I snuck out at dawn this Wednesday morning to wolf down some pancakes and meet my Shearwater outfitter’s shuttle. AT 7AM sharp up pulled their monster-safari truck, which does indeed look a bit like the Enterprise shuttle. On board was the paddling crew and the Aussie family I’d met briefly at the booking office. Two more stops to pick up another Aussie couple and two Korean women, and we were on our bumpy dirt track down to the Zambezi Gorge.
At “low water” after the dry season the rafts put in just below Victoria falls. I watched from the bridge yesterday and it looked quite sketchy, with a very strong eddy line before the strong Vic Falls current and a nasty gorge wall downstream forcing a 90 degree turn, then several quick class 5’s and one unnavigable class 6 rapid that had to be portaged. Fortunately, our outfitter was more cautious, and deemed the conditions “high water” so we launched below the Class 6… but above some big class 4-5 rapids like Overland Truck Eater, Three Ugly Sisters, Mother, Washing Machine, Terminator, T2, Judgement Day and Oblivion. Our crew managed the big water with aplomb… no unplanned swims. We could jump in the water a few times, but only in fast, flat sections… because the crocodiles ply the slower waters… yikes.
The descent into and climb out of the gorge was also thrilling. Basically a mountain goat trails etched in muddy black basalt cliffs with loose vines and crags as hand-holds. On the climb out one must also run a gauntlet of overly friendly Zimbabwe youth intent on shoe and shirt donations. But atop the gorge the Shearwater crew was waiting with cold beers and a delicious lunch of just-grilled chicken and potatoes, salad and bread. It’s a very professional organization and I’d recommend this turnkey outfit for anyone touring Victoria Falls’ many adrenaline adventures. Before departing I arranged for an early Tiger Fishing trip tomorrow… stay tuned.
With all quiet back at the A-Zambezi I got some laundry and email done. The boys were feeling better so we herded them out of the room and over to the dock to get ready for a sundowner cruise. There was some Zulu music and dancing to send us off, and another shameless dad and I joined in for a bit before we and about 40 other travelers boarded the flat-bottom touring boat.
We toured downstream towards the Falls, then circled left and upstream around the island that fronts our lodge. A huge crocodile grinned back to us from the shore, and there were plenty of hippos, including one that gave us a huge warning yawn. Those water horses have some nasty bottom jaw fangs that point up into their wheel-well snouts. As measured by human deaths, hippos are Africa’s most dangerous large animal: very territorial, aggressive and fast when they need to be. They’re vegetarian but don’t leaving intruder snacks behind for the crocs. Short stroke: stay in the boat.
Thursday Morning I took another early run at the Zambezi, this time fishing. It’s high water and low fishing season so I had the guide and boat to myself. We motored downstream towards the falls and stopped at the island where we first spotted hippos last night to catch small tilapia – our live bait – sheltering in the shoreline’s downed wood. This morning I heard the hippos but didn’t see any… our focus was the toothy Tiger Fish.
I’m accustomed to fly fishing for the noble trout, which requires an immediate but careful hook set followed by playing the athletic fish on tight, light lines to wear him down a little and avoid breaks. The tiger fish is a more brutal beast, with a bony jaw and long rapier teeth. Guides use steel leaders to avoid the fish cutting the line, and live bait which the tiger fish will swallow, taking the hook beyond those gaping maws and hardened jaws into the fleshy throat where the barb can take hold. Instead of an immediate hook set, they let the fish run for a 10-count to ensure it swallows the bait, then they set the hook very hard 2-3 times and haul it in straight away. It feels a bit more like calf roping than fishing to me… but it’s still good fun.
The early hours were very slow and wove the Zambezi’s braids down towards the Smoke that Thunders. Having visited Niagra and heard all the “over the falls”tales, I couldn’t help but think of how to self-rescue if the boat’s motor failed. There was plenty of distance and low islands between us and the cataract, but swimming through hippos doesn’t sound like fun, and you can’t exactly rest on croco-isles.
No matter – the boat ran well and the fishing picked up a bit. Over the course of the morning I had several bites and a few runs, but we failed to land any – call it operator error. I was getting the hang of it but my morning was short as we had to depart 10AM… one more reason to return to Africa.