Zambezi geezers

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A long time ago someone said to me that you should never marry anyone until you’ve been on safari with them. I realize that this piece of life guidance may be of limited value to those for whom heading into the African bush for a long weekend as a premarital precaution is not an option, but it is sound advice nonetheless.

It’s important to know how the person you plan to spend the rest of your life with responds to long, uncomfortable journeys on potholed roads, and to the very real dangers of proximity to large, predatory wild animals. Can they cope with dust and dirt, with the inevitable discomforts of camping, and with the strange intimacy occasioned by knowing what someone is doing when they walk off with a shovel in one hand and a loo roll in the other. And having them know it about you too.

You can learn a lot of useful stuff about a person on safari.

Married now for 27 years (you get less for murder, as my grandfather used to say), I haven’t thought a lot about this advice recently, but then last week we went on a canoe safari on the Lower Zambezi with some friends from the UK whom we had barely seen in ten years, and who were Africa virgins to boot.

The Lower Zambezi is incredibly beautiful: an enormous river dotted with islands and shifting sandbanks beneath a backdrop of wooded hills hazy in the blistering sunlight. It’s also home to great numbers of hippos and crocodiles, and its banks to elephants and other game, which adds a certain frisson to the prospect of spending three days on a heavily-laden canoe on its waters, and three nights camping on its islands.

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Our guide was calm and softly spoken and came with a reassuring 20 years of experience on the river. In spite of that, his safety briefing contained advice and instructions that I rather felt might be harder to follow in practice than our sagely nodding heads suggested. It can’t, after all – should a rogue hippo charge your boat and pitch you into the river – be easy to remain totally quiet and to move in a calm manner towards the bank. I can’t help but feel that the urge to scream and flail is instinctive, just as instinct leads the crocodile to the chance of an easy meal.

Judith was openly nervous about the whole thing. Her husband Kevin, an experienced kayaker, had greater confidence on the water, but was equally apprehensive about its occupants. So were we, but off we paddled.

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You know that saying about war being 99% boredom and 1% terror? Well, substitute bliss, calm and wonderment for boredom and you’ve pretty well got canoeing on the Zambezi. That 1% terror, however, is not to be sniffed at.

Over the three days we were surprised by many unsuspecting (and unsuspected) hippos exploding from the water with a force and suddenness that made the heart race. They thundered away through their own bow waves, grunting and roaring, leaving us trembling and light-headed in their wake. On several occasions we had to negotiate narrow passages between submerged tree stumps and large pods of hippos, while simultaneously trying to ignore the sight of a four-meter crocodile slipping silently into the water from the bank. At such moments our paddling skills would desert us, and we found ourselves drifting sideways or backwards towards obstacles in the water, hearts pounding and stomachs fluttering.

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The nights brought their own challenges. Judith’s eyes widened as we pitched our tiny tents amongst the elephant footprints on a sandbank. After an early supper and fortifying quantities of wine, we were in bed before 8.30pm every night, to have our sleep interrupted by hyenas, lions, elephants and hippos in varying degrees of proximity. Also by snoring from one another’s tents. Every unzipping for a midnight pee, every walk away to a safe and discreet but not-too-far-away spot in the morning, every revisiting of the unique experience we were sharing over a cup of tea or a cold beer made us more of a team.

It was great. I don’t know what else to say.

Judith and Kevin, I would marry either of you without hesitation.

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