Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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The "Mighty" Zambezi

    We moved to a rougher camp site (a bit too rough, in my view), on the banks of the Zambezi River. For some reason, I had trouble with the bumpy drive to this location, and felt none too well on arrival. Happily, lying in the shade and cool breeze upon the riverbank, prone and totally unmoving, was precisely what the doctor ordered. Mark's doctor was prescribing as well:

Mark: Well, I'm done. I've closed out my "Pitely Safari Big Five List." I just saw a mamba.
Me: Heck, sorry I wasn't there to shoot it for you.
Mark: That's okay. I only got to see it for like 15 or 20 seconds before they came and killed it.
Me: Who?
Mark: The camp site guys.
Me: Why – is it dangerous?
Mark: Heh heh, ha ha. I wouldn't say it's dangerous. I mean, if it bites you, you're dead. But it's a pretty happy, peaceful snake . . . Though, again, if it bites you, you're dead.

I paused to reevaluate the latest phase of my process of Going Native (or, perhaps, of my Paul Emulation): barefootedness.

* * *

We were picked up in the morning by another open, military-style transport thingy, in which we were driven to the splashing in point of our next river trip, this one down the Lower Zambezi – or the "Mighty Zambezi," as our lead guide insisted on calling it. The Zambezi is Africa's fourth longest river (behind the Nile, Niger, and Congo), and it is reputedly it's most dangerous. On the very placid stretch we were on, however, the plenum of dangers were explained to us to be (in order): sun, hippo, croc, tree stump. (Also, there were in theory Zambezi River sharks, though neither of our guides had ever seen one.) Despite these possible diversions, though, I wasn't sure I needed another canoe/kayak trip – and after six hours (30km) of rowing, I remained unconvinced. Perhaps canoeing just isn't for me. But the Zambezi wasn't entirely without it's charms:

For instance, there was the striking bank we rowed past, hopping with scores of a very pretty variety of bird (whose name I failed to catch). More importantly, and much more to Mark's delight, there was the monitor lizard who had caught, and was eating, one. When we pulled over to a sandbar for lunch, Mark also scored a very cool, camouflaged mantis (*) Then there was the Zambezi Escarpment in the distance (which looked really, uncannily, just like the mountains which ring the south part of San Francisco Bay). There was listening to Jamie and Laura continue to bicker like a very old married couple (both of which – old, a couple – they emphatically are not). Oh, and did I mention the hippos?

So, yes, being right down on the water with the hippos – on their vigorously defended turf – is quite analagous to being on the ground with the lions and leopards. Except that, as previously mentioned, the hippos are much, much more dangerous. And also with the added bonus that our ability to run away was starkly circumsribed by our ability – and, much more germanely, our partners' ability – to make a canoe go fast, and straight. We passed the first couple of groups of these bad boys civilly enough; they stayed on their side of the river, we slipped through single file right up next to the bank of ours. However, about three hours in came The Gauntlet. A large group of particularly aggessive hippos had nearly cordoned off a stretch of river – and one big, barking, threatening bastard was coming even closer (nearly choking off our passage). I for one quickly developed serious reservations about continuing on. I mean what's your life worth? More than an uninterrupted river trip, in my case, I like to think. However, after a fair bit of nervous backpaddling, our guides coaxed us through, mainly by pushing out to create a buffer – and by whacking the flats of their paddles on the water. This last didn't exactly send the hippos fleeing in terror, but it seemed to give them at least a bit of pause. And a little pause was what we needed to get by.

Ultimately, it was good that we made it – as our reward was a very The Beach-y camp site, all ours for the night – for drinking, building a bonfire, grilling up some scary-looking fish, and enjoying a nice sundowner. Oh, wait, except that the beach wasn't ours.

Our first clue to this effect came shortly after arrival, in the form of the unbelievably large elephant tracks, with dung that went right through the middle of the site. Our second such clue waded ashore shortly after dusk, when three floppy-eared, tusk-flashing monsters came down the river, hung a louie – and made a beeline directly for us. It was a very Apocalypse Now kind of moment there, for a minute. Lamentably, my camera's proving about as worthless in the dark as it is stellar in the light (remind me to put "manual focus" on my wish list for my next one). However, Mark pointed out that the photos I did get actually play nicely to the whole "Nessie" vibe we got, as these guys rose out of the water. Though, there was additional vibe on offer. Maybe it was just the setting and the light, but – where previous elephants have seemed all docile, circus-y, and big on munching grass and splashing each other – these guys seemed all business. This was a beach landing, no mistake.

So I for one was pretty edgy when our guides told us to stay put, and opined that the newcomers would likely go around our beached canoes (which lay between us and them), and cut a circle around our camp. But I think we were quickly figuring out that it was really their camp – and they had been planning to use it. Finally, one or two of us (and I shall remain nameless) fired off camera flashes, which caused the elephants to pause ruminatively, and at length; and then finally to veer off, and strike ground a little off to our side. <sigh> Close one, dudes.

I awoke to yet another glorious dawn, and soon afterward, we tore down the camp and did a quick 20-minute paddle to our extraction point. The truck took us – via a functional, but by no means confidence-inspiring pontoon ferry (they even let David and me help power the thing) – back to Camp Creepy Crawly. Little did we know we were soon to be face-to-face with more truck trouble, a grueling 28-hour overnight drive – and an all-new, spectacularly-hippo-infested camp site that would make us pine energetically for the insects and reptiles from before.

Next: Hippos On My D, 1 2 3

  africa     camping     photography     pitely     wildlife     danger  
about
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN, Book Fourteen - Endgame by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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