Canoeing down the Zambezi River through Mana Pools National Park would have to rate as one of my all-time favourite African wildlife experiences. I never dreamed I would be able to get as close to Africa’s amazing wildlife. I also never dreamed that I’d have one of my most heart stopping wildlife encounters!
Gliding along this magnificent stretch of one of the world’s wildest rivers in a small fiberglass canoe past writhing pods of grunting hippos makes you realise how insignificant you are. After all, you are entering into a territory that is the domain of the wild creatures that inhabit it and, despite the human desire to conquer all, this should be respected.
On one particular trip our group of six canoes were passing between the river bank and a pod of hippos wallowing in the shallows on a sand bar near the middle of the river when one of the male hippos decided we had veered too close to his territory. Bellowing his disapproval and bearing his wide toothy smile he lunged towards our group in a bid to chase us away. With nowhere to go our guide, who along with me was bringing up the rear of our procession in the last canoe, called to the group to keep paddling.
Three canoes had made it safely passed when the two occupants of the third last canoe lost their nerve and baulked. Chorusing in with my guide and the remaining travellers in the canoe in front of us, we shouted at them to “GO!” Eventually, they summed up enough courage and made the crossing with the second last canoe close on their tail. But just as the guide and I were about to make our attempt, the territorial hippo reared up again, flared its wide nostrils and plunged into the water making a beeline for our canoe.
The last thing I heard was the guide yelling to me to, “PADDLE! PADDLE! PADDLE!!” Not needing any encouragement, I closed my eyes and paddled furiously too afraid to even watch. When I finally did dare to sneak a glimpse, I discovered the hippo had swum directly under our canoe and resurfaced just on the other side of us. Realising just how close a call it was, I could feel my heart thudding in my chest.
When we finally made it passed the hippo pod and to the side of the river bank where our canoeing companions had gathered, one of the canoeists came rushing towards us and excitedly asked, “Did you see the crocodile?” “What crocodile?” I replied warily…… Little did my guide and I know, at the same time the hippo had lunged at our canoe from one direction an opportunistic pre-historic looking Nile crocodile had slithered down off the bank on the other side and had disappeared into the murky waters beneath us as well hoping to benefit from the hippo’s spoils.
Was I terrified? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely!
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