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The Zambezi Way

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 14, 1999; Page E01


It was the most terrifying display of nature I'd ever seen: a 15-foot, nearly vertical wall of white water, exploding just a few feet in front of our raft. As our craft descended irreversibly into the trough in front of the monster wave, our guide shouted something inaudible over the roar. I was immediately sure the raft was going to flip over. For the first time in many adventures, I wasn't sure I'd live.

We plunged and suddenly, as if a massive fist were punching straight up from the river bed, the raft was ripped up and back and then upside down, and we were flung into the torrent.

I regained awareness, sputtering, beneath the overturned boat, my right hand somehow clutching a rope running along the raft's perimeter. Below the surface, the rest of my limbs twisted like dishrags in a gale.

Against the insistence of the river, I pulled my head above the surface and scanned for my friend Lauren, an act driven both by genuine concern and by the stinging recollection that I had promised her parents I would ensure her safety during our five-week trip in Africa.

She was bobbing downstream, alone, and I winced as the final wave of the rapid sucked her upward and whapped her smartly in the head with its crest. She dunked out of sight. Luckily, she soon resurfaced and eventually joined our party in a placid section of the river, safely beyond the fast water.

These harrowing moments were provided courtesy of the Zambezi River, at a spot in the middle of a string of rapids located below Victoria Falls, hard by the Zimbabwe-Zambia border in southern Africa. Here the Zambezi--Africa's fourth longest river, gracing six countries over its 1,700-mile length--flumes through the mystical Batoka Gorge, a stunning setting for what has become a robust commercial rafting industry. We had signed on to run 15 of the 25 or so rapids that boil along in the miles below the falls.

Our unscheduled water safety test occurred in a section of rapid No. 8 (we had begun at No. 4), known to Zambezi river guides as the Muncher, which ranks as Class V white water (on a scale of I to VI; Class VI waters are considered unnavigable, except by the most extreme kayakers). Not all boats running rapid No. 8 confront the Muncher--we were the only one of our four-raft flotilla to do so, in fact--because the river generously allows Class IV passage on either side of the looming wave. I should note that we likely would have taken one of those less severe routes had not I, alone and sanguine among our group, voted so vociferously for the Class V approach. Lauren took only a few dozen opportunities over the following days to remind me of this.

We had paused in Victoria Falls in the midst of a 20-day safari, both to add some juice to the slothful days of drive-by animal gawking and to witness the most sensational aspects of the mighty Zambezi, a body of water that defines the very lands it runs through.

The river provides a fitting focal point, even an organizing principle, for a tour of southern Africa (at least during the preferred season, late summer and fall). The region is arid and crackly at these times, rendering the water a quenching attraction to man and beast alike (although humans are sternly advised against swimming in African rivers due to crocodiles, hippos, parasites and so on, and Lord knows the water is unpotable). Unless a traveler is restricting his visit to the nation of South Africa, which is not crowned by the river, omitting the Zambezi from one's southern Africa itinerary would be a serious act of self-deprivation.

Our safari, mapped by our tour group, took us across a wide chunk of south-central Africa, with camps in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Our appointments with the river were all timely, with three of the four immediately following long, dusty drives over hypnotic stretches of savanna-lined road. We saw other rivers during the trip, but most were mere streams by comparison and none disrupted the monotonous landscape as decisively as the Zambezi. Just the sight of a substantial river in the parched environment has a rehydrating effect, regardless of whether you defy the swimming prohibition.

Despite the fury in Batoka Gorge and the thundering falls above, the Zambezi for the most part runs flat and strong, except for a couple of minor falls and a pair of dam-formed lakes. The river originates in Zambia, near the Zaire border in south-central Africa, before dancing briefly into Angola and back into Zambia, where it hews deeper and wider. Gaining speed, the waterway traces part of the Zambian-Namibian border, quickly visits Botswana and then hurls itself over Victoria Falls, sending up a billowing mist so thick that it spawns a carpet of rain-forest foliage on the gorge walls. Full moons reportedly conspire with the mist to create nocturnal rainbows.

Victoria Falls, as dozens of dust-caked safari vehicles lining the streets testify, serves most visitors as a perfectly frenetic recess from the longer, more patient exercises of viewing, photographing or shooting the continent's wild animals. That town, centered on a natural wonder, is no Eden. It is trashed and tacky and supports the tiresome riffraff who so often prey on weary globe-trotters. But aside from the breathtaking beauty of the falls, viewable from numerous angles on a self-guided walking tour of the national park, Vic Falls also presents a first-rate, high-octane pit stop in an otherwise legato slice of the planet.

Besides rafting, tourists may opt for the world's highest commercially available bungee jump (from the 365-foot Victoria Falls Bridge on Zambia-Zimbabwe border bridge, directly over the rafting route), small plane and helicopter flights over the falls, or the latest rage, river boarding, wherein customers ride body boards through the rafting rapids.

We first met the Zambezi in northeastern Namibia's Caprivi Strip, a sliver of land buffering Botswana from eastern Angola and western Zambia. The Caprivi Zambezi is not postcard beautiful but has raw and gentle charm as the river soldiers through muted pastels of cream sand, tan clay banks and dusky green foliage. This ecological theater stretched west from our camp like a deserted highway and choreographed a burning purple sunset that set the Zambezi aglow.

We camped on the grounds of Kalizo Lodge, some 20 miles from the town of Katima Mulilo, Namibia, and had access to all the lodge's amenities (minus the beds and ceiling fans), including the open-air thatch bar (low light, cold beers, uneven billiards table), swimming pool and, for a few bucks extra, guided fishing and sunset boat cruises. The late-day boat rides are known throughout southern Africa as sundowners, and the noun just as readily identifies sunset cocktails and the people who drink them.

Fishing on the Zambezi is legendary, and anglers journey from across the world to battle the notoriously feisty tiger fish, which has fangs and can weigh nearly 20 pounds. African pike, bream and about 80 other species share the waters with the tigers.

Pictures of happy fishers and their catches hanging in the Kalizo bar were enough to prompt me and two safari mates to spend a couple of hours fishing the river with Mike, the elder of two slight, blond sons of Kalizo Lodge proprietors Denny and Val. As we powered against the current in a small motorboat, I asked Mike about the people dotting the banks, some fishing, others washing clothes or just hanging around. Did their insouciance signify that the threat of crocodile attacks was an exaggeration for the entertainment of tourists?

"No," he said. "These people are just idiots. White, black, from town or the bush, most of them are just plain stupid." As a member of a family that had lived in four southern African countries in 15 years, Mike spoke as a regional resident, and thus clearly distinguished between himself and his family on the one hand and the ignorant locals on the other.

Eyeing the smaller children splashing about near shore while their mothers scrubbed the wash, I pressed on: "Do these kids ever get eaten by crocodiles?"

"All the time," he answered calmly, as he leaned the boat into a broad turn, his gaze upon the water unwavering. Many of the rivergoers seemed to tempt the odds by milling around spots where years of human routine had beaten down the bank, creating flat, sandy drive-throughs for a croc on the run.

It was hard to maintain Mike's unforgiving attitude toward the shore dwellers. No matter what occupied them when we passed, even if the activity involved balancing an awkward bundle on one's head, the villagers always paused to issue broad smiles and extended waves. Serial waving is pervasive along most rivers and roads in southern Africa--although South Africans, by my observation, are a relatively non-waving people--and the visitor is thus fairly obligated to return the gesture, sometimes, it seems, endlessly, like those little bouncing hands that stick to the inside of car windows. There are far worse obligations travelers face than friendly greetings.

Our fishing adventure yielded just three strikes and only one real battle, with a tiger fish that had the good luck to thrash off the hook just a few feet from our boat. "Professional anglers land only one of every five tiger fish hooked," Mike offered in consolation. He also spoke of more preferred fishing seasons, such as October and November, when the wind dies and the fish come looking for you (and, in fact, an annual tournament crowds the river with boats and competitors). But we were six weeks too early.

With the sun diving, we gave up on fishing and resorted to battling the cluster of beers huddled in our cooler, which proved to be a far more winnable fight: sundowners on a sundowner, in the boughs of the Zambezi.

The respite at the lodge emboldened us to head back into safariland, this time into northern Botswana for two days in Chobe National Park. Renowned for an elephant herd said to number 35,000, Chobe houses, along the banks of its river and flood plain, swaying grasses, white pelicans, saddle-billed storks, crocodiles, monitor lizards and more--including, of course, legions of elephants.

One need only swivel one's head from the soggy savanna to witness the awesome physical impact of the seemingly gentle pachyderms. Bushes are gone, foliage eaten, grass trampled and whole trees demolished by the huge mammals. As they saunter through their long lives--growing continually from birth until death--elephants require an incredible volume of sustenance. Mature elephants can eat 300 to 500 pounds of foliage daily, including tree branches and trunks, and drink 50 gallons of water. Multiply that by 35,000 and you understand why Chobe officials are seriously considering allowing controlled elephant hunting.

The dulling continuity of the vast, scrubby landscape on our safari adventures slowed my normal cadence. Lulled by the land and the heat and the pace of the animals themselves, I adopted a routine of lolling about camp, waiting for some collection of "Far Side" escapees to amble from the bush and take pause at the river. The lethargy is contagious. Each day on safari became a series of languid stretches of sunshine passed with nearly inert indifference to activity. And contrary to the image of African safariland presented on cable TV, most of the continent's animals behave very much the same way--eating, sleeping, strolling occasionally.

And in my attempt to become an agreeable guest, I behaved in very much the same way as they did, lulled into a comforting state of semi-consciousness, with little hope or desire to shed the languor until the flight home.

One Zambezi destination that stood in noticeable contrast to others was Lake Kariba, a a 2,150-square-mile swelling of the river created in 1960 by the gigantic Kariba Dam. The wide lake, underwhelming but pretty, is contained by hills covered with stumpy trees. This bland forest serves as home for elephants, zebras, antelopes, baboons and other mammals.

With all the meaty animal life roaming the area, one would assume that Kariba's 25,000 crocodiles wouldn't have to resort to chomping people. One would, of course, be wrong. Despite fervent warnings in guidebooks and hotel pamphlets that visitors avoid swimming in the lake and exercise extreme caution on shore, the local croc population kills about 30 people a year. Yet perhaps illustrating the struggling region's tug-of-war between intelligence and capitalism, the Caribbea Bay Hotel--a resort that joins its competitors in resolutely discouraging lake swimming--offers wind surfing rentals from its shore. I watched curiously (from the safety of a pool deck chaise) as a middle-age man struggled in the lake with board and sail on a near windless day, trying to learn the sport.

The crocodiles (who spared the novice wind surfer that day) may, I learned, be agents of the Zambezi River spirit Nyami-Nyami.

The story goes like this: Until the building of Kariba Dam, much of the lake's bottom was riverside land supporting members of the regional Tonga tribe. When the plans to erect the dam were formed in the mid-1950s, the Tonga found themselves with a choice between staying and drowning, or relocating to higher, drier ground.

The Tonga summoned the spirit Nyami-Nyami--translated, meat-meat--who, they believed, had long protected them from evil. Legend holds that Nyami-Nyami was a good spirit who allowed meat to be cut from his body in times of need. Alerted to the start of dam construction, the god sent a historic deluge in 1957 and an almost equally catastrophic flood in 1958, causing massive destruction and delays to the project, and claiming many lives.

Nyami-Nyami abandoned this tantrum, the story goes, only after the Tonga elders, who purportedly gave up hope of preventing the dam, called on him to end the flooding. But when it was built, the 420-foot-high dam separated the spirit from his wife. He has declined to show himself since. The Lake Kariba region feels occasional tremors from the water's load on the earth, and these are said to be groans from a depressed Nyami-Nyami, who believes he will rejoin his bride only when the dam is destroyed.

In the meantime, perhaps, the crocodiles eat to even the score.

The lower Zambezi region is wonderfully rich in wildlife, and harbors dozens of tourist lodges scattered on either shore. We camped on the grounds of Gwabi Lodge, on the Kafue River, about two miles from its confluence with the Zambezi.

Here in the Zambezi's pilgrimage, about 60 miles above Lower Zambezi National Park and a few miles east of the border town of Chirundu, the river is massive, running at least a mile wide for long stretches and supporting hundreds of hippos, buffalo, crocodiles, elephant, antelope and African fish eagles, a majestic bald eagle look-alike whose piercing cry is known as the Call of Africa.

But it is the elephant--with its sheer size and convincing look of ancient wisdom--that best personifies the lower Zambezi and the river in whole. Slowly motoring downriver one afternoon, I looked back through a faint haze to see a gargantuan elephant silhouetted against the sky on an island of grass, transporting reeds from ground to mouth with her trunk, periodically shifting forward with deliberate aplomb.

Elephants ramble on whim, seemingly without fear or care, helping themselves to land, water and flora with impunity. When seeking to cross a river, the wrinkly monsters simply walk toward their goal until water covers their heads and then swim, only their trunks above the surface, pruned periscopes on the horizon. Like the river itself, elephants will not be turned away from a goal, even if fulfillment demands patient detours, delays or climactic exhibitions of brute strength.

The elephant is ultimately a perfect metaphor for the mighty Zambezi: at times playful, at times surly, but most often in various states of wandering or repose, with understated grace, rarely exploited reservoirs of awesome power and, always, the hint of a smile. One of my most lasting visions of the magnificent Zambezi will be of the river surrounding, supporting and sustaining that carelessly dining elephant, seeking and receiving no toll for the accommodation, well into the deep crimson of an African afternoon.

John Briley last wrote about airline Web sites for the Travel section.

DETAILS: Rafting the Zambezi

GETTING THERE: The Zambezi River runs through six countries in southern Africa. Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, is the best fly-in spot, for price and geographic convenience, although you may find better deals into Harare, Zimbabwe. British Airways is quoting $2,235 for a high-season Dulles-Victoria Falls round trip (with connections in London and Johannesburg). American Airlines and partner South African Air also serve the region.

If you're operating our of Harare, driving times are: Victoria Falls, 12 hours; Kariba, four hours; and Chirundu, on the Lower Zambezi, four hours. Air Zimbabwe and Air Zambezi fly regularly between Harare, Vic Falls and Kariba (but not Chirundu).

OUTFITTERS: Numerous outfitters run Lower Zambezi canoe or motor boat safaris, as well as land-based tours, with lodging (camping or huts, ranging from budget to luxury). Toursaa, based in Cape Town (phone 011-27-21-975-2189, fax 011-27-21-975-5194), is an umbrella group offering bookings with a slew of tour companies. There's also Taga Safaris in Johannesburg (phone 011-27-11-465-5678, fax 011-27-11-465-9364).

Safari Par Excellence, the rafting company we used, also offers a range of land and river trips in southern African. Full-day Zambezi raft trips run about $100 per person (lunch included). Book through the Zambezi Safari & Travel Co., Kariba, Zimbabwe (phone 011-263-61-2532, fax 011-263-61-2291). It also has info on Zambezi fishing expeditions.

Other rafting companies operate out of Victoria Falls; some may need more than one-day notice for Zambezi raft trips.

Kalizo Lodge (phone 011-264-677-2802, fax 011-264-677-2802), about 25 miles from Katima Mulilo, Namibia, on the upper Zambezi, has facilities from camping to full board, as well as regionally renowned fishing.

For complete packages from the United States, including air, try Ultimate Africa Safaris, Renton, Wash. (phone 1-800-461-0682, fax 425-793-8878, All-inclusive safaris, including air fare, from D.C. cost about $3,500 to $5,500.

--John Briley

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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