It’s all about the beauty. And the beast …

Brothers on the river – exploring the unknown side of the Zambezi

After Day One on the Zambezi River 11 travellers were sitting on the eastern shore around a campfire next to the  quay at Senanga Safari Lodge. A day before these 11 men were mostly foreigners to each other. Each person knew at least one other person, but no one knew everyone.

About 1 200 km of endless water awaits

The plan was to attempt going upstream on the Zambezi for at least 600 km to Chavuma at the Angolan border before heading back. No-one has done this continuously and we had to learn how to make it work as we went along. We didn’t know where would be petrol, where would be fresh food or safe places to sleep. And where would be dragons…

Two days prior we started arriving in strings in the Namibian border town of Katima Mulilo. Some from the Cape, others from Kasane and Maun in Botswana, Pretoria, Thabazimbi and Kaapsehoop in Mpumalanga. We even had an import from Australia. Each had a reason and a skill granting them a place on the exploration. Something like the Ocean’s 11.

Kabula Lodge, Western Zambia where it all started

Piet du Toit’s Kabula Lodge 54 kilometres further along the western shore of the Zambezi was the preparation HQ. Originally we were going to attempt the expedition with two Aliboats;  four of us on a 520 with a 40 Yamaha and seven on the mothership – a Swamp Cruiser with a 100 Yamaha. However, not knowing where we might get petrol we stocked up with two 44 gallon drums and 17 x 25 litre containers. This left us with a a Catch 22: a lot of fuel but little space for the rest, meaning we had to add a third boat, which in turn meant the stash of fuel was looking less adequate again. And no more juice, no more cruise…

The renowned Victoria Falls is about 200 kilometres south-east from where we were, but our trip was between two lesser known waterfalls in the Zambezi, from Ngonye falls near Sioma to Chavuma falls up north on the Angolan border. Our trip was planned for early April when the water table is at its highest, covering the rapids, making the river navigable for a period of about four weeks.

Ngonye falls

Negotiating Ngonye falls was impossible, so we trailered the boats to Sioma above the falls where we launched and departed for Senanga Forest Lodge and the beyond. Although Day One sported a mere 87 kilometres on the river, we were on our way. The Zambezi’s 11 were in high spirit(s).

“Tomorrow we need to cross the Barotseland floodplains,” Piet briefed us. “Being flooded there might be very few islands left. Or none as it widens to over 25 kilometres. We need to assume the first campspot is on the other side, about 300 kilometres from here.”

The Barotse flood plains

The other threat of the floodplains is the endless maze of channels created by rows of floating reeds. “Just stick to the main channel,” we were advised, but if there are six or seven facing you, which one is the main channel? You can argue that all you do is stick to the shore, but with the plains being so wide, where exactly is the shore? To make thing worse, the floating reeds well… float, constantly changing the maze, hiding the main channel. This is where Mark Smith earned his stripes. As owner of Kavango Air Charters and bush pilot extraordinaire, navigation is one of his home languages. Add to that that he lives on the edge of the Okavango Delta and has been boating for decades, he managed to get us through the Barotseland floodplains without one wrong channel. He used a Garmin Nuvi GPS with Tracks for Africa, combined with Google Earth 7km above-terrain imaging for dead reckoning.

Some of the guys on the trip felt that the 284 kilometres (a mere 176 km as the crow flies) and 10 hours 30 minutes through the plains was too long, too much. I beg to differ. I call it the ZZZ – the Zambezi Zen Zone. You see, at first I felt anxious about my notebook and smart-phone staying behind at Kabula… The water swished, the outboard hummed. My breathing slowed. I then worried about the way ahead… Water swished; outboard hummed. Crocs, hippo’s, mozzies… Then nothing but swish and hum. Zen and the art of motor boating.

Zen and the art of motor boating

Late afternoon, the geography of the river changed. It got narrower. Out of the endless water shores arose sporting trees upon more trees. The mothership made a beeline for a hole in this green canopy on the eastern shore to a mooring spot with a beautiful manicured green lawn. A local Lozi (the people of Barotseland) appeared, greeted, laughed and tied the boats. Kennister Chibea, our own personal Lozi (excellent skipper, translator, guide and negotiator) conferred and confirmed we were at Barotse Tiger Camp, but that owners Gerard Simpson and Graham Williams have not yet arrived for the upcoming fishing season.

Jacques Robbertze from Aliboats was our hardware-man looking after the boats and outboards. (At one stage he removed a high pressure fuel pump to clean dirt from local fuel in the strainer while the boat was floating midstream).  He knew the Barotse guys and got on the sat-phone. Soon we pitched camp. After more than 10 hours on the river, day three was declared a rest and refuel day.

The next day, walking from the embankment uphill into Lukulu village was like walking into a Sydney Pollack movie. Scorching sunlight. Leafy trees dulled to grey. The dust tasted like old chalk. Lazy hanging donkeys. Scrawny unsymphonic chickens. Colin du Toit, a man who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean numerous times and done as many overland African trips (he’s the guy that rigged an incredible three-battery system on the mothership to run fridges, inverters, lights and more continuously) came along, carrying a shopping bag.

“What’s that?”

“My contribution to help Africa,” he answered, pulling out a fan of vegetable seed packets. “I hand these out to the local church ministers or missionaries. They’ve got more water here than all of SA’s perennial rivers together.”

Jacques made a call: “Hallo Mr Mojolo?”


“From Vuma fuel station?”


“Wonderful! We’re coming to buy fuel.”


His tanks were empty; next delivery in a fortnight. Panic set in. We had only enough fuel to get back. But we didn’t want to abort. Not after coming this far.

Then a young man, Henry, appeared and introduced himself as the petrol runner. He had black market petrol at 20 Kwacha (about R28). The official price was 9 Kwacha. We haggled this way and that.

Everything keeps going right, with Henry, the petrol runner

“I have the petrol, you need the petrol. Final offer:15.” Smiling. A bargain. While filling up, I asked where the petrol came from. He just shrugged. Later we figured he buys the last few hundred litres from Mr Mojola when the tanker is still two weeks off! Great entrepreneurship… Meanwhile Piet asked Kennister to see if he can get a bottle of Lavelle Brandy, Zambia’s finest. Not having found Lavelle, he bought Jonney’s Brandy, packed in a six-pack of 250 ml bottles. Knock out punch reckons the slogan.  Undrinkable, but later on invaluable.

Reviving at Barotse Tiger Camp

From Barotse Tiger Camp onwards the exploration developed a rhythm – a symphony of water, village crawls, shopping sprees (tomato’s, onions, giant avo’s, Mozi Beer, aubergines…) It was like an overland trip; just a lot more comfortable. No potholes. Or dust.

What happens on the Zambezi, stays on the Zambezi

Talking about aubergines, after Day One I became the live-aboard chef (I wasn’t drowned, so it could not have been too bad…). When Jacques saw these purple veggies he warned that if I put it in the food, he won’t eat it. Well my friend, remember that thick tomato and onion relish, curried carrots and springbok wors I made the night we bought home-grown rice in Chavuma? The night at Gavin Johnson’s fly-fishing camp on the Lungwebungu River? The night you came back for thirds? There was one whole purple rugby ball in that stew…

We did reach Chavuma, the last bit of our upstream run. Mission halfway accomplished. This is where we met the Cromhouts and Peschens on another mission, setting up a missionary and lodge. They invited us to camp amongst them, but we decided to search for our own wild spot and found this huge sausage tree. We pulled in, but all around the tree, not under it. A ‘sausage’  weighs around 7 kg’s and hangs up to 20 metres in the air. If that missile drops, you’d better be sleeping in a Saracen tank.

The next morning we were back at the missionary-to-be, wondering if they knew where we could find fuel. Matt Cromhout, a young happy guy originally from Gordon’s Bay in the Cape soon after picked us and our 17 containers up at Chavuma’s harbour. Soon Chavuma’s petrol runner was pumping petrol. We’re getting good at this…

Next door was Box 9 Restaurant. My nose followed a moreish smell. A mama was bent over a small smithy with an almost neon-green broth bubbling away.

The making of mutete

“Hi, what are you cooking?” I asked enthusiastically.

“Hallo, how are you?” she answered. I forgot. The African way.

“Hallo, I am well, my name is Gerry. How are you?” I rectify.

“I am well. My name is Josephine. I am making mutete.”

Mutete is a dish of kasawa leafs, brewed with lemon juice, a dash of vinegar, some salt and pepper. The kasawa plant is the wonderfood of Africa. Its leafs resemble spinach; the fresh roots potatoes and dried and ground it’s like mealie meal.

“Mutete…” I tasted the foreign word for a foreign dish.

“We eat it with dried bream.” She offered a fish. I swished it through the mutete… exquisite.

“Rosella,” she said.


“The English for mutete is rosella.”

Later on, when the petrol acquisition was nearing completion I told Matt about this rosella.

“Relish… she means relish,” he laughed.

Fuelled up we retreated to the little harbour and into a big problem. Apparently not all Zambians are always friendly. The immigration officer of Chavuma was throwing toys. Rod Alexander left his passport at Kabula. Everybody was trying to explain this way and that. Piet walked over, laughing.

“Hallo Captain, I’ve got three passports for you,” he said to the officer and his two aids.

“O yes?”

“Yes, they’re all in the name of Jonney’s.”

“O yes?” the officer looked at the labels: Knock out punch. He laughed. Apparently all Zambians are friendly.

Cruising downstream we passed the missionary-to-be. At their mooring a bunch of little locals were playing in the water. Onshore the Cromhouts, Peschens and Matt waved us farewell. This movie had a song:

O brothers let’s go down,
Let’s go down, come on down,
Come on brothers let’s go down,
Down in the river to pray.

 So we brothers cruised downstream, sleeping some nights wild onshore, other nights on our own personal island, bathing in the river, cooking up a storm at night, braaiing rib into the early morn, laughing, breathing, singing, living the Zambezi. We did 1280 kilometres on the fourth longest river in Africa.

A mighty experience on a mighty river.

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