Riverwhacking the Zambezi

Posted on 6 January 2017

Dream of a truly wild adventure? This is one, exploring a part of an iconic river that most of the time doesn’t exist. It was beautiful, and Gerrit Rautenbach came back totally zenned out.


A Barotse Floodplain cool-down: the sun is a scorcher, the water is deep and wide, and mainstream hosts no ‘flat dogs’ (crocs).

After day one on have to work it out as they went along. The Zambezi River, 11 travellers sat around a campfire next to the quay at Senanga Safari Lodge. The day before, they had mostly been strangers. Two days before, they had started arriving in the Namibian/Caprivi border town of Katima Mulilo – some from the Cape and Pretoria, Thabazimbi and Kaapsehoop, others from Kasane and Maun in Botswana, and even one from Australia. Each had a reason to be there and a skill granting them a place on the expedition. Something like the Ocean’s Eleven. The plan was to attempt going upstream on the Zambezi for at least 600 kilometres to the Angolan border before heading back. No one has done this continuously, and the men would have to work it out as they went along. They didn’t know where there would be petrol, or fresh food or safe places to sleep. Or where there’d be ‘dragons’. Piet du Toit’s Kabula Lodge, 54 kilometres from Katima Mulilo along the western side of the Zambezi, was expedition HQ. Originally we were going to travel with two Aliboats; four of us on a 520 with a 40hp Yamaha engine and seven on the mothership – a Swamp Cruiser with 100hp. We stocked up with two 44-gallon drums of petrol and 17 25-litre containers.

This left us with a catch-22: a lot of fuel but little space for the rest, meaning we had to add a third boat, which meant the stash of fuel was looking less adequate again. Victoria Falls is about 200 kilometres south-east from where we were, but our trip was between two lesser-known waterfalls on the Zambezi: from Ngonye Falls near Sioma to Chavuma Falls up north on the Angolan border. It was planned for early April, when the water table is at its highest, covering the rapids and making the river navigable for about four weeks. Negotiating Ngonye Falls was impossible, so we trailered the boats to Sioma above the falls, where we launched and departed for Senanga and beyond. Although day one entailed a mere 87 kilometres on the river, we were on our way and the Zambezi’s Eleven were in high spirits. ‘Tomorrow we need to cross the Barotse Floodplain,’ Piet briefed us. ‘Being flooded, there might be very few islands left. Or none, as it widens to over 25 kilometres. We need to assume the first camp spot will be on the other side, about 300 kilometres from here.’


You have to trust your navigator to get you through the floating-reed maze of the floodplain.

The other challenge of the floodplain is the endless maze of channels created by rows of floating reeds. Just stick to the main channel, we were advised. But if there are six or seven channels in front of you, which one is the main one, I wondered? We could simply stick to the shore, but with the floodplain being so wide, where exactly is the shore? To make things worse, the floating reeds, well, float, constantly changing the maze, hiding the main channel. This is where Mark Smith earned his stripes. As owner of Kavango Air and bush pilot extraordinaire, navigation is his mother tongue. Also, he lives on the edge of the Okavango Delta and has been boating for decades. He managed to get us through the Barotse Floodplain without one wrong turn. (He used a Garmin Nuvi GPS with Tracks4Africa software, combined with Google Earth seven-kilometre, above-terrain imaging for dead reckoning.)

Some of the guys felt that the 10-and-a-half hours (284 kilometres) through the floodplain was too long, too much. I beg to differ. I call it the ZZZ– the Zambezi Zen Zone. At first I felt anxious about my smartphone and laptop staying behind at Kabula… The water swished, the outboard hummed. My breathing slowed. I then worried about the way ahead… Water swished, the outboard hummed. Crocs, hippos, mozzies… Then nothing but swish and hum, swish and hum. Zen and the art of motor-boating. Late in the afternoon, the geography of the river changed. It got narrower. Out of the endless water, land arose sustaining trees upon more trees. The mothership made a beeline for a gap in this green canopy on the eastern shore, to a mooring spot with a manicured green lawn. A local Lozi man appeared, greeted us cheerfully and tied up the boats. Group member Kennister Chibea, (excellent skipper, translator, guide and negotiator) also from the Lozi tribe, conferred and confirmed we were at Barotse Tiger Camp, but that owners Gerard Simpson and Graham Williams had not yet arrived for the upcoming fishing season.


Jacques Robbertze steers while Rod Alexander looks out for floating logs (not the solar panel them, keeping the barriers charged).

Jacques Robbertze, who was our exceptional hardware man, looking after the boats and outboards (at one point he removed a high-pressure fuel pump to clean dirt from the fuel in the strainer while the boat was floating midstream), knew the Barotse’s owners and got on the sat-phone to them. Soon we pitched camp. After more than 10 hours on the river, day three was declared a refuelling and rest day. Walking from the embankment uphill into Lukulu village was like walking into a Sydney Pollack movie: scorching sunlight, leafy trees dulled to grey, dust that tasted like chalk, lazy donkeys, scrawny unsymphonic chickens. Colin du Toit, a man who has crossed the Atlantic numerous times and done as many overland African trips (he’s the one who rigged an incredible three-battery system on the mothership to continuously run fridges, inverters, lights and more) came along, carrying a shopping bag.‘My contribution to help Africa,’ he explained, pulling out a fan of vegetable- seed packets. ‘I hand these out to the local church ministers or missionaries.

They’ve got more water here than all of South Africa’s perennial rivers together.’ Jacques made another call: ‘Hello, Mr Mojolo? From Vuma fuel station? We’re coming to buy fuel.’ ‘No…’ was the answer. His tanks were empty; next delivery in a fortnight. Panic set in. We had only enough fuel to get back. But we didn’t want to abort, not after coming this far. Then a young man appeared and introduced himself as the ‘petrol runner’. He had black-market petrol at 20 kwacha per litre (about R25). The official price was 9 kwacha. We haggled this way and that, but he said: ‘I have the petrol, you need the petrol. Final offer: 15.’ A bargain. Meanwhile, Piet asked Kennister to see if he could get a bottle of Lavelle brandy, Zambia’s finest. He couldn’t find any, so instead bought Jonney’s brandy, packed in a six-pack of 250ml bottles. ‘Knock out punch’ reckons the slogan. Undrinkable, but later on invaluable. From Barotse onwards, the expedition developed a rhythm – a symphony of water, village crawls, shopping sprees (tomatoes, onions, giant avos, Mozi beer, aubergines…) It was like an overland trip, just a lot more comfortable. No potholes. Or dust. Talking about aubergines, after day one I became the expedition chef. When Jacques saw these purple veggies, he warned that if I put them in the food, he wouldn’t eat it. Well, my friend, remember that thick tomato and onion relish, curried carrots and springbok wors I made the night
at Lungwebungu fly-fishing camp? The night you came back for thirds?


One more cup of coffee before heading off … breakfast on the Lungwebungu River, a tributrary pf the Zambezi,

There was one whole purple rugby ball in that stew… We did reach Chavuma, the last leg of our upstream run. Mission halfway accomplished. This is where we met the Cromhouts and Peschens on another mission, setting up a missionary station and lodge. They invited us to camp with them, but we decided to search for our own wild spot and found a huge sausage tree. We pulled in, but around the tree, not under it. A ‘sausage’ fruit weighs around seven kilograms and hangs up to 20 metres in the air. If that missile drops, you’d better be sleeping in a Saracen tank. The next morning Matt Cromhout picked us up, with our 17 containers, at the harbour and soon Chavuma’s own petrol runner was pumping petrol. We were getting good at this… Next door was Box 9 Restaurant. My nose followed a moreish smell. A mama was bent over a small smithy with a greenish broth bubbling away.
‘Hi, what are you cooking?’ I asked enthusiastically.
‘Hello, how are you?’ she answered. (I forgot – the polite African way.)
‘My name is Josephine. I am making mutete.’
‘Mutete…’ I tasted the foreign word for a foreign dish. It’s made from cassava leaves brewed with lemon juice, a dash of vinegar, some salt and pepper. The cassava plant is the wonder food of Africa. Its leaves resemble spinach, the fresh roots look like potatoes; dried and ground it’s like mealie meal.
‘We eat it with dried bream.’ She offered a fish. I mopped it through the mutete … exquisite.
‘Rosella,’ she said. ‘The English for mutete is rosella.’


The Barotse Floodplain can rise higher in certain areas, flooding homes.

Later on, I told Matt about this rosella. ‘Relish… she means relish,’ he laughed. Fuelled up, we went back to the harbour and into a big problem. The immigration officer at Chavuma was throwing his toys. Rod Alexander had left his passport at Kabula. We were trying to explain our way out of this when Piet walked over laughing, and said: ‘Hello Captain, I’ve got three passports for you. All in the name of Jonney’s.’ The officer looked at the brandy label: ‘Knock out punch’. He laughed. Cruising on downstream we passed the mission-to-be. At the mooring kids were playing in the water. Onshore, the Cromhouts and Peschens waved us farewell. This movie had a song: ‘O brothers let’s go down/ Let’s go down, come on down/ Come on brothers let’s go down/ Down in the river to pray.’ So we brothers cruised on down- stream, sleeping some nights wild onshore, other nights on our own personal islands, bathing in the river, cooking up a storm, braaiing ribs into the early morning, laughing, breathing, singing, living the Zambezi. In the end, we did 1 280 kilometres on the fourth longest river in Africa.


Plan your trip

Join the expedition

Toerboer, an adventure tour specialist, is planning to offer this trip commercially. Before that, another experimental trip is needed. If you’re adventurous, the 2017 expedition is for you at a cost of R42500 per person (a group of eight, and depending on the exchange rate and fuel price), which includes charter flights, transfers, boating, camping, meals, a reasonable amount of drinks and snacks. Excludes flights to/from Livingstone, souvenirs and other personal items. toerboer.co.za

Getting there

If you want to tackle a similar adventure on your own, SAA and British Airways fly to Livingstone from Joburg. Kabula Lodge is 200 kilometres from Livingstone on good tar roads. To drive to Barotse Tiger Camp, secondary roads (read: potholes) ‒ the R309, M9 and D792 ‒ for 500 kilometres will get you to Lukulu, with a boat transfer to the camp. Alternately, fly to Lukulu from Livingstone with United Air Charter (from R7500, uaczam.com). For Pungu Camp, drive from Lukulu via Mumbeji and Zambezi town.

When to go

The river is highest in April. May to November is perfect for fishing. The rest of the year is extremely hot.

Need to know

The Zambezi is a prime malaria area, so take precautions. Also use sunblock. The water is safe for swimming (no bilharzia), but watch for crocodiles when entering from the shore. As the trip does not pass through national parks, crocs are few and far between, but they are there. Do not expect to see a lot of animals; birdlife, however, is prolific. No permits are required for tiger fishing, but you will need to go with an operator.

Stay here

Kabula Lodge is the most accessible Zambezi lodge, hidden among gigantic trees on the river bank. Rustic wood- and-reed chalets with decks offer self-catering facilities, donkey-made hot water and solar power. From R595 for a twin; camping R115 per person. Fishing boat hire is R220 per hour for three sharing. kabulalodge.com

Barotse Tiger Camp offers the ultimate Out of Africa fishing experience. Crystal wine glasses, silverware, antique furniture and leather couches for the best G&T sundowners imaginable. Knowledgeable pros on the water guarantee a fishing trip of note. R5300 per person full board (excludes boat fuel and drinks). zambezifishing.com

Pungu Camp is the missionaries’ camp at Chavuma which opens in December. It has three campsites with hot water (R54 per person) and a two-bedroom chalet (R134 per person) with views of the river and falls. Just downriver, Ngandu Camp (R40 per person), with 10 campsites, is seasonal (May to November). chavuma.com

Lungwebungu Camp is the most remote tiger-fishing safari on the Zambezi, open in May and June only. However, it will not be operating in 2017. mutemwa.co.za

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