By Alex Sergison
There is something about Africa that draws a few to experience so much. Once it is in your blood it is hard to shake and your life becomes centred around dreams of adventure and foreign lands. In reference to his journeys across the African continent the great explorer Livingstone was quoted, “If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.” Livingstone would have loved paddle boarding.
After months of planning we rolled our Toyota Land Cruiser off a container ship in Walvis Bay, Namibia. The next 10 weeks were to be dedicated to travelling coast to coast across Africa, paddle boards at the ready, with the mission of immersing ourselves into African life. The following are extracts from my diary and detail just a few of the incredible experiences that we had…
The Skeleton Coast, Namibia
I first heard of the Skeleton Coast as a teenager and have lusted after visiting ever since. Barren and brutal, there is no water here apart from the icy Atlantic. Other than the odd fishermen who regularly haul shark and other large game fish onto the beach and colonies of fur seals who rule the waters from the rocky points interspersing the coastline, this is an empty wilderness.
I paddle boarded this afternoon and frankly the boarding was far from quality. The water froths around the rocky shore and in the sandy bays remains choppy and uncomfortable to paddle on. My God, it is atmospheric though. The water was inky blue and I was on my own. I couldn’t shake the thought of the animals we have seen pulled ashore by rod. I know they aren’t far from me at any time. The sky is vivid blue and the rugged hills and mountains which border The Skeleton Coast glow yellow and gold in the afternoon sun, speckled with clumps of green shrubbery clinging to the slopes in the hope of rain and sustenance.
We camped at a fishing out post this evening. Fishermen travel miles by dirt road to this area and camp out for months at a time enjoying the solitude and sport. It seems they bring their entire lives with them, packed neatly into four wheel drive vehicles. One such chap who made a visit to our little camp was obviously surprised to see our puny tent pitched neatly in the vast space we had been allocated. He couldn’t believe we could both crawl into this cramped home and sleep comfortably. It took some time to convince him we would be just fine and we didn’t need to be given shelter in his luxurious canvas palace for the evening.
The Okavango, Botswana
It was with a heavy heart I paddled clear of the Okavango. This morning we woke on the third day of our paddle through the maze of channels which snake between ever changing islands and swamps. Up early we surprised a herd of giraffe as we crawled from our tents. After glimpsing us, they bolted for cover as did the Springbok and Zebra that we discovered just a short distance from camp.
I walked with our guide for an hour after sun rise this morning. He showed me how to read some of the more basic tracks left in the dirt from the previous night and with relish I tried my hardest to remember what he was telling me.
The Okavango is a paddle boarder’s dream. Glassy water ways and solitude. There are other groups here, ferried by dugout in groups around the borders of the true delta. But if you are motivated a watery wilderness awaits you.
We startled two hippo this morning, the first catching us by surprise as it crashed from its hideout into a nearby swamp. The second made us paddle for our lives as it hauled its lazy bulk up to speed and charged us from the reedy bank. Katy and our guide were clear, but with all our kit strapped to the front of my board and being closest to the shoreline I was less lucky. This beautiful lumbering beast made it to within a few metres of me. I consider this encounter a close call.
Paddling for up to six hours a day in the scorching sun is certainly draining. Yet despite the lure of the surrounding water a quenching dip comes with some risk. Crocodiles lurk, hungry and ready to strike. The brief rest bite we managed this afternoon on the home straight was in a strategically located pool with plenty of visibility.
Mr Wellington, Zimbabwe
We should have learnt; don’t trust maps and always give yourself an extra 50% time to make a journey. Last night we had to pull over in a remote section of the Matopos Hills, south of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
After so many wonderful experiences on this continent, it is easy to become blasé about travel; yet this is still Africa and if you don’t use common sense you put yourself at jeopardy.
The usual protocol for an unexpected stop is to head straight for the nearest school as, despite their ramshackle look, they almost certainly have a compound fence offering some degree of security. As we pulled into this village, it was apparent something was up. Although we didn’t get to the bottom of the story, it became apparent there were some dangerous men in the area and the villagers felt we were too exposed camping within the village grounds.
With night upon you, potential hostile locals in the area and no way of negotiating a horrendous road in the dark sometimes you have to trust your instincts. When we were invited by Mr Wellington to take refuge within his compound a short distance from the village, we had just a moment to size him up and decide whether to trust him or not.
We woke the next morning within Mr Wellington’s compound to the sound of his excited extended family waiting to meet the foreigners. A more gentle and obliging family would be hard to find. We spent the morning playing with his very young son and six-year old daughter and on a private tour of their small plot of land that sheltered melon, maize, squash and all sorts of exciting fruits that I wouldn’t be able to name.
We left a token of appreciation of a few dollars for the local school. As we departed Mr Wellington confessed how lucky he felt on meeting us. “My daughter has never met white people before. The next time she does I know she won’t be afraid,” he said.
Mana Pools, Zimbabwe
We barely slept a wink last night. There were hippos chewing cud around the tent and grumbling to themselves, lions roaring and elephant pushing their way through the undergrowth. We experienced our first mock elephant charge as we pulled into the reserve. Catching a large bull by surprise as we drove round an overgrown corner, he made his displeasure felt, pulled his trunk clear, tucked his ears back and postured no more than 10 metres from the car.
All we could do was sit tight, remember our advice (turn the car off and keep utterly still and quiet) and hope he decided we weren’t a threat. He was too close for us to make a run for it and eventually after cutting the distance to just five metres, he slowly backed away back into the bush leaving our hearts racing.
As twilight enshrouded us at camp, a hippo walked past causing us to hold our breath and freeze in our seats. Before taking refuge in our skimpy tent, we watched hyena peering at us through the gloom obviously wondering if we were predator or prey.
We saw two prides of lion today. This afternoon’s pride we found no more than two minutes from our unfenced campsite. We gazed upon 13 females and juveniles for almost two hours as they bickered about a wart hog kill and lazed in the shade of some scrubby bushes. We were a little disappointed as they started to move off, as we haven’t seen any of the large males yet. We followed them down a dusty track and there, just round the corner, was the King of the Jungle. Over 400 pounds of muscle and arrogance, this fellow knew where he stood in the pecking order. He had obviously already feasted and had been keeping watch over his extended family. No wonder the encircling hyenas had looked so jittery.
I came close to pumping my board up. I am afraid this place has beaten me, the banks are lined with creatures, which wouldn’t think twice about gouging, trampling or eating me. Who knows what lies beneath the waters, brown from the recent rains? I have paddled enough to know that whilst you are on you board you have little to fear. However the Zambezi is flowing rapidly over hidden sand bars and waterborne debris, ready to catch a fin and throw a rider to an almost certain dinner date with something green and scaly.
I will be back Mana Pools. When the dry season arrives and the water flows clearer, I look forward to paddling through this area of fierce beauty.