Floats and fantasy on the Zambezi River
James Oatway drifts off into a dream at a Zambian river camp
Minutes after the introductions at King Shaka International Airport, our little media junket was climbing above the lush, green sugar-cane fields in a state-of-the art Pilatus plane, guests of Tim and Sabine Featherby, owners of the plane and our destination: Baines' River Camp, Zambia.
After an unpleasant stop at Polokwane Airport - where we faced some miserable officials in order to clear customs - we zoomed north to Zambia.
The pilot, Piers Hefler, let me join him in the cockpit for the final leg of the flight from Lusaka to the Royal Zambezi Airstrip on the banks of the Lower Zambezi River.
The mighty river welcomed us, winking in the afternoon light. From the air, dark shapes of hippopotami could be seen basking on both sides of the river and on islands in the middle. Elephant could be seen near the water's edge.
We landed smoothly on a strip of tarmac in the Royal Zambezi Park. Baboons ignored us as we clambered off the plane. My colleagues and I were greeted by smiling faces and afternoon drinks. Some went the colonial route and chose gin, but I took Mosi, Zambia's own brew named after the "Mosi-Oa-Tunya" - Victoria Falls. We arrived at the camp just in time for sunset.
Downstream from Lake Kariba and only 100 or so clicks upstream from Mozambique's Cahora Bassa Dam lies Baines' River Camp. The camp is named after the explorer and artist, Thomas Baines, who accompanied David Livingstone on his famous Zambezi expedition. Baines' paintings of the Zambezi convey a sense of adventure. Copies of his work hang in the luxurious chalets. Unfortunately, Baines' relationship with Livingstone didn't end well. Livingstone assigned him to look after a supply store on the river. During this time, Baines got sick, probably with malaria. Livingstone's brother Charles accused him of stealing supplies. Despite Baines' protestations (he blamed the locals), David took his brother's side and fired Baines.
The design of the lodge is luxurious and tasteful. Lots of big, light, airy spaces allow the river to be the main design feature. Corrugated- iron roofs make for an elegant colonial style. The chalets are all air conditioned, which is quite uncommon in the area due to its remote location.
One morning we took a boat ride downstream to the Lower Zambezi National Park. We exchanged the boats for landcruisers and made our way through the bush to a lovely clearing next to a stream. A table had been set and we were treated to bacon and egg "sarmies" (excellent home-baked bread), pancakes, wraps and a host of other delights. Game viewing in the Lower Zambezi is for the more discerning eye - not Big-Five junkies. But if you're patient, you will be rewarded.
I was interested to hear more about the relationship between the camp and the local community, who are often exploited by tour operators as cheap labour. Tim Featherby said: "When we took over here six years ago, there was a lot of mistrust. A lot of empty promises had been made . the community is still very poor." Poverty has put pressure on conservation in the area. A lot of poaching still takes place, with elephants the main targets - the last rhino was poached here in the 1980s.
With this in mind, Featherby took a bold step. After consultation with the local chieftainess, he founded the "Lower Zambezi Conservation Trust". Its aim is to help the whole area by helping the community to stand on their own feet, through education as well as employment.
Featherby has invested thousands erecting an electrified fence to keep roaming elephants away from a village plantation. "With the community's participation, we can turn this whole area into a massive conservancy. We can wipe out poaching and bring a lot more animals back," he said.
But it hasn't been easy and endless government bureaucracy has threatened the whole project.
The next day, we were taken down-river to a spot where several long, old-fashioned-looking canoes were moored. After a quick safety talk and instructions on what to do in the event of a "flat dog" (crocodile) or "fatty friend" (hippo) attack, we departed, two to a canoe. That day I learnt two important things about canoeing. Firstly, don't underestimate the strength of the current. Secondly, he who sits at the back controls the direction. I was in front and thus quite helpless when trying to take sharp turns and avoid hitting partially submerged trees. All I could do was shut my eyes and say "Eish!" as we hit log after log.
It is amazing how much more peaceful it was in the canoe than in the motorboat. You sit low in a canoe, close to the water. As the boat glides along, you hear nothing but birds, the gentle splishing of the oars in the water and the sploshing of the water up against the canoe. The animals seemed less disturbed by our presence in the canoe. A goliath heron even followed us along for 1km or so - I could hear his enormous wings creaking as he rose up into the air.
We had a rare opportunity to get up quite close to a small family of elephants, with babies. The youngest was about two months old, according to our guide, Leonard Kalio. They were nervous, but after checking us out for a few minutes, they came over for a drink, only metres away.
On my previous trip to the Zambezi, I had been unable to catch a tiger fish. Sadly, it was the same this time, though I enjoyed trying. We set off in the afternoon, two female colleagues, guide Moses Tembo and me. It was beautiful on the water. Hippos ducked as we approached and popped up again as we passed. Then the engine would be turned off and we would drift with the current. One of my colleagues said female pheromones - present on the skin - attracted the fish and should be applied to the bait. I scoffed until I saw the bites the ladies were getting. After that, I insisted they touch my bait before I cast. I immediately began receiving bites on the end of my line. Yet I seem to lack the skill - or luck - needed to land them.
In the end, a Zambezi experience isn't only about what animals you see or what activities you do. It is about how you respond to the power of the river. One evening, still out on the water, we headed back in twilight. My mind ticked over - restless thoughts: how do I get more of this? How can I get my family here to share this with them? Do I really belong in the city? Perhaps I should change careers? These were important thoughts. I realised I was being inspired.
- Oatway was a guest of Baines' River Camp
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: 1Time flies three times a week from Jo'burg to Lusaka. Fares for June departure start from around R2508 return. See www.1time.aero.
From Lusaka, Proflight Zambia offers a 30-minute connection to the Royal Zambezi Airstrip from R3390 return. See www.proflight-zambia.com.
To book a private charter flight by Pilatus from any airport in South Africa, contact www.bainesrivercamp.com.
CONTACT: Baines' River Camp on 033 342 7793; e-mail email@example.com or visit www.bainesrivercamp.com. Rates are from R3956 per person sharing.