On the 14th August we rowed past the Livingstone Boat Club to the sound of the local marimba band, an escort from a press boat and the local jet boat, finishing a 1000km row down the Zambezi from Chavuma on the Angolan border to Victoria Falls. The row had been the first time anyone had rowed the Upper Zambezi, and had seen us dodge hippos, skirt the border of 4 countries, race crocodiles, be entertained by the Lozi king (Litunga) in Barotseland, and be on the receiving end of the immense hospitality of the Zambian people.
The expedition begins…
The expedition began with a reception at the Ridgeway hotel in Lusaka, hosted by the deputy Zambian minister for Tourism, Mr Mwangala and the British High Commissioner to Zambia, Carolyn Davidson. The conference was officially launched by Mr Mwangala and was broadcast on Zambia’s news channel that evening. It was only the following day when the expedition was getting ready to depart on the two day journey to Chavuma, and I was busy ordering a burger from Steers that someone came up to me and said he had recognized me from the T.V. I thought he had told me he was a janitor that worked on walls and streets, but turned out he was a journalist from the Wall Street Journal and had even seen our website. He told me he thought what we were doing was slightly mad, laughed and asked if I knew that the Zambezi was not the Thames, after which he more seriously (over a burger of course) said he thought what we were doing was great for Zambia. It was only then that it began to sink in, there was no going back now; we were going to have to at least put the boats on the Zambezi!
David Livingstone’s famous “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it is forward”, was given new meaning when we pushed off in Chavuma on the 27th July to row 1000km backwards. We began the Row Zambezi Expedition, less than 2k from the border with Angola with the blessing of the local District Commissioner and the rather bewildered looking local villagers. The first leg was to make it to Chinyingi Mission, arriving at dusk after a 6 hour, 70km row we made camp next to the only bridge across the Zambezi for almost 800km, an Indian Jones looking wire suspension bridge. The next stage was a two day row to Lukulu, after hearing the tales of local crocodile encounters we had yet to actually see one, this was reckoned to be because of the noise of the engines on the two support boats that were escorting us giving the crocs ample warning of our coming, however this all changed when the Zambezi suddenly swelled after its confluence with the Kabompo. After rowing to one side of the river to avoid a pod of hippos we caught sight of the local “Kwena” (Lozi for crocodile). As we stopped to have a good look at him, he suddenly swung his body out of his midday sunbath and slid into the Zambezi. The immediate realization that he was somewhere in the dark water around us was not lost on any of us. I particularly felt for the Zambian rower in my boat, who wearing a life jacket because he couldn’t swim went into overdrive and didn’t stop rowing until we were 20km away from that first sighting. Apart from the understanding that we were sharing the river with its local inhabitants, and we were definitely the new comers, the Zambezi is truly magnificent. Quietly moving as one immense handsome force pushing itself effortlessly through the Zambian bush, which apart from the groan of hippos and the flashes of brilliant blue and gold of the pygmy Kingfishers, the bush gives nothing away that it hides such a beautiful river.
The next stage was the Barotse floodplain, home to the Lozi Kingdom. The Barotse is a huge floodplain, which during the rainy season can mean the Zambezi swelling up to 25km wide. Because of the vast seasonal changes in the landscape the area has very little in the way of any enduring infrastructure. There are no permanent roads or buildings, coupled with this the Zambezi is notoriously difficult to navigate on the floodplain, often following seemingly erratic and sometimes contradictory directions. Rowing through the Barotse meant a five-day continuous row, camping at night on the banks of the Zambezi. With no access point for the land support team, the rowers would have to contend with no backup if there was an emergency, there was therefore talk of driving the boats around the Barotse and missing out the 200km section of the river altogether. Of course that would rather dampen our ambition to be the first to row the entire Upper Zambezi, and thoughts turned quickly on how we were to achieve the row whilst minimizing risk. It was decided that one rowing boat would attempt the Barotse (instead of the three which made up the expedition), carrying with them tents, cooking equipment and enough rations for a week, six rowers would go, rotating between the three seats on the rowing boat every hour. The rowers would be guided by just one support boat.
On the first day of the Barotse, Row Zambezi had its closest encounter with a hippo. The engine on the support boat had developed an annoying habit of suddenly stopping and refusing to start, as if it sensed danger ahead and would only start again with some gentle reassurances and not so gentle pulls on the starter cord. In the middle of the river the engine stuttered and died. While we were attempting to bring the engine back to life we floated to one side of the river, it was then that someone noticed a trace of bubbles two meters from the boat. As if a submarine was slowly emerging from the Zambezi, water gushing off its dark head, a hippo surfaced only two meters from our oblivious engine. A minute passed while we frantically tried to jerk the engine back to life with the hippo eyeing us suspiciously. After what felt like a life time the engine kicked and we took off leaving our inquisitive encounter in a flood of wake.
The fleeting greeting with the hippo on the first day of the mini expedition was the only anxious moment during the Barotse. Camping on the sandy banks of the Zambezi every evening, eating MoD issue ration packs, supplementing them with bream and tiger fish brought off the locals were some of my favorite moments of the expedition. One of the most striking things that caught us unaware was the extent to which the Zambezi is used by local Zambians.
During the day we were greeted by running children, entire villages would come out to see us, and all through the night fishermen balancing on their mokoros would entice fish to the surface using lanterns while beating the water to ward off crocodiles. The Zambezi is truly a highway for the local communities. We were also surprised to hear music from distant villages every night we were in the Barotse, our Zambian guide was keen to point out that “every night is party night in Zambia”.
The King of Barotseland
While half the party were deep in the Barotse the rest of the expedition team had an altogether more royal appointment. The Litunga (king) Lubosi II of Barotseland and head of the Lozi tribe had heard about the expedition and wanted to meet us. His palace is situated 5 miles outside of Mongu the capital of the Western Province. Set in a walled hamlet of colonial era buildings, we were greeted at the gates by one of the workers of the king, recognizable because all workers wear what looks like a red cotton shower cap. We were immediately informed of the etiquettes one must follow when in the presence of the king. For example as a mark of respect you clap by tapping your palms together lightly, and bowing your head lower than the person receiving your respect. The immense reverence members of the Lozi held for their Litunga was immediately evident. While we were waiting for the King to arrive we sat in a room facing the Litunga’s Lubona (throne) and watched while a member of the Acuta (the Council of Elders of the Lozi tribe) painstakingly crawled up to the throne, placed a box of tissues by its side and retreated clapping and bowing his head towards the chair. During the meeting we were shown the two huge drums that are carried as part of the infamous Ku omboka festival.
The Ku omboka means “coming out of the water” and is an annual festival that marks the beginning of the rainy season. The festival marks the movement of the Lozi tribe from the floodplain of the Barotse to higher ground. The Litunga traditionally had two capitals, his summer one on the banks of the Zambezi near Lyalui and one during the peak of the rainy season in Mongu. In fact every Lozi headman was expected to have two villages, one on the plain and the other on higher land. The Ku omboka is when the entire Lozi tribe escort their Litunga in his giant wooden barge paddled by a hundred carefully selected Lozi men (apparently if you don’t paddle hard enough you get chucked over board). The Nalikwanda (the Litunga’s principal barge) carries a huge elephant on its canopy, the symbol of the Lozi tribe and on top of the barge carrying his wife stands a giant bird. After we were invited to the ku kambama, meaning to “climb to a higher level”, referring to the great honor of being in the presence of the Litunga we presented our gifts, amongst which were some Ormonde Jayne perfume (for the king and his wife) and the latest google maps of the Barotse floodplain. The Litunga addressed us in person, instead of speaking through someone else, which was according to the Zambians amongst us was incredibly rare. He described to us that he was privileged to host us on our expedition, and how he admired that through rowing we were able to enjoy the river without spoiling it. He talked about his love of water sports and even hinted that if there was another rowing expedition he may be tempted to get involved! He then posed for photos, which shocked the Lozi Council of Elders and met us all in person. After telling him that I was a student at LSE he told me he had studied at UCL (he called it studying at Russell Square) and that he had attended some public lectures at LSE!
Working with Village Water
While we were in Mongu we went to the headquarters of Village Water, the charity that Row Zambezi is raising money and awareness for. We were taken by Albertina, a really jolly lady who is a full time nurse and midwife as well as helping run the Village Water projects, and her equally nice colleague Claire, to see a village that Village Water had just begun operations in. Lukolo village is about 70km out of Mongu along a bumpy dirt track, and is Village Water’s latest project. We saw the beginning of the excavation of the water well and were given a tour around the only school in the village. It was fantastic to see first hand the transformation Village Water was delivering to this remote community. Village Water were putting into place a sanitation project, which was to be run and managed by the women of the village. It was clear that the availability of clean water was having a tremendous impact on the village. Basic crops were being prepared to plant, the first time the village would be able able to grow its own sustenance, and children now had time to attend school, all because of the now available source of fresh clean water. The statistics speak for themselves. For example in Nandusu village in 2008 before Village Water helped initiate a clean water program there were 42 cases of severe diarrhea and 20 cases of malaria. By 2010, after the work of Village Water there were two cases of diarrhea and one case of malaria. We only hope that we can do Village Water justice, and raise the funds that they desperately need to carry on the remarkable work that they are already delivering. It is only reinforced more the gross paradox that these village communities deal with; they live alongside one the mightiest rivers in Africa but face a daily struggle to get clean usable water.
Final Stage of the Expedition
The final stage of the expedition was from Senanga, on the southern tip of the Barotse to Victoria Falls our final destination. The final stage was 400km, would take us past Katima Mulilo, the border of three countries, skirt four major game reserves and see us contend with the tenacity of the Zambezi rapids, including Sioma Falls.
Negotiating the rapids proved to be a challenging task. The first rapid we came to, close to Kasanga proved to be quite literally the watershed. We rowed to one side of the rapid and got out to discuss how best to get around or through them. There was no way we could row through the heart of the rapid, spanning almost 300meters wide, and dotted by a plethora of channels we had heard that the belly of the rapid contained a number of standing waves. Attempting a direct charge of the rapid would be suicidal. Beached on one side of the Zambezi the rapid was out of sight, hidden behind small islands, it looked as if there could possibly be a way of floating the boats down through the shallow channels on our side. A recce of the rapid suggested that the maze of channels on our side were free from white water, and although the water was moving fast it would be easier to float the boats through the channels then take them out and carry them 1.5km around the rapid. The water was initially so shallow it barely covered our feet, we therefore had four rowers float/lift each boat over the rocks before the opening of the channel. As we approached the channel the depth of the water suddenly dropped and the speed of the water picked up greatly as the water was squeezed through the narrow passage. The lead boat got swept into the channel with the rowers desperately clinging on, the sky abruptly disappeared as the overhanging trees and bushes enveloped us. With only an eerie green light coming through the canopy, the boats got stuck on roots and branches blocking the channel. Out came the machetes and knifes as we hacked our way through the Zambezi. Tilly hats on, it looked like something out of a Vietnam movie as we swam the boats through the channels grinning from ear to ear. We made it out the other side, getting out to find we were covered in tiny leeches and one of the support boats had been ripped, but feeling we had finally tasted what it may have been like for Livingstone 150 years ago, leading an expedition without the maps and equipment that we were relying on.
After that first rapid we were eager to jump out and swim the boats down at any sign of another rapid. But being told not too mildly that we had been incredibly reckless, especially in regard to potentially providing any resident crocodiles with a rowing feast we became a lot more careful. Our last crocodile encounter came on the last night before we finished the row to the Livingstone Boat Club. Hosted by an exclusive lodge 5km from Livingstone that supposedly prides itself on its British rowing connections, we were given camp on a rather minimal rocky plot of land next to the river. Our South African doctor was collecting some water from the river, when he turned to look at the river he saw the head of the resident crocodile eyeing him up. A local told us the same crocodile was rather notorious in the area and was blamed on taking a horse only the week before. Unfortunately the crocodile was the best hospitality we received while camping at the lodge. It was ironic that after the remarkable warmth and generosity of the Zambian people, it was an ex British army officer who was stuck in the Victorian age that meant our last night on the expedition was spent behind an electrified fence.
We finished the row on the 14th August, my Dad’s 50th birthday. Arriving to a beautiful reception at the Livingstone Boat Club, rowing in to the sound of the local marimba band, fireworks and a press boat containing a Zambian film crew. The expedition finished almost as quickly as it had started, it had been 20 days since we left Lusaka and it was suddenly over. We had made it, 1000km from the border with Angola to within site of the mighty columns of steam rising from the Mosi-oa-Tunya.
After the expedition
I stayed in Zambia for two weeks longer than the rest of the expedition to see if there was any research I could do for my dissertation I am planning on David Livingstone and the role of the Victorian media. I went to see the director of the Livingstone Museum in Livingstone town, a very nice quiet man called Vincent Katanekwa. I asked him if it would be possible to see any of their David Livingstone archives. He took me through the warren of corridors in the back of the museum to an office belonging to the museum’s ‘resident historian’, Dr Friday Mufuzi, who was unfortunately away while I was in Zambia. Vincent opened the office and unlocked a bookcase in the corner. At the bottom of the bookcase Vincent, after a couple of generous tugs pulled out a dusty cardboard folder. Placing the folder on the table Vincent let me look inside. The first thing I pulled out was a letter David Livingstone had written to his nephew Neil Livingstone, dated July 20th 1863. Here I was actually touching a real letter, a bluish grey piece of paper that David Livingstone had written on the shores of Lake Nyasa. I don’t know if Vincent knew I was only a second year undergraduate but I wasn’t going to warn him! Vincent left me to look through the rest of the folder and two more containing David’s correspondence and various other documents, such as Livingstone’s first sketches and measurements of Victoria Falls. I was aware that I was handling an incredible collection of material, but over time the documents had become jumbled and some were clearly deteriorating. I spent the rest of my time at the museum working with a kind and gently spoken researcher called Kingsley, we made a note of all the material, who Livingstone was writing to and the date and year he wrote it. We then began the process of organizing each letter into recipient and then chronologically. I wasn’t able to finish the process but Kingsley and I had made a good start, and hopefully one day someone coming to look at the archive material will find them ordered, which might make the process of digitalizing them one day easier. I had a fantastic time at the museum, while I was thanking Kingsley for all that he did (including making sure I didn’t accidently spill tea on the letters) he asked me for 2000 Kwacha to help with his bus fare home. 2000 Kwacha is about 25p. He got embarrassed as a group of his colleagues walked past, so I took him around the back of the museum and gave him 15,000. I wish I could have given him more. I can’t even begin to understand how difficult it must have been for him to ask me. He’s an historian spending hours working for the museum, he’s intelligent and did anything he could to help me, and here he was asking me for pennies.
I had a truly amazing time in the 5 weeks I had spent in Zambia. There had been some rather edgy moments, including the encounter with the hippo in the Barotse and the swim through the Kasanga rapids. There had also been some moments that had taken my breath away. Camping on the banks of the Zambezi, watching the sun go down to the groan of hippos, with the rich golden glow of the river reflecting the sinking sun, while we sipped a cheeky beer or two that we had snuck into our ‘emergency rations’. Not to mention meeting the Litunga of the Lozi tribe, seeing the work of Village Water and helping at the Livingstone museum. But above all it was the kindness and warm-heartedness of the Zambian people, who time again would go out of their way to help us that I will most keenly remember.
- Oliver Cook