Die another day: One day in Zambia

It was a day that started quite unlike any other. I woke stuck to the tent in sweat, opened my eyes and remembered: I’m in Africa. It was the first day of a three week  camping adventure overlanding through Southern Africa starting in Zambia. We only had one day here so I had to make the most of it. I had no idea what that would really mean.

Victoria Falls through the trees.


Whitewater rafting in the Zambezi

The Zambezi is one of the best places on earth to go whitewater rafting. That’s what I was told. I didn’t realise that ‘the best’ meant one of the roughest and most dangerous.

After a brief safety demo we took an open truck to the river, close to the famous Victoria Falls. A local gathered us round to tell us the story of Nyami Nyami, the Zambezi River God of Tonga folklore that is said to live in the Zambezi.  Inevitably we are tricked into buying a Nyami Nyami pendant to protect us that day, a piece of jewellery that has a significance similar to the St Christopher of Christianity. I didn’t know how much I’d need it.

We clambered down the steep banks to the boats. Even before we left I was nearly hurled off my perch by the force of the tide. Under orders we paddled hard to reach the first rapid, only to be buffeted back. We tried again. And again. Our inexperience showed.

The scale of Victoria falls is hard to describe.

Finally we reached it- and the boat flipped, hurling us deep under water. I was disorientated, it was dark, I couldn’t work out which way was up,  I couldn’t breathe- and then I bobbed to the surface, my lifejacket pulling me back to the world above water when I couldn’t work out where that was.

It scared me more than I expected- I knew I’d fall in but I didn’t anticipate the water being so violent, or how deep you’d get thrown down in the force. As we approached the next rapid I gripped on for dear life and just about made it, only to be thrown headlong again at the third.

This time as I bobbed up I hit a rubber wall. I’d become trapped under the boat and couldn’t feel my way out. My lungs screamed as I panicked, groping my way along it to try to find the way out. The water changed direction again and I was finally free. Now I understood that Nyami Nyami wasn’t to be messed with.

Made another. Fell in another. This time the following rapid was too close- I couldn’t make it to the boat in time and had to go over freestyle before being dragged back to safety by a rescue kayak. My heart thudded out of my chest. Extreme sports? Never again.

When we finally made it to the end we were told we could float for awhile to rest before clambering up the sheer face to land again. With Zambia on one side and Zimbabwe on the other, I blinked, shellshocked at the sun, and thanked God we had got through.

‘I’m going to do the bungee jump over Victoria falls’, my tent-mate told us. ‘Will anyone come with me?’

Well if I didn’t die this morning, I thought…

Celebratory survival pose

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls itself is hard to describe in words. I don’t think I’ve ever been so struck by the sheer power of nature. The noise of such a volume of water thudding with such power over the rock face, that stretches for nearly two kilometres. I stared, stunned for a long time before getting my camera out, trying to take it all in.

Then we saw the bridge over the river where people bungee. And the drop.

I had intended to just go along with my tent-mate for moral support. And yet.

I’m terrified of heights. I get the heebie jeebies just looking down from escalators or steep theatre steps. But I would never be here again. I didn’t want to be the person who went to the bungee at Victoria Falls and just watched. As I was trying to decide whether to fork out the £90 to do the jump, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought. If I can do this, nothing will ever seem scary again.

The bridge over the Zambezi

The jump

Standing on the metal grill at the edge of the bridge an hour later, I regretted the decision. My feet were bound in towels- towels?! Is that really enough?! And I’d been alarmed at the lack of safety videos or instruction. A video camera zoomed in on my face, ready to catch the jump.

Even seeing the water so far below through the grills of the platform made my stomach flip. Locals were standing on the bridge as spectators, were chanting my name. The man pulled out my arms to be wide and made me shuffle to the edge. Stop, I might fall off! I started, before remembering that was the point. The chanting continued. I’m going to have to die because of peer pressure.

They counted down, they counted down, oh god help what am I going to do?! And then I was falling, falling, falling, how didn’t it stop?! I stupidly clung to the harness as though that would stop me down or slow the impact, until the rope reached the end and I bounced back up- the rushing river pulling away again. And then the falling was happening again- and again- until I finally slowed to a stop, swaying upside down looking at the river.

Mid-jump

I realised no one had told me what to do at this bit. I stayed hanging there stupidly until a man appeared, lowering himself on a rope and swinging towards me. He grabbed me and clipped me too him and then pulled us back up to the bridge, where I grabbed onto the metal and decided never to leave land again.

‘How was it?’ our guide asked when we got back to the campsite bar, desperate for a strong drink to celebrate surviving the day. ‘There was this time’, he said ‘when we took a girl and her rope snapped, and she fell into the water and broke both legs and her collarbone’.

I put down my gin and tonic and looked at him. ‘She survived though’ he said quickly, ‘She managed to swim with one arm to the side. Thankfully the crocodiles weren’t out.’

We were disbelieving, but the story was true. Apparently the Zimbabwean president had a go once the bungee was reopened just to prove it was safe.

‘Why didn’t you tell us before?!’ I asked.

‘Because you wouldn’t have done it. But it does make a funny story.’

I downed my drink. One day in Zambia. At least twice I had thought it might be my last, but I’ve never again had a day quite like it.

Too close for comfort: how to not get crushed by a hippo in Botswana

Cause of death: flying hippo. I could see the coroner’s report as I finally gasped a breath on the hull of the mokoro canoe, sure that it could hear my heart thudding as the beast passed beneath us, inches below my belly, and the boat rocked. In the part of my brain that wasn’t processing whether I was still alive, I vaguely wondered how my mum would convey the news in her Christmas round-robin email.

It had come from nowhere. We had been laughing, reclined comfortably in the dugout canoe as we returned to the mainland of Botswana after a night camping out in the wild of the Okovango delta, where elephants and big cats patrolled through the night and could pass by your tent at any time.

When locals panic, you know there is something seriously wrong. ‘That was too close. Far too close’. Our guide was shaken. ‘Keep staying down’. Then after several achingly long minutes we crawled back into our seats and wove in silence back through the rivulets we had traversed at sunrise. ‘We have to go another way’.

 We had started the previous day with a much more peaceful ride through the delta. We saw the snouts of a whole family of hippos in the distance and gawped with delight as we glided by, snapping shots of the ears and eyes poking out of the water that glinted in the late afternoon sun. Enough of a threat to be aware of, but far away enough that they didn’t seem bothered with us. ‘Keep your distance, and be quiet. Hippos just don’t like to be startled’. We were told. ‘And they don’t like it when you get between them and the water.’

On land, we pitched our tents. The trees offered protection from the sun, but also a showering in mopane worms, the caterpillars that are iconic in Botswana, featuring both on the currency, pula, and in local dishes. They dripped from every tree, and I squirmed with the constant unnerving feeling they had dropped into my hair and clothes. We dug a hole to shit in, sticking a loo roll on a spiked branch. Home for the night.

‘Don’t pee if you can help it. If you do, pee right by the tent. If you see eyes, get straight back in. If you see green eyes, it’s not a predator, but an elephant could still panic and stampede. If you see red eyes, it’s a predator, and they’ll be the last you’ll ever see.’ The warning was enough. I chose dehydration over death with my pants down.

As it neared evening, the sun bled red into the sky and made the earth a glowing furnace against which we became no more than silhouettes imprinted on the horizon.

That night, we lit a fire to keep the animals away, over which our guide cooked potjiekos, a southern African stew and brewed fresh roobios tea.Local people sang songs in the Setswana language and encouraged us to join them in swaying hips and clapping hands. All the while I kept an eye on the horizon for eyes of green and red.

Come dawn, it seemed the danger had passed. A quick breakfast and back in the mokoros. We had been travelling for nearly an hour when there was a crash in the bushes and we stopped suddenly. ‘Ssshhhh!’ the hand of our driver waved for us to be quiet.

If I had reached out an arm I could have touched the hippo we were faced with on the bank. Its head alone was as long as my body, its yellowed fangs as long as my hand, and sharp. And we were between it and the water. It snorted, kicked its back legs.

‘Get down’. The guide muttered under his breath and I slid under the seat, not taking my eyes off it. We stayed that way for several minutes, us watching it watching us. I didn’t dare breathe in case it could hear us.  I wondered how much it weighed. If it charged, would it crush us immediately? Would we die from the impact, or drown if it brought us under the water?

Then it leapt. Just in front of the nose of the boat where I had been sitting, sending a wave over us, and the boat rocked with the weight of it pushing by.

I didn’t feel like an intrepid explorer. I felt very, very small.