Zambezi River 2023

Zambezi River 2023

26th October       I have a very good friend here in Somerset West who I have known now for about 30 years. Chris Denny is the most generous person that I have ever met and out of the blue he invited me some weeks ago to join him on a tigerfishing trip to the Zambezi in Zambia at the end of October. I thought my days of tigerfishing were over so this invitation came as an exciting surprise to me.

On Thursday, 26th, Chris, his son-in-law Dwayne and I board an early morning Airlink flight to Johannesburg where we meet up with Dwayne’s friend, Danie, from Richards Bay. At 11am we all fly off northwards on another Airlink flight and after an hour and a half we descend into Livingstone, Zambia through some quite severe turbulence caused by the typical October Zambezi valley heat. Seated ahead of us are two bulky, muscular, young black men (Chris Gayle types) who are dressed in skimpy vests and sweating profusely – all  brought about by the terrifying motions of the plane. When we finally touch down their relief overcomes them and they break into noisy applause – rather amusing how these macho he-men were reduced to gibbering wrecks.

Exiting the aircraft (and the BO), we are met by the blast furnace 39ºC air – enough to dispel any lingering memories of our cold Cape winter. Livingstone airport is clean and new and we quickly clear passport control.  We are heading for Shackletons, a fishing lodge some 140Km west of Livingstone.

Dwayne, Danie, Chris and myself

We are met by the lodge driver and head out west in a rather strange Toyota SUV, not sold back in SA and peculiar to Zambia.  The tarred road as far as Kasungula is in fairly good condition but is choked with big trucks plying the route between Zambia and SA through Botswana. Thereafter the road quickly deteriorates into a potholed mess of semi tar and gravel and the trip takes us three hours to complete. Along the way we pass many sights so typical of Zambia.

Little roadside shops
Occasional collection of small huts.  (Library)

At Shackletons we are met by owner Howard Shackleton, a Zimbabwean who built the lodge over 20 years ago. We are quickly shown to our chalets, six of which are scattered about amongst riverside trees, bush and lawns.

The entertainment and restaurant building sited on a quiet loop off the main river.

No time to mess around though and by 4.30pm we are on the boats heading out onto the main river.

What joy it is to be back on the Zambezi which holds so many fond memories.

This stupendous river is, in October, at its lowest level and yet the volume of water still surging over its wide riverbed is so, so impressive. I doubt if all the SA rivers combined would come even close to matching that pouring down the Zambezi.

Shackletons is well known for its big tigerfish and, like all fishermen, we are full of  anticipation and keyed up for the ‘big strike’. Chris and I are in one boat and the younger lads in another, both with a boatmen/gillie. We are fishing with live baits called ‘bulldogs’ – a small fish caught by the locals in their nets.

A ‘Bulldog’ fish.

One casts out one’s bait and allows it and the boat to drift with the current. Chris’s scant store of patience is already being tested and this afternoon after only 10 minutes of quiet fishing there are already some murmurs. We return to the lodge at 6pm for a really good supper and we quickly learn that Shackleton food is just excellent.

Friday, 27th

Raring to go, we have some cereal and coffee at 6am and then quickly leave camp in high anticipation.

Danie and Dwayne

Shackletons in thick riverine vegetation.

We head downstream 10-15kms and pass the village of Mwandi. Local river travel is largely done by “mokoro” – a boat fashioned from a tree trunk.

Mokoro boat

Boatman “Remmy” and his assistant Kelly, both cheerful, polite and helpful.
The village of Mwandi

Despite us seeing the occasional crocodile on a far bank, it is remarkable that the locals pay so little heed to the dangers that they pose. Women collect water from the river, fishermen wade in and we even see children swimming. Remmy relates that he has lost two sisters to crocodiles and that a brother was also knocked out of his mokoro, never to be seen again. The locals seem amazingly philosophical about it all and just carry on with their everyday lives although Remmy assures us that “spells” do protect them.

We continue a couple of Km’s beyond the village and at last begin to encounter some big bites. I begin with a lovely 6Kg fish which is quickly weighed and returned to the water. No fish bites as violently as a tigerfish and our little daydreams are often shockingly interrupted by a screaming reel. Chris then surpasses me and after a good fight lands a 7kg fish.

Tigerfish are difficult to land. Their hard mouths make it difficult to set a hook and often during the fight they leap clear of the water shaking their heads, thereby dislodging the hook. But both these two big tigerfish do not jump and Remmy explains that it is because they are large, fat bellied females. Younger fish and the males do the jumping.

Readers of my last blog from Kruger may remember that I became quite excited when I found eight Open-billed storks feeding in the Sabie River. Here on the Zambezi they are prolific and huge flocks are often to be seen.

Something else is a feature here. At this very moment two African Skimmers are creating a sensation down at Lower Sabie whilst here they are everywhere.

African Skimmer (Library)

Rather like in Kruger, one big fish is enough to make one forget all about the long, tedious time spent waiting. After catching another 4Kg fish, we return to camp at 11am for brunch and a rest.

A full English breakfast overlooking a quiet inlet off the main river.

This afternoon we head upstream about 5kms and then drift back. The current takes us close to an undercut bank and here we find a small colony of nesting colourful Carmine Bee-eaters. Their breeding season is now so these holes in the bank will contain fledglings.

It is at about this time that Chris is dangling his foot off the boat into the water when a large nearby splash reminds us of the dangers lurking in these seemingly placid waters. Every so often we come across a pod of hippos which are used to the boats and hardly pay attention to us.

Remmy reminds us that it is the mother hippo and calf that poses the biggest danger and many of the locals have been attacked. Fishing has not been too good this afternoon but we are rewarded with a beautiful golden evening sunset.

Saturday, 28th       We sleep under very good mosquito nets at night but in all the time that we are at Shackletons, I never hear or see a ‘mozzie’. Another surprise is that the supposed October heat is not at all apparent. Usually a breeze is blowing which keeps us comfortable.

This morning we drift down the river from the lodge but the tigerfish are just not biting. Instead we catch some barbel.

A barbel – much prized as a delicacy by the locals.

Another prized fish here is the Nemwe – a green coloured bream that can grow quite big. A dead but still fresh Nemwe comes floating down the river past us and Kelly scoops it out of the  water.

Temporary grass huts are built on the river banks for the fishermen. The annual flood in February/March sweeps them away.

Before returning to camp, we present the barbel and nemwe to some locals.

These ‘gill nets’ are illegal but enforcement is absent

Back in camp we learn that Dwayne on the other boat has caught an 8kg tigerfish – downstream. Now that is quite a fish.

Tonight of course is the final of the Rugby World Cup and after supper we settle down to watch this enthralling match. Most fishermen are keen rugby fans and fortified by their usual B & C’s, a rowdy evening follows – with a very pleasing outcome.

Sunday, 29th        Encouraged by Dwayne’s success, we decide that on this, our last day, we must again go about 15km’s downstream beyond the Mwandi village. But despite our best efforts, the fish are frustratingly still not biting.

River “taxis” often pass us travelling up and down and sometimes across the river

Poor Chris’s patience has been tested to the limit especially when, after a poor morning, we insist on going out again immediately after lunch and keep plugging away. Down to Mwandi we go and …….   quite inexplicably, our luck changes. In a deep, quiet pool we begin to have regular bites and runs from big tigerfish. I am thrilled to boat a whopping 8.6kg fish – by far my biggest tiger ever.

After enjoying some great fun, we eventually return to camp for the last time. For me the  Zambezi is rather a spiritual experience. The vastness of this lazy river, the gentle interaction with the indigenous people and the palpable peace and simple happiness is so therapeutic. But I feel an uneasy undercurrent. Whereas places like the nearby Caprivi Strip conjure up images of a romantic wilderness, the reality is anything but. The surging population has driven out the wildlife completely, and the same is evident here in Zambia. Forced to survive, people eke out a living by chopping down trees to make charcoal, Chinese gill-nets strip the river of its smaller fish and the nets are even used to trap the Carmine Bee-eaters in order to sell their beautiful feathers. Whereas famine, disease and warfare once kept the population in check, that no longer applies and our wonderful natural heritage bears the brunt. The one saving grace of the Zambezi is the annual flood which spills out over the banks onto flood plain thus preventing its banks from becoming built up.

Monday, 30th         During the night we are awakened by a great crack of thunder and a deluge of rain marking the beginning of the rainy season. Our four night visit to Shackletons has come and gone. Howard, the owner, really runs an excellent lodge with everything done so tastefully well. The quality of the boats, all with new 4-stroke Mercury motors is top class and full marks to Shackletons. With a limited fishing season and some high overheads, it is to be expected  that these lodges are expensive – but not excessively so.

After our breakfast and goodbyes to all, we pile into our Toyota and begin the trip back to Livingstone.

The sandy track between the main road and the lodge on the river.

Back on the  mainroad it becomes apparent that many locals are heading for Kazungula where the  Zambezi is bridged over into Botswana. An assortment of items are on their way to market today.

Bags of Charcoal – which sadly means that more trees are disappearing.

A poultry farmer
From my Zambian library – photo taken on a previous trip

It is scenes such as this that makes Africa the unique place that it is and Zambia provides ample opportunity for a good chuckle. The population might be dirt poor but there is happiness in their simplicity – far removed from the crime ridden aggression in the ghettos of  SA.

The young lads of our party have never seen Victoria Falls so we have given ourselves time for a leisurely visit  before we must be at the airport. Unfortunately, at this time of year with the river low, the Zambian side of the Falls is almost dry whereas the Zim side still provides a spectacle.

A sentry at the entrance gate to the Falls
Cecil Rhodes’s famous railway bridge

Far down below in the gorge, a party of brave girls prepare to tackle the ‘white waters’ of the rapids.
Looking across to the Zim side of the Falls

It is difficult to imagine that all of that mighty flow of water on which we have been fishing is channelled into such a narrow slit of water at the base of the Falls.

Rather surprisingly, the name Victoria Falls persists and Livingstone’s statue still stands near the town that still bears his name.

We return through Livingstone town to the airport. The main street of the town is neat and tidy but away from that, litter and squalor prevails. As a fitting finale, I photograph a large picture of Vic Falls on a wall in the airport. Truly one of the great wonders of the world.