Friday, January 16, 2015
The Money Shot - Charged by Hippo on the Zambezi River
Excerpt from Safari Jema, A Journey of Love and Adventure from Casablanca to Cape Town. The entire adventure is available on Amazon.
Flying a micro light over the Zambezi River may have gotten our hearts pumping, but now we were going to do something on the Zambezi that was reputed to be heart stopping – a four-day canoe camping safari. During the day we would paddle amongst hippo and crocodile and at night we would camp on the riverbank with Cape buffalo and elephant. Scott was very keen on canoeing the Zambezi, and he was extra pleased because he had booked it at a discount.
I was nervous. I am more afraid of hippos than most any other African animal, and I wasn’t too excited about sleeping with Cape buffalo either. Because they are so territorial, hippo and Cape buffalo cause the most deaths to humans in Africa.
Scott tried to convince me that terror could be fun. “Come on Tris! You love wildlife. It can’t get more wild than this.”
When we arrived in Kariba, Zimbabwe, we were told that others who had booked the trip cancelled at the last minute so it would just be Scott, me, and our guide, “Eddie.” Eddie looked decidedly more frightened than I did. He also appeared to be about twelve years old.
I looked at Scott and said with my eyes, “There is no way in hell I am getting on the Zambezi with deadly hippos, crocs, and buffalo with a kid named Eddie.” I don’t know why his name bothered me so much but even “Edward” wouldn’t have made him look any older or any more confident.
Scott turned to the booking agent and asked, “Do you have any other tours leaving tomorrow?”
Yes, they did have a canoe safari starting tomorrow, but it was a luxury tour staying each night at tented safari camps along the way and would cost considerably more than our camping safari.
“Would Eddie be leading the tour?” my husband asked quietly.
“Oh no,” said the agent with understanding. “That tour is led by Maxwell, a very experienced guide.”
We walked away to discuss bending the budget and going on the luxury safari. I reaffirmed my position aloud, “Scott, there is no way I’m going to put my life in the hands of a kid named Eddie who doesn’t look as though he’s ever even held a paddle before. You go if you like and I’ll be here bird-watching until you get back.”
“Hmmm,” Scott said, his sense of frugality tugging at him trying to convince him that he wanted to go with Eddie, without me. “Well, I think I’ll see if they will give us a discount on that other trip.”
And that’s what happened. There was only one couple booked on the luxury trip so the agent decided it would be a better solution for everyone if we made it a foursome, five including the guide Maxwell.
Early the next morning, we met Maxwell along with the Australian couple we would be canoeing with over the next four days. Maxwell gave us a spiel about what we could expect to hear, see, smell, and taste on the Zambian side of the Zambezi River. Then he gave a “safety talk.”
“Leave most of your gear here. You need very little on the river so a small duffle bag with a few changes of clothes will do. Do not bring any food, especially citrus fruit. Elephants are crazy about oranges.” He paused for emphasis before continuing. “Never stand up in your canoe. If you see a hippo, don’t panic. Paddle single file behind my canoe. When we stop for lunch or a pee break do not wander far from the canoe – there are elephants and Cape buffalo that come to the river each day to drink. If a hippo or elephant charges you, don’t worry. I have a weapon in my canoe that will stop them.”
“Maxwell, have you ever had to fire your weapon?” I asked.
“Only once,” he answered with a frown. “I had a guest one trip who insisted on bringing a very large hard-sided suitcase with him. He was traveling alone and kept to himself. Each time we stopped for lunch or a break he disappeared into the bush with the suitcase. One day as I prepared lunch, the man came running out of the bush hysterical and without his suitcase. Behind him I could see a big bull elephant hot on his heels. I ran to the canoe for my gun and took aim on the elephant.” Maxwell paused. “I have never killed an animal, and I did not want to kill this elephant. But the elephant was coming after the man with steady determination. I made a quick decision to fire my gun into the air hoping to startle the elephant. It worked. He stopped charging. He stomped the ground and tossed his head before running away.”
“How frightening! Why was the elephant chasing the man?” I asked.
“Elephants love oranges. It turned out that the man’s suitcase had been filled with nothing but oranges. He would take the suitcase with him into the bush, find an elephant and toss oranges to it until we were ready to leave. That day he tossed oranges until his suitcase was empty. Only, the elephant wanted more. I was furious with this man who almost made me shoot an elephant!”
Before we left I discarded my citrus-scented shampoo.
The lodges we stayed at each night were simple yet beautiful. Genteel Zambian hosts at each tented safari camp excelled at the art of conversation and made us feel comfortable and catered to. At the end of each day they greeted us on shore with welcoming smiles and our favorite sundowner. We had more cocktails at the bar as we watched the sun go down before dining together at a meticulously set table. We listened to exciting stories about adventurers in Africa as we settled into comfortable chairs around a campfire before retiring to our luxury tents. All night long we heard the rumble of elephants nearby. Little did I know, I would soon be telling an exciting Zambezi story of my own around the campfire.
The Zambezi is the fourth longest river in Africa. Through six countries it
provides food, transportation, and recreation to locals and visitors. Bushy trees and dense brush overhang the Zambezi’s banks like an unkempt mustache. You can hear the animals crashing through the vegetation to get to the river long before you can see them. The main river is wide and there are many narrow channels to paddle in and out of while looking for wildlife. But you never have to search for long. Opportunities to get close to wildlife are a guarantee. It isn’t uncommon to see herds of more than one hundred elephants along the riverbank. Cape buffalo, baboons, crocodiles and many bird species are also in abundance. But the most prevalent animal in the Zambezi by far is the hippo. Canoeing the Zambezi is not for the faint of heart. Each day we had to weave our canoes among pods of territorial hippos. Maxwell took the lead. When we came upon a group of hippos blocking our path he would stand up in his canoe and hold his oar high over his head “to look big and dominant,” he said. Though Maxwell was little more than five feet tall, to our amazement this usually worked and the hippos would scurry out of the water. Usually. One day however, as we canoed through a very narrow side channel, Maxwell spotted a lone hippo some distance ahead asleep in the water. He turned and whispered softly, “I think if we paddle quietly he will not wake up. Just follow me and try not to make any noise.”
We went single file, Maxwell in the lead, the couple from Australia following and Scott and me bringing up the rear. As I watched Maxwell slide past the hippo, the hippo continued to sleep. As I watched the Aussies glide past, the hippo didn’t move. As Scott and I neared the hippo it suddenly woke up with a start and sprang up in the shallow water with a look that said, “What the hell! Where did you come from?” We panicked and began flailing our paddles with such desperation that our canoe t-boned the bank directly opposite the hippo. Not more than ten feet from us, the hippo went into territorial mode. First it took a big dump, splattering its poo over the water and bank with a frantic and repetitive wag of his tail. Then it took a bead on us. We began to paddle as fast as we could. I saw Maxwell ahead stand up in his canoe and raise his oar high over his head. The Aussie couple was watching us with eyes wide and mouths agape. I noticed a look of horror on the face of the Aussie man and a look of excitement on the face of the Aussie woman. I watched things unfold in slow motion as the woman, not taking her eyes off us for a second, reached for her fancy long lens camera and began to take shot after shot of us and what was going on behind us.
Suddenly Maxwell and the Aussie couple began paddling quickly down the river. Without saying a word, Scott and I continued to paddle as fast as we could. We were too terrified to speak. Soon we were even with the Aussies and in another minute we had passed Maxwell. I thanked God that Scott had been on an outrigger team when we lived in Hawaii. He really knows how to dig an oar into the water. We didn’t stop paddling until we could see the lodge ahead of us. Completely spent, I put the paddle down and let Scott guide us in to shore.
The lodge host must have sensed by my expression and limp arms that something memorable had happened on the river because as soon as our canoe hit the bank, she was by my side wrapping my hand around a double gin and tonic.
“That was bloody terrifying!” said the Aussie man as he strode to the bar. His wife, who it turned out was a professional film (not digital) photographer, remained on the bank snapping photos, one after another. She shot photos of the lodge, of the reeds, of the sunset, of my hand clasping the gin and tonic until she slowly advanced the camera one last time with a sick look on her face.
“That hippo,” she said to us. “It was right behind you. It had its mouth wide open as it chased you down the river. I thought it would take Teresa and half your canoe in its mouth.” She sighed. “I thought I had a money shot.”The film was intact, its little tail barely out of it canister. The entire day, it had never wound on. She didn’t get a single photo.
I was utterly gobsmacked. “I know you are disappointed, but we could have been killed!”
Oddly, for the rest of the trip she barely spoke to us. Somehow it was our fault that she had missed her award-winning photo.