The Hippopotamus And Other Titillating Tales - Zambia Part 2
Our favourite destination would always be to visit a National Park. The dry season is the preferred time in Zambia. During the rainy season, Summer, many roads are impassable, the rivers are swollen, grasses are green and stand tall, obscuring our views and animals are dispersed throughout the park and not concentrated along the riverbanks and watering holes.
The nearest park to Lusaka is the Kafue National Park, “covering an expansive 22,400 km2 in western Zambia, one of the world’s largest transboundary conservation areas, known as the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area.
The park was proclaimed in 1950, making it Zambia’s oldest national park and one of the world’s most important natural heritage sites.
As an essential water source for the region, Kafue is also one of the last vast expanses of the iconic Zambezian ecoregion – and home to elephants, large predators, the highest diversity of antelope species in Africa, and 515 bird species.
Over the years, lack of funding and effective management hampered park operations and allowed poaching, human encroachment and charcoal production to take their toll on landscape and wildlife.
In 2021, Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) invited African Parks to implement a “Priority Support Plan.” Significant infrastructure investments were made, protection measures improved, over 200 jobs were created, and education was enhanced through a literacy programme.
This paved the way for a 20-year management agreement between African Parks and the Zambian government .” An extract from the African Parks website.
We aimed to get off the busy T1 or Lusaka–Livingstone Road. The rumour that the dirt road was in better condition than the highway proved accurate, and we could make it to our first destination on time.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see many animals, but we enjoyed the stark, dry landscape with skeletal trees, rocky outcrops, vast plains covered in dry grasses and massive anthills.
Here and there, we were rewarded with a promise of spring, where new leaves were unfurling, and flowering trees were beginning to produce colourful buds and flowers. Yellow was predominant. Sunny and bright, bursting with promise.
The source of the Kafue River is in the Northwestern Province of Zambia. The area is Miombo woodland on the Congo-Zambezi watershed, with many branching dambos lying 10 to 20 m lower than the highest ground, producing a very gently undulating topography.
The longest river lying wholly within Zambia is the Kafue River. It rises in the Copperbelt Province northwest of the country, with more than half of the population living alongside the Kafue Basin.
On one of our game drives Butch and I stopped to have our picnic on the banks of the river. We did look out for crocodiles and hippos, of course.
Alighting the truck while in a park always feels daring and adventurous. While we were sitting there enjoying a picnic, Butch reminded me of this childhood story.
I have taken the liberty to adapt the story. Characters’ names have been changed to protect the innocent. As they say in the movies, “The following account is based on actual events.” I have just made it my own.
To understand cantankerous Storm, you’ve got to know the three things he’s lousy at—one, Progressive Liberal Politics. Two, Religion, he has no faith and three, idiots. Knowing all this, I agree to accompany him on his final (his words) visit to Northern Rhodesia (he insists on the name and will never refer to the country as Zambia). We are going camping. He was one of the last big-game hunters I know. I sleep easy now that he’s finally laid down his “rifleman’s rifle,” pre-64 Winchester Model 70 rifle.
My father always has staff: this time, an unemployed youngster from Livingstone who’s visiting his sister. We set up camp, cooked, cleaned, and followed orders. Storm, my Father, has settled in rather well. He reads and does bird watching but mostly enjoys watching the tranquil river. He is fascinated by the herd of elephants that religiously come at midday to feast on acacia pods. He also stays up late to watch the Hippos graze. He has no affinity for them. He used to hunt them mercilessly, but now he watches them suspiciously.
Another three things about him: he’s lousy at keeping his women, his job and his booze down. My vicious but truthful grandmother would say scathingly that “it was his bad blood”.
We reserved a boat from a nearby lodge to go Tiger fishing on our third day. Our “camp manager” has been instructed to watch the Vervet monkeys after being shown how to use a catapult and a collection of small stones to “shoot the shit out of them.”
We set off early, put-puttering along the waterways. Our captain, Bennet, expertly navigates our aluminium boat, occasionally stopping to point out the Crakes and Jacanas nesting on the riverbank and lily pads. Guttural grunts and groans remind us of our place, and skittish Impala and Waterbuck nervously come closer to drink, ever watchful of predators, their snorts and hisses an alarm call.
Storm has asked to anchor at the spot where the Kafue River flows into the Zambezi. The khaki-clad, handsome man relaxes once he’s comfortable and the “gilly” has cast his line. As the sun rises and temperatures soar, he cracks his first beer. “Have I ever told you about my first trip here?”
“Nope.” I shake my head and get stuck into the delicious naartjies.
“Papa and I when I was twelve.” He takes a deep slug of beer, whirrs in his line, and casts off expertly. “Mama had just left him, and we were living down south. She’d put me on the train for the holidays, so off I went. He picked me up in Livingstone.”
“He was larger than life, my father, Rath”, he reminisces, smiling. “But did you know he was petrified of mice?” He tugs at his trousers, showing off his pale legs dotted with aubergine age spots, and settles more comfortably. “On one occasion, we found a sweat-soaked Papa standing on the piano stool, shaking, with a tiny mouse looking up at him. Cookie had to sort that out.” My picture of Grandfather Rath is more romantic, tall, dark and handsome, with size eleven feet—a miner and rugga player in Chingola who bravely conquered Northern Rhodesia in his 1956 long-based Land Rover.
Storm has a bite, and his rod bends, almost touching the mercurial water. He tugs the line, hooks the fish, and the fight is on. Eventually, the fish tires, and he reels it in. I am ordered to take pictures with the smiling Bennet standing proudly beside Dad. The fish is weighed and released—a monster weighing 4,6kgs. To celebrate, Storm has a snort from his carefully camouflaged hipflask while Bennet rebaits the hook and casts.
“Papa and I set off on the morning of 5th September 1959, will I ever forget, in our cedar wood open canoe to do a spot of Tiger fishing just like today.” I wonder how much of the hip flask he’s consumed. His voice changes timbre and becomes quieter and sombre. “We didn’t have far to go, Papa at the stern and me in the bow keeping the pace.”
“A man well versed in bush lore, my father was cautious and knew animal behaviour. But accidents happen when you least expect it, not so?” he says rather than asks. I am intrigued as this topic has always been taboo. He fills his lungs and then exhales slowly, his rod forgotten.
“We were quietly fishing when, out of nowhere, I heard an almighty thrust of water being levelled at our canoe. At that moment, I witnessed a hippopotamus’s massive, pink, open jaws; its enormous yellow incisors bared as the monster rose from the river’s depths like a missile and came crashing down onto the starboard side of our boat. Clutching the sides, I hung on for dear life, my legs flailing like a damp rag. We were knocked about, rolling hither and dither.
Papa, not immediately aware, was flung right off the boat. I didn’t know where he was as the boat rolled and capsized. In the distance I heard a loud crushing sound. It all happened in split seconds. The hippo submerged like a submarine. I doggie paddled like mad to reach the riverbank, fortunately not too far off.” I lean forward in my seat and grab a handful of dad's shirt sleeves.
My father is visibly upset at the memory, and I, a coward, although intrigued, would prefer to calm him down. “It’s fine, Dad. Please, don’t upset yourself.” I tug at his shirt sleeve.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Kip”, he says, agitated, shaking me off. “I’m an old man with dementia. Let me be.” Bennet knows instinctively that now’s the time for sandwiches and sweet, milky tea and lays brunch out on the coolbox lid. Storm continues, taking moments off to bite into his cucumber sandwich or take a loud slurp of sweetened tea and swallow, his Adam’s apple, twitching irritatingly. I’m sure he’s laced it with whatever’s in the hipflask. I pile three triangles onto my scuffed, ancient plastic plate.
Storm wipes then rubs his hands together and continues, “Somersaulting” he rolls his hands to demonstrate, “I swallowed a mouthful of brown coffee-coloured water, choking and coughing I believed I would drown while kicking frantically. Eventually, I found my footing and managed to haul myself up and out of the river, coughing up buckets of water. Panic set in as I scanned and then searched for my father. I ran, screaming up and down until I saw ribbons of red blood surfacing. Next, he appeared, struggling to keep afloat, backstroking, a piercing scream followed, “Help, help”, his voice breaking up as waves washed and broke into his mouth. The water became a roiling river of blood.”
We have all stopped fishing. It seems the world around us has stopped, too. Unconcerned crocodiles lie on the warm banks, sunning themselves while a pod of Hippos, with only their eyes visible, snort and yawn, eyeing us suspiciously. “The Giant Kingfisher is probably waiting for a fish”, I quip, trying to lighten things up—one hippo surfaces, watching us with a white water hyacinth bloom comically balanced on his head.
“Something inside me took over, and I jumped back into the water. I grabbed my father’s arm, his face ghoulishly contorted. Unendurable pain was overwhelming him. I grabbed a handful of cloth and pulled him towards me and nearer the riverbank. Panting, exhausted and scared out of my wits, I dragged him onto the sand. It was then that I noticed blood pumping in spurts from his hip. My God. His left leg was missing, his trousers in tatters and the pumping spurts of blood pooled and siphoned thickly into the wet sand. The cracking crush I'd heard earlier was my father's femur. Just like a dry twig.” Bennet unpacks the tackle box at his wit’s end to keep busy.
He brings the forgotten pipe in his trembling hands to his lips, flicks his Bic lighter, sucks, puffs, suck-sucks. When the embers glow bright red, he exhales a cloud of grey smoke into the cloudless sky and continues. “‘Storm,” my father whispered sluggishly, "you must get me to the mission clinic to the doctor."
Taking a deep breath, he instructed me to rip our sheets into strips for a tourniquet, and while his hand tried, uselessly, to stem the blood, he told me to tie the cloths tightly around the jagged wound to stop the bleeding. I was petrified, but I followed his instructions.” Dad stops, wipes his brow, and dries his eyes as he remembers that day. “‘Papa, do you have the keys?’ I distinctly remember asking him. But pain engulfed him once again."
“I drew him up, and slowly, half dragging and stumbling, we managed to get to the Land Rover.” He looks up and says. “Fortunately, unbeknownst to Papa, I had driven before, only a half dozen times, mark you, around Chingola.” He wags his forefinger at me, smiling slyly.
“Feebly and in agony, my Papa instructed me to crank the old jeep and fire her up. He was dangerously weak but had the foresight and utmost willpower to stay alive and awake. Shock set in once he was on the Landy’s floor. He shivered uncontrollably. I covered him with our sleeping bags and pushed our pillows against the wound, and finally, I held the bottle of whiskey to his lips so that he could drink, dulling the pain. In no time, we set off.” He sits a while staring, his eyes pained and dull. “he was losing consciousness, of course. I was only a kid and didn’t know.”
“Oh, Storm, I had no idea. Why have we never been told?”
“Too painful, m’dear. I suffered nightmares for years.” He will not be sidetracked now and continues. “What a sight it must’ve been, a Land Rover arriving on the Mission steps with no driver. I could barely see the road, peering through the steering wheel’s gaps.
Moreover, I sometimes used the choke as an accelerator, as I’d seen Mama do on cold mornings, my shaking legs not powerful enough.” He chuckles at the memory. These wounds can never heal.
“I was too late.”
“Storm?” A thought has come up that I need explained: “Why did you crank the engine manually?”
He watches a Malachite Kingfisher hover, wings quivering and diving before replying. “The key was in his trouser pocket. The leg the hippo got.” Unblinkingly, he looks me squarely in the eye.
Suddenly, a large herd of Lechwe approaches the riverbank, grazing languidly. Occasionally, one or two look up at our bobbing boat but aren’t perturbed. Our thoughts occupy us as we watch them silently.
Then, Dad wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. “I wish I’d known what to do to keep him alive; it has haunted me ever since. The smell of blood sickens me. Can you remember how I heaved and vomited when you fell off your bicycle? Green around the gills and of no bloody use to anyone."
All I can do is hold his hand as he weeps, frail now, his bony shoulders shaking uncontrollably. “Now you know why I hate the buggers.” He whips a grubby handkerchief from his trouser pocket and blows his nose.
When composed, he uncaps his silver hip flask and says, “Right-O, B-ben-net, l-l-et’s h-h-ook ourselves a T-tiger.”
In the distance, four Hippos watch us suspiciously, snorting and grunting their displeasure at the intrusion.
(it is important to note that this tragic event involved Butch's Dad's best friend, who was attacked, lost his leg and later died. His young son was with him and did drive him to the hospital. Butch heard the story while Tiger fishing with his Dad on the Kafue River.)
Hippos do attack humans and are very dangerous. These large river horses ( their name in Greek) have about 500 deaths yearly to humans in Africa. The number is shockingly large and outpaces nearly any other animal on Earth. Hippos are known as some of the deadliest land animals in the world. Mosquitoes are still the overall winners. (currently, it’s 725,000 deaths per year).
When you enter a hippo’s territory in the water, things can turn nasty fast. They typically keep to sections of rivers around 55-110 yards of shore (that number triples when it comes to lakeshores). They will relax and patrol their territory, readily displacing trespassers.
We spent three nights at the fabulous lodge and campsite, Kasabushi. The owner, Tessa, was a gracious hostess who ensured we were comfortable. Attention to detail is her forte, and her enthusiasm to please her guests made us feel welcome. Unfortunately, we didn’t meet her South African husband, Quinton, who was running errands in Lusaka.
Our shaded, spacious campsite overlooking the Kafue River was perfect and a choice spot for sunrises and sunsets. Hippos grunted and groaned all day and probably visited us at night. Who knows?
In my diary, I noted that “the bathrooms were sublime”; that doesn’t happen often. They were stunning. A unique building method to create the stucco effect was used to create the space. Keeping to a natural theme, my piping hot shower under a waterfall was exhilarating.
An afternoon boat ride on the Kafue River is obligatory in my opinion.
We were all bird watchers on our boat, and our captain took us as near to sightings as possible.
We were rewarded with a spectacular African sunset, setting our dinner scene for later.
Butch, Tessa and I enjoyed a three-course supper on the banks of the Kafue River. The long table is set under a canvas tent with hurricane lamps lighting the romantic scene.
Dinner was perfect. Spicey Pumpkin Soup, chicken roulade on couscous and a baked pudding for dessert. Compliments to the chef who prepared our delicious meal at the last moment.
The bonus to our stay was meeting up with Hermie and Annlie again.
Although we didn’t see much game, the landscape was spectacular. Autumn colours sprinkled throughout the park and carpeted the dry Earth. Here and there, we witnessed spring as new growth and fresh green leaves coloured trees and shrubs.
This route through the park was our favourite and a choice I’d recommend to any overlander who prefers a quiet, relaxed thoroughfare to new destinations.
The Kafue River eventually feeds the beautiful Lake Itezhi-Tezhi, a fantastic spot for keen birdwatchers. This immense expanse of water (370km² / 230mi²) has not always been here; the dam was created in the 1970s to aid the flow of the river for the Kafue Gorge power station downstream.
Chibila campsite on the lake named Itezhi-Tezhi, was an excellent spot to enjoy our last two nights surveying perfect sunsets and magnificent waterscapes and riding our bikes.
We needed the exercise. Our muscles were seizing up. It was a long ride climbing hills, and just when we thought we couldn’t climb another inch, we were rewarded with long sweeping down hills.
The power station, dam wall and massive water expanse were incredible.
Brad, the owner and his gregarious family epitomise Zambian hospitality and friendliness, welcoming us like old friends. Our evenings on the veranda enjoying our sundowners overlooking the lake were picture perfect in every way.
There is only one spot for big rigs like the Honey Badger; fortunately, it was vacant for us.
It was time to move on to Livingstone, a destination I looked forward to. To see the falls never disappoints. Butch would have a cache of stories to tell, I’m sure.
Butch loves a pont and if there's an opportunity to cross a river by pontoon ferry we're sure to take it. In his memory they feature loud and clear and bring back memories of "going down South" when the family would undertake their annual holidays to visit family in South Africa.
Our trip across the Kafue river was as thrilling and a pleasant break after the rather bleak landscape. Stretching our legs was an added bonus and the negotiations with the ferryman re our fee was interesting. Here US$ is king.
The Kafue Plains are 200km long and max. 60km wide and was flooded every year before the construction of the Itezhi Tezhi Dam. Heavy rainfalls in December/January 2021 resulted in extensive flooding of these dry, desolate, desert floodplains. It is hard to believe anything can survive here, yet we came across herders, farmers and villagers everywhere.
Our route took us through Namwala, Choma, Kalomo, Zimba, and finally as the sun set we arrived at our destination in Kazangula.
Please note: All our accommodation options are listed on iOverlander, the preferred, reliable, up-to-date App for Overlanders and campers.