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African Canoe Safari

Article contributed by: Ultimate Africa Safaris

AFRICAN CANOE SAFARI, MANA POOLS, ZIMBABWE, SOUTHERN AFRICA (A client recounts her exciting African canoe safari in October 1999) - Mid morning I flew from Kariba by light aircraft to Mana Pools. We got into the animal aspects of our safari immediately. Our plane had to buzz two elephants off the red dirt airstrip to land.

After landing we met our guide who, after introductions, instructed our group on the finer points of canoeing on the Zambezi River. "Hold your paddle at least halfway up the shaft. If a crocodile does go after it, at least he won't get your hand" river guide Victor Ncube said with a hint of a smile. "And so that you don't rock the boat, you are not allowed to stand up, talk politics or religion, and especially" - he paused for effect - "you're not to shout at your spouse." Instructions complete, with a splash of paddles we were off on a 4 day gentle African river journey that along Mana Pools National Park in northern Zimbabwe.

The 2,200mile Zambezi River, which begins life in neighboring Zambia and flows through five countries before emptying into the Indian ocean, isn't always calm. It tumbles over Victoria Falls, a thundering explosion of clouds of mist, then squeezes between the walls of the stunning Batoka gorge where white water rafters can enjoy the ride of their lives before the river stalls behind the wall of a dam at Lake Kariba. Here, it also forms part of the border with Zambia. Below the dam the river spreads wide. In our four-day journey we would come face to face with an astounding array of animals, some frightening, all fascinating.

Barely 20 minutes had passed before we rounded a bend and found a family of elephants, including two youngsters, wading in the reeds. They blinked at us and continued shooting water into the air through their trunks. Victor, in the lead canoe, was suddenly on his feet, waving his paddle wildly. Forty feet ahead, a dozen hippopotamuses were half blocking our exit into the main river. Their broad backs glistened in the sun, and their candy-pink ears twitched. With astonishing speed, one big hippo roused itself from the shallows and charged toward us like a lethal 45-gallon drum on stumps.

"Move toward shore!" Victor shouted, and instantly everyone bee lined for the bank as our trusty guide slapped the water with his paddle. He progressed through his hippo-vanquishing repertoire to banging the side of his canoe with his paddle. Meek "Oh mys" emanated from the other canoes. The hippos yawned in unison, but they fooled no one; they weren't a bit sleepy. With much snorting, the advancing hippo reluctantly backed off, and we continued in adrenaline-charged silence along a course that would take us 11 miles before our first stop for the night.

In the late afternoon we pulled up on the grassy shore beneath the tidy row of army-green canvas tents. We were helped out of our canoes by one of the camp attendants as another attendant, Clever, pointed us toward the beer cooler. Directors' chairs surrounded a tidy campfire alongside a table full of snacks. As the staff secured and unloaded the boats, I settled in with my "sundowner," a Zambezi lager, to watch the burning African sun melt into the river. We overnighted in large walk in tents with cots, mattresses and duvets. There was also a hot shower and toilet.

Paddling this part of the Zambezi, though not without its risks, is not particularly dangerous or difficult, but a guide is a must. Victor knows every sandbar, knows the deeps and the shallows. "Without a river guide," he said, "this would be a very dangerous trip."

We danced around the edge of danger during our four days paddling and over-nighting along the waterfront of Mana Pools National Park, considered the crown jewel of the national park system of landlocked Zimbabwe. Although only 858 square miles, the park is so rich with wildlife that congregates along the river and at the four permanent pools on the flood plain that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. The designation protects it from development and ensures its survival as a wild place.

An avian wake-up call, accompanied by the unmistakable cry of a far-off hyena, was accompanied by the splash of hot water in the collapsible washbasin outside my tent at 5:15 A.M. A quick cup of tea and a slice of poundcake and we were off on a guided morning walk in the bush, single file.

Mana Pools is the only park in Zimbabwe where you are allowed to walk alone without a guide, although it's best to have one. The landscape is wide open and dotted with big sausage, fig, tamarind and rain trees that shower the earth with purple flowers. The animals eat much of the view-obstructing shrubbery. Victor a stocky and strongly built native Zimbabwean, honed his bush skills during his 18-year career as an officer in the army of Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was called until in won independence from Britain in 1980.

As he did on the river, Victor carried a rifle on our morning walk. "I've had to shoot warning shots over the heads of hippos and elephants, but it's never been necessary to kill one," he said. A string of elephants lumbered across our path. A single lion peered from the shrubbery, and although Victor pointed him out, it took me a few moments to see him; I had not yet acquired African "bush eyes." By the time we strolled back into camp, the wind had begun to blow, and the whitecap-flecked river had a sizeable chop. "Eat up," Victor said. "You're going to need it." Breakfast was lavish: cereal, juices, bacon and eggs, toast and jams such as South African Cape gooseberry.

Stepping into the rear of the canoe, I tightened the strap of my wide-brimmed cotton hat. The paddling was steady but not difficult; the rhythm and cool sprays of water over the gunwales were relaxing. Being on the river in a canoe alters your perspective, so you're gazing up at herds of Cape buffalo clustered atop the riverbank or are at eye level with wading storks, tiny brilliant malachite kingfishers and snowy white egrets.

Then there were the hippos. One couple who were on the canoe safari continued to have steering "issues"; with each hippo encounter. They broke Victor's no-shouting-at-your-spouse rule in outbursts peppered with profanity and unpleasant observations about the other's sanity and motor skills. It is amazing how quickly hippos lose their novelty and simply become annoying, beefy land mines blocking our path.

I asked how many hippos live in these parts. "Exactly 5,792 hippos in this 40-mile stretch of the Zambezi," replied Victor, who was involved in a hippo census in the mid-1990s. "Hippos are territorial so I know where to expect them." Victor knows hippos. He has seen them as 100-pound newborns and later as adults that eat 100 pounds of grass a day, and he can sense their aggression by reading how they bring their heads back or flare their ears. The rule of thumb on the river: Never get between a hippo and the deep water, where the animal feels safe.

Just after noon we pulled over beneath a grove of Natal mahogany trees for a long, leisurely lunch of cold cuts and salads, followed by a siesta. I grab a mat and head off for a siesta in the shade, snoozing lightly. When I awoke, a group of waterbuck was grazing less than 20 feet away, oblivious to my presence.

By 4 P.M. the wind had died and the day had begun to cool. With the late afternoon sun painting the Zambezi escarpment across the river a glowing mauve, we set off to paddle the last six miles to camp. We had not seen another canoe all day. The number allowed on the river is tightly controlled.

After a spicy chicken curry dinner, we turned in early. As I readied for bed, a comfortable camp cot, I heard a lion in the distance, a deep, resonating roar that I felt as much as heard. The greeting carried across the river, where it was answered by a pride from the Zambian shore. Though lions, elephants, hyenas and other creatures might prowl around camp at night, it is safe inside a zipped-up tent. I drifted off to sleep watching the stars through the mesh; the breeze dropped leaves that sounded like the patter of rain.

Just after dawn Victor spotted a lion, one that I might have heard the previous night. After waking us, we spent the next two hours tracking a pair of males on foot through the bush. When we came upon them, they were grooming, eating and lying around, making no sign that they noticed us.

By mid morning we were back in our canoes. We encountered the usual roll call of elephants, antelope and buffalo, and a colony of carmine bee eaters, birds that nest in holes burrowed in the sandy riverbank. Once, just in front of my canoe, a 12-foot crocodile launched off the bank into the water with a huge splash that sent my heart into my throat.

It turned out to be a heart stopping day all around. At lunch, a yellow-billed kite swooped down from a tree and grabbed half a ham sandwich from one of the other canoeist's hand. Remarkably unrattled, she reached for the other half of her lunch and muttered: "At home I can hardly eat because of our dogs. Here, it's birds."

On our final day's paddling, we finished at a lovely permanent tented camp. No sooner was I shown to my spacious quarters (complete with wardrobe, luggage rack and a stack of magazines) than a elephant came straight toward by tent. It was so close I could have reached out and touched it. It sidled up to the acacia tree that provided my canvas home with shade, leant against the tree and gave it a good shake, sending down a shower of seedpods that resembled curling red apple peels. The guide who was showing me to my tent told me that a recent guest had been startled when a big gray trunk reached over into her open-to-the-sky shower stall for a drink of water.

At our final dinner as we dined on butternut squash soup and beef stroganoff served in the glow of a candlelight chandelier - hanging from the tree above the dinner table - elephants wandered out of the dark and past our table. Sitting on the riverbank after dinner with a glass of Zimbabwe port in hand, I watched fireflies flit over the Zambezi, their glow reflecting off the black water challenging the brilliance of the starlight highway of the Milky Way. Overall the canoe trip was a wonderful combination of solitude and silence that afforded me close-up views of animals and environs that I'd only dreamed of before this journey.

How magical it would be to launch a canoe into this moonlit scene, I thought. As if on cue, an unseen pod of hippos grunted and harrumphed. On second thought, maybe a moonlight cruise wasn't such a good idea. Better to head off to bed, where a chocolate awaited me on the pillow.

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