Below reads a story, of which much of us dream, of two men in two boats, on a great adventure down one of the most thrilling rivers in Africa. The photos appear on a blog below and Rupert has sent this story along to accompany the photos. Yesterday I received a message from Warren Willis for Rupert, asking some advice about tackling the Angolan section, as he is on the water as I write this. It seems it is still not clear on what the situation is like up there some 14 years after Rupert and Justin attacked the river, but the river seems to continually throw up challenges and surprises. Rupert’s account of their trip appears below.
“The idea of kayaking the length of the Zambezi was purely a romantic one that grew in my mind during my first visit to Zimbabwe in 1991. In 1995 luck took a hand when I returned to Zimbabwe on another expedition and met Justin Matterson. He had a long record of expeditions, so it seemed the ideal team, only two of us, so group dynamics would be simple, we both had extensive wilderness experience and good track records over a range of expeditions, but neither of us had paddled white water greater than grade 2. In true African tradition we learned the hard way and kayaked our first grade 5 after only 5 hours training on white water. We also managed to team up with Leukaemia Research Fund for whom we raised money.
The trip began with a road trip to the source in north western Zambia. We walked from the source, a small spring, 70kms to a point where we could get into the kayaks to reach the Angolan border. Here we had to get out and drive around to the southern Angola border with Zambia, where it returns to Zambia after 200 kms in Angola. We had to leave Angola out, much to our anguish, on advice from everyone and anyone who knew anything about the country. We would, it was generally agreed, have had a very short life expectancy.
We set off in our Kayaks from Chavuma on the 18 July with 3 weeks food and all our equipment. The first few days were strange as we adjusted to our new routine and re-packed our kayaks to make life easier. Once on our way we felt a huge surge of exhilaration and relief at finally being on our way after over a year of planning. The first week was very exciting and tiring as our bodies and minds came to terms with the pattern of life on the river. However a week into the trip, Justin contracted malaria and spent three days laid up with fever. This was a frustrating time, but fortunately did not last long. Malaria had struck just south of Lukulu which marked the start of a 250km stretch of river through the Barotse Plain. A stunning area of open grassland that floods in the rains, but in the dry season becomes home to Lozi fishermen and a spectacular collection of birdlife. The stunning birdlife was a feature of the whole trip with regular, if not daily, sightings of kingfishers, fish eagles, hadeda ibis, storks and cormorants. Although beautiful, the area is full of channels which would often take us off on very long detours. As the plain disappeared the river accelerated and became rockier as it carved its way through basalt hills. We portaged the Ngonye falls, a spectacular set of waterfalls 2/3rds of the way to the Victoria Falls. Otherwise we had no real problems with white water and so arrived as scheduled at the Victoria Falls on the 10 August.
Here we crossed into Zimbabwe and traded our Prijon explorer kayaks for Pyranha mountain 300’s which we had left in Victoria Falls. We teamed up with Shearwater to run the Batoka Gorge, due to regulations preventing us going on our own. This was a nerve wracking time for Justin and I as we had only managed to complete the lower and easier end of the one day trip prior to then.
This time we had to run it from the start which involved 5 grade 5 and 1grade 6, rapids. The day was amazing with the only problem being when Justin was pushed up against the rocks and had to eject.
We continued for a further 3 1/2 days through the gorge before meeting our Prijon kayaks and setting off up lake Kariba. This man made lake is, like Caboro Bassa further down, like a sea at times. Both are over 230 Kms in length and at times over 30 kms across. We experienced three days of force 5/6 winds which livened the days up and made for some big waves and hard paddling, but after 6 days we arrived in Kariba. Kariba was hard work but so different to any other area we had experienced, that we both greatly enjoyed it, with it’s beautiful panoramic views and game dotted along the shore.
Our next leg took us from Kariba to the Mozambique border at the head of Lake Caboro Bassa. This area is almost entirely wilderness area and game parks on both the Zimbabwe and Zambian Side. Due to Government regulations we had to team up with a commercial trip to go through the parks. The most spectacular area is Mana Pools, a world heritage site where game abounds and the views are stunning. It was a slow pace through the area, which disrupted our routine. It was a strange feeling to be moving down the river with other people. In some ways it made for a welcome change, but it also broke our very strong routine and took some of the momentum out of the trip.
It took us ten days to complete a stretch that on our own we would have expected to do in 4 and eventually we arrived in Mozambique. After a remarkably trouble free border crossing we set off onto Lake Caboro Bassa. We met a hunter, in the middle of nowhere who gave us a beer and some advice before we hit the main part of the lake. His main advice centred on avoiding a man eating crocodile in the Kerro narrows. We took this with a large pinch of salt. Little did we know that we would meet a large crocodile at the very spot he had told us about. We had a frustrating couple of days with high winds and reeds lining the shore which prevented us getting out to eat and stretch our legs during the day and meant we had to camp on small mud banks surrounded by rotting water hyacinth and surrounded by flies and mosquitoes.
At 6 am 3 days into the lake, I felt a bump at the back of my canoe and looked round expecting to discover that I had hit a submerged branch from one of the many flooded trees in the area. To my horror I saw a 15 foot croc only 3 feet from the back of my kayak with it’s mouth open. I had to make a double take as I could not believe it was happening. The croc disappeared below the surface I yelled at Justin and aquaplaned past him. I landed 600 metres further up, on a sand beach. I promptly smoked three cigarettes in succession and drank cups of tea. Justin meanwhile had a look at the kayak and spotted deep indents down the length of my skeg. Having armed myself with a knife and armed my speargun (which had been taken for just such an eventuality) we set off again. After a few more kms my adrenaline was still pumping, I kept looking behind me and was going much faster than Justin. So I pulled up onto a beach to relax. As I pulled my canoe up the beach, Justin yelled a warning and I turned around to see a huge croc with it’s head out of the water only 5 meters away.
As he yelled the croc turned to face Justin and I grabbed my speargun. After smashing the water with his paddle, the croc submerged and he paddled onto the beach. We waited for 5 hours expecting the crocodile to go away, but it continued to stalk us for this whole period.
Every 20 minutes its head would appear just off the beach, it would mark us then go back under. We decided to portage inland then across to another bay. I was not looking forward to setting off again, but with encouragement from Justin, we set off, both feeling very nervous and vulnerable. (We later learned that the crocodile was thought to be responsible for taking 5 people off the back of dug out canoes over the last 2 years). We saw no more crocodiles on the lake and took a further 5 days to complete it. The waves and winds were enormous at times and made some long crossings both hazardous and exhausting.
On arrival at Songo at the far end of the Lake, we were helped by a catholic missionary and his scout group portaging the kayaks for three hours down into the gorge on the southern side of the dam. This stretch down to Tete had only been attempted once and the kayaker had swum most rapids as he could not run them. Within half an hour of our arrival the river rose 12 feet, which nearly caused us to lose some equipment. The dam gates had been opened. Early next morning we set off and had a great, but at times frightening day, running rapids and fighting with huge whirlpools and boils. We covered 120 kms in 2 days and arrived in Tete where we had to renew our visas. We were lucky that we had been given an NGO as a contact and they (World Vision) helped us to apply. After 2 days we had the administration side sorted and set off again. We had 500 Kms left to complete. The river remained beautiful until reaching the sea which we did 10 days later on the 4th October. It was a moment which we had both been looking forward to, but also a moment that we wanted to delay and had been dreading. It meant the end of our life and journey on the River. We both had the most memorable time of our lives on the river, we enjoyed every aspect from the white water to the lakes, from the birdlife to the game and perhaps most of all, the very poor but wonderfully cheerful people who lived on the banks of this magnificent river.