Hours of looking into the glistening water started to make my vision blurry. I tried to rub my eyes with my bare wrist, bringing my left arm close to my face during the motions of rowing. I couldn’t spare a moment with my hands off of the paddle. The paddle was my sole lifeline on what turned out to be an unforgettable journey.
The story begins nearly two weeks prior. On a fateful coach journey from Windhoek, the windy capital of Namibia, to Livingstone, the famed city bordering Victoria Falls on the Zambia side, I met an Australian who had been traveling across southern Africa along the same route that I had been. We bonded over this because few people took this circular route, starting and ending in Lusaka, Zambia. Most travellers traversed north to south, south to north, either starting or ending in South Africa.
I ended up following this adventurous Australian to the easternmost parts of Zambia, specifically, the Zambezi River. Initially, we considered doing a safari at the Lower Zambezi National Park on the Zimbabwe side. However, given lack of planning on our part, it was deemed impossible for our three-day rendezvous. Our taxi driver led us to a wonderful lodge owned by a rugged and gregarious Dutch lady who had lived and travelled the world over. The lodge was right by the River and we were the only guests during the quiet season. She suggested that we do a canoe safari, the length of which is quite flexible. Throwing all caution to the wind, my travel partner and I agreed.
The next day, we sat on warm grass on the premises of the lodge, waiting for our canoe guide. As we waited, we wondered what grave mistake have we made. Will we live to tell the tale? Of course, there is a delay. We even felt relieved by the delay, rationalizing that perhaps this trip was not meant to be. Finally, our guide arrived; he appeared soft-spoken, efficient, and alert. I felt comfortable with him immediately. After finishing lunch, we strapped all of our supplies onto the canoes and pushed off into the river. The guide took one canoe with most of the supplies, while my travel partner and I were on another canoe. We received minimal guidance and were ready to jump in armored with ignorance as our courage.
At first, I struggled to find a good pace. Pride got the best of me and I would go through spurts of speed rowing only to fall back once I grew tired. I started to observe the Zen-like motions of our guide. Each stroke was controlled, purposeful, and consistent. His strokes were like clockwork. I made it my personal goal to learn this Zen-like rowing. The river was quiet in the beginning. The afternoon sun beat down on us relentlessly and the glistening water was, sometimes, blinding, but it was quiet at first. Every so often, our guide would hit the handle of the paddle on the sides of the boat to warn hippos of our approach. We don’t want to startle the hippos with surprise.
Suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by groups of hippos, called pods. Most were submerged, but a few started to stand up. Inside, I thought this could be my last breath on Earth. We were told that hippos are the most dangerous animals on the water, responsible for more human deaths in Africa than any other animal. Somehow, we all managed to stay calm and continued rowing at the same pace as before. I feared so much that my arms would freeze up and fail to perform under such high pressure. I was so relieved that it was just a scare.
We continued to row along this unique river; the fourth longest river in Africa, that is constantly changing course. It’s impossible to maneuver without an experienced guide, even if there weren’t any dangerous animals. We saw many animals along the way, including elephants, crocodiles, and fishing eagles. Once, we rowed up to the bank and were right next to a group of elephants drinking water by the bank. It was a magical trip to say the least, topped off by camping overnight on a tiny islet in the middle of the river. I had never been closer to nature nor seen so many stars at night. I would do this all over again in a heartbeat.