One Thousand Mile Zambezi Journey

By Ted Scannell

Ted Scannell was one of the most unassuming men I have known. He was a wiry, slightly built man with more courage than his frame was built to contend with. He had many ambitious dreams that plagued his waking hours. Some would be realized.

In 1957, before Lake Kariba was built, he played out one of those dreams. It was a single-handed thousand-mile epic canoeing expedition down the mighty Zambezi! Two friends who had promised to join him were not able to do so for one reason or another. He knew that if he didn’t go ahead as planned, the trip would remain a dream.

In 1960 Ted wrote this story of his trip that was published in the RST Company house magazine “Horizon”.

( Ted wrote:

Sooner or later, I had to face it. For years I had to suppress the urge just to pack up and go for a long canoe jaunt down the Zambezi. I think the idea first lodged in my mind when I read a schoolboy adventure story by someone whose only knowledge of the river was probably derived from a geography book. The seed had fallen in fertile soil and soon grew to become an obsession, but each year opportunity failed to present itself until eventually the prospect of growing family commitments tipped the scales. It was now or never.

What eventually turned out to be two and a half months of adventurous boating, most of it alone, was never intended to be such. Two companions and I had agreed it should be a threesome adventure. The first defection occurred as a result of domestic pressure on one of our trio, the second by an enforced postponement of leave. I was left alone with no time to recruit another team; any further delay would have brought the tail end of the journey into the start of the rainy season, with possibly unhappy results.

Thus it was that I set out alone with a 13-foot folding canvas canoe, a change of clothes, toothbrush, a cake of soap, towel, blanket, hand-axe, sheath-knife, two cameras, and, most important of all, a snakebite outfit. I started from a point below Mongu, which was easily accessible by the road that runs up the west bank from Katima Mulilo, and planned to go down to the sea, but in the event, I spent too much time watching the game along the middle reaches of the river, between Chirundu and Mpata gorge, and so was unable to complete the last lap from Tete in Mozambique to Chinde on the coast.

During my time on the river, I travelled about 1,000 miles, 550 of it by canoe, but part – when meeting up with other people – by power barge (200 miles), dug-out canoe (for a short distance) and even following part of the Zambezi’s winding course from the air. Portages around Victoria Falls and Kebrabassa Gorge involved about 250 miles of road travel.

One impression of the river stands out: its diversity. One learns to expect a kaleidoscope of successive surprises – magnificent waterfalls, foaming rapids, expanses of glassy smoothness and whirlpools gliding silently through gorges. The Zambezi flows sluggishly through treeless plains; it gathers volume from its tributaries as it cuts its way through riverine forests whose creeper-clad walls drop sheer to the water’s edge, protesting at mountain barriers it roars and tumbles through defiles, leaping obstructions. Daily, almost hourly, it presents a different face.

Generally, when canoeing, I kept to a fairly set routine: starting off early in the morning, resting for about an hour at midday and continuing until about 4 p.m. before spending the night at an African kraal, alone on a high bank or island, or occasionally at a European camp with hunters, missionaries, game rangers or traders.

Through most of Barotseland I travelled on a barge of the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (generally abbreviated to Wenela), which recruits African labour for the South African gold mines. Here the river winds through a wide, barren plain that stretches to the horizon with hardly a single tree in sight most of the time. But the game is plentiful and crocodiles bask on the low green banks, slithering into the water when the barge comes in view.

Below the 350-feet-high Victoria Falls, the Zambezi twists and turns through a wild and rugged country that few men, black or white, have ever ventured to explore properly. The canyon cuts deep into the hills. You can get to this area only on foot, and if you cover three or four miles on the map a day, that is good progress. It will mean that you are in fact walking – or rather clambering, slipping and pushing – anything up to 15 miles a day.

This I discovered to my dismay when I tried it. Precipitous climbs, dreary detours and dense undergrowth make progress heartbreakingly slow. My aim was to walk the 60-odd miles to the confluence of the Gwaai River, from where it becomes possible to travel by water again. I had intended to send my canoe around by lorry to an old mission site near the Gwaai while walked. But I failed to complete the distance and had to turn back, beaten by the ruggedness of what will probably always remain the most desolate region in the Federation.

The Batoka Gorge, as it is called, bites deep into the earth and at each bend ravines radiate from the main gorge, blocking your way. Twenty miles below the Victoria Falls the gorge has cut itself 800 feet deep and the river plunges in a seething mass over the 20-foot drop of the Chimamba Falls.

Below this gorge, the Gwembe Valley was, when I made my trip, by pleasant contrast more placid and easy, though with a few small rapids. Here I found the Tonga people, one of the oldest tribes along the Zambezi and one of the most primitive, to be most hospitable and kindly whenever met them. Today much of this valley 1s inundated by the waters of Kariba and Tonga have been moved to new locations.

One of the major tests of my canoe came in Kariba Gorge itself. As the swift current whipped the canoe through the top end of the gorge workmen, coming down to start the day’s work on the dam site, rushed to the embankment to wave. Work on the dam was at an early stage then.

The dam site appeared to rush past and from below me came the roar of churning water protesting at being squeezed through the narrow waist of hills at both sides. The 2,000-foot-high hills blotted out the early morning sun. Within a few moments I was in a wild torrent, unable to control the canoe in any way – it swept from side to side like a cork in a flooded drain, following its own course irrespective of my wishes.

Despite the chill morning, beads of sweat broke out on my forehead as I watched the babbling, racing river on both sides of me, but this soon gave way to exhilaration as the thickly wooded hillsides swept past.

Around the next bend great whirlpools, six to 10 feet in diameter, formed mysteriously, glided silently around the pool and disappeared, their places being taken by others. A thick plank of wood washed down from the dam site, suddenly slipped into the whirling water. As one end plunged into the vortex, the other shot into the air balanced momentarily and then slid under – like a match stick going down the bath-plug hole.

In a frantic effort I tried to swing the canoe to the rocky bank. It paid no heed and in a second, I could feel the tug towards a whirlpool forming on the left. As the whirlpool caught it, the canoe spun round, then righted itself and shot out again along its normal course. In other pools the canoe slid into the whirl with a sloshing sound, blocking the vortex, and slipping out again. Once it was whipped around by the swirl of water and emerged backwards. It was about 50 yards before I could turn the canoe round again.

After a quarter of an hour of fighting to keep the canoe off the jagged rocks, the gorge widened slightly and apparently grew deeper and more placid. The sun peeped over the top of the hills on my left and lit up the red, green and gold trees. Baboons scampered playfully over the rocks at the water’s edge and for the next 14 miles, progress through the gorge was calm with each bend in the river presenting a new panorama of hills, twisted baobabs and striplings bursting into leaf. At midday, I took a broad sweep to the left and suddenly emerged through the portals of the gorge into the wide plain stretching to the northeast.

In the middle of this plain, the Chirundu Bridge spans the river and below the bridge stretches the vast broken country that is probably the best natural haunt of wild animals left in the Federation. Large herds of elephant, buffalo and antelope roam freely. It is the home of the lion, the leopard, the hyena and the rhino. It is also my favourite stretch of the whole river. Over a hundred years ago Livingstone passed this way; 30 years later Selous visited the area. Since then, comparatively few men have been there and the country is almost the same as it was when Livingstone and Selous passed by.

So long did I linger in this delightful country that I was unable to reach the Indian Ocean before my leave ran out. But I consider it time well spent. Because very little shooting is carried on here – it is illegal, though there is a certain amount of poaching – the vast herds of elephant, buffalo, waterbuck, eland, impala and other antelope are comparatively tame and can be approached on foot. I was able to see hundreds of head of the game and photograph much of it from close up.

One of the chief focal points of game concentration is the Nemana Pools, a 10-mile chain of pools fed by the high floodwaters of the Zambezi. Here, during the dry season, game congregates from the waterless hinterland stretching south to the escarpment. From a campsite near one of the pools I could in one day, and without much walking, see waterbuck standing knee-deep in water, elephant splashing in the mud, buffalo coming down to drink and over-inquisitive rhino waiting in the shade for dusk to fall. At one pool I counted 35 different types of waterfowl; duck and wild geese were present literally in their thousands.

Twice I was charged by rhino and once hemmed in against a small Zambezi tributary by elephant coming down to drink; the rhino on both occasions turned off when they got close to me as I fled madly and, by banging a dry log against a tree, I was able to send the elephant charging off through the bush.

On one occasion while visiting a waterhole at sunset about a mile from the Zambezi, I looked around to see a rhino ambling down; hastily climbing one of the two trees at the edge of the pool – a large thorny acacia – I watched the rhino walk right under the 15-foot-high branch on which I perched uncomfortably. When the rhino left and I was about to come down, a small herd of elephant came into sight and I decided the thorn tree would be my bed for the night. I was able to tie myself to a fork with a rope that I usually carried in my belt and, conscious of the animal sounds all around, I managed to sleep only about two hours altogether.

But dawn came with a swiftness that took me by surprise. The grey streak of the Zambezi in the distance turned silver, then molten gold and it was daylight. Three hundred yards north of my tree two young rhinos played like pups; a few minutes later I spotted five or six elephants feeding on musanga tree pods on the edge of the clearing. In the east, I counted 23 waterbuck grazing as they moved slowly towards the pan.

As if all this were not sufficient, a lion passed close to the waterbuck from the direction of the river; it paid them no heed at all and did not even glance at them. For their part, the waterbuck was obviously aware that the king – though perhaps a slightly immature one – had no evil intentions and there was no attempt to break away and gallop off. The lion had probably made a kill and eaten earlier.

As I watched this profusion of wildlife, a fish eagle swooped low over the pan and settled in a mubvewe tree about 30 yards from me – the only other tree on the pan. A Goliath heron glided in like an airliner, landed on the edge of the pan and stepped delicately into the water. The huge bird, the biggest of all the herons – with its dark body and brown head and neck, stood at least four feet high. Suddenly it poised, ready, I thought, to spear a fish. As I waited for the swift thrust of the head, the heron abandoned all dignity and scuttled through the shallow water in an effort to take off. Before it had covered six or seven yards the fish eagle, whose presence I’d forgotten, hit it and the heron sprawled in the water but managed to make the opposite bank. In a second the eagle pounced again. The heron’s spindly legs sagged and the bird fell in a flurry of feathers and dust. Then it staggered off, and in long strides took to the air, leaving the eagle and myself the sole possessors of the pan. The fish eagle had jealously guarded its fishing rights.

At 8.30, when the activity around me had died down, I descended from my grandstand having seen more in the previous two hours than I have ever seen in a similar period in a game reserve.

Below this animal playground, the Zambezi is again constricted by high hills as it flows through the Mpata Gorge, which in many respects is like Kariba Gorge. Emerging from the gorge the river enters Mozambique at the little frontier settlement of Zumbo and flows on for over 100 miles across a wide mopane tree plain to Chicoa, a small Portuguese village at the head of the notorious, 60-mile-long Kebrabassa Gorge, with its 13 waterfalls and 69 rapids. Zumbo and Chicoa, of relatively minor importance today with only a handful of Europeans each, were once important trade centres and were founded by the Portuguese 300 years ago. One night between the two settlements I slept in an ancient Portuguese fort now falling into disrepair, a relic of the old slave-trading days.

A few miles above Chicoa I joined a party of hunters from South Africa. Their equipment included a five-ton lorry, a three-quarter-ton pick-up, a Jeep and a Fairchild aeroplane for spotting game. I spent three days with the hunters and accompanied them on one of their abortive hunting trips – there was little game about, much of it having been shot out. One day I went up as a passenger in their plane, taking off – to my horror – from the narrow dirt track that passed the camp. We swung out over the Zambezi and followed the river’s course down the Kebrabassa Gorge. The river twisted and turned and writhed as it fought its way around innumerable obstacles, making Kariba by comparison look almost like a boat pond on a calm day.

Later, after the hunters had departed, I persuaded three Africans to take me into the gorge in their dug-out canoe. After a few hours and only a few miles of progress, they refused to go any further. Around the next bend, they assured me, was a waterfall at the foot of which lived a monster that preyed on anyone entering that section of the river. This may merely have been an excuse to turn back or a belief fostered by the fact that so many attempts to go right through the gorge have ended tragically. As far as I can determine only one party has ever managed to follow the river through the gorge – H. de Lassoe and a companion achieved it in 1903 with monumental difficulties while trying to determine the river’s navigability from above Kariba to the sea.

When the Africans left me, I wandered for three days in the wilderness of hills that crowd the bank of the river. Rather romantically I hoped I might stumble on the ancient lost silver mines of Chicoa, which are probably located somewhere in the range of hills that straddle the Zambezi, forming the gorge. That silver once came out of Chicoa in considerable quantities is undisputed. But many expeditions have been ruined searching for the mines. Needless to say, I found no trace of them and returned to Chicoa to go around the gorge by road.

Except for this gorge, which almost broke Livingstone’s heart and was one of the major disappointments in his life, the Zambezi could easily be made navigable to river steamers from the ocean to Kariba.

Twenty-five miles below the gorge is the little town of Tete, the biggest Portuguese settlement on the river, which for me had unfortunately to be the end of the journey: from here I returned to Salisbury by road. The Zambezi from Tete flows sluggishly down to the sea, reaching in places a width of five miles; it is my intention to complete this section some other time, not by canoe but in one of the paddle-wheel river steamers that run regularly between Tete and the delta.

Would I undertake such a venture again? I doubt it. I found the journey thrilling and varied, but to undertake such a trip alone one needs to be somewhat phlegmatic: I was handicapped at the start by an over-active imagination. As it turned out, the only times I was ever in any real danger was during several encounters on the river with hippos, and most of these animals were probably more inquisitive than belligerent. I did, however, come across one African in the Caprivi Strip who had been attacked and badly injured by a hippo – his canoe had been bitten in two as if it were a matchbox, and his right arm and shoulder crushed in the powerful jaws.

Looking back, I am happy now to have known and lived with the Zambezi before it was tamed.)

Image from www.aspensojo.com

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