• Kev Thomas Writes

Kayaking the Sabi

Although this post would probably be considered too long for a Blog, I've posted it for posterity's sake. Fifty-three years ago, when I was 16, myself and three school friends attempted to kayak from Birchenough Bridge on the Sabi River in the then Rhodesia, to Mambone on the Mozambique coast. It was a journey of close to 380kms, and although we stopped short of our target due to time limitations, we had a wonderful adventure. Unfortunately, not many photos remain, and the few that do were cut up to save space in a photo album. Such is the folly of youth! In the Zimbabwe of today, the Sabi River is now the Save (pronounced Sar-ve) River, and the Lundi River is now the Runde River. I hope you enjoy the read.

Above: Standing below Birchenough Bridge on 16 August 1967. Standing from left, myself, Quint Staff, Andy Van der Schyff (Deceased), Nick Bertram. Unfortunately the photo I had of us paddling beneath the bridge is lost.

During early 1967 at Umtali Boys High School a few of us discussed the possibility of kayaking down the Sabi River from Birchenough Bridge, to the river’s mouth at Mambone, on the Mozambique coast. It was a journey of approximately 300 kilometres, with two thirds of the distance inside Mozambique. Most of those we spoke to retorted, ‘Don't be daft it’s impossible’ or ‘Those who’ve tried in the past have all come unstuck’. One group of Chipinge farmers had tried to navigate the river by raft during the 1950s, in a sort of Huckleberry Finn adventure. Their raft had initially been wrecked on the rapids, and then lower down the river an irate hippo bull had expressed its displeasure, separating the tractor inner tube flotation from the plank deck, causing the farmers to return to farming.

Living at Chibuwe Irrigation Scheme, I was familiar with the Sabi Gorge area because we often camped there on fishing trips. In those days too, Chisumbanje was just a small Government Experimental Station, managed by Alec Barry. The Jack Quinton Bridge across the Sabi River south of Chisumbanje was also still at the foundation stage.

Above: Cattle crossing upstream of the bridge.

One of our group, Nick Bertram, mentioned the annual senior boys’ school tour during August 1967 was scheduled to visit southern Mozambique, the Pande gas field, and Bazaruto Island. The island lay south of the Sabi River mouth and Nick suggested that perhaps we should consider attempting the venture to coincide with the school tour. This made a lot of sense as by linking up with the school tour at the journey’s end we’d have our return to Rhodesia secured. Nick and I took our idea to 'Coney' Fleming the Headmaster, and despite our misgivings; Coney was filled with enthusiasm. He suggested we endeavour to seek sponsorship for the kayaks, food requirements, medical kits and everything else. We left his office feeling confident.

Quint Staff and the late Andy van der Schyff also joined us, and we opted for single cockpit kayaks. We were also advised by a wildlife enthusiast to stay with brightly coloured craft, and avoid drab olive or dark greens. This last snippet of advice was given to us due to crocodiles possibly mistaking drab coloured kayaks for intruders into their territories.

Sourcing the kayaks proved the most difficult part of the exercise, however, we eventually found a company in the far-off midlands town of Gwelo (Gweru). They kindly sponsored us with four 16’ kayaks, and thereafter our weekends were taken up with practising kayaking on the Mpudzi and other rivers in close proximity to Umtali (Mutare). Whenever we practised in the tribal areas, we’d have hordes of tribal kids sprinting along the riverbank keeping pace with our paddling, and shouting with glee.

Sponsorship of our other needs didn’t prove too difficult and the people and businesses of Umtali quickly opened their hearts to us. Maps for the Mozambique section, the greater part of the trip, we couldn’t procure, although for the Rhodesian side it wasn’t problematic. Most difficult, was trying to obtain permission from the Portuguese authorities to travel through their territory, despite regular trips across the border where we came up against a blank wall every time. It seemed as if every decision had to be made in far off Lisbon. This process of applying for permission took seven months, and by the time we left it was only with a brief letter granting us permission to enter Mozambique via the Sabi River.

On Wednesday 16 August 1967 we set off from Birchenough Bridge. Many of those who saw us depart felt we’d be back in Umtali within a week. August certainly isn’t the ideal time to kayak the Sabi River and our first day was one huge struggle spent trying to locate the deep-water channel. We dragged our kayaks, fully laden, across numerous sandbars, sweated, cursed, and wondered aloud at the wisdom of our decision. And that was only day one! Eventually, we found a deep meandering channel that took us for kilometres through dense reedbeds alive with noisy swirling clouds of red-billed queleas.

Above: When we camped overnight we hung our mosquito nets from our kayak paddles.

From deep inside the reedbeds grunting hippo kept us alert and on edge, until eventually, famished and totally exhausted we beached on a narrow sandbar jutting out from an island. After unpacking our gear, we made a quick meal, stuck our paddles in the sand, hung our mosquito nets from them and unrolling our sleeping bags took refuge from the swarms of mosquitoes around us. Throughout our first night we were kept awake by the loud trumpeting and bellowing of a cowherd of elephant on the Devuli Ranch side of the river. Crashing around in the bush above our camp, they were breaking trees and in general sounding rather annoyed. However, the next morning while we were scouting around, we found we were on an island and had shared it with the cowherd of elephant. Our human scent perhaps having upset them. Being on a riverbank is one thing, because you can orient yourself with reference landmarks. However, being inside the riverbed on a river that in parts is almost a kilometre wide, is very different. Especially when you're hemmed in by dense reedbeds rising twelve feet above your head, and growing in a closed canopy over the narrow channels you’re trying to navigate.

Walking around the small island we marvelled at the numerous elephant tracks and still fresh mounds of acrid smelling dung. Over the tops of the gently swaying reeds, we could just make out the uppermost reaches of Mount Rudd on the river’s east bank, and realised just what little progress we’d actually made the previous day. Back on the water we continued to struggle south. Our fun filled weekend practice runs had done nothing to prepare us for what we were now experiencing. It wasn’t long before our shoulders, arms, and neck muscles were being severely punished. Yet we had no option but to push on. Despite the thick impenetrable reedbeds we were lucky the channel we’d chosen to follow was deep and swift.

Day two took us as far as the Chibuwe Irrigation Scheme where I’d spent most of my boyhood thus far. However, by the time of the kayak trip my parents had relocated to Macheke on the Mashonaland plateau. Prior to our arrival at Chibuwe we seemed to suddenly get a rush of additional water, no doubt from the Turgwe River, a tributary to the Sabi River flowing in from its west bank. After camping overnight at Chibuwe we were back on the water before sunrise the next day. It was a good time to travel with the river covered in a gossamer veil of mist. All across the dawning sky flocks of Egyptian geese navigated their way in strung out inverted V's. Heron’s crisscrossed the misty channels and the still dark clumps of vast reedbeds seemed to quiver and shake as hundreds of thousands of red-billed queleas heralded the day.

Above: Looking towards the hill feature Gumira situated not far upstream from Chisumbanje.

Our onward journey took us ever southwards, and deep into a more isolated and sparsely populated area. It was during this next section as far as Chisumbanje,a two-day paddle, that we had our first encounter with a hippo. Gliding along quite happily on the western side of the river, we were strung out one behind each other and close in against the riverbank. Huge walls of brown earth towered above us, from the top of which grew a variety of big riverine trees, their spreading canopies affording us shade from the fierce sun.

Travelling in front I was lounging back with my legs stretched out along the deck above the kayak cockpit, the current pushing us along nicely, and ensuring we only needed to occasionally dip our paddles into the water. Suddenly, my lazy and relaxed world was jolted back to reality when there was a big swirl and loud gurgling sound just to my right, between me and the river bank. Glancing down as I dug my paddle in, I glimpsed the huge head and the back of a hippo mere inches below the surface. It was in the process of coming up for air, and Nick, who was just behind me, suddenly shouted a warning as we both tried to take evasive action. Fortunately for us the hippo got as much of a fright as we did and immediately submerged. Panic however, is infectious, and within seconds the four of us were trying to paddle across a sandbank way out in the middle of the river!

Thereafter, hippo became more numerous and we were soon pretty adept at cautiously paddling past their family pods. During this section too, we observed two big crocodiles, which slid off the mud bar where they’d been basking and disappeared beneath the surface as we glided by. We eventually reached the isolated Gumira hill, a cluster of burnished rock rising up on the rivers’ east bank. Beaching our kayaks, we clambered up the rocks and reaching the summit sat and glassed the river with our binoculars as it meandered away to our south. Pushing on we eventually reached the Chisumbanje Experimental Station HQ and during our two-day break there we fitted narrow keels to our kayaks as we’d been having problems with controlling them, and we also carried out a few repairs on cracked hulls. Beyond Chisumbanje was our final leg through Rhodesia southward to the border.

Above: Andy van der Schyff looking downstream from hill feature Gumira. Nick Bertram just visible in the background.

Alec Barry had very kindly agreed to drive down and meet us at the Chivirira Falls, because the general opinion was it would be suicidal to try and shoot the narrow falls. Even if one could, at the very base and hemmed in by the huge rock walls was a vast hippo pool, and back in 1967 it was the daytime refuge of about sixty hippos. Trying to porter around the gorge would take days, valuable time we couldn’t spare as we had to meet the UBHS school tour on due date. Or we’d be stranded in Mozambique.

After leaving Chisumbanje we once more struggled to find a suitable course. The dense reedbeds from our previous days on the river had now given way to vast open stretches of sand, bisected by shallow slow flowing channels. After a lot of hard work, and cursing, we eventually located a deep enough channel and made some progress. All we saw on this stretch was a large python and a group of eccentric looking marabou storks passing the time of day on a sand spit. As dusk approached, we heard the unmistakable sound of white-water rapids, a low far off kind of rumble. With much jubilation and schoolboy shouts of glee we eventually reached them; they were the first minor rapids above the falls. All of us managed to shoot them without mishap, before we got back into quiet water and after passing beneath the temporary bridge to Chiredzi, made camp.

While sitting around drying out our kit and recounting the excitement of shooting the rapids, we were surprised to see a lone white man come walking down the bank. He proved to be a young surveyor working out of an isolated camp just off the river. He hadn’t seen another white person for weeks and was starved for conversation, and very kindly invited us up to his camp for dinner. His camp cook did an excellent job, and it was soon apparent that the waterfowl population in the immediate vicinity were keeping the lonely surveyor busy with his shotgun. We were fed on about three species of duck, and then more exhausted than ever although replete after the excellent meal, staggered back to our camp and collapsed under our mosquito nets.

The next morning and after one week on the river we pushed on to the head of the gorge. It was as we had all thought and to have attempted it would have been suicidal. Walking through the bush skirting the gorge we found a little used footpath. And after following it eventually came to the bush track leading to the gorge, where we found Alec Barry sitting in the shade alongside his Ford F250. It then took hours to cut our way through the thick bush and ‘man-porter’ our kayaks to Alec's truck. So steep was the terrain that at times all four of us had to carry one kayak. Eventually though, we succeeded, and then clambering aboard the F250, and holding onto our kayaks, crashed and bumped our way round to the foot of the gorge at Mahenye's.

Above: Readying for our Chisumbanje departure. We'd fitted keeps to the kayaks which made for easier control.

Alec deposited us at our old fishing camp-site, where earlier in the year I’d first spoken to him about attempting to kayak the Sabi River. The sheer rock walls at the foot of the gorge once more gave way to sand, reed, and riverine bush where we set up camp for the night. Alec spent the night at the camp and we all got in a spot of fishing. Early the next morning and with the calls of a majestic pair of fish eagles still reverberating around the box-like gorge, we bade Alec goodbye, and again pushed out into midstream. Channels were numerous and strong flowing, so we made good progress and within hours, the gorge was a faint haze shrouded wall behind us. Elephant sign was abundant, and we disturbed a huge crocodile at the Sabi and Lundi River confluences. Resting at the confluence, we wandered up the Lundi River and observed in addition to the elephant tracks, those of lion and buffalo. Exciting stuff for 16-year old boys.

Not far south of us lay the border and we knew that we had to report to the Chef de Poste, metropolitan Portugal's official in this isolated corner of their far-flung African empire. I had in my kayak my side by side 12-gauge shotgun, and a take down .22 long. Both were wrapped in plastic as protection against water. We’d been using them to shoot waterfowl for the pot and I didn’t want to declare them, as I feared that it’d hamper our progress, or at worst they’d be confiscated. The others fully concurred but stated if we were searched and they were found, they were going to carry on and leave me under arrest, to be bailed out once the school tour group returned to Rhodesia! Although said in jest, it did give me cause for concern. Because it was late afternoon, we decided to camp just north of the border and cross on the following morning. All of us were a little wary of Portuguese officialdom, so we slowly paddled on until in the fading light we made out a cluster of white-washed buildings standing in a grove of fig trees on the western riverbank. There was nothing to show we’d reached the border, only dense bush stretching away to the south, and west, as far as the Nuanetsi River (Mwenezi).

Above: We soon became fairly adept at bypassing hippo pods.

This huge tract of land was known as the Gonarezhou meaning Place of the Elephant. It was sparsely populated by scattered Shangaan family groups, and still to be designated a National Park by an act of Parliament. Little did I know at the time that within eight months, I would be living in this isolated landmass as a fledgling 17-year old cadet game ranger. At the time of our trip Rhodesia didn’t maintain a border post in the area, and police patrols from Chiredzi and Chipinga covered the area during periodic visits only. Our maps too, merely showed a tiny cluster of buildings on the Portuguese side. A place known as Mavue. Satisfied, we made camp. Throughout the night elephant and hippo kept us awake with their noisy comings and goings. Also, from far off beyond the east bank and from deep within the Ndowoyo Tribal Trust land tribal drums throbbed until the early hours.

Next morning early, we paddled the few hundred metres to the Chef de Poste’s office, pulled the kayaks out of the water and walked up the path from the river to meet Portugal's representative in this hidden corner of Africa. His house also served as his office. It was a ramshackle grass-roofed affair. The walls had been lime washed but the floors were bare hard clay. Fly-specked maps festooned the walls, a half-empty demijohn of cheap Portuguese vinho branco stood on the table next to a chipped and dirty glass. His only chair, a threadbare well used piece of furniture had most of its springs rearing up trying to escape. Bare-necked chickens strolled in and out of the office and a few mangy dogs of mixed lineage lounged on the veranda, not even waking up as we walked by. Eventually a young black girl in her late teens ambled by and we tried to explain in a variety of languages that we wished to see the person in charge. She seemed to get the message and after muttering the words um momento wandered off again. After about another five minutes, a rather surly, fat, ill-kempt individual who must have been in his mid-forties wandered into the room and sat down heavily at his desk.

His hair was uncombed, greasy, and stuck out at all angles from his skull and his jowls hung halfway down his cheeks. His neck was sweat-grimed and covered in blue mottled blotches. If he was meant to be wearing a uniform of sorts what he had on was a sad excuse. His dish water coloured shirt had half of its buttons missing, and his large slack gut hung out over his equally filthy shorts. It seemed to us that metropolitan Portugal had truly forgotten about their man in this isolated part of Africa. In all fairness, if that was our appraisal of him, I hate to think what his was of us. After ten days on the river we were still wearing the clothes we’d departed Birchenough Bridge in, dirty mud ingrained PT shorts. Shirts covered in food stains, with salty sweat marks permanently imprinted into them, plus we were barefoot and unshaven, with an assortment of hats on our heads which barely hid our mops of uncombed and uncut hair.

Above: Tea break on a sand bar, Quint Staff attends to the makings.

Suddenly, the Chef de Poste smiled widely and standing up he shook hands all round, and then dusted off the top of his desk before once more sitting down. We handed him our official document from Machipanda and he sat perusing it, one hand with grubby fingers idly scratching his ample gut, before he checked our passports, stamped them with a grubby stamp and drawing himself up proudly announced ‘Adeus’. Finally, we could be on our way, so rapidly departed his office all smiles. He waddled down to the river after us and watched as we pushed out quickly from the bank lest he decided on a quick search of the kayaks. Stopping briefly at an Indian trading store on the east bank we exchanged some SSG (Buckshot) 12ga shells for a few tins of corned beef, and then pushed on to Massangena our next port of call 60km downstream from the border. We soon found the river widened out considerably which in turn led to our trying to find the correct channel taking hours. We also constantly paddled needless kilometres only to then have to back paddle when we found the channel ended against a wall of reeds. The heat too, and the constant humidity were discouraging, as was our dwindling supply of food. We were tired of a diet of tough Egyptian geese, killed with the 12ga, or doves shot with the .22 long and where and when we could we plundered the odd tribal fish trap. Had their owner’s been around we would’ve offered them some form of compensation. Regularly too, we had to drag our kayaks across sandbars, at times for hours on end. It taxed our energy and helped to fray our already short tempers.

Personality clashes also started to occur and we found by travelling in pairs with long distances between us, helped overcome this. Eventually though, we found good water and travelled for a few days without a care in the world. Throughout this period too, we never saw a single human being, and on one occasion a hippo cow with a new born calf burst out of the reeds in a fairly narrow channel. She rushed towards us with a bow wave peeling back from her forequarters, forcing us to jump out of our canoes in fright and all end up trying to run and swim in chest deep water, our canoes drifting on lazily downstream. When getting out of my canoe I had grabbed my shotgun and once into shallow water, put a shot over her head. She stood for a few seconds scything her huge head from side to side before returning to her calf standing in the thick reeds at the water’s edge. We then ran downstream across sandbars and through shallow channels trying to recover our kayaks. After recovering them we paddled to the bank and dried out. Massangena had seemingly become elusive.

Above: Myself getting ready for a day's paddling.

We’d paddle for twelve hour stretches following meandering channels and countless reedbeds, always expecting to see the village around the next corner. Only to round the bend and see stretched before us once more, endless kilometres of reeds, sand, and water. It was becoming frustrating and by then, in typical schoolboy fashion we were starting to argue constantly amongst ourselves. It was on the fourth day after departing the border and at about midday, that we finally saw ahead of us a cluster of buildings along the river’s west-bank. By then we were famished and sun-baked. Beaching our kayaks we ignored the hordes of curious onlookers and virtually raced up the bank. Dust bowl would’ve been a more apt description than village, although we found a trading store and bought about six loaves of fresh baked bread, some tins of corned beef, and four quarts of Manica beer. It was like manna from heaven, but fearing our kayaks may be pilfered we hurried back to the water’s edge, loaded our foodstuffs, and headed on downstream.

That evening, our fifteenth on the river, we camped on a rock shelf and gorged ourselves, drinking too much beer and getting drunk in the process. Next morning I was as sick as a dog and puking all over the place. For the next two days I paddled along in a delirious haze wracked by alternate bouts of gut-wrenching cramps, puking, and fierce headaches. Each evening as I struggled to organise my sleeping bag and gear, I could hardly recollect anything of the day’s journey. The only medication we had with us was cough mixture. I felt like death warmed up and had thoughts of expiring in the wilds of Mozambique, not a very comforting prospect at sixteen. Eventually though the bug seemed to work itself out of my system.

Above: Somewhere in Mozambique, Quint and Nick looking decidedly scruffy!

Being schoolboys, we hadn’t done a very thorough map/time appreciation of our journey because we’d lacked maps for the Mozambican section, and by day fifteen, time was fast running out. We were already one day behind our scheduled date for meeting the school tour group at the coast. Ahead of us still lay long stretches of river. We also had no means of communication. Pushing on though, we were soon paddling down one of the most beautiful and scenic stretches of the entire journey. Bird life was prolific, although we saw very little game. During the late afternoon on one of these days a tremendous squall suddenly blew up and the strong easterly winds, lashed by heavy rain drove us off the river. Such was its ferocity we had to drag our kayaks up the bank, turn them on their sides and take cover on the downwind side. We had no waterproof or warm clothing apart from track suits. Unable to light a fire and with no let up in the downpour we were soon saturated and freezing. We sat the night out sharing a small packet of dried fruit and cursing our luck.

Early the following morning the rain clouds made way for the sun, and we pressed on, enjoying the sudden proliferation of wildlife along the riverbank on the western shore. Waterbuck, reedbuck, and impala abounded. We'd entered Wally Johnson's safari concession near Zinave. Again, we had another scare with a hippo but managed to come out of it intact. Following another sweltering and energy draining hour on the river, we came upon one of Wally's safari fly-camps. As luck would have it, it was occupied. The Portuguese professional hunter known as Peixe (Fish) was in camp with a doctor and his wife from Indiana. They insisted we stay over, and we were hosted to our first really good meal since being with Alec Barry at Chisumbanje nearly two weeks prior.

After a good night’s rest, we bade farewell to our newfound friends’ and loaded down with buffalo steak heaped on us by the PH and the clients, we went on our way. They also gave us a loaf of warm oven baked bread. Despite the horrific heat and humidity, we struggled on until saturated with perspiration; we were forced off the river and into the shade. We drank water straight from the river by the litre to stave off dehydration, and having robbed a fish trap of a few bream, made a fire and cooked up a meal of fish and buffalo steak and then devoured it with the still oven fresh bread.

After a few hours’ rest we took to the river again, and late evening saw us pull ashore below Wally's main camp at Zinave. Wally was in camp, as was his son Walter junior with his lovely American wife Nina. They made us most welcome and without clients to distract them in camp soon had us sitting down recounting our experiences on the river. With our time frame for pick up now well out of kilter we sought Wally's advice on the river ahead, and the remaining eighty or so kilometres. We’d only been averaging about twenty kilometres a day on this stretch, and that was on a good day. With no accurate maps we were totally in the dark with regards to distances, and thus had to rely on local knowledge. The general opinion was that it would take us at least another five days to reach the coast, and maybe longer. This we unfortunately couldn’t afford and we also dearly wanted to spend a few days on Bazaruto Island, where our colleagues were currently camped. They’d be packing up in four days’ time and heading back to Umtali and they had no way of knowing where we were, and probably thought we’d aborted the trip while still in Rhodesia.

Walter junior suggested we load our kayaks onto his hunting rig and that he run us through to the Pande gas field, so after a quick ‘Chinese Parliament’ we gratefully accepted his kind offer. It was then decided we’d leave at first light the following morning and in the interim, Walter, by working late into the night welded up a simple frame to hold the kayaks on his rig. In the pre dawn light of the next morning we were on our way, although the road through the bush wasn’t designed for transporting kayaks and we had to constantly stop and cut away overhead branches. Eventually, we reached Pande, where Walter bade us farewell and drove off in a cloud of dust. The American oil drilling crew took good care of us and organised our onward transportation to the coast.

Above: With our kayaks on Wally Johnson's hunting rig, Zinave, Mozambique. From left, Nick, myself, Quint & Andy.

As soon as we reached Inhassoro we left our kayaks with the school trucks in the camping ground, and hiked a lift across to the island on a Portuguese fishing boat. When we arrived there our colleagues came strolling down to the water’s edge looking like a bunch of Robinson Crusoe’s. Their camp was a comfortable affair set in the shade of a palm grove, and they’d virtually given up on us ever meeting up with them. 'Coney' Flemming was well pleased with our effort despite our own disappointment at having had to come off the river. After a few days on Bazaruto Island spent scuba diving and messing around, we packed up camp, got ferried back to the mainland, loaded up the trucks and made the long journey back to Umtali, for our last 12-week term at school before embarking on our chosen careers.

Footnote: Because Nick Bertram was going to university to obtain a degree in geology, he was able to use vacation time to again kayak the Sabi River during 1968 with a few colleagues. They successfully made it all the way to the coast.

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