Zambezi, Zimbabwe, Zest

When you have paddled the Zambezi a number of times, you sort of just remember the intimidation of rapid no. 9 and the big wave at 12B, and you forget the details.

I mean details like the ferry at 1, just below the Boiling Pot and just above the Wall; the smooth wave at 2 with a decent size hole right next to it; the bouncy, sometimes violent wave at 3; the tight line over the Dragon’s Back on 4 (Morning Glory) when the water is low; the boof or the clean line next to it in 5 (Stairway to Heaven); the big wave train at 6 (Devil’s Toilet Bowl); the huge diagonal you have to break at 7 (Gulliver’s Travels) after which you have to negotiate the Land of the Giants; the big drop and massive hole of 8 (Star Trek), which can hit you hard if you miss the window; the big waves at 10; the nasty boils at 11 (Overland Truck Eater) which get on your nerves no matter how many times you’ve run it; the huge wave trains at 12A and C; the huge waves and some big holes at 13 (the Mother), 14, 15 (Washing Machine), 16 (Terminator) and 17; and then of course the temperamental big, violent, thrashing hole at 18 (Oblivion) which will sometimes take mercy and spit you out in seconds, and other times give you a solid beating before letting you go.

You forget these details when you’re somewhere else, living another adventure or slaving away in the office. But every time you return to the mighty Zam, you fall in love again with the big water, the big lines, the big waterfall, the big gorge, the big hikes at the put-ins and take-outs, the big heat, the big hippos and big crocodiles.


Trailer loaded with a variety of kayaks.
Trailer loaded with a variety of kayaks.

It was the same for me on the trip described below, only even more so. I had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes a week before we left for the Zambezi, and spent four days in hospital while the doctors stabilized my blood sugar levels. I got to learn how to inject myself four times a day with insulin. Let me tell you, going straight to the Zambezi after that is the best thing you can do, even if the doctor isn’t impressed. The Zambezi reminds you why you’re living the life you do. It sure never fails to impress, or elevate.


Taking a break below no. 9.
Taking a break below no. 9.

Experiences like this come at a price. Sometimes the price is small, sometimes the hassles are so overwhelming that you have to convince yourself that it was really worth it. This trip was one of those in-between trips: more hassles than we would have liked, but not so much that we doubted if it was worthwhile. We went up to test new kayak prototypes and also to get some fresh action footage. Graeme Anderson, Ross O’Donoghue, Andrew Pollock and Jaco Lubbe joined me.

The trip started out as pretty normal. I left the factory three hours later than planned and picked the boys up at midnight in Pretoria where they had assembled. We reached the Beitbridge border post between South Africa and Zimbabwe at about five in the morning and filled up at the last fuel station before crossing the border. Note that I wrote ‘fuel’. I didn’t say diesel or petrol. We asked for diesel at the fuel station, since that is what my bakkie (pickup) uses. We could just as well have asked for water or beer, because the fuel attendant ignored the request and put petrol in.

We had a solid breakfast at the little cafe next to the fuel station before hitting the border. All went unusually smoothly when we checked out at the South African border post. I should have noticed that something was wrong, but being my optimistic self I thought it was going to be plain sailing to Livingstone. We got back to my bakkie to drive over the bridge to the Zimbabwean side and it wouldn’t start. It was almost brand new, it was supposed to start. One of us got a sniff (pun intended) that something went wrong at the fuel station, and we opened the cap of the fuel tank. It smelled like petrol, because it was petrol.


Porters showing off why they're the envy of many kayakers.
Porters showing off why they’re the envy of many kayakers.

As luck would have it, a guy with a small truck with some nasty big empty jerry cans was parked right next to us. He was all too happy to take ownership of a tank-full of fuel, even if it was a 70/30 mixture of petrol and diesel. I’m pretty sure he was going to sell it as petrol in the fuel-exhausted Zimbabwe as soon as he crossed the border, but I didn’t ask questions. Ross took charge of the mission, drained the tank and fuel pump, filled the tank with a bit of diesel from one of our own jerry cans, bled the system, and after four long hours we were ready to roll again. But first we went straight back through the South African border to fill up with diesel once more. The unfortunate attendant who was the cause of our misery was already off night shift, but the closed circuit cameras at the fuel station had caught his actions on video, and I was able to identify him. I’m sure he had a lot of explaining to do when he got back to work that night. The fueling station filled our tank up again at no charge, and off we went. It was easy going through the South African border once more, and then we hit the Zimbabwean side. Things went really well here even though there was a lot of confusion and misdirection on the part of the officials, considering that we were in Africa at a border post that is renowned for being a mess at the best of times.

From Beitbridge we had an easy drive all the way to Bulawayo. It was sad to see how conditions in the country had deteriorated during the first years of the new century. Apart from donkeys and cows we saw no living creatures for miles on end, shops were closed down, there was no fuel at any fuel station, mansions were run down and most buildings in general were in a desperate state. We had been driving through Zimbabwe for a number of years, and it used to be one of the most beautiful countries you could think of. The saddest part of it all is that it is one person who caused this state of affairs. We all know who it is and we all know what he is doing. At the time of the publication of this book Robert Mugabe was still in charge, and the whole world stood watching as a country with its people was going down. And still there is no sign that the policy of quiet diplomacy will yield any drastic changes.


Graeme Anderson on the wave at no. 2.
Graeme Anderson on the wave at no. 2.

Bulawayo looked pretty as always, even though it is obvious that its best years have come and gone. Soon after we passed the city things got interesting again, when a police official stopped us for a routine check. This happens often when you drive in a country like Zimbabwe; sometimes they are in a jolly mood, sometimes they want you to suffer for a while, and sometimes they just want an early Christmas present. It didn’t take long to realize what this specific individual was up to. He went through all the papers and found that the kayaks had not been declared – as if you can buy or steal them in Zimbabwe. The solution is easy: he said we know what to do. We played dumb, but he wouldn’t let us go until we did what we knew we have to do. Eventually we offered some money, and he accepted the bribe without any qualms. What the bastard didn’t know was that Andrew and Jaco had captured the whole episode on video. These two certainly have a hidden, or shall I say, a sneaky talent with video cameras.

After this incident all went well until we reached the border post late at night between Vic Falls (the town) and Livingstone. On the Zambian side things got a bit messy again. Since my vehicle belongs to the bank until it’s been paid off, I needed a letter from the bank stating that I have permission to cross the borders, and also a copy of the registration certificate. This is all standard procedure, and I had made sure that I got all the paperwork before I left, as I always do. Or that’s what I thought; next time I’ll check twice before leaving.

The bank (ABSA, are you listening?) gave me the license paper and not the registration paper. A long chat/argument followed, with me getting a bit desperate, being stuck on a Friday night between two borders in pouring rain. Eventually I convinced the lady that I really am a nice guy and really didn’t mean to upset them, and that I’m really sorry and that it will really never happen again. Eventually she let me go, just in time for us to pitch our tents in the rain before the nearest restaurant closed. The funny side of this is that the Zimbabwean authorities should have picked it up when I crossed the first border. So much for all the red tape and fat stamps.


Andrew Pollock showing why he's such a great test paddler.
Andrew Pollock showing why he’s such a great test paddler.

We camped at the Zambezi Waterfront Lodge, my favorite campsite in Livingstone because it’s right on the edge of the river, just upstream of the waterfall. There is a wooden deck hanging over the river from where you can sip whatever drink you fancy, while you watch the mist rising from the waterfall downstream and if you’re lucky, some elephants crossing the river or hippos lazing around. Our shuttles were organized by Sven of as usual. If you ever come to the Zambezi to paddle, Sven is your man.

We spent quite a few evenings having pizza at the Funky Monkey, which has become a bit of a tradition for paddlers visiting this part of the world. The boys were really funny, I haven’t laughed like I did on this trip in a long time. Quoting Ross, when we closed in on Livingstone on the first evening: “My eyes are really bad tonight”. Silence, then the punch line: “I don’t see myself pitching a tent in the rain tonight”. That pretty much set the trend for the week up there. There were too many funny things going on to recall here, and some of it should probably not be repeated in any case. One thing that I’m pretty keen to remember though is this: a prototype is actually a “wannabe”. We were not paddling prototype Elements, we were paddling wannabe Elements. I think that’s hilarious. Maybe it will catch on?


Me dropping in on no. 5.
Me dropping in on no. 5.

After a week of testing the boats on the Zambezi (tough job, I know), we headed back to South Africa. We knew that bad luck comes in three’s, and before we left we were contemplating whether the bribe episode counts as bad luck. We convinced ourselves that it was indeed bad luck, since we had lost some money in the process. How stupid we had been in our ignorance! The bribing counted for fun and the footage would remind us of that, but we would only realize that in due course. In full spirit we left at 6:30 in the morning, only half an hour later than planned. This in itself should have been a warning to us, but once again we thought we were styling. Quickly through the border posts, quiet road with little traffic, and we were chatting like there was no tomorrow. Hit Bulawayo, not even a policeman in sight. I was driving the whole way, feeling refreshed and full of energy after a good week on the Zambezi. I guess I’m to blame for what happened because I was driving, but all the other guys have also been on this road many times before, so I’d like to share the blame with them.

The facts are these: I came into Bulawayo and followed the signs to Beitbridge. All the signs. Someone must have stolen the sign where I went wrong. I’m sure, because I didn’t see any sign to Beitbridge that I didn’t follow. I cannot prove it, but the next fact is this: we ended up on the road to Harare, which is to the northeast of Bulawayo and not to the south-southeast like Beitbridge. This we only realized when we drove into a town that didn’t look familiar at all. And as we realized that, we also realized that we were running low on diesel, and there is no diesel at any fuel station in Zimbabwe. To cut a long story short, we eventually found a nice guy who is an entrepreneur in the true sense of the word. He travels to Botswana every second day or so with a little pick-up truck to fill up a couple of drums with fuel, and sells it for a really good price in Zim. Mission completed, we headed for Beitbridge at last. The upside of this was that we got to drive through a different part of the country, which was absolutely beautiful. Towns were still run down, but the scenery was magnificent.


Graeme Anderson freewheeling the pourover at no.5.
Graeme Anderson freewheeling the pourover at no.5.

At Beitbridge we got stuck in a queue behind a few hundred people waiting to cross the border. They were the passengers of some seven odd buses, hoping for a better life in South Africa. Another delay, another story to write about. We made it back to Parys at 5:30 in the morning, 23 hours after we left Livingstone, which is supposed to be only 1200km away.

Such is life in Africa.


I wrote this story after our trip to the Zambezi River in October 2006.