I’ve called this photo Safe Harbour, but that’s probably debatable. It was taken the morning after our first night camping on the Lower Zambezi. The day before, after a few hours of paddling, we’d had a taste of the upcoming rainy season. Clouds loomed and bellowed across the sky. We saw rain falling in front of us and behind. It was also raining to our left, where the storm was coming from. Debate raged, while the wind picked up, as to whether or not it was heading directly at us or would pass just behind. Our Zimbabwean guide, called CB, quelled the debate. He was a soft-spoken individual, typical of the people we’d met during our time on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. He told us we’d be making camp an hour earlier than planned. The storm was heading straight for us and the strong winds increased our chance of capsizing. We began to paddle a bit harder than the previously relaxed pace of the day. The landing spot pictured above came into sight and CB gestured for us to head in. At this point, we experienced just how terrifying an angry hippo can be.
“Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!”
CB was suddenly animated and we spun around in our seats to see what was happening. The second-last canoe was moving faster than I knew a canoe could. I swear it was actually on a plane, the nose rising and falling with each paddle-stroke as it ploughed through the water. About five feet behind was a hippo, surging through the water with it’s head bobbing up and down with each forward thrust. We’d find out later that, apparently, one of the people in the last canoe struck what he thought was a rock with his paddle. As you can probably guess, it was a submerged hippopotamus – the creature second in line to the mosquito for causing the most deaths per year in Africa. The chase probably spanned about 15-20 feet or so, before the hippo calmed down, but it definitely gave us a taste of what we’d gotten ourselves into.
Once we reached land and pulled our canoes ashore, the rain set in. Most of us had rain jackets. Chris and I had lightweight rain jackets that didn’t shield you from the impact of the rain, and this was rain like I’ve never experienced. It was coming in sideways and the drops must have been the size of marbles. You could feel the impact of every single one. We were better off than George though, an Aussie we’d met back in Livingstone who decided to join us. He’d left his rain jacket on a bus a few months earlier and, not having any need for one in the dry season, hadn’t replace it. Four of us stood next to each other, with our backs to the onslaught, for him to hunker down in front of us and try to stay dry. It didn’t work very well. The rain didn’t take long to pass and we set about making camp.
It quickly became evident that this would be an interesting night. We were setting up on sand, amongst dried elephant and hippo dung. As it turned out, the grassy, muddy field behind us was a popular night-time feeding place for elephants and hippos. On top of this, it was hot. Keeping the fly sheet on the tent was not an option, so we slept with nothing but a mesh tent separating us from the outdoors.
A quick wave of our flashlights revealed the startling close glint of eyes in the darkness and we settled in for the night. Just prior to falling asleep I heard the trumpet of an elephant. It sounded like it was right outside the tent. I remembered CB’s advice that we would hear animals and they would sound far closer than they really were. With this in mind, I drifted off to sleep. I woke up a few times in the night, once to the sound of hyenas, another to the sound of lions, and repeated the mantra that they could be heard form a great distance away. I drifted off comfortably each time.
However, we had at least one very close encounter. In the morning, my tent mate Chris told me he’d woken up to the unmistakable thud of elephant dung hitting the ground. We’d become accustomed to this sound on our elephant-back safari a few days earlier. He said he actually felt the vibrations of it hitting the ground. Sure enough, we found a fresh deposit just outside our tent. I only wish he’d woken me up so I could try to shine a light outside and spot one. This might be why he didn’t wake me up.
As I mentioned this photo was taken in the morning, just before the sun came up. I’ve combined 7 exposures from -3 to +3 in Photomatix and then cleaned it up in Photoshop.