Wonder of the wander on a river safari

The river safari is a lyrical wandering through the estuaries and islands that dot the Zambezi above the Falls. There is a great beauty in sailing it in a shallow-draft boat where the cruise ships cannot reach, for this is the essence of God’s highway which Livingstone pioneered 150 years ago to the edge of the Falls.

The captain of my boat, travelling patiently close to the river bank, was Christopher Nyoni, and my professional guide who knew everything there was to know about bird and animal life on the Zambezi was Mehluli Sibanda. Except for the occasional explanation, we wallowed in the awesome silence disturbed only by the fluttering of heron or stork wings and the cry of the ibis.

Elephants on the banks, close up and personal, and swimming across the water as the sun shafted a stream of liquid gold in its slowly dying rays, framed in the silhouette of ilala palms, is what people have travelled thousands of miles to enjoy and absorb. Far better than a day in the office – in fact, the Zambezi is the office.

It was many moons ago that I travelled this stretch of water just 700 metres before the plunging cascade of the world’s greatest waterfall. Then it was by canoe, sipping wine from a glass and letting the African wilderness glide by. This time, although in a craft designed like a speed boat powered by Hamilton engines, we were cruising just as slowly. The rush has gone out of life and once again we are in the embrace of nature.

On a good day the boat takes ten passengers with sunrise and sunset being the most popular. We leave the cruise ships behind, the big white African Queen from Zambia and the armada of smaller cruise boats putting out from the riverside jetties, and now we are all alone among the islands where we well stop for a cool drink and a chance to stretch our legs. Our guide will go be before us to make sure that no large creature is unexpectedly waiting to greet us.

The bird life all around is fantastic – with bea eater colonies, kingfishers, fish eagles, open-billed storks, the green-backed heron, the Jesus jacana walking on water. We see the hammerkop nest, which takes six to nine months to build. Mehluli tells us that tribespeople believe the bird is connected with witchdoctors as it picks up anything and everything to build its nest. “The people do not know what they are using,” says our guide.

We keep a respectful distance from the hippos of the Zambezi and are a fairly constant sight on our journey. They are, of course, the most dangerous of animals with the reputation of killing more humans than any other. Still they are what we have come to see, raising their heads in curiosity and then sinking without trace.

“It’s an incredible voyage”, says Glenn Moroney in a personal interview, “the equivalent of a game drive on water. It has only recently been launched but is already very popular as it fulfils the need of a wide cross-section of the public from the young to the elderly. The river safari, does not compete with our sunset cruises – in fact, the object is to get away from the bigger boats.

“People come out to Africa to experience nature and there is no better sight in the world than five or six elephants crossing the Zambezi while the sunset plays upon them. It is the twin of the other great action in Victoria Falls – the Jet Boat – where you come face to face with that giant white curtain of water.”

Another epic of the Zambezi, the jet boat, which operates as part of the Shearwater group, sails beneath the famous bridge at Victoria Falls that celebrated its centenary last year and comes through the Boiling Pot into the great spectacle of the thundering waterfall. Even Livingstone did not have such a close-up view.

“Sometimes we have to lift the jet boat out of the gorge and that is a very technical operation,’ says Glenn. “Initially, we thought the trip would have appealed to a very selective crowd, but in fact it now draws families, the middle-aged and elderly as well as the high-adrenalin junkies which we thought would be our original passengers.”

The jet boat is a very smooth ride and coming up to the Falls as we do provides something of a spiritual experience. You do get wet – we cannot avoid that – but we do get a unique view of the Falls and this link with the river safari provides a magnificent combination.”

July 2006
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