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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Zambia


Crocodiles are everywhere — keep your hands and feet in the canoes,” warned Paul Grobler, a safari guide with 17 years of experience leading trips down the Zambezi River. “You must also beware of hippos.”
The safety briefing is intense and thorough before embarking on a canoe excursion of Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park. Although there are a variety of safaris for observing wildlife, from game drives to riverboat rides, offered by a variety of operators, canoeing can be the most exhilarating way to witness the region’s diverse ecology.
The Zambezi River is the fourth longest river in Africa. From its source in Zambia, it eventually empties into the Indian Ocean in Mozambique after a 1,600-mile-long (2,574 km) twisted journey through south-central Africa. It’s a rich watery vein that quenches the often thirsty, drought-distressed region.
Nile crocodiles fill the Zambezi River. Canoeists often see them on the river’s edge, soaking in the sun during the day.
The Zambezi flows along the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Lower Zambezi National Park lies opposite Zimbabwe’s better-known Mana Pools Reserve, so the whole area on both banks of the river forms a massive wildlife sanctuary where animal activity abounds.
Elephant herds gather at the shoreline to drink and bathe, while enormous males wade to small islands mid-river to graze on lush vegetation. Fishing eagles soar overhead, and busybody baboons scamper along the river’s edge. Hundreds of noisy, sociable hippopotamuses pepper the waterway and command the narrow channels.
Established in 1983, the Lower Zambezi National Park is Zambia’s newest protected reserve. With relatively few visitors and little development, it remains a hidden gem. Several lodges and tent camps, ranging from rustic to luxurious, operate in the park.
The Zambezi River’s current is swift, which makes the canoeing nearly effortless, as the boats glide downstream. This particular stretch of the river offers only calm and peaceful waters. Our guide guaranteed there would be more drifting than paddling, but the water’s ominous inhabitants gave me pause.
The cartoonish-looking hippopotamuses often depicted in children’s stories as harmless ballerinas are realistically one of Africa’s most fearsome beasts. Their roly-poly 3,300-to-7,000-pound (1,500-3,175 kg) bodies emit loud, comical, whoopee-cushion choruses, but entering their territory is no laughing matter. Hippos reportedly kill more people than lions, and safari guides are chock-full of gory stories about the territorial river tyrants. Of course, the guides are always quick to emphasize that neither they nor their groups have ever been harmed.
Menacing, prehistoric-looking Nile crocodiles fill the river in incalculable numbers, slicing through the darkness, unnoticed, beneath boats. Bearing a reputation as vicious man-eaters, the quiet and agile reptiles can reach lengths of 16 feet (5 m) and weigh up to 1,100 pounds (500 kg).
“They won’t bother us,” Grobler confidently assured us. “Just keep your bodies inside the boats.”
Crocodiles and hippos aside, other river hurdles include tree stumps resting just below the surface. We were instructed to keep our 20-foot-long (6 m) canoes to the shallows and steer clear of ripples in the glassy water, indicating underwater obstacles.
During the safety briefing it’s easy to lose confidence and question your capabilities, but we were promised that canoeing is the best way to experience Zambia’s enthralling wilderness. I put my trust in our guide, swallowed my thickly forming trepidation, and donned a life vest.

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