"We will stay in the shallow water," Christopher the guide says as we get ready. "We all work together," he continues. "If you see something you tell everyone. If we see hippos we will respect their space." Well, that's a relief...I just hope they respect our space too.
Soon we are seated low in the water in our mokoros. This is going to be up-close and personal. We paddle up stream for a short while and get a great view of Poppa Falls, which are more rapids than falls. "Look there," Christopher says, pointing at a distant rock. "It's a Rock Pranticole. One of the top rare birds of this area."
"Well that's a great start," I think as we all stare through the binoculars trying to locate the bird Christopher could spot with his eyes.
We begin our journey down stream and meet another party coming up. One of their makoros is in a bit of trouble as the guide is caught in a rapid with his two guests. It looks like they could all capsize at any moment. Christopher quickly rows to his rescue and helps him out of the rapid and then instructs him on what to do. It just shows how important it is to have experienced guides, and I’m feeling a lot happier.
The journey down the river is like chilli chocolate. Sublime, relaxing, smooth...but with an edge of zing as you're constantly looking out for the hippo - which we know there are plenty of. And it's not long before, "Over there," says Christopher who is standing and rowing one of the makoro. He points about 100m ahead where a pod of hippos is rising and sinking in the water. Thankfully we will be able to give them a wide berth.
The bird life on the river is abundant and Christopher is like a walking...or paddling...bird book. He names every bird, tossing in the Latin too, plus features of the birds. "A pair of African Skimmers," he says pointing to a little sandy island. We see these rare birds, with only about one thousand in Southern Africa, with their strange red bills looking contently back at us.
"Wait until your guide gets your boat secure," Christopher says as we pull up against the river bank. We all leap out and are soon following him along towards a local village. The midday sun is baking down as the villagers move around doing their daily tasks. We're given a fascinating inside look at village life - how the grain is crushed, their homes and storage places, sleeping mats and much more. It's amazing that so little has changed for these people in thousands of years.
As we continue on we pass locals with fishing poles cut from reeds trying to catch fish on the rivers edge. A herd of cows are grazing on an island in the middle of the river, and we see one wading across. Obviously they're not worried about the crocs and hippos.
And then on cue, as we round the corner..."Hippos!" Christopher says his sharp eyes spotting them. “Up ahead just next to that island." The current and rowing is taking us quite quickly towards them. However from my limited butt-close-to-the-water-with-hippos experience this looks tricky. The hippos are spread from the river bank towards the island. "How do we get past them?"' I'm wondering. The answer comes quickly as we race towards them. We're going to go for the gap between them and the island. If they come our way I'm ready to leap out of the boat and make a mad dash for the island.
As we get near them they erupt as their huge grey forms splash through the water issuing loud threatening grunts of disapproval. Thankfully they all head away from us and not towards us, as we slip through the gap with them still hurling insults at us. I'm left thinking "This is Africa. This is adventure”
It means "Howzit?"
And the answer is "Awesome".
Part of the awesomeness, besides the beauty is the tranquility.
Walking barefoot all day in the soft sand. Soaking up the stunning scenery.
Spotting hippos. Swimming in the river. Relaxing on a soft beanbag.
Lying under a shady tree. Definitely...awesome.
As the sun sinks behind us turning the river golden brown we head out to have a bath. Not just any bath - but a bath experience. We grab some logs of wood and light a fire under the donkey boiler to get warm water. Soon we are seated in a warm bubblebath tub set atop a platform suspended over the river. What a setting to reflect on our day, to watch hippos, to hear the fish eagle cry. A tepid wind stirs the reeds on the river bank. Africa is preparing to sleep once again. Soon night's dark veil will be drawn and a new chapter will begin...
Sparks rising from the campfire.
A dance of fireflies towards the obsidian canopy.
The smell of the campsite meal.
The hiss of the gas cooker.
From the lapping darkness a hippo grunts.
The fireflies stick to the canopy.
A million sparkling stars.
A million memories.