By Mary Grimes

Makuma, the head porter for our 11-day trip down the Zambezi River lays out a collection of hand-carved animals at the guest house in Livingstone, Zambia where we meet to pack for the upcoming trip. He calls special attention to the pendants called Nyami Nyami, the river god and protector of the Zambezi. On the last trip, he says, only one person didn’t get one and he broke 3 ribs. As far as sales pitches go, this one is pretty indisputable, and very shortly all 21 of us are wearing his Nyami Nyamis. 

Zambia driver with river gearWhile many tourists do the Zambezi as a day trip, another step on the itinerary between safaris and golfing, we started our trip above the falls for three days of flatwater followed by an epic portage of Victoria Falls, five days of the biggest rapids I’ve ever seen, then mellowing rapids giving way to flatwater for the last two days. The Zambezi drains massive parts of Angola before it reaches the middle section that forms the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe and fluctuates from 15,000 cfs in the dry season to 200,000 cfs in the wet season. Peak tourist season is during high water when Victoria Falls is at its most formidable. Known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya “The Smoke That Thunders” was more of a really pretty grumbling mist when we were there. Low water belongs to the dirtbags and nearly every shuttle van was hauling kayaks and muzungu (white people). 

We knew that most of our wildlife sightings would be above the falls, and had heard that the greatest dangers weren’t so much the schoolbus-sized waves and holes in the Gorge but the hippos and crocodiles in the flatwater sections. When we we first pushed off from the put-in we were nonchalantly tightening straps and adjusting oarlocks and immediately the lead boat with the long-time Zambian game ranger Chrisborn Kapocko yelled “Hippo on the right!” He slaps one of his sandals against the raft tube. We later learned that he does this to make them pop their ears out of the water but early on it seems a poor defense.Hippos in the water He and the other local guides yell at us to tighten up our spacing until our boats are almost touching. We are instructed to stay that close making a single-file snake of rafts while Chrisborn yells, “Hippo on the right!’ “Hippo on the left!” Hippos are highly territorial so keeping the rafts close gives the illusion of being a pod of hippos ourselves but we weren’t without close calls. Some areas are known for more aggressive hippos and they’d cut off the main channel forcing us into rocky side channels. Needless to say, getting out to drag boats is not an option if that doesn’t go well. By the third day, the flatwater is so stressful that rowers are dropping like flies. Between all the hippo sightings, we also rowed past impala, warthogs, kudu, bushbuck, wildebeest, giraffes, elephants and went inland on a game drive to visit 3 of the last 10 white rhinos in Zambia, under a 24-hour armed guard from poachers. Chrisborn tells us that he doesn’t go on these trips to protect us from the animals as much as to protect them from us.

‘You are from the states? I know some people from there, do you know the Jacksons?’ Mukuma asks. ‘Uh, there’s lots of Jacksons there’ we reply. ‘The ones who make kayaks!’ ‘Ahhhhhh those Jacksons’ If you’ve never seen YouTube videos of Dane Jackson kayaking the Zambezi at high water, you’re in for a treat. But he’s beloved by the locals for his generosity to the community in the form of river gear. For being an internationally renowned boating destination, the joint communities of Livingstone and Victoria Falls are starved for quality boating gear. Most gear boaters row giant rough hewn wood oars and they chatter excitedly about the fiberglass oars that this company has imported from the US (we broke four oars on our trip and I can’t imagine how hard they are to replace.) We were all urged to bring PFDs and helmets to donate and many of the porters that help with risky portages over waterfalls are helmetless and/or PFD-less. Even secondhand sun shirts and river shoes are in high demand. 

Zambezi guidesporters at the put inThe porters are real life superheroes. When we arrived at the boats at the put-in they had been pumped by hand and rigged and when I boarded my boat for the first time I told the porter who had been doing my rigging that he had to come with us so I’d know where everything went. He bashfully shook his head and looked away. Most of them have never been down the river that provides their livelihood and some can’t swim. We naively believed we’d only see them at the beginning and at the end and in the middle for the epic portage of Victoria Falls. But they met us several times during the gorge for resupplies and evacs and more portages and somehow negotiated steep, tight canyon trails with hundreds of pounds of weight. We tried and failed to patch a boat at camp below rapid 10 and ended up sending the rolled raft, frame and coolers out with porters – a trail with over 500 ladder steps, many unstable or broken. All in a days work. I asked a guide if they get hurt and he said, yes all the time and usually work through nagging pains and injuries. 

 

Please consider donating any extra river gear you may have to help keep them safe. Priority will be given to PFDs and helmets but sun shirts and river shoes will be put to good use as well. If you would like to donate, send items to 720 Easy Street; Driggs ID; 83422 and I will coordinate getting them to Zambia.

 

Mary Grimes bio photo

 

Hi I’m Mary and I recently gave up the desert lifestyle to stare at the Tetons every day. I’ve been boating for 20 years private and commercial and just figured out how to make boating even more expensive by going to the other side of the world. Check out more photos from my trip below!

 

 

 

 

Mary Grimes Zambezi trip- boat train

 

Victoria Falls

Croc in Africa

Elephant in Africa

Hippos in Africa

Photo Credit: Alexis Verson and Leigh McDonald