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Canoeing Zambia’s Lunga River


The crest of the small wave broke a grubby froth and fell back on itself, seemingly innocuous, the slop of wastewater in a washing-up bowl before the final tipping out. The movement of the water hinted at a dangerous circularity, but the corpulence of the flood disguised its true force. Only Jamie knew the truth of the violence sweeping through the waters of the river, for at that moment it held him far beneath the surface, the eye of the whirl pool contemptuous of the buoyancy aid secured to his torso in useless precaution.

Telling his story later from the sanctity of a dining room, surrounded by pictures of that same river, an audience of fellow survivors and slowly drying banknotes, he recalled that only by bending his knees and impulsively pushing off from the river bed was he able to break the hold of the current and so reach the surface. There his wide eyes and gasping lungs met my outstretched paddle and he was able to rest a little, before letting a kinder eddy take him to the bank; its damp elevation welcome sanctuary from the rush of fear just endured.

My friends and I had been in northern Zambia for just under a week, exploring a land new to us, assessing its potential to host a business venture equally new. We liked Zambia; things worked. Flying into Lusaka just after the close of business the airport seemed the epitome of ordered quiet. Though cumulus nimbus stacked high in stormy portent, no rain fell; the grass was cut and all the taxis were a rather fetching shade of powder blue.

After meeting our guide in a shopping centre, consumer paradise seemingly transplanted straight from South Africa, we drove north in a black Mercedes Benz with tinted windows. The miles sped by as smooth roads led through large fields of irrigated endeavour, testimony to the fruits of ambition and perseverance. Our guide told us that many of these farms were run by refugees from Zimbabwe; I was forced to add suffering, loss and separation to my mental flow chart of apparent prosperity.

The farms gave way to mines, slag heaps, a burgeoning population and other signs of more concentrated human activity. The term ‘Copper Belt’ has always held intensely visual associations for me. Never simply a geographical or industrial description, the term has always carried images of addition, not removal; the belt a tailored reality, a generous swathe of burnished copper securely buckled round the corpulent belly of some classical king. Though in reality, despite the additions necessitated by industry – the acid houses, sorting racks, warehouses and offices – the Copper Belt is defined by extravagant excavation. Viewed from space, the terrestrial scars could plausibly be explained away as the rooting of some giant pig searching for a truffle the size of a small town. Arches of masonic restraint frame deep workings; the fact they harbour tunnels which only lead downwards is obvious to more than just the superstitious.

The Mercedes was left in Kitwe; we were now travelling westwards, away from industrial development and the governmental attention, finance and maintained infrastructure that follow such a beast, as ox peckers and egrets do the mega fauna. Our vehicle was now a more suitable Isuzu double-cab and we drove fast, mindful of the potholes that loomed crater-like at disturbingly short notice. The daylight faded away; people slept; headlights illuminated loitering livestock belonging to villages soon swallowed by the following night. I remained wide awake with knees jammed against the dash board and lower gut churning in audible discussion of the previous night’s curry.

In my mind’s eye, our progress was marked by the creeping electronic trail across an illuminated radar screen. 30 kilometres to the north ran the numbing statistic of the Congo border, to the west lay Angola. I was drawing near to the lands whose stories had filled the pages of my student textbooks. Ever since committing to this journey, the realisation of the eventual destination had given me a sense of completion, of arrival. These were ridiculous sensations when viewed with cool appraisal, but such moments of chill intellect are rare in my life and so seldom applicable. Of course, if something is complete, then one automatically questions what is to follow. A brain doused in mefloquine tends towards the morbid and so I had begun to travel not with optimism, but with foreboding.

Our aim was to see as much of north western Zambia as we could and so once we had followed the roads to their national conclusion, we turned to the rivers. Zambia has one of the most highly urbanised populations in Africa. The percentage that remains outside of the cities and towns live predominantly in villages that line the major roads. There is, therefore, a large tract of land that has neither a permanent human population nor roads; but there are rivers. The borderlands rise to form a watershed that is the origin of both the Congo and the Zambezi, two of the mightiest rivers in Africa. There also rises the Lunga, which this year, in hindsight, was declared to be running at its highest level for ten years. The River Lunga was also our access into the interior.

We were to travel in two Canadian canoes, with supplies for three days, on a journey that would take us down through open savanna and miombo woodland, before leaving the river to rendezvous with our lift home. The implication was entrancing: with the flood behind us we would slice through the Zambian landscape and the splendour of Eden would be revealed to the intrepid. Zambian rain had already drenched us and we had marvelled at the thunderstorms of the plateau land, so we knew that the river was high. But the ambition fuelling the entire journey ran strong still within us and, when any of us voiced doubts as to the wisdom of our riverine safari, we quoted loudly the advice of our guide that rivers in spate are actually easier to canoe.

The entry point to the river was a small beach below the bridge into town. A group of men alternately soaped first themselves and then a partially submerged minibus. A bicycle perched upended, balanced upon the seat and handlebars. Small boys climbed trees, eager to see what the four white men were doing; only one fell out and a moderate splash obscured a bashful smile. We lowered the boats to the waters’ edge and carefully tied our portable essentials – themselves secured within plastic dry bags – and buoyancy bags to the bow, struts and stern of the boats. I paddled in the water, which was warm in the shallows, but with a cold edge that promised chilly depths and thought of happy, but soggy, school days spent in the flooded gravel pits of the Lea Valley.

We looked good. The knots were tidy and our equipment was reassuringly multi-coloured; obviously a sign of inherent competency and professionalism. Only the sky was grey; and the water, which hurried past, ripples and eddies bearing floating debris to an eventual confluence with the Zambezi. All the talk of rapids, rocks, currents and white water, which had filled our jocular conversations for the past days, now assumed concerning relevance. The relevance bonded swiftly with the unsettling knowledge that I was a canoeist of both limited balance and experience; it hurried off to gossip with the foreboding, recently acknowledged, which grew healthily with me.

I like canoeing. There is something intensely gratifying about achieving such discernible progress from so limited a movement as the dipping of an oar and drawing it back against the resistance of the water. The clouds continued to settle and darken; the rain began to fall. Seated in the front of the lead boat I began to believe that our sharp lines were not just floating on the surface of the river, but actually cutting into the grey expanse that lay before me, where burdened cloud met floodwater.

Our progress was fast. Rapids to be feared in the dry season were now submerged, allowing quick passage. Kingfishers darted from branch to branch on the bank side, while other birds sought what shelter they could from overhanging foliage. Steep hillsides rose green to a crown of thorn trees; some cleared and planted with a crop doomed to destruction when surface water would slough away the topsoil long before any harvest. Looking back, I saw the second boat emerge from the rain and saw myself as I watched my bedraggled friends paddle on.

Wet and warm: the homely description of a good mug of tea. I was both wet and warm, but feeling increasingly far from home. The canoe was shipping large amounts of water as we rode one wave only for the second to break over us. The more water we shipped, the heavier we became; the heavier we became the harder it was to manoeuvre and so the more water we shipped. As if in confirmation of our eventual fate the rain continued to fall remorselessly.

After successfully negotiating each rapid, it became necessary to paddle desperately for the bank, launching ourselves at the reed beds in the hope of finding temporary purchase and a chance to bail the boats. The river was reluctant to let us go; it had sensed our initial ambition and now was loath to disappoint us. The reeds stayed rooted firmly to the riverbed and our hands to them; we stayed afloat, but not for long.

The end came where even the river found its progress thwarted by an unyielding rock face and so swung in a ninety-degree bend, impatient to move on. My companion, our guide, unconcerned but gleefully excited, warned that we would have to first shoot one rapid, then swing round and paddle hard, almost against the river, to try to avoid being sucked into a second rapid, broadside on and so into inevitable destruction. I did not fancy that one bit.

All went well. With our increased ballast, we rode the force of the river, dismissive of all opposition. Upon clearing the rapid, our guide dug his paddle into the river and held fast, his action both brake and rudder. The bow swung to our right and I too struck at the churning water, trying to combine maximum purchase with speed, holding fast, staying low, hoping that I would not be the one to cause the capsize. Remarkably it worked; gradually we fought the force of the river, the broken water on my left fell behind and we wallowed in the shallows of another welcome reed bed. The current encouraged us to return to the flow like a persistent child tugging at the sleeve of its parent, but I held tight to the foliage, ignored the insect life descending en masse into the boat and watched for the progress of my friends.

They too cut through the first challenge, Mike with his paddle raised above his head, Jamie steering. The rock face loomed a slick black and instead of turning, their profile began to reduce: they were sinking. The canoe rolled as it sank, allowing Jamie and Mike to find purchase on the green hull now revealed. Then the canoe slowly rolled again, sending them into the river and towards the cliff. I sat, helpless, watching as the two heads were dragged along the cliff face by the current, occasionally submerged before bobbing back to the surface, faces raised to the sky. The green canoe continued its now stately procession down through the rapids, just another piece of flotsam.

Having bailed our canoe dry, we pushed ourselves back into the stream to try and pick up Mike and Jamie. We made it half way across the river before conflicting currents formed by boulders deep below prevented any further progress. Still powerless to help, we watched Jamie wrestle with the whirlpool and saw Mike, blessed by a kind current and still clutching his paddle, propelled towards the bank twenty metres down stream from a recovering Jamie.

That was the end of our river trip. Mike and Jamie recounted how a concealed tree stump had punctured their canoe. We cut our losses and walked out, two pairs of sandals between the four of us providing partial comfort; the river had claimed the other two pairs. In two hours the river had carried us the distance normally covered in one day’s hard paddle. Two days of salvage operations followed, and the river broke yet another boat, as we attempted to recover both our kit and the canoe. In the end, we had to leave the canoe wedged firmly under a fallen tree and continuously rising waters. To my knowledge it lies there still, my misplaced foreboding left bobbing in an air pocket, tied to a submerged strut.

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