Words & Photos by Ricolette Von Wielligh
Opportunity strikes but once, they say. What is not said is that opportunity may come under disguise. We experienced this firsthand during our adventure cycling tour through central Africa.
My husband Hendrik and I were hungry for adventure and well geared up for our 15,000km cycling trip, which would take us through Namibia, east through the Caprivi region to Botswana, then north to Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
The first three weeks on the road were problem free and then we had a major setback: I was bitten on the leg by a venomous violin spider halfway through the Caprivi. It was painful, became badly swollen and went septic, and the doctor in Katima Mulilo advised me to keep my leg still for three weeks! We were downhearted and upset of course, but then opportunity knocked at our door.
After resting for two weeks in Katima Mulilo, we hiked to Livingstone. There we met two seasoned travellers, Simon and Phillip, Swiss brothers who, at that time, had cycled more than a whopping 18,000km through western and central Africa. Even though they had been through some hair-raising moments on their travels, including a tribal war, bomb explosion and Simon being run over by a car, they still hoped to experience the ultimate wildlife safari. Hendrik came up with the idea of paddling the Chobe River from Kasane to Ngoma in canoes, and Simon and Phillip became our co-adventurers on this unforgettable journey. And so our Chobe paddling adventure began …
We rented three canoes and set off on the Chobe River, which forms the boundary between Botswana and Namibia. Paddling without a permit is not allowed in the Botswanian waters of Chobe National Park, so we kept to the Namibian side, taking a detour around the main tourism waters. Due to a lack of communication on our side, our friends didn’t take their GPS with. We estimated the journey would take us about a day and a half to complete, but were never sure how far we had progressed, or how long it would still take us to reach Ngoma, at any one time during the journey. Not even the occasional fisherman could give us guidance.
Our first wildlife encounter was with a very large herd of Cape buffalo. The bird life in the reeds and on the banks was incredible and we witnessed a giant kingfisher slapping a freshly caught fish to pulp on a branch just two canoe lengths away from us. What a sighting! Hippos popped up every now and then, air exploding from their nostrils, and large numbers of tiny jellyfish drifted effortlessly in the water. We watched a herdsman crossing the river on a boat towards an island where his cattle were grazing amongst a herd of buffalo, and wondered how he intended to separate his cattle from the aggressive buffalos. He banked and patiently called out to his cattle. Although we were inquisitive to see how the situation would unfold, the river beckoned.
After almost half a day’s paddling we reached a dead end. Somehow we had missed the turn off to the main stream, and with no GPS for guidance we had to paddle all the way back to look for the turn off, while fighting head-on winds. We passed the island where the herdsman's cattle were feasting with their fellow bovines, but there was not a single cow to be seen amongst the buffalo now. Hunger pangs eventually led to us going onshore to enjoy lunch, not far from where a group of elephant bulls were grazing. At first it seemed like they hadn't notice us, but later they became inquisitive and walked towards us. With a burst of adrenalin and a dash of speed we packed up and got into our boats just as the bulls reached our lunch spot. They drank water only a few arm lengths away from us before moving off. Just then a fisherman cruised by in his motorised boat and kindly pulled all three canoes towards the correct turn off to the main stream.
We paddled until the last sunrays coloured the air and water a rosy pink. All along the river small herds of elephant crossed over to Namibian ground to graze for the night (at that time Chobe National Park had received little rain and was very dry and over grazed). We camped on an elevated bank close to an elephant footpath and listened to the rumbles and vocalizations made by elephants somewhere in the dark. Later, a few village boys came to say hello and gave us fire wood, and early the next morning their friendly mother also came to introduce herself.
The scenery was beautiful and fish eagles called around every second bend of the river. We watched fishermen on makoros pulling in their circular net, but the few fish in their net jumped out and escaped back into the river. They had caught nothing and we were disappointed for them. A little further along, we came across a herd of elephant so enormous it was almost beyond belief. A sea of elephant, as far as the eye could see, crossed the river ahead of us towards a large open plain to our right, so we beached the canoes on a sand bank to absorb every moment of this unique spectacle. They appeared totally relaxed, with some taking a dust bath, babies suckling and older sisters and cousins generously paying attention to younger ones. In their own leisurely time, they gradually disappeared over the horizon.
Back in the water we paddled through a section of very murky water infested with crocodiles. It was unnerving to see scaled backs gliding through the water just metres away from us. On the bank to our left, an elephant cow and her two calves walked down to a pool of water and indulged in a mud bath. A single black line on the side of the riverine proved to be hundreds of open-billed storks, and great herds of zebra and red lechwe foraged in the distance. A pod of nosy hippo followed us at a distance. Nothing in this area indicated that it had ever been defiled by human intervention; it was completely untouched, unspoilt, and it felt as if we were the first people ever to be there.
Reaching another dead end we paddled back through the croc infested waters to search for the main stream. We followed a branch but hit another dead end, this one containing more than 50 hippos. We were well and truly lost, so Hendrik banked and walked towards higher ground to try and figure out which way to go. It turned out we were very close to the main stream, which meandered past the other side of the small hill. We decided to carry the boats over the hill instead of paddling all the way around and risk getting lost again. So the three valiant men carried the heavily loaded boats past a family of grazing elephants to the main stream. Amazingly we did not feel threatened by the elephants, in fact they minded their business and so did we.
Back in the main stream it was time to look for fresh fish and a good camping spot for the night. After finding an elevated spot with a good view, we bought some fish from a friendly fisherman and enjoyed a superb fish dinner before turning in. That night we heard lions roar across the river and hippos grunt in stereo.
We were woken early by rumbles close by, which turned out to be an elephant family. A few of the youngsters were still lying down on their sides sleeping, but as the red sun rose over the African plains, the herd moved off while we enjoyed our breakfast. There was game everywhere, often in large numbers, and we were becoming almost blazé about all the animals we had seen so far. However, more than once that day we came across masses of vultures feasting on buffalo carcasses, the smell of decaying bodies hung thick in the air. By midday it was extremely hot and time for a good lunch, so we rested in an area of stretched out flood plains. Elephant, zebra and red lechwe were grazing in the distance and a hyena passed close by. Simon and Phillip cooked us the best fish ever before we settled down for an afternoon siesta, using the canoes, which were propped up by the paddles, for shade.
Refreshed, we continued on the river which was becoming shallower and narrower, and full of twists and turns. Along this section we saw such a big herd of impala that it looked like a red brick wall simmering on the plains. Later that afternoon we passed countless zebra grazing together. Some of the stallions were fighting, jumping up on hind quarters, pawing and biting each other. Then all of a sudden the herd would burst into motion, the drumming of hundreds of hooves resonating against the earth as they ran for short distances before settling once again. Shortly afterwards we saw an elephant cow, with very skew tusks, standing on an island in the river with her two calves. She was nervous about our presence and they quickly moved off.
We called it a day and camped on the opposite bank of the river. The night air brought sounds of animals crossing the river to our side. We thought it was hippo or maybe elephant, but the light from our JETBeam torches confirmed it was a herd of buffalo, which soon disappeared into the darkness like phantoms. In the early hours of the morning Simon was awakened to the sounds of a hippo grazing too close to his tent.
It was another day filled with the most amazing game viewing, including a sighting of a martial eagle clamping an Egyptian goose to the ground with its huge talons. We also saw carmine bee-eaters, black-winged pratincoles, saddle-billed storks and ground hornbills. By now the river's water level was getting really low and the wildlife less abundant. Sometimes we had to climb out of the canoes and drag them into deeper pools of water. We reached Ngoma that evening and spent our last night camped on the banks of the Chobe River. Relieved that we had survived the journey without any major problems, but already longing to relive every moment of this incredible experience, we ate dinner in thoughtful silence. The next morning we caught a ride back to Kasane in a taxi, music pumping in our ears.
Paddling the Chobe was an unparalleled wildlife experience. For four days we witnessed what the Garden of Eden must have been like. On top of that, the people made the journey, which was tough and primitive by any standards. Was it not for our new buddies, Simon and Phillip, who were so easy going, adaptable, tolerant and brave, it simply wouldn’t have been the same. These two Swiss brothers taught us how to enjoy Africa at its best. Thank you guys, you were just great! Our grateful thanks also go to our sponsors for helping to make this trip possible.
To read more about Hendrik and Ricolette’s marathon cycling tour through central Africa visit www.cycleafrica.co.za. For more on Simon and Phillip’s cycling journey visit www.brotherscycling.com.