My brother Troy is a burly ox of a man with an adventurous, can-do attitude to life. He is a great guy to tag along with on adventures, but he and I are quite different in that I’m far more risk averse. Last year he invited me to partner with him on a fishing competition on the Zambezi river, in the north of Zimbabwe. The river is wide and a literal border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.
The wildlife here is unlike anything even the average born and bred African gets to experience often. I was immediately struck by a more exotic genre of animal music; different to what I’m used to hearing further South. Throughout the day exotic Staccatoed bird chirps, baritone hippo trumpets, goat bleats, moos and a little too much cowbell play on like some kind of wild jazz opera.
Many creatures here will most definitely kill you if you’re not careful. Daily life here is a gauntlet of elephants, leopards, crocodiles, hippos, malaria-ridden mosquitoes, finger-removing toothy tiger fish, electric barbel (that can deliver a charge of 300 to 400 volts), poisonous barbed fish, venomous snakes, and temperatures that are above 50°C on some days. I consider myself outdoorsy and I’ve grown up camping and fishing, but this place had me more than a little out of my comfort zone.
A day before the fishing competition my brother informed me that we needed to collect some bait in the nearby town of Mlibizi. We could have gone by car but he felt that going by boat would be far quicker. It’s 4pm and I’m doing the maths on boat speed versus distance, and l realise that we’ll be coming back in the dark – in crocodile- and hippo-infested waters. “Erm Troy, if you think about it we’ll be coming back in the dark, is that such a good idea? Shouldn’t we at least take a flashlight???” “We’ll be fine,” he says, “…it’s full moon tonight.”
Begrudgingly I assist with getting the boat down to the river for launch. This takes us an hour and I’m still protesting as it floats. By now I’m sensing the locals sniggering at me like I’m some city slicker pansy, so I climb on board and off we go. As we come around the first bend (literally across the bay from camp), several sunning crocodiles hear our boat coming and they race down the bank launching themselves into the water at speed. If I were watching a nature documentary I’d know these crocodiles are running to the safety of the water, but under this cloud of doom I feel sure they’re responding to the sound of a dinner bell.
It takes us over an hour to get to Mlibizi. It’s slow going and we have to avoid hippos, rocks, tree stumps, sandbanks and clusters of illegal floating fishing nets put out by villagers. The nets are suspended on plastic Chibuku bottles (local maize beer), and this is the only indicator that under the water are highways of rope and fishing line that could quickly render a boat motor useless. We take a few wrong turns on the way and even though I’ve never been here before I’m trying my best to remember landmarks in a repetitious landscape of scenic rocky hills and impressive Baobab trees. We arrive at Mlibizi in one piece, but by now it’s dusk. The absence of sound from the now hot and resting boat motor is replaced by the sound of a million tiny mosquitoes apparently on little, tiny motorcycles. Troy watches me, shaking his head while I immediately fumigate myself in a cloud of insect repellent.
By the time we collected the bait and set off back to camp it’s completely dark. We now only have the moonlight and an intermittent GPS to run the gauntlet home. The fishing nets are difficult to spot early and I’m sitting at the front of the boat squinting into the darkness; arm at the ready to give sudden direction change cues to Troy. I see something up ahead. Is it the reflection of the rocky hills on the water? It’s kinda big, it’s… what is that coming towards us? I’m suddenly thrown against the front of the boat and the motor is screaming then stalls. We’ve stopped. Very abruptly. It’s suddenly quiet except for a few frogs and night jars. Before we can really take stock of what’s just happened, we hear a hippo trumpeting, and it’s close. We realise we’ve run aground on a sandbank island and the boat is far up the bank and well out of the water.
I look in the direction of the trumpeting and I see a large hippo flicking it’s ears in the moonlight. It’s around fifty metres away, which is too close considering our predicament, and who knows how many crocodiles may have been drawn in by all the noise we were making. For the first time I’m hearing real stress in Troy’s voice and I’m reeling with imagined disappointed search parties, newspaper headlines and statistics of mosquitoes, hippos and crocodiles being in the top five deadliest animals in Africa. Aside from the very vocal and dangerous hippo over there, I know what basks in the sun on this bank during the day and I’m sure as hell not getting out of the boat to push. Troy suggests we stand open stance, both facing the back of the boat, then rock back and forth on our legs to gradually slide the boat back into the water. It’s really slow going, like five centimeters a minute slow; but half an hour of rocking back and forth, sweating and wheezing; legs like rubbery lava; we were able to get the motor tiller deep enough in the water to reverse the boat off the bank.
The rest of the way home was without comparable incident. Although we did accidentally hit two crocodiles and on the last bend, with the lights of home in sight, we nicked a hippo with the side of the boat and I got sprayed in the face as it exhaled to sink below the surface.
Upon landing I kissed the ground, my wife and my son like I had just come back from a year-long mission in outer space.
We went on to win the fishing tournament and came home to ordinary life with a few great stories – fortunately none worthy of a Darwin Award!
(Top left) The worlds largest Baobab tree, Msuna. (Top right) Low water levels expose the river bank to sweltering heat. This section is usually well underwater, approx. 100 meters from shore. (Bottom left) Team t-shirts designed by myself. (Bottom Right) Team Hookers, 2015 Msuna Invitational champions.