On the 14th August 2011, we rowed past the Livingstone Boat Club as we finished a 1,000km row in Central Africa down the Zambezi from Chavuma on the Angolan border to Victoria Falls. The row had been the first time anyone had rowed the Upper Zambezi. It had seen us dodge hippos, skirt the border of four countries, race crocodiles, be entertained by the Lozi king in Barotseland, and be on the receiving end of the immense hospitality of the Zambian people.
The expedition had begun with a reception at the Ridgeway hotel in Lusaka, jointly hosted by the deputy Zambian minister for Tourism, Mr Mwangala, and the British High Commissioner to Zambia, Carolyn Davidson. The conference was broadcast on Zambia’s news channel that evening. The following day, when the expedition team was getting ready to depart, and I was busy ordering a burger from Steers, someone came up to me and said he recognized me from the T.V. I thought he had told me he was a janitor that worked on walls and streets, but turned out he was a journalist from the Wall Street Journal and had even seen our website. He told me he thought what we were doing was slightly mad, asking if I knew that the Zambezi was not the Thames, after which he more seriously (over a burger of course) said he thought what we were doing was great for Zambia. It was only then that it began to sink in, there was no going back now: we were going to have to at least put the boats on the Zambezi!
With David Livingstone’s famous “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it is forward” given new meaning, we pushed off in Chavuma on the 27th July to begin the 1,000km row backwards. We began the Row Zambezi Expedition, less than 2km from the border with Angola, with the blessing of the local District Commissioner and the rather bewildered looking local villagers. The first leg was to make it to Chinyingi Mission. Arriving at dusk after a 6-hour, 70km row, we made camp next to the only bridge across the Zambezi for almost 800km, an Indiana Jones-esque wire suspension bridge. The next stage was a two day row to Lukulu.
After hearing the tales of local crocodile encounters, we had yet to actually see one. However, this all changed when the Zambezi suddenly swelled after its confluence with the Kabompo. After rowing to one side of the river to avoid a pod of hippos, we caught sight of the local “Kwena” (Lozi for crocodile). As we stopped to have a good look at him, he suddenly swung his body out of his midday sunbath and slid into the Zambezi. The immediate realization that he was somewhere in the dark water around us was not lost on any of us. I particularly felt for the Zambian rower in my boat who was wearing a life jacket because he hadn’t had a chance to learn to swim yet. He went into overdrive and didn’t stop rowing until we were 20km away from that first sighting. We learnt quickly to understand that we were sharing the river with its local inhabitants, and we were definitely the newcomers. The Zambezi is truly magnificent, quietly moving as one immense handsome force pushing itself effortlessly through the Zambian bush. Apart from the groan of hippos and the flashes of brilliant blue and gold of the pygmy Kingfishers, the bush gives no hints that it hides such a beautiful river.
The next stage was the Barotse floodplain, home to the Lozi Kingdom. The Barotse is a huge floodplain, which during the rainy season can mean the Zambezi swelling up to 25km wide. Because of the vast seasonal changes in the landscape, the area has very little in the way of any enduring infrastructure. The Zambezi is notoriously difficult to navigate on the floodplain, often following seemingly erratic and sometimes contradictory directions.
Rowing through the Barotse meant a five-day continuous row, camping at night on the banks of the Zambezi. With no access point for the land support team, the rowers would have to contend with no backup if there was an emergency. There was therefore talk of driving the boats around the Barotse and missing out the 200km section of the river altogether. Of course that would rather dampen our ambition to be the first to row the entire Upper Zambezi, and thoughts turned quickly on how we were to achieve the row while minimizing risk. It was decided that one rowing boat would attempt the Barotse (instead of the three which made up the expedition), carrying with them tents, cooking equipment and enough rations for a week, six rowers would go, rotating between the three seats on the rowing boat every hour. The rowers would be guided by just one support boat.
On the first day of the Barotse, Row Zambezi had its closest encounter with a hippo. The engine on the support boat had developed an annoying habit of suddenly stopping and refusing to start, as if it sensed danger ahead, and would only start again with some gentle reassurances and not so gentle pulls on the starter cord. In the middle of the river, the engine stuttered and died. While we were attempting to bring the engine back to life, we floated to one side of the river. It was then that someone noticed a trace of bubbles two meters from the boat. As if a submarine was slowly emerging from the Zambezi, water gushing off its dark head, a hippo surfaced only two meters from our oblivious engine. A minute passed while we frantically tried to jerk the engine back to life with the hippo eyeing us suspiciously. After what felt like a life time, the engine kicked and we took off leaving our inquisitive encounter in a flood of wake.
The fleeting greeting with the hippo on the first day of the mini expedition was the only anxious moment during the Barotse stage of the 1,000km row. Camping on the sandy banks of the Zambezi every evening, eating MoD issued ration packs, supplementing them with bream and tiger fish bought off the locals, were some of my favorite moments of the expedition. One of the most striking things that caught us unaware was the extent to which the Zambezi is used by local Zambians. During the day, we were greeted by running children, entire villages would come out to see us and all through the night fishermen balancing on their “mokoros” would entice fish to the surface using lanterns while beating the water to ward off crocodiles. The Zambezi is truly a highway for the local communities. We were also surprised to hear music from distant villages every night we were in the Barotse; our Zambian guide was keen to point out that “every night is party night in Zambia”.
While half the party was deep in the Barotse, the rest of the expedition team had an altogether more royal appointment. The Litunga (king), Lubosi II of Barotseland and head of the Lozi tribe, had heard about the expedition and wanted to meet us. His palace is situated 5 miles outside of Mongu, the capital of the Western Province. Set in a walled hamlet of colonial era buildings, we were greeted at the gates by one of the servants of the king, recognizable because all servants wear what looks like a red cotton shower cap. The immense reverence members of the Lozi held for their Litunga was immediately evident. While we were waiting for the King to arrive, we sat in a room facing the Litunga’s Lubona (throne) and watched while a member of the Acuta (the Council of Elders of the Lozi tribe) painstakingly crawled up to the throne, placed a box of tissues by its side and retreated clapping and bowing his head towards the chair.
After we were invited to the Ku Kambama, meaning to “climb to a higher level”, referring to the great honor of being in the presence of the Litunga, we presented our gifts, amongst which were some Ormonde Jayne perfume (for the king and his wife) and the latest Google maps of the Barotse floodplain. The Litunga addressed us in person instead of speaking through someone else, which, according to the Zambians amongst us, was incredibly rare. He told us that he was privileged to host us on our expedition, and how he admired the way that through rowing, we were able to enjoy the river without spoiling it. He also talked about his love of water sports and even hinted that if there was another rowing expedition he may be tempted to get involved! He then posed for photos, which shocked the Lozi Council of Elders and met us all in person. After telling him that I was a student at the LSE, he told me he had studied at UCL (he called it studying at Russell Square) and that he had attended some public lectures at the LSE!
While we were in Mongu, we went to the headquarters of Village Water, the charity that Row Zambezi is raising money and awareness for. Lukolo village is about 70km out of Mongu along a bumpy dirt track and is Village Water’s latest project. We saw the beginning of the excavation of the water well and were given a tour around the only school in the village. It was fantastic to see first hand the transformation Village Water was delivering to this remote community. Village Water were putting into place a sanitation project, which was to be run and managed by the women of the village.
It was clear that the availability of clean water was having a tremendous impact on the village. Basic crops were being prepared to plant, the first time the village would be able able to grow its own sustenance, and children now had time to attend school, all because of the newly available source of fresh clean water. The statistics speak for themselves; in Nandusu village in 2008, before Village Water helped initiate a clean water program, there were 42 cases of severe diarrhea and 20 cases of malaria. By 2010, after the work of Village Water, there were just two cases of diarrhea and one case of malaria. We only hope that we can do Village Water justice, and raise the funds that they desperately need to carry on the remarkable work that they are already delivering. It served to only reinforce more the gross paradox that these village communities deal with; they live alongside one the mightiest rivers in Africa but face a daily struggle to get clean usable water.
The final stage of the expedition was from Senanga, on the southern tip of the Barotse to Victoria Falls, our final destination. The final stage was 400km long and would take us past Katima Mulilo, the border of three countries, four major game reserves and see us contend with the tenacity of the Zambezi rapids, including Sioma Falls.
Negotiating the rapids proved to be a challenging task. The first rapid we came to proved to be quite literally the watershed. We therefore had four rowers float/lift each boat over the rocks before the opening of the channel. As we approached the channel, the depth of the water suddenly dropped and the speed of the water picked up greatly as the water was squeezed through the narrow passage. The lead boat got swept into the channel, with the rowers desperately clinging on. The sky abruptly disappeared as the overhanging trees and bushes enveloped us. With only an eerie green light coming through the canopy, the boats got stuck on roots and branches blocking the channel. Out came the machetes and knifes as we hacked our way through the Zambezi. Tilly hats on, it looked like something out of a Vietnam movie as we swam the boats through the channels grinning from ear to ear. We finally made it out the other side. Once we got out, we discovered we were covered in tiny leeches and one of the support boats had been ripped. Yet, we felt we had finally tasted what it may have been like for Livingstone 150 years ago, leading an expedition without the maps and equipment that we were relying on.
After that first rapid, we were eager to jump out and swim the boats down at any sign of another rapid. But being told not too mildly that we had been incredibly reckless, especially with regard to potentially providing any resident crocodiles with a feast, we became a lot more careful. Our last crocodile encounter came on the last night before we finished the row to the Livingstone Boat Club. Hosted by an exclusive lodge 5km from Livingstone that supposedly prides itself on its British rowing connections, we were given a place to camp on a rather minimal rocky plot of land next to the river. When our South African doctor was collecting some water from the river, when he turned to look at the river he saw the head of the resident crocodile eyeing him up. A local told us the same crocodile was rather notorious in the area and had apparently eaten a horse only the week before. Unfortunately, the crocodile was the best hospitality we received while camping at this lodge. It was ironic that after the remarkable warmth and generosity of the Zambian people, it was an ex-British army officer who was stuck in the Colonial age that meant our last night on the expedition was spent behind an electrified fence.
We finished the row on the 14th August, my Dad’s 50th birthday (the person who had spent the last two years making the expedition a reality). We arrived to a beautiful reception at the Livingstone Boat Club, rowing in to the sound of the local marimba band, fireworks and a press boat containing a Zambian film crew. The expedition finished almost as quickly as it had started; it had been 20 days since we left Lusaka and it was suddenly over. We had made it, 1000km from the border with Angola to within site of the mighty columns of steam rising from the Mosi-oa-Tunya (which literally means ‘the smoke that thunders’, the local name for the Victoria Falls).
I stayed in Zambia for two weeks longer than the rest of the expedition to meet the director of the Livingstone Museum to see if there was any research I could do for my dissertation, and ended up getting the chance to actually hold in my hands a real letter on a bluish grey piece of paper that David Livingstone had written on the shores of Lake Nyasa, as well as working with a kind and gently spoken researcher called Kingsley.
I had a truly amazing time in the 5 weeks I had spent in Zambia. There had been some rather edgy moments, including the encounter with the hippo in the Barotse and the swim through the Kasanga rapids. There had also been some moments that had taken my breath away: camping on the banks of the Zambezi, watching the sun go down to the groan of hippos, with the rich golden glow of the river reflecting the sinking sun while we sipped a cheeky beer or two that we had snuck into our ‘emergency rations’. Not to mention meeting the Litunga of the Lozi tribe, seeing the work of Village Water and helping at the Livingstone museum. But above all, it was the kindness and warm-heartedness of the Zambian people, who time and time again would go out of their way to help us, that I will most fondly remember.