(Note: Once again, my apologies for the blurry, old photographs.)
In our last post I touched on our misadventures in the Okavango Delta of Botswana and finished with our hitchhiking north to Zimbabwe. Our plan was to check out the world famous Victoria Falls then continue downriver (overland) to Kariba Dam where we would join a guided group for a six day canoe trip down the Zambezi River to Mana Pools National Park.
The Falls are one of the seven wonders of the natural world and deservedly so. They are twice the height and more than twice the width of Niagara and are considered the largest (height x length) waterfall in the world. We arrived at the onset of the ‘short’ rainy season and given time they would have been even more dramatic. Nonetheless they were still a glorious sight. The roar of the falls, the mist pulsing up from deep in the Batoko Gorge and the vibration one feels (through the air?…the earth?) all evoke the power of the place.
On our third day of exploring the area, we walked out on the bridge high over the gorge that leads to the Zambian side of the river and noticed some whitewater rafts below us. We signed up, there and then, for a rafting trip the following day.
We were camped at the municipal campground in the center of town and one evening a young, 23 year old, Texan arrived on a fully loaded, touring bike. He was peddling across Africa (Tunisia to Cape Town) solo. He was in dire need of company (he wouldn’t shut up) and in 8,000 kms of biking he had seen very few animals, so we invited him to join us for a four day safari in Hwange National Park. We rented a small car which was cheap but had the disadvantage of being low to the ground and not the best for game viewing. Moreover, recent rains had reduced the reliance on watering holes (typically teeming with game), the bush had greened up and a recent culling operation had dispersed the elephants so, in the end, we didn’t see the large herds of animals we had hoped for. We did see some, for us, new species: bat-eared foxes, striped mongoose, the beautiful sable antelope and the rarer roan antelope. Nevertheless, the Texan loved it all but, in his need for social connection, he was paying far too much attention to Claire. I admittedly was a bit jealous!
From Hwange we were to fly to Kariba to meet up with our fellow paddlers for the canoe trip. The flight was delayed by a day but our canoe group graciously waited for us. While waiting for our flight we visited a nearby lodge which had an all you can eat, buffet. As I walked back to our table with an overloaded plate of food in one hand and my cutlery and a bun in the other, a Fish eagle (bigger than a Bald eagle) swooped down, powerful wings beating and talons outstretched, and stole my bun. The other patrons had a good chuckle at my reaction.
I have always resisted organized or guided trips and this was to be my first. Undertaking any sort of outdoor trip where one has to figure out all the many logistical considerations including route finding, always seems more of an adventure and ultimately more memorable and appealing. Of course, it also appeals to my frugal Scottish blood. In this case, the logistics were far beyond us, as were the inherent risks of paddling a hippo and croc filled river in a remote corner of Africa.
We put in immediately downstream of the immense Kariba Dam. The construction of the dam (1957) had enormous social and environmental impacts, still felt today, including the forced resettlement of 57,000 Tonga people. More recently, undermining of the dam foundations threaten catastrophic downstream consequences of a dam failure and the steady shrinking of the reservoir volume (once one of the largest manmade reservoirs in the world) threaten power shortages with serious implications both politically and economically for both Zimbabwe and Zambia. A good example of everything that can go wrong with mega-dam projects.
Over the next 6 days we paddled leisurely downriver to Mana Pools, one of a series of game reserves along the uninhabited Zimbabwean side of the river. We typically stayed to the Zimbabwe side due to the threat of poachers on the lawless, Zambian side of the river. It was rumored that Zambian President Kaunda’s wife controlled much of the local ivory trade. In those days, at a time of exploding oil revenues, a rhino horn could fetch $50,000 US in Yemen (to be used for ceremonial dagger handles) even more than the medicinal market in Asia. With prices like these, poaching was on the rise and becoming increasingly more violent. We saw a few anti-poaching patrols who apparently operated on a ‘shoot-on-sight’ basis but they were busy fishing when we saw them. The year we did the trip turned out to be the last time that unarmed guides were permitted to lead groups down the river (that may have since changed). In the five years that these canoe tours had been operating, hippos had bitten a canoe in half, bitten the tail off another and a croc had taken a client’s arm off. Our guide assured us that this was a good safety record.
Despite my bias against organized tours the canoe trip was an awesome experience. Upon arrival at Mana Pools, we loaded the canoes on a couple of Land Rovers for the long ride back to Kariba, just in time to get a commercial flight to Harare, still caked in dust and smelly after 6 days on the river. We passed an interesting three days at the home of a friend of a friend from Mozambique, a Canadian, turned professional hunter-guide. That night his stoic, Aussie wife got up at 4 AM, went to hospital, gave birth and returned home the following day baby in hand. No fuss, no theatrics. We were impressed. I had endless chats with Sandy, her husband, about the socio-cultural condition, economics and politics of the volatile region. Much of that volatility remains today but, our image of so much of Africa is distorted by a media that focusses on the negative. Dig a little deeper and the potential and vibrancy inherent in many corners of the continent emerge.
Near to their home outside of Harare was a famous Lion Park. A friend of Sandys gave us a fascinating guided tour of the Park. We sought out and found the dominant male, a grizzled, battle-scarred brute with a large, suppurating sore under his eye just as he got into a running battle with three contenders to his throne. To witness the fight commence not more than 5 m from the car was thrilling. A little later, at dinner time all the lions begin to roar, a sound that can be heard three km away. To be within meters of these enormous cats, as they use their whole body to hurl out these blood-curdling roars, is unforgettable. (Note: Six years later we returned to live and work in Zimbabwe for 3.5 years).
From Harare, we flew to Nairobi, Kenya and after much vacillation decided to take the bus to Moshi, Tanzania and attempt the climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. In so many ways, we were ill prepared. We had been living at sea level for the past 15 months and most of the last three weeks had been in canoes, cars, planes and dugouts, hardly the best way to prepare to climb a 5,895 m peak. Moreover, we were woefully ill equipped in both clothing and camping gear. However, the closer we got to the mountain the more our resolve to climb it hardened. The area around Kilimanjaro is very rich ecologically due to the volcanic soils. The lush tropical forests, the spectacular cloud formations of the ‘short’ rainy season combined with the towering peaks of the massif made for a visually stunning panorama.
Once in Moshi, we spent three days organizing the logistics of our climb. It’s a convoluted story but our Mozambican experience with the peculiarities of African bureaucracy, the ‘parallel’ exchange rates pervasive in ‘socialist’ African states, my insistence on avoiding the ‘packaged’ tour and my frugal (read cheap) ways, all lead me to organizing our climb with this shady character out of the YMCA. He organized our park fees, permits, porters, guide & food and by booking through the Y we were permitted the minimal number of guides & porters (1 & 3 respectively). We partnered with Rich, a river guide out of Colorado to share costs and in typical fashion decided to go ‘the road less traveled’. The main Horombo Route to the summit sees approx. 10,000 climbers/year (closer to 30,000 now) and has a series of comfy, well equipped huts to facilitate the climb. We chose to go by the Barafu Route which sees maybe 50 climbers/year, is more direct (steeper) and has a couple of decrepit, steel shelters with dirt floors for accommodation. It turned out to be a big mistake.
After that first miserable night, we pushed on to the Barafu Hut. En route, at a particularly exposed spot, we were pelted by wind and freezing rain for over an hour. Rich, much better equipped, had a rain poncho to huddle under and a large umbrella that he lent the rest of us. Claire, myself, our guide and the three porters all squeezed under the umbrella and hunkered down, trying vainly to stay warm and dry. Imagine six people under a single umbrella. After an hour, with my legs beginning to cramp up and shivering uncontrollably, the sleet turned to snow, we opened our packs dispensed all our warm clothes amongst the porters (one wore some underwear on his head) and we continued up the mountain.
When we arrived at Barafu (there were two huts) the porters got a fire going, but even smokier than the night before as the wood was now wet. We could not bear it so Claire and I stumbled over, with eyes streaming, to the other smokeless, but cold hut. In the process, Claire began to exhibit symptoms of hypothermia combined with what could be best described as an asthma attack. She lay in her sleeping bag with my bag on top, shivering violently, having difficulty breathing, and asking me to take her down (the cure for altitude sickness). I think her symptoms were aggravated by primarily tension or anxiety but clearly, altitude was a contributing factor. It was also bloody cold. For the next hour, I tried to keep her warm (rubbing her body) and talking reassuringly and at the same time try to keep the worry out of my eyes because there was no way we could have done an evacuation at night. Eventually, she came around and I, now bordering hypothermic, could finally crawl into my own sleeping bag. The rest of that night, all the following day and the next night was spent huddled in our bags trying to stay warm, unable to sleep, no appetite (typical of altitude) and, at least I, had a splitting headache. As the second night progressed the likelihood of Claire and I continuing upwards decreased. Whatever was to happen, we had to postpone leaving for the summit until 4 AM for lack of adequate flashlights. At the first sign of light we got up, Rich heated up some soup for breakfast which I promptly vomited. I bailed on the summit and crawled back into my sleeping bag beside Claire, totally dispirited.
Rich left for the summit at 4:30 AM with the guide and one porter. He summited Uhuru Peak and we met up with him 14 hours later at Horombo Hut on the main route, absolutely exhausted after a virtually non-stop day with almost no food and little water, but a happy man. Claire and I got up a couple of hours later to a cold, clear morning and started the long, slow traverse around the mountain to the main route. From the outset, it was obvious that neither of us were in any condition to have attempted the 7 hour summit push. Extremely tired after three nights without sleep, little food and endless headaches combined with our travels of the past month all had taken a major toll on our physical reserves.
From the park gate we soon caught a lift into Moshi, had a farewell dinner with Rich then, despite our exhaustion, hitch-hiked to the main city of Arusha where we caught a ‘matatu’ (27 people crammed into the back of a van) to the Kenyan border. When we arrived at the border, I realized I had been pickpocketed in Arusha and had to pay my fare with one of my old (smelly & dirty) sweatshirts. The following day we hopped on the grandiosely named Nairobi Express bus for the 160 km ride to Nairobi. It really should have been called the Maasai Milk-run as it puttered along, picking up every Maasai tribesman waving his spear or club on the side of the highway. They are a fascinating tribe, fiercely intent on retaining their traditions but slowly succumbing to modernization. Sharing the bus ride with this colorful cross section of Maasai in traditional dress was visually stunning and aromatically unforgettable (they use cow blood and rancid butter as beauty products!).
From Nairobi, we caught a flight to Geneva, visited old friends (Claire had lived and studied in Europe) in various corners of Switzerland, debriefed with the Red Cross, then made our way home. We remained in Canada a little over nine months before landing our next posting, with CARE Canada in Nicaragua, where we lived for a little over three years. Tales for another time.
2 thoughts on “Tales from Africa: Paddling the Zambezi and climbing Kilimanjaro”
Hi Jim & Claire
I have been stockpiling your blogs awaiting for the right time to fully read about your adventures. Just finished reading your well written blog about your terrifying whitewater trip on the Zambesi, the guided canoe trip in hippo/ croc/ hyena & malaria country ( giggled at the company’s safety track record ) and your guided trek up Kilimanjaro on the smell of an oily rag! Bloody hell, a great read overall, you definitely had some lucky angel on your side! Thoroughly enjoy reading about your intrepid travels! I have a couple more blogs to read some time later which I am looking forward to reading. ( tried to leave a comment in the comment box, but my phone must be playing up, so replying via email instead) Shelley
Sent from my iPhone
Your comment came through properly Shelley and as always, is much appreciated. Glad to hear you’re liking the blog. Of course, you must remember the Nahatlach rafting trip of many years ago. When the raft flipped and you and Carole got into the more stable safety raft and then Pete, John, Dan & I (plus the guide) continued down the river and flipped again!! That was pretty wild and the water was freezing cold. The Zambezi was almost tame in comparison.
All the best and greetings to Pete.
Jim & Claire