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Africa

The roaring river

In Africa, stories of ornery hippos are legend – including tales of people chopped into three pieces in just two giant bites.

Some of the world's most feared predators lurk the scenic banks of the Zambezi. Hippos stomp by camps, while stealthy crocodiles stalk their prey with a patience developed over more than 180 million years, Tim Johnson writes. Kayaking the waters lets you see them up close – if you dare

His very presence sends a chill down my spine, sitting there on the near bank of the rushing river, that prehistoric body frighteningly still, those unblinking eyes, clear and canny and unrepentant, staring back at me. Paired with the possible presence of hippos – Africa's most deadly animal – it's a tense situation, this crocodile so close at hand, especially given the fact that I sit just above the waterline with no weapon in hand, just a dual-sided paddle. But as we sweep through his pool at the foot of a raging rapid, I hear encouragement from behind. "Oh, he's a beauty, isn't he?" Rob Shattock shouts out, rhetorically and perhaps a little too loud, a hint of playfulness in his experienced voice, as my septuagenarian guide steers us steadily to safer waters.

I'm in the front seat of a two-person kayak, shooting a series of rapids on the Zambezi River, just a few dozen kilometres above the beautiful – and horrifying – splendour of Victoria Falls.

As we move downriver, Shattock tells me that this part of Africa is bracing for big-time change. The nearby international airport on the Zimbabwean side of the border has just completed a $150-million (U.S.) renovation, improving the runway to handle wide-body planes, including massive intercontinental jets such as the Airbus A380.

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It makes sense, as Victoria Falls sits right in the centre of southern Africa's prime tourist spots, near the intersection of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana, and the goal is to lure flights from Britain or even the United States. My goal: to make it to the bottom of these half-dozen cataracts, smiling and unbitten.

But for the moment, it's just Shattock and me, paddling the famous, historic river that conveyed David Livingstone and other explorers deep into the heart of Africa.

Born and raised in Zimbabwe, my very experienced guide tells me a story that's at once unsettling and familiar in this part of the world, a tale of how he lost his farm to President Robert Mugabe's grand – and, many would say, misguided – attempt to redistribute land. "In 1986, I lost everything," he remembers, speaking in a vaguely South African accent. "So-called 'war veterans,' just juveniles, really, showed up with pistols and AK-47s."

At the time, Shattock owned a safari lodge and a considerable amount of land. He quickly relocated his mostly German guests to a nearby hotel. "By the next day, my house was on fire. Everything was destroyed," he tells me. Shattock's property seized, for years afterward he wandered the globe, spending a significant stretch in North America, also setting up safari camps in South Africa. Now, he's returned to his birthplace, guiding guests down the river in Zimbabwe.

Earlier in the morning, Shattock had shown me how close we may come to the hippos, pointing out their hoofprints in the sand right near our lodge, evidence they had romped right past my luxury tent at a camp called Zambezi Sands the previous evening. In Africa, stories of ornery hippos are legend, and include tales of people chopped into three pieces – in just two giant bites. "This is their territory, and we're intruding. If we see them, we will give them a wide berth – we'll grant them respect," Shattock tells me solemnly.

And then there's the matter of the falls. Locally known as Mosi-oa-Tunya (in the indigenous Tokaleya Tonga language it means "the smoke that thunders"), Victoria is the world's largest falling sheet of water, stretching more than 1.7 kilometres and dropping more than 100 metres – and all of that lay in wait for us, just downstream. Patting me on the back with a jolt of mock joviality as we begin our riverine trek, Shattock points out that I haven't packed a parachute – joking that he's thus decided we won't go quite that far.

A crocodile along the Zambezi River.

I had seen a rare view of the falls a few nights earlier, visiting at night, during a lunar rainbow. Victoria Falls is one of just a handful of sites around the world where these so-called "moonbows" can be seen with any regularity, with a special set of conditions required, including a sufficient amount of mist and enough light emanating from the night sky to illuminate it. With the moon nearly full, I followed a small group of fellow visitors down a dark path from viewpoint to viewpoint, spotting the colourless apparition, its bands clear due to the fact that the lunar light is too weak to stir the colour receptors of the human eye. It was nonetheless unforgettable, shades of white and grey rising from the mist, waters pounding heavily – very heavily – below.

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That powerful sensation stirs in my ears as Shattock steers us through a half-dozen rapids on the Zambezi, piloting us irreversibly toward that perilous spot. As we proceed, the waters slackening a bit between chutes, we trace the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, along the way taking in brief, fleeting glimpses of day-to-day life on this famous river. We watch as a group of young men – boys, really – drive their cattle across from already-grazed pastures in Zambia, yelling and even throwing sticks to drive them onward through the flowing waters to the greener grass on the Zimbabwean side. Over in Zim, the land is preserved as a national park, and Shattock adds that grazing your livestock there is strictly illegal.

Families live on the river, too. Small children, alone in their boats, pilot makoros – rough, handmade dugout canoes – past us, exchanging a smile and a wave as they go about whatever task put the paddle in their hands. And Shattock tells me that crocodiles are living dinosaurs in the truest sense, reptilian monsters that evolved more than 180 million years ago. They didn't survive so long without developing some smarts. Cunning creatures, they stake out spots on the river where families wash and take care of other everyday business, settling in until the family feels safe, then taking someone for food.

"When that happens, the music goes on for days, as they celebrate the passing of a loved one," Shattock remarks ruefully.

I can hear that music, too, as I spot that croc on the shore, three metres long and less than a couple of metres away. And then, I take a quick breath as he makes a move. Slippery as an eel, the crocodile slides in our direction. When he reaches the water, he propels himself forward, moving seamlessly, fast and smooth and with a single motion, remaining on the surface just long enough for me to pull my hands well inside our small kayak, forgetting about paddling, just for the moment.

And then, in a moment, the cunning croc is gone, dropping silently out of sight, into the murky water, down there, deep, somewhere in the Zambezi, beneath our little boat.


If you go

The Zambezi traces the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, providing fleeting glimpses of day-to-day life on the famous river.

Britain-based tour operator Expert Africa is a boutique tour operator that offers tailor-made trips to several countries in Southern Africa. Staff members travel extensively on the continent, visiting a variety of destinations so they can offer their expertise to travellers. In addition to traditional safaris, they can plan alternative activities at their hand-picked lodges, including paddling, fishing and horseback riding. expertafrica.com.

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Located directly on the river inside Zambezi National Park, Zambezi Sands offers eight luxury tents situated on raised platforms, about an hour from the airport in Victoria Falls. In addition to kayaking, it also offers game drives and other safari activities. imvelosafarilodges.com.

The writer was a guest of Expert Africa. It did not review or approve this article.

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