Stuck in a Stupid Canoe – Congo

Stuck in a Stupid Canoe

As we climbed into our canoe, Anne and I sang an off-key rendition of our version of Stuck in the Middle With You:

Crocs to the left of me

Hippos to the right

Here I am

Stuck in a stupid canoe

We laughed at our not inconsiderable wit as we settled into our canoe and pushed off into the Zambezi, a river that begins in Congo and thunders down Victoria Falls before eventually snaking its way through Zimbabwe to Mana Pools National Park. It was in Mana Pools that we spent the next four days, and it was in Mana Pools that we tried to hide our nervousness behind that rather pathetic attempt at musical bravado.

Before we climbed into the canoe, our guide Herbert had briefed us on the situation in his perfect, beautifully-accented English:

“Canoe safaris are dangerous. There are more water-based injuries at Mana Pools than any other kind. Hippos are very territorial, very big, and very fast, and we’ll be passing by lots of them. I’m not going to lie…they sometimes decide to charge canoes. If one does, there isn’t much we can do. We have a guard with a gun, but hippos are so massive that a few bullets won’t slow them down. We’ll rarely be more than 4 to 6 metres from the shore; if our boat gets tipped by a hippo, get out of the water. There are crocodiles here, lots of them.”

Neither Anne nor I were unfamiliar with the world of canoes; we had, after all, grown up in Canada. But for some reason, beavers and lake trout just don’t pack the same punch as hippos and crocs.

Why, exactly, was I doing this?!?

Within five minutes of paddling off from shore, I realized exactly why I was on a canoe safari; it was one of the most peaceful experiences of my life. The sound of the paddles sliding through the water mingled with bird calls and the buzzing of insects. Our canoe glided by herds of hippos, who watched us warily but calmly from afar. Occasionally one would snort or yawn, another would wiggle its ears at us, another would slowly sink underwater.

The first time I watched a hippo submerge itself completely, I held my breath. I imagined it racing towards us beneath the water, throwing our canoe four metres in the air, and then watching and giggling as our limbs were torn off by dozens of ravenous crocodiles. When we paddled by unscathed, I was able to relax and enjoy myself. After we passed the herds, the hippos would groan and grunt at our retreating form, a loud and eerie sound that was strangely reminiscent of giant bullfrogs.

As we slipped through the water, we passed graceful gazelle, their muscles twitching as they eyed us nervously. A large elephant bull reaching up into a tree paid us no mind except for a cursory glance, and buffaloes glared as we passed. Birds of every imaginable shape, size and colour swooped through the air, screeching angrily at us when we got too close to their nests. We startled a five foot crocodile sunning itself on the shore, and it slid into the water and disappeared with an eerie grace. And always there were hippos.

It was on the second day that I realized just how threatening a hippo could be. As we moved through the water, a head suddenly appeared about ten metres to our right. My heart slammed in my chest. Shaking his ears and snorting a warning, the hippo stood up and glared at us. He swelled out his chest, clenched his muscles, and took two quick steps towards us.

I sat in the front of the canoe, holding my paddle up to my chest as though that might make a difference. Behind me, I could hear Anne snapping photos, hoping that the hippo would come “just a little closer”. I hissed at her, promised myself that next time she would be sitting in the front, and brandished my ineffective paddle.

The game warden quickly manoeuvered our canoe so that we were almost touching the bank. Turning his body so that he was always facing us, the hippo again took a step towards us and stopped, grunting. He stood and watched us, breathing heavily as he contemplated whether or not he should charge. For a third time, he rushed forward, only to stop after a few steps. He glared at us and shook his head menacingly. Then, with a final snort, he turned and sank into the water, allowing us to paddle by.

In the canoe behind us, Herbert breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Wow!” he said with a grin, “that was a negotiation!”

Yes Herbert, and that was an understatement.

The days that we spent at Mana Pools National Park were quite possibly the most exciting days of my life. I’ve never been in such a wild place. I slept on a mat, with nothing but a canvas tent separating me from the grunts of lions and the yelps of hyenas. The first morning, I was awakened by Anne’s urgent whisper:

“Steph, there’s a buffalo right outside our tent!”

Buffalo bulls and hippos grazed on the grass at our camp. A large herd of impalas, nervous and lithe, stood right outside the outhouse; at night, their eyes shone a bright red in the flashlight beam. We skirted around immense piles of elephant dung on our frequent treks between our tent and the toilet. Monkeys and baboons watched us expectantly as we ate, hoping that we would drop something on the ground. To everyone’s amusement, poor Herbert’s sandals were mauled to pieces by overzealous hyenas one night.

The great sandal fiasco fortunately happened on our last night at Mana Pools. It would have been rather inconvenient if it had happened before Herbert took us on our walking safaris, long game-watching hikes that became one of my fondest memories of Africa. Herbert, an extremely skilled and knowledgeable guide, again gave us less than comforting instructions before we set out:

“The most danger comes from the buffaloes, especially the solitary males. They’re very mean-spirited and will charge without provocation. If an elephant or a buffalo charges you, run as fast as you can. Lions are different. If we see lions first, we’ll avoid them. If they see us first, they may try to ambush us. If this happens, freeze. No matter what, do not run. You can’t outrun a lion, and even if it isn’t planning to attack, if it sees you run its predator instincts will take over. If it’s any consolation, I promise that I will put myself between you and the lion.”

He said that last part with a grin. I eyed the sheathed knife at his side and admitted that I wasn’t feeling very consoled at all. Herbert laughed and assured us that he had yet to lose a client.

We walked through the yellow knee-high grass, listening to it rustle in the wind and imagining the creatures that lay curled up, hidden in the golden sheet of grass. We passed a herd of elephants, and watched the enormous creatures form a protective half-circle around a tiny infant. The little one tried to trot away, but one of its guardians nudged it back into the centre with its bristly trunk. A comical warthog, followed by six piglets, rushed across the savannah, its short legs pumping furiously. From the top of their elegant necks, giraffes watched us with liquid, lash-framed eyes. Startled by a sudden noise, the towering animals started and ran, their graceful gait seeming almost slow-motioned.

Herbert was an entertaining and well-informed guide. He told us amusing anecdotes, described the animals’ mating and eating patterns, and even showed us how to distinguish elephant and hippo dung – and no, size isn’t it. Trust me, both hippos and elephants have droppings of a very impressive size! Hippo dung contains only grass remains, while elephant dung often has leaves, shoots, roots and seeds as well.

He also told us stories that rested somewhere between legend and fact. My favourite one was about the wounded park ranger who had no choice but to stay in the bush for the night. He had been attacked by a hippo while canoeing, had lost his gun in the river, and had a gaping wound on his thigh. All alone in the dark, he sat by the water, shivering and watching for the lions that would surely be attracted to the acrid scent of his blood. As he waited, an immense buffalo walked over, looked down at him for a moment, and then laid down to rest a few metres away. All through the night, lions would approach, only to be threatened by the buffalo, who would jump to his feet and charge. The next day the ranger was found, unconscious but miraculously alive. There was no sign of the buffalo, except for fresh dung and the broken grass where he had lain.

During our awesome trip to Mana Pools, we experienced excitement, peace, beauty and even terror. Our hearts were a little bit heavy as we drove back to Harare in Herbert’s clunky old van. We watched the hills and plains of Zimbabwe fly past our window as we contemplated the fantastic world that we were leaving. After a few moments, Herbert interrupted the silence:

“I hope you aren’t disappointed that we didn’t see any of the big cats. Maybe next time you’ll see a leopard or a lion…”

Anne and I looked at each other and burst into laughter. Nope, no disappointment there! During four days in the wilds of Zimbabwe, we didn’t come face to face with any lions. And that’s a good thing.

About the Author

The travel bug bit Stephanie Lemieux at the tender age of two, during one of many family road trips. Since then, she’s studied in Brazil, fallen in love with Scotland, backpacked through Eastern Africa and worked for a non-profit organization in South Africa. She’s also travelled extensively in the US and in Canada, where there is – as her sister so eloquently put it – “a whole lot of damn trees”.