ZAMBEZI EXPEDITION Sailing & sketching this iconic river
This expedition was meant to be the easier option - a "quick jaunt"- and a way to get Brent into unique areas to paint and sketch while sailing on his favourite river. In reality, it ended up being our toughest expedition to date and true homage to a little-known explorer and a forgotten waterfall in western Zambia.
You want to do what? Sail UP the Zambezi? Are you nuts? Have you seen how many rapids there are and how fast the river flows? And the hippos are dangerous around here!"
Brian, a long-time friend of artist-explorer Brent Dodd could not hide his indignation, even over a cold beer on the banks of the Zambezi. We had asked for his advice and he had given it. Our dream to mimic the great explorers by sailing up the Zambezi - rather than sail down it - was teetering on a knife-edge, but we had to see for ourselves. We decided to literally test the waters by sailing just upstream of the Victoria Falls. Brian was right. Our plans were crushed much in the same way as a crocodile would crush our collarbones with one powerful snap of its jaws.
It would take us three months to go upstream and we had three weeks. In Africa, adaptation to local conditions is key to success and so we decided to sail downstream from Ngonye Falls, rather than in search of Ngonye Falls. We jokingly called it a "quick jaunt." In reality, with the powerful August winds either blowing against us or not blowing at all and with the river running low, it was a expedition in every sense of the word. We have the scars to prove it. This is the story of the expedition. →
Every expedition we do starts off with an inspirational thought. Granted, these expeditions are undertaken to test our new products, but there is always a greater idea, a dream. For this trip, the more we looked into where to go and what we wanted to do, the more the inspirational ideas piled up. Over a few beers, Steve and artist-explorer Brent Dodd asked question after question of one another: "Is there a river we love more than the Zambezi?" "Why do expeditions always go downstream when the great African explorers all went upstream?" "Why are all expeditions recorded using video and photography only when the traditional way is to record the expedition through the medium of sketches and paintings, again as the explorers once did?" "Has anyone sailed the Zambezi - or at least a section of it?" "Do you know that there is an spectacular waterfall upstream of Victoria Falls called Ngonye and that this was the waterfall David Livingstone first encountered in his search for Victoria Falls?" "Why are we still sitting here? Lets go exploring!"
Over the weeks and months which followed, that afternoon sitting on the deck of a pub in KwaZulu-Natal and these questions provided us with guidance for what to do next. And so the seed was planted to sketch and sail the Zambezi, linking Victoria Falls to her petite, pretty, long-forgotten sister, Ngonye Falls.
A trip linking these two major waterfalls in celebration of the exploration of the Zambezi by David Livingstone and the Portuguese explorer serape Pinto before Livingstone just had to be done. Adding a boat with a sail made it a first.
We found that the more research we did, the more significant Ngonye became in our mind's eye. Very few people have heard of this vast waterfall, situated 400km upstream of Victoria Falls. Not only is Ngonye a mile wide, but it is also the first major waterfall discovered by →
Livingstone and Portuguese explorer Alexandre Alberto da Rocha de Serpa Pinto in the years before Livingstone's travels into the interior of southern Africa.
Ngonye also marks the point where the deep Kalahari sands of the upper Zambezi give way to layers of hard basalt rock. Why is this rock significant? Many years ago, a large fault line opened like a gaping door in the base of the basalt rock and into this fell the waters of the Zambezi, forming the Victoria Falls. No basalt rock means no Victoria Falls. With hindsight, it would also have meant less cuts and bleeding and bruising too. Basalt is no man's friend when combined with fast-flowing water.
Incredibly, in some sections of Ngonye Falls, the Zambezi is pushed underneath a thin layer of rock and then spills over the fault line. You can feel the power of the river by standing on the rock. I also have not been to Iguazu Falls in Brazil but, having watched the movie "The Mission", while only 20 meters high, Ngonye has the same feel to it as the falls are broken into a myriad of sections, all of which are at varying angles to the main flow of the Zambezi. →
A trip linking these two major waterfalls just had to be done. Adding a boat with a sail made it a first.
We are on an expedition, right? What are we waiting for, lets go for it. Lets run the rapids now!
Braving crocodiles, Brent leads the way. The Zambezi is often shallow and fast-flowing, leaving no other option but to pull the Hobie along. A little further downstream, we were washed over a small waterfall, adding a broken mast and outrigger to our broken rudder woes. I jumped in to save the mast and had the rather uncomfortable thought - as I was under the waterfall, gasping for air and with a bleeding leg - that this was exactly the sort of spot where I had seen crocodiles hunting for fish.
Ngonye Falls, sketch and words by Brent. I wanted to convey a contemplative element in this drawing. We were about to embark on this epic adventure on a monstrous river. It was wonderfully ironic, in hindsight, that there are delicate waterfalls in this sketch when, in fact, we were hit by the full force of the river only hours later. The work of Thomas Baines as an artist recorded moments in his explorations. The essence of my journey through pictures in this expedition was to try and do exactly that - catch moments.
No more talk. Time to sail With all the planning done, it was time to try our plan our and sail the Zambezi. Watched by local Zambian women who were busy with their daily laundry in a sort of extreme wash-day routine (given the presence of crocodiles) we set off from above the Ngonye Falls. Would the Hobie withstand the rigours of the Zambezi and would we actually be able to sail? We were not entirely sure, but that was a large part of the appeal. We explore, after all, to experience our own unknown.
Worn like a tribal headdress. Brent carries the now-broken portage wheels and bits and pieces of the boat and our gear. The wheels which were meant to assist us in portaging around Ngonye Falls and other major rapids en route only lasted about a kilometre or so as we had underestimated the weight of the boat and the equipment we had packed. We spent a full day carrying the pieces of the Hobie and all our equipment around the falls. It was heavy going, with the sun and thick sand testing our stamina. As for the rapids downstream, we now had no other option but to hit them head-on and run them - in a craft meant only for the breezes of a California dream on flat, cool waters.
Oscar the Mekoro-guide. Sketch and words by Brent. The roar of rapids. You hear it long before you see it. Which direction should we take? Which path will be the clearest path that is deep enough not to smash the hull again? We couldn't predict the nature of the river; there just didn’t seem to be any consistency in the flow or the course. We spotted a settlement of sorts on the south bank and decided to pull up and take a walk down along the rapids to see if we could get a better idea of the safest path. Fortune favoured us as we bumped into Oscar, a resident to the area, and he said he'd pole his mekoro with us and lead us through the rapids. He was brilliant - until he left us downstream again, to fend for ourselves. The roar reared again and we were unable to exit the river. It was carnage. When Steve suddenly lost his footing in the surge and disappeared underwater, I realised we had lost control.
A beach on the Zambezi which would make the Seychelles proud. Just downstream from the Ngonye Falls, our portage ended at this beach on the Zambezi. The sand is fine and squeaky and the setting, well, breathtaking. The remote beauty of the place is startling and often unexpected. This little-visited part of Zambia is made for those looking for something a little bit different and perhaps more subtle for their adventure.
Sleeping rough - very rough Having ditched our tents to try keep the Hobie as light as possible, we very quickly learnt just how cold our nights were to be. Despite the cold, the mosquitoes were very active and seemed to have watched their fair share of James Bond classics. These whining, winged insects did everything to bite us on the expedition, including crawling along the sand to creep under Brent's mosquito nets and under the sail I was forced to use as a makeshift mosquito net. It led to restless nights. Neither of us would do any expedition without a tent again as escaping the elements, even for a few hours, does wonders for the rest and the regeneration of one's spirit.
This photo was taken after we had struggled though a rapid upstream which had broken bits off the boat, much in the way as a child takes chunks out of an unsuspecting gingerbread man. With the sun setting, we limped down a side-stream of the Zambezi and found this muddy resting place. We were both thirsty and so Brent went off to gather water. Brent, unfortunately, drank from a pool frequented by baboon and other game and ended up with a serious stomach infection. Over the next few days he fell very ill and lost 10 kilograms by the end of the expedition. Not once did he complain, nor stop peddling or paddling Ulundi - a trooper in every sense of the word.
Bovu Island classroom. Sketch and words by Brent. Coming from a teaching background and it being an absolute passion of mine, it was so, so very rewarding to get into one of the classrooms. I found the frenetic enthusiasm of the learners - sharing chairs as they all piled into one classroom, scratching away with the pencils on paper as they followed the drawing I was doing on the board, chanting nouns as we shared languages - one of the magnificent highlights of this expedition. This particular sketch was a moment where a boy jumped up and high-fived to a victorious drawing. We had made stick figures of boats and people and wavy water with sticks as fishing rods. Sometimes its not about what you draw; it's just the fact that you’re drawing.
Sailing under a satellite We mapped our route using the Suunto Ambit3 watch. Our longest day on the water was over 80 kilometres. The map shows clearly why the predominantly easterly wind at that time of year was not ideal for sailing. It also gives a good view of the remote region through which we travelled.
Eating and 'cheating'. Over the first few days of the expedition, we would stop off on the river bank to eat and stretch our legs. We then came up with a plan: not to stop and carry on peddling and sailing while we ate. While the lunchtime miles felt like stolen miles as we pushed on through midday, it meant that, on the longer days, we struggled to stand up and get out of the Hobie, with our legs stiff and our backs as bent as a gnarly old Shepherds Tree.
White water and white knuckles Just past Kazangula lies five kilometres of big white water and, as we learnt afterwards, a famed 20-foot crocodile called Gustav or Gunther or some similar name in the pools beneath the rapids. The sun had set and we were unable to find a place to camp amongst the thickly-reeded banks. With the sound of the rapids nearby - of which we had no clue, nor time to recce - a rather uninviting reminder of how badly this could all go wrong in the fading light, Brent turned to me and said "We are on an expedition, right? What are we waiting for? Let's go for it. Lets run the rapids now!"
I wasn't keen to do it, but we decided to run the rapids in the last light of day and were smashed from side to side by large waves and drop-offs over hidden rocks and tree stumps. It was hairy! Three-quarters of the way down, we heard a loud roar around a hairpin bend in the river. We stopped off just above it on an island. The island turned out to be a farm where convicts were taught to grow crops as a form of rehabilitation into society. The person in charge of the island came to chat to us and, after we asked him about the loud roar up ahead, he told us that he had seen it before and it was easy to run.
There is no way that he had seen it before, though. As soon as we rounded the corner, the pace of the river quickened in time with the pace of our rapid-fire expletives. Up ahead, the entire left channel of the Zambezi was thrust through a narrow gap in some rocks and then dropped about three metres into a pool before cascading into the river below. We had no option but to go for it and were thrown about from side to side once again. A tree stuck in the middle of the rapid caught us as we went past and threatened to hold us in the depth of the rapid. The weight of the Hobie, for once, was a blessing as she burst though the branches, only to be stuck high and dry on a rock further on. I jumped into the rapid and pushed us off while Brent fought the white water with his paddle. Eventually, we made it off the rock and into some calmer water beyond. Spotting lights in the distance, we paddled towards it. It was a luxury lodge. We edged ourselves onto the jetty, tied up the battle-scarred Hobie, and walked on to the deck of the lodge, through hammocked guests on their iPads. Still shaking from the adrenaline, we ordered two beers each and downed them in record time. We left the staff smiling at our strange, slightly crazed demeanours and at the puddle of water and mud on the polished white screed floors. We paddled off into the night to find a place to camp.
After 400km of sailing and paddling, we finally arrived at Victoria Falls. Sailing the Zambezi had been a challenge. We saw areas very few people have seen and lived the expedition in the tradition of the early explorers, with no safety net should something have fallen foul of either of us. Moments away from the end of the expedition, we were nearly hit by a hippo. It just confirmed for us both that we had lived an incredible adventure. Our eyes to the horizon, we looked forward to the next artist-explorer field test and expedition - once Brent had found some medicine and was fully fit again, of course.
We sweat so that you don't have to. Expedition-testing products is central to everything we do. We prefer expedition-testing our products over hiding behind large marketing campaigns which claim too much and deliver too little. This is the core reason for embarking on this expedition down the Zambezi River. The testing and re-testing and re-sampling is ongoing at The Safari Store. It is part of our DNA. Where products do not meet the high standards we set for your safari clothing and gear, we either design, re-make, and re-test the products until we get them right or we scrap them altogether.
Listed below are the products which were tested on this expedition. Some made the grade, some we had to tweak, and a few others we were happy with but decided to do some more testing before going ahead with them. #expeditiontested
The main aim on this trip was to test our new fabrics, with testing around our BUGTech™ fabric the cornerstone of the expedition. We decided not to go ahead with our original BUGTech™ fabric after Steve's Luangwa Valley Expedition and it took us a further two years to develop the BUGTech™ fabric tested on this trip. Localised and laboratory testing proved that the new fabric was highly effective against biting insects and that the fabric still offered the same wicking capabilities as our MaraTech™ fabric - the two factors so crucial to keeping you both bite-free and cool. Given the hot, mosquito-filled time of year, the length of the trip, and the sweaty, strenuous nature of this expedition, it was the ideal testing ground for BUGTech™ and it confirmed that the fabric performed to a high level for both insect repellency and wicking. The fabric is now used extensively across our range. Here, Brent is wearing the Men's Rufiji™ BUGTech™ SafariElite Shirt and, as it is not a pure safari, showing his artist's flair with a red scarf.
We also developed another unique blended fabric, which we call Haibrid™ (hybrid), along with a new shirt design which also is a blend of sorts and represents a move away from purely safari and adventure shirts into a crossover design where the same shirt may be worn to work or on an adventure. The Haibrid™ blend combines polyamide for strength and abrasion resistance, while the cotton fibre aids in breathability and moisture absorption. While our Haibrid™ fabric was comfortable and performed well, we decided to run further testing on it to release at a later date. The new shirt design also was held back, but is now the same design as we use on our Men's and Women's Everything shirts, using a newly-developed version of our BUGTech™ fabric with a built in honeycomb Ripstop.
Amongst the items scattered on the deck, you will see cans of our SafariSun™ sunscreen. With the hot, dry August winds and lack of cloud cover, the expedition was the ideal test-bed for SafariSun™. We already knew that it worked incredibly well as, once again, we had tried it locally before the expedition, but we were amazed that, with the SPF50+ on, it worked so well that we struggled to even go brown, let alone get close to an expedition-ending sunburn - and so we decided on the SPF30 as our preferred expedition sunscreen to ensure that we remained safe under the sun, but still had some expedition credibility at the end by not arriving pasty and white, but with a decent tan. It is quite simply remarkable sunscreen.
With all the hauling and portaging and rough, rocky rapids, we knew that this would be a great way to test Steve's latest luggage design: The Mara&Meru™ Safari Voyager . The bag performed so well that we went straight into production with it, only making small changes such as to the colour of the zips. This very bag goes everywhere with Steve to this day and the two cannot be separated.
If you have read the story above, you will have learned that Brent drank some dodgy water and became very, very ill. In fact, he was so ill that he lost ten kilograms over just three days! Steve, on the other hand, who usually gets an upset stomach if anything is slightly off, didn't get so much as a hiccup from drinking the water en route. What was the difference? Very simple: Steve drank water which had only been filtered through the Lifesaver bottles we were testing - an incredible product which will definitely come with us on every future expedition.
Taking the Suunto Ambit 3 Peak Sapphire along to test meant that we were able to track our course, provide our GPS point in the case of emergency, and work out just how far we had sailed during the day. While we did not have any maps loaded or data to refer to as we preferred to 'wing it', at least we had a ballpark idea of where we were and how far we still had to go. We were also impressed by how much of a hammering the watch took when Steve was being washed over rapids or pushed up against rocks.
In keeping with testing completely new technology and products, we also stepped out of the mould by moving away from our range of canvas and leather hats by successfully testing a new style of paper braid hats. Our first test of the Bolle Clint sunglasses quickly confirmed them as being worth of a place in our range and these remain the firm favourite sunglasses for Steve and Brent to this day.
This expedition marked the start of a meaningful relationship with Merrell footwear. Steve wore the Men's Merrell™ AllOut Blaze Sieve Lightweight Hydro Hike Shoes which were spot on for the for the constant 'salamandering' between the river, rocks, and the river bank. Having both attempted to wade down rapids barefoot, with painful consequences for their feet, once they had both decided to "rather wear shoes", Brent took to wearing the Men's Merrel™ Moab Ventilator Safari Trail Shoes. Admittedly, they are not made for an aquatic life as the Sieves are, but they stood up well (and still do to this day).
Top tips for planning your Zambia safari.
1. Introduction: This expedition was in an area which is not often visited by tourists and, when tourists do visit Ngonye Falls and beyond, they are usually on a self-drive trip on their way to one of the really remote parks in the west of Zambia (such as Liuwa Plains, West Lunga, and Sioma Ngwezi National Parks), on their way to the 'find' the source of the Zambezi or perhaps to view the Kuomboka Ceremony of the Lozi people. While this remoteness is one of the reasons why we chose this are for our expedition and we highly recommend a visit, it must be said that the more popular safari areas lie eastwards from this western edge of Zambia - and there are a great deal of incredible areas under the 'popular' banner to boot. These areas include Livingstone (to visit the Victoria Falls), the gem which is Kafue National Park, and then the two safari hot spots, the South Luangwa National Park - famed for walking safaris and intense game-viewing along the highly seasonal river of the same name - and the Lower Zambezi National Park which, it has to be said, offers some of the most majestic scenery in which to view wildlife in the vast Zambezi Valley. A little further north from the South Luangwa lies the very wild North Luangwa National Park, with very few camps and very few visitors.
2. If you have time: Hire a car and go exploring. Zambia is very diverse as it is the bridge between southern, central, and east Africa. The Zambians themselves are a collection of people who have wandered - for a myriad of reasons - into Zambia to live over the centuries. The result is a country with over 70 different languages (nearly everyone speaks English) and just as many different cultures. At times, Zambia may be quite a dusty, raw travel experience, but it is a figurative river trip dotted with the most incredible islands of natural diversity and scenic splendour.
3. If you have neither time nor inclination to bump along for miles over dusty roads: Fly. It is as simple as that. The more popular parks are linked by scheduled charter flights, with Lusaka as the hub. While the classic fly-in safari would definitely include both the South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi with a side of Victoria Falls, if time and budget allows, add a dollop of the Kafue National Park, North Luangwa, or both.
4. Zambia is a year-round destination: While, as with most safari areas, the drier winter season is usually the obvious time to go, the green season is often lauded as having splendours of its own. Make sure you plan and check who and what is open when as, when it rains in Zambia, it really, really, really rains. Some camps are only open from April/May onward, but others are open from earlier on in the season and offer a wet season and a dry season road to allow for access. Activities drift from more traditional game drives and walks towards more water-based activities on aluminium boats, dugout mekoros, and canoes.