“It’s perfectly safe. No one canoeing with me has ever capsized!”
So said Ben Parker**, co-founder of Tongabezi, my favourite lodge in Livingstone, Zambia. I was staying there with Natasha, my now sister-in-law, and her parents. Her parents were visiting from the US and were a little anxious as our plan was to canoe to Sindabezi Island, a pristine island paradise upstream from Victoria Falls. Their anxiety was caused by the fact that the mighty and magnificent Zambezi River is home to many, many hippos, and probably the same amount of crocodiles!
After some rudimentary instructions, Ben got into his canoe, and we followed—Natasha and I in one canoe, her parents bringing up the rear in another. I still remember how peaceful and tranquil it was. Aided by the current, we gently propelled ourselves through the water. It was just so beautiful. The birding was impressive and we kept our eyes peeled for game that might come down to the river to drink.
Perhaps in paying attention to our stunning surroundings, we took our eyes off the river. I still maintain that the rock that suddenly appeared in our path was the only one in the middle of the river on that stretch. Now Natasha is nothing if not stubborn (also a little bossy, to be honest…). “Paddle left, paddle left,” she instructed. Now, my take on Ben’s instructions was that I should be “paddling right, paddling right!” For future reference: it’s not a good time to argue when you’re on course to upend your canoe in a crocodile-infested river.
And upend we did. Natasha bailed for the side of the river, using her binoculars to propel her faster. I had the presence of mind to grab the camera bag, and latched onto the overturned canoe with one arm, holding the camera bag aloft with the other.
Since I’m here telling the tale, all’s well that ended well. And there’s nothing like a near-death experience (some classic Smith hyperbole there) to ensure that the gin and tonic sundowner that evening while reliving the experience tasted better than any other drink I’ve ever had.
** Ben Parker tragically passed away in February 2019 after a courageous fight against cancer. He is survived by his wife, Vanessa, and daughters, Natasha, Acacia, and Tamara.