What’s a Canoe Safari?

At the edge of the channel, four of us, plus guides, were about to get into our canoes. The lead pilot demanded our full attention to explain the adventure and provide warnings: Sit still in the canoe, so as not to tip it. Sit quietly, so as not to upset the animals and by all means, keep your hands inside the boat, as the ever-present crocodiles might like a tasty bite of a finger or a hand!

Here, on a calm channel flowing off the mighty Zambezi River in Zambia, we each gingerly entered our canoe, sitting on a cushion, cameras handed to us one at a time, and balanced precariously between our legs. One person in front, one in middle, and the pilot behind us. Three boats. This was a new concept to me: a canoe safari.

We were advised that our pilot would maneuver us through the channel, from one side to the other, staying in the shallows as much as possible, to avoid upsetting the numerous hippos.

We quietly floated down the channel in our not-so-steady canoe, making hardly a sound. So peaceful and serene, one couldn’t be blamed for falling asleep. Only the soft sound of the paddle entering the water to gently push us downstream, occasional birds with their unusual songs… and a hippo snorting! Ok, back awake.

In case you’re not aware, hippos are considered the most dangerous animal in Africa. They kill far more humans than lions, elephants, buffalo, or any other dangerous wildlife. They are generally docile, but very territorial. And always wary of someone or something entering their space, canoes included.

For the most part, they see you coming, then duck under water where they feel safe. Sometimes they pop up unexpectedly, wiggle their ears, snort out a huge spray of water and make their funny grunting sounds. Only rarely do they swim towards us, and even more rarely do they turn aggressive.

In the three days we canoed down the channel in the late afternoon, only twice did one explode out of the water near our canoe (one day mine; the next day someone else’s) and give us a good heart pounding. Thankfully, our pilot grew up on the waters here, was skilled (and certified!) and knew every bend, every shallow, every stuck log, every hippo in the channel.

From the water, we were able to capture images of hippos, egrets and herons, elephants coming to the water, baboons sitting the bank, as if gathering the family to watch us float by, and a variety of other animals who enjoy a late-afternoon drink.

We, as well, got to enjoy a late afternoon drink, aka, a sundowner (G&T! 😂) and snacks as a motorboat took us back to camp and the end of our ride. I have to admit I felt a bit of relief as we left the canoe behind, and that G&T sure went down well!

If you’re looking for a safari that’s in a more remote, off the beaten path location, Classic Zambia, in the Lower Zambezi National Park may be just the ticket. I stayed at their Chula Island camp and Kutali camp, each with just four luxurious bush tents (Yes! Attached outdoor bathrooms complete with sink, bucket showers and flush toilets).

Lanterns in the tents were the only light at night and charging stations were in the main camp area. Consider this a much-needed break from news, work and social media, as there is no wifi in the camps.

While at Chula Island camp, we enjoyed regular game drives in the morning and canoe safaris in the afternoon and at Kutali camp, leopards were the main focus! The two camps are driving distance apart, and a multitude of wildlife could be found at or near both camps. I especially loved the bull elephants who commonly sauntered right into camp!

Lower Zambezi National Park can be accessed by a flight to Lusaka, and then an ongoing flight to the Jeki Airstrip, where you’ll be greeted by a driver from the camp.

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