September 2006: My friend Matt and I backpacked across Zambia and crossed the remote Chirundu border into Zimbabwe and the moment we crossed the border we realized we were in the middle of nowhere. It was here that the guide of our 5-day Zambezi River canoe safari indicated we would meet. We waited on the side of a gravel road with nothing but a few huts around, tsetse flies and vervet monkeys mating in the trees above us. After 30 minutes passed our meeting time, our guide and his helper-two men from local tribes emerged to receive us and escort us down to the river to meet our canoes and a family of white Zimbabwean famers that would be joining us on the canoe safari. Matt and I had our own canoe, and I were well experienced in canoeing and was itching to set off into the river, but our guide had some important rules to go over for our safety first. There were the general ones like wear your life vest, stay close together and about how to maximize your rowing potential with deep paddles and then there were the ones that I didn’t remember receiving when I was a kid in summer camp learning how to canoe in northern Minnesota; if a hippo attacks your boat no matter what you do stay on the boat even if it is flipped over do not go into the water and keep your legs and arms out of the water. I asked the guide if there was really a chance that a hippo could attack us and he smirked in a joking manner, maybe. I did know from my research of the Zambezi that it was one of the most hippo and crocodile saturated rivers in the world and it was well known for hippo and croc attack deaths. Aside from this, hippos are well feared across Africa as being the most dangerous animal in the continent and being responsible for more deaths than even lions. Even my mom knew this and warned me to be careful with the hippos before leaving on the trip. Regardless, I didn’t think much of the comment and even though I had plenty of respect for hippos I figured the chance of an attack from a hippo was too remote and unlikely to happen to us. Little did I realize how wrong I would later be.

 

 

Where is Mana Pools National Park

Manu Pools National Park is located along the Zimbabwean side of the Zambezi River, the 4th largest river in Africa that forms the northern border with Zambia and runs through some of the wildest country in Africa. It is home to an abundant amount of wildlife such as lions, leopards, elephant and buffalo. It has one of the largest populations densities of Elephant, hippos and Nile Crocodiles in the world. Because of the large number of hippos and crocodiles, conflicts with humans in the area are common. Local villagers and in some cases tourists in canoes or fishing boats have been attacked by hippos and in some cases crushed and killed by a hippo’s large jaws or if someone is knocked out of their boat and able to escape the hippo, they are killed by a crocodile.

Location of Mana Pools

For the next 4 days we canoed down the Zambezi River, camping along the way on various islands or the mainland. Aside from the random villager fishing in a dugout canoe, we didn’t see anyone on the river and there was almost zero development along the river’s banks. At camp we cooked, had a large bonfire at night and our African guides and the Zimbabwean white farming family would tell stories that captivated us. , we were instructed not to wander far in order to avoid becoming prey to a hungry lion, or leopard. Although we didn’t see any big cats during the trip, we could hear them roaring in the nearby distance every night from our tents. We slept in tents, and We commonly encountered elephants, buffalo, 20-foot Nile crocodiles and of course hippos within 20 feet of our canoe. But it wasn’t the other animals I was worried about. It was the hippos, so anytime we observed a pod of hippos we would give them a wide berth.

 Zambezi River Sunset 

Matt and I

Elephant on the river

Buffalo

The White Zimbabwean Farmers in Our Canoe Safari

Our Zambezi River canoe safari group consisted of just me (middle), Matt (left), our two black Zimbabwean guides (not shown) and the above white farming family (right) also from Zimbabwe. There aren’t many other tourists in Zimbabwe these days. I rarely saw any and if I did see some, it was only a handful of white Zimbabweans on vacation in one of the most treasured fishing rivers in the whole of the country-the Zambezi River. I emphasize white Zimbabweans because Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, was once ruled by the white minority like many other countries in the southern region of Africa. A civil war mostly in the 80’s between the whites and the blacks, with Robert Mugabe as one of the leaders of the black rebel group, restored the power in Zimbabwe to the blacks. Robert Mugabe was elected the leader of Zimbabwe and praised for his democratic ideals and the country with all of its mineral and gem wealth seemed to hold much promise. That is until Mugabe decided to reclaim the majority of the land from white farmers, who yes did own a disproportionate amount of land, (whites comprised only 2% percentage of the population and held 70% of the arable land), however these farmers were responsible for the bulk of Zimbabwean agricultural exports, and production of locally consumed food. Mugabe sent his loyalist military cronies to seize the farms and forcefully evict farmers that did not hand over their land to the government. Some were murdered or brutally beaten. The results were disastrous for the country.

Many of the white farmers fled the country taking with them their wealth, and farming expertise. The Mugabe cronies who took over the farms were not adept to farming. The farms weren’t run properly, and many were abandoned once the farms failed. International investments dried up as Mugabe’s government continued to target the white’s and seize their assets. Inflation skyrocketed to the highest level of any country in the world, famine spread, and the country began a steep descent into chaos. Despite all of this the family above decided to stay in Zimbabwe and continue farming against all odds. In order to keep their farm, they told me stories of how they had to pay off army generals with constant bribes and hire patrols to keep landless blacks from settling on their lands.

In Zimbabwe once someone intrudes on your land and settles there, they are almost impossible to remove, especially in the current political climate. Even with the bribery, death threats and the possibility of losing their farm, that had been in their family for generations, is just a part of everyday life. In spite of all of this, the family was pro land reform, proponents of fair land re-allocation to the blacks and harbored no resentment towards anyone in Zimbabwe.

With our black guides, we had very candid nightly discussions about life in Zimbabwe. The son on the right is a different sort of character. His hobby is to hunt wild boar on his land at night, barefoot and with nothing but a knife (big knife), occasionally encountering a lion or a leopard along the way. The family’s way of life struck me as a chapter ripped from the life of a typical 1800’s family that settled in the wild west, Montana, Wyoming or somewhere similar. There was definitely a pioneer mentality to this family that I couldn’t help but to admire.

 

Group photo

Our brave guides

Camping Along the River

Every day we would canoe to a new wild spot to camp. There was no separation from the animals and at night we could hear lions and leopards from our tents. We were instructed not to wander far for this reason. There were also buffalo and elephants that came close to our camp and providing you respected the boundaries of the elephants they would leave you alone. We never swam in the main river but only in small streams that were shallow. Our guide recalled one guest who swam in the river and was attacked by a crocodile. The guide jumped in and wrestled the crocodile jaws loose from the head of the guest. Needless to say, the guest was badly injured and needed to be airlifted to a hospital and survived.

Matt facing down an elephant

Campsite

Matt and I wrestling in a stream

Waterbuck grazing by our tents

Reasons Why Swimming in the Zambezi is a Bad Idea

The Zambezi River is a wild and amazing river but if you don’t give the river the respect it deserved it will kill you. Aside from the rivers strong dangerous currents, there is no shortage of nasty creatures that lurk in its dark murky depths such as the prehistoric looking tiger fish with its razor-sharp jagged teeth, bull sharks that swim upriver from the ocean, and Nile Crocodiles that kill approx. 4000 people every year in Africa in the most gruesome fashion. But the most dangerous animal in the water is the hippos. It is not seeking to hunt humans. Instead, it is fiercely territorial and attacks out of what it believes to be self-defense. Hippos attack boats, sink them and then crush the occupants with their large jaws or knock them unconscious so they drowned in the water. I discovered firsthand how dangerous hippos are on this trip.

Tiger fish

Hippo on river bank

Nile Crocodile

Hippo Attack

On our last day of canoeing before reaching our final campsite, Matt and I were accustomed to how to paddle around hippo pods to give them a wide berth and we entered a calm and gentle stretch of river. We were paddling towards an island where we would stop to have lunch. The group was ahead of us, and Matt and I were taking our time. Matt under his breath then said quietly I think I saw a hippo ahead in the water. We both looked ahead but didn’t see anything, but river and we dismissed it. Moments later I felt this massive force of weight slamming into the canoe behind me, which felt like we were rear ended by a vehicle. The look of fear on Matts face who was turned towards me confirmed what I already realized in that instant; a hippo was attacking our canoe. The hippo pushed on our canoe submerging it into the water and water filled up to our waists flooding the canoe and destroying my camera in seconds but none of the mattered. I still couldn’t see the hippo. I knew it was behind me and my fear was that at any second its massive jaws were going to tear me in half. My instinct was to consider jumping out of the canoe, but I knew this wasn’t a solution given that the hippo was in the water and so were crocodiles. Was I scared? Yes, I was terrified. Our guides seeing what was going on paddled frantically towards us and yelled stay in the canoe. Do not leave. I remembered our guides words at the beginning of the trip, keep your hands and feet in the canoe no matter what if attacked by a hippo. It seemed the hippo had left us, and our canoe was submerged and sinking. My fear was that the hippo would return and judging by the look in the guide’s eyes, this was their fear too. Once they were close enough, we leapt into their canoe, and they paddled us safely to the island where dry ground safely away from the hippos never felt better. We never did see the hippo again and the hippo was likely a lone bull that was in deep water and popped up just to chase us out of its territory and lucky for us he decided not to kill us. After it seemed the hippo was gone for sure and our heart rates returned to normal, the guides retrieved our canoe, emptied it of the flooded water and we returned to the river canoeing to our final campsite for the night.

Pod of hippos

8 + 9 =

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