Up Hippo Creek with a Paddle and an Armed Ranger

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 01, 2012

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Our final day at Mana Pools was one of the most exhilarating of our entire lives as a few of us decided we wanted to do a bit of canoeing on the Zambezi, and you can pay for a ranger to take you out on the river.

We booked for 2 o-clock and made our way to the ranger's office where we were supposed to be collecting the canoes and the ranger (with his loaded rifle). At the workshop was a pile of old canoes, most of which had massive holes in them and were being grown over, with all sorts of things (such as spiders, insects and snakes) living inside them. We got one from the end which looked to be in reasonable condition and strapped it to one of the cars having been told that the other 2 canoes we needed were by the riverbank. So we all bundle back into the cars to go to the river. 

 We could see that there was a canoe there (there should have been two... but anyway) but there was a bit of a problem for us to get to it. There was an absolutely enormous buffalo standing over it, unwilling to move away and getting a bit annoyed that we were bugging him. It felt so strange to be standing near the river just in front of a buffalo and looking at the river which has lots of crocs and hippos. Eventually the Ranger threw a rock nearby and shouted and the buffalo turned, looked at him with disgust and slowly moved away from us giving us an opportunity to run and get the canoe. Not that it was safe now, I could see a crocodile on the opposite bank and there were plenty of hippos in the water around us as well. There were lots of eyes set on us and it was good to get back to the safety of the car .... we were starting to have second thoughts about this canoe trip!

So now we had 2 canoes, and had to drive back to the dodgy pile to get a third as one was missing.... not too reassuring! One of them looked very slightly less beaten up than the rest so we got that on the car and started driving up in convoy to where we were going to launch the boats.

The drive there was great, we saw plenty of game and even a whole family of elephants walking near the road but that was nothing compared to what was waiting for us by the river. We parked up and standing next to the river was an enormous Bull elephant. As soon as we arrived he turned to face us and he clearly wasn't comfortable with us being there as he was flapping his ears. 

 Tentatively, we got the canoes down from the cars and the Ranger had us run the first canoe down over the sand to the waters edge then quickly scurried back to the cars. Katy was feeling quite nervous because the elephant had his eyes fixed on us and was starting to move up the sand towards us. A lady in our group comforted her by saying that there was nothing to worry about, they trumpet if they're angry and that's when you need to worry.

Closer and closer he edged until he was only about 20 metres from us and then he let out a huge trumpet! It reverberates through your whole body and we dived behind the cars and watched him storm off past us and into the bush. Not wanting to take any chances of him returning, we quickly ran the other two canoes down to the river and we all escaped the angry elephant into crocodile and hippo infested waters! There was a group of around 10 hippo's probably within 10 metres of our canoes all looking at us and grunting so we headed off quite sharply still feeling a little concerned that there's an unexplained missing canoe.

Katy and I were in the lead boat with the ranger which initially we were happy about because he has the gun and the experience. What we didn't realise was that as the lead boat, we had to clear the path of hippos for the others. We would canoe along and then tap on the side of the canoe which would make the hippos come out of the water and we could see where they were. 

 Mostly they were in the middle section and we were hugging the coast. Not long after launching we had our closest ever encounter with a hippo, we tapped the side of the canoe and this hippo appeared out of the water just a few metres from our dodgy canoe. Hippo's are very territorial and he was showing that he was unhappy that we were in his waters. He grunted and moved towards us, so the ranger bashed the side of the canoe twice loudly... "Terrified", Katy grabbed her camera and took the photos. The hippo nervously swung around and retreated a bit and we could get past him. The sound as he rose from the water was similar to the sound of a whale surfacing, and when you see a hippo up-close you realise just how enormous they are and those front teeth are certainly not worth arguing with. 

The views from the river were out of this world. The green mountains sat behind the beautiful Zambezi river with fish eagles flying overhead, another elephant drinking from the side of the river, a huge water monitor slithering off the bank into the river and the occasional crocodile sunning itself on the riverbank. This is Africa at it's absolute best, you can't get this unique experience anywhere else in the world and people wouldn't believe you if you showed them those views and told them it was Zimbabwe!

Although we were enjoying the views, we were still nervous and concentrating hard at dodging hippos, Katy and I agreed that we'd prefer to know where the hippo's were so spent a fair amount of time tapping the canoe with our paddles. I think it's safe to say that hippos are not at all endangered in this part of the Zambezi, we reckon we saw over 200 and that's not including the ones we couldn't see under the water. 

 Another nerve-wracking encounter was waiting for us when we came around a corner and there was a hippo standing at the waters edge. If we had gone with the current, we would have had to go right between him on the bank, and the rest of his herd in the middle of the river, dangerous stomping/chomping territory! We tried to stop ourselves from going with the current and the ranger bashed the canoe several times making the hippo jump into the water, then he walked in front of us and out of our way disappearing under the water. The scary thing is that they go under water and then you don't know where they'll pop up next. 

 It was an incredible experience, scary but exhilarating!

When we had finished the trip we returned the kayaks and the guide and walked back to our camp. My aunt described the experience as being similar to bashing your head against a brick wall.. it's nice when it stops! But although it was a bit scary, it was just so beautiful and such a privilege to see such amazing wildlife up-close. It was exactly the sort of wild African experience we were looking for.
 When we got back to the camp, we had another surprise waiting for us as there was an elephant outside our tent again. We think it's probably the same elephant as before and he wasn't bothered by us at all, I followed him for a little while and took some photos as he drank from the river. Then he hung around near our camp having a drink as the sun set. It couldn't have been more perfect!

So Mana Pools is not to be taken lightly. You are seriously out in the bush here and it's wild as you could hope for. We were reminded of this again on our last morning. We had heard hippo's all night, they had been grazing in the campsite and we heard them splash back into the river in the morning. At that point we could also hear a very different animal sound. Lions were grunting not too far away, from the sound we guessed they may be near the river about a kilometre away at Mana Mouth.

We had a tight deadline to get to our next destination so had to get up and start packing away in the dark at 5am. A group of us decided to go in convoy to the toilet block but as we got about a third of the way we could hear the lions and see hyena eyes heading quickly in our direction which immediately made us think again. We turned around sharply and retreated very quickly back to our tents until it was light, we decided being late perhaps wasn't so bad after all.

It's probably the most amazing place we've ever been, an African experience I never thought we could get and certainly one we'll never forget!
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charlene on

An amazing experience but I am afraid that you have been very disobedient - I thought that I expressly told you NOT to go running with the buffalo!!¬!!! :-) xx

seanspacifica on

Sorry, we tried but the buffalo had other ideas! xx (P.S you can just blame Ocea) ;-)

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