos,” guide Obby Njekwa says, as he starts the engine on a pontoon boat we take out from the Tongabezi lodge. As we motor toward the mid-river island where the hippos, among other wild things, are, he says that mild-mannered otter sunning itself on the deck could likely hold its own in a fight with a crocodile.
In this stretch just above Victoria Falls, Njekwa powers into an inlet on the island where the now quiet hippos bathe, just their little orange ears and an occasional bit of brown rump showing above the surface. He annotates what we see: Some speckled, red-crested guinea fowl scurry riverside (“the chicken of the Zambezi, the leopards love them”), long-horned impala freeze on noticing us (“the M under their tails, they call it the follow-me mark”), and ibis honk as they fly low over the water (“they complain when they fly.”)
Njekwa – and the other guides I’ll meet on this 10-day safari along the Zambezi River – have all passed rigorous exams. As the sun goes down, I feel like a postcolonial airhead, accepting a gin and tonic from such an individual, but he jokes that, by one report, the missionary explorer Dr. David Livingstone died of malaria because his supplies of quinine gave out, and as tonic water has quinine in it, best drink up.
There’s a cheesy statue of Livingstone by the falls. He presumed he could name them for his queen, Victoria – even though they already had a local name, Mosi-oa-Tunya, which translates as the smoke that thunders. Like Niagara, these falls stretch between two countries, here Zambia and Zimbabwe, but the experience is less scripted than at Niagara, with fences made of thorn-bush limbs often the only restraint. Rainbows are everywhere, including moon rainbows at night, the light coming through the mist rising, with some vengeance, from the gorge below. Even the ponchos for rent don’t keep you from getting gloriously drenched, baptized by the mighty Zambezi.
This is the oldest river in the world, predating the dinosaurs, once crossing the supercontinent of Gondwana. This trip, organized by safari outfitter Next Adventure, will cover about 500 kilometres of the Zambezi.
A museum on the Zambian side has a stash of Livingstone’s journals and letters, his spindly handwriting giving some sense of the man: His requests for donations are brazen; a journal entry speaks of the mix of loyalties that made him ask his local guides to bury his heart in Africa and trek his salted body more than 1,600 km to the coast, for shipment back to London to be buried in Westminster Abbey.
On a Jeep drive through a national park, I note the gob-smacking fecundity of life here: two elephants plunge out of the bush, their ears flapping to cool themselves, a wildebeest and two zebras fraternize, giraffes munch on acacia trees and warthogs kneel, using their tusks to dig up tasty roots.
On foot, we stalk five white rhinos, snoozing in a clearing, the double tusks on one vibrating as it snores. After stopping to be repulsed by a hissing five-foot monitor lizard, we come upon a little cemetery, the last resting place of other, less celebrated European malaria victims – and, in a separate plot from these Christians, is the Jewish doctor who died trying to save them.
The graveyard sits riverside near the place where people used to ferry across the Zambezi. Our way across now is the Victoria Falls Bridge. Facing the bridge is the grand, old Victoria Falls Hotel. But for the portrait of Zimbabwe’s current president in the lobby, you’d think the sun had not yet set on the British Empire. A sitting room features full-length portraits of King George V and Queen Mary; elegant spiral staircases swoop between floors; high tea is offered on a terrace out back.
I am excited for the next stop downriver, the Bumi Hills lodge. It overlooks the world’s largest artificial lake, Kariba, and, as a boy, I saw a famous documentary about the massive animal rescue operation undertaken after colonial authorities dammed the Zambezi, flooding the region. (The displaced people, mainly members of the Tonga tribe, got no such close-up.)
On a game drive on a floodplain next to the lake, guide Tatenda Taingarufu notices antelopes on alert, facing a set of hills. Following a hunch, he drives toward them, finding two handsomely maned lions lolling about on some pink sand. A roar comes from the forest behind, and an older lion, perhaps their uncle, struts slowly out of the woods, nuzzling one of them, before flopping down himself. “Giant killers,” Taingarufu whispers. “They’ve taken to killing young hippos.” My hackles rise – we’re near enough that I can smell the musk coming off them. When their eyes stray over you, they pin you, even though, after the adrenalin surge ends, you realize they are more intent on grooming themselves fastidiously.
A Cessna old enough to have ashtrays meets me at the lodge’s airstrip, landing just after a troop of 10 elephants, including two babies, cross it. When we take off, I see another five peering out of a copse. We fly over one of the world’s largest crocodile farms, past a dam and downriver to Mana Pools National Park. Here we paddle the Zambezi, slaloming between hippo pods, with one surfacing under another canoe, throwing a guide from stern to bow. A pensive quiet descends on our small group as we visit islands populated by cape buffalo and elephants, as flocks of quelea birds dance midair, executing massive so-called murmurations in front of high Zambian Escarpment.
Afterward, I’m still in a fugue in the Mana River Camp dining area when a bull elephant approaches me. I’m told to keep still, as he moves his fantastic bulk through the picnic tables, not touching any. As he nears me, my mood shifts from awe to fear, but I’m unable to move. A hiss from behind helps – “Okay. Move. Now!” – and I scuttle away. In the place where I was, he lifts his trunk, contemplates the river, then exits, kicking one small stool away.
Even our experienced guide, Richard Yokane, shakes his head at the visit, as he leads us on a walking safari. We find a young male lion drinking from a watering hole, blood spattered on his muzzle. We follow him back to a giant termite mound, and there, 30 feet away from us, ribs exposed, are the remains of a buffalo, four more lions lying about, sated. Though I know they’ve just gorged, and though our guide has a powerful rifle on him, the hairs on my neck won’t go down, and relief floods in when we get back to the Jeep.
On my final morning, at the last lodge, Chikwenya, we watch a baboon troop. They hurl themselves across the river, mothers holding babies, all determined to avoid the crocodiles that often lurk below. Their screams as they jump sound joyous in my ears, but that’s sentimentalizing. Here, on the Zambezi, otters fight crocodiles to stay alive, lions take down buffalos, leopards dine, with pleasure, on guinea fowl and elephants will make short work of fallen baobob trees. In an unguarded moment, a guide will also speak of how the dam dispossessed his Tonga ancestors of their lands.
The Zambezi has long fostered life, human and animal, but survival takes guts, and so many headlong leaps over crocodile-infested waters.
IF YOU GO
This river safari along the Zambezi costs just over $16,000 a person – and similar itineraries can be arranged for between $8,000 and $20,000 a person. The winter months in southern Africa – June to September – are preferred by photographers because most of the shot-blocking leaves are down, but prices are higher, too.
Travel essentials: Insect repellent (Ultrathon cream scares off vicious tsetse flies); binoculars; envelopes and U.S. cash for tips (US$40 a day is standard, half for guides, half for lodge staff); clothing (in many layers, in dull earth tones – so as not to spook the animals); and a camera or phone with a zoom lens.
The writer was a guest of Next Adventure and the lodges. They did not review or approve the story before publication.