Zambezi does it

A century and a half ago, David Livingstone traversed Zambia with a dodgy sextant in atrocious conditions. On the 200th anniversary of Livingstone’s birth, Charlie Norton joins modern-day explorer John Blashford-Snell as he traces an equally challenging – but far more luxurious – route through the bush

A view of the Zambezi from Baines’ River Camp
A view of the Zambezi from Baines’ River Camp

Deep in the heart of Africa, where the tributaries of the Zambezi have dissipated into swamplands near Kasanka National Park, before the swaths of Congolese jungle stretch out to the north and west, there’s a tree-lined avenue of miombo. At its end, a memorial with a cross stands in the dappled morning light; here, the heart of a great explorer is buried.

The author’s expedition group prepares to board a Pilatus plane at Chief Chitambo’s village at Ilala
The author’s expedition group prepares to board a Pilatus plane at Chief Chitambo’s village at Ilala | Image: Morag MacGregor

I am standing with Chief Chitambo IV of the Bemba people of northern Zambia, whose great-great-grandfather laid Dr David Livingstone to rest in 1873. With us is the irrepressible explorer Colonel John Blashford-Snell (known as Blashers), who himself first charted the Blue Nile in the 1960s; he is clutching his well-worn copy of Livingstone’s Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. We have come to retread some of Livingstone’s footsteps in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of his birth in this year. The awed silence is broken by the eerie shriek of the fish eagle; we pop the cork on a bottle of champagne and toast the greatest of all African explorers.

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In the end, after walking 30,000 miles across Africa and travelling thousands more by boat, Livingstone died a long way from the source of the Nile, that Victorian holy grail that fuelled the ambitions of countless explorers in the 19th century. It was ultimately, of course, Livingstone’s contemporary John Speke whose informed guesswork over Lake Victoria proved correct, and not Livingstone’s obsession with the Lualaba, which transpired to be part of the Congo Basin. But Livingstone was a great naturalist, ever sensitive to his surroundings and to the African people. Everywhere he went he campaigned against the barbarous slave trade; in fact, he left no greater legacy. As Blashers says: “Livingstone is one old name New Africa respects.”

 A bull elephant charges the group’s jeep
 A bull elephant charges the group’s jeep | Image: Morag MacGregor

This was the first leg of our trip. Livingstone had taken months to get to the Ilala region of Zambia, with a dodgy sextant in atrocious conditions; he and his men at times wading waist deep “in black tenacious mud with fearful faecal odour and leeches that flew at the skin like furies”. We are doing it in a little more style; with every imaginable GPS navigational system available, it had only taken us an hour in a private Pilatus plane to reach Ilala from Lusaka, flying over fields of roses.

Baines’ River Camp guests on a game drive
Baines’ River Camp guests on a game drive

An audience with his royal highness, Chief Chitambo IV, in his 70s, customarily entails a gift offering; when we realise we don’t have one, I hand over my Maui Jim shades and we get down on our knees and clap. “Livingstone is still a hero to us all here and across Africa,” he tells us. “Slavery was abolished as a result of his legacy.” He limps painstakingly ahead to show us the nearby swamp where Livingstone had finally landed: “My great-great-grandfather gave him a place to rest before he died. We are very proud.”

Royal Chundu guests canoe on the Zambezi
Royal Chundu guests canoe on the Zambezi

We are not terribly far from Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika, where Henry Morton Stanley, then a young journalist for the New York Herald, famously located Livingstone in 1871, two years before he died. Blashers, who is now in possession of the personal compass Stanley was using at the time, says (perhaps a little tongue in cheek) that it has always been five degrees out, which is why, when Stanley saw a white man at Ujiji, he was not completely sure he was in the right place – hence, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” (although historians with no eye for romance have since dismissed this greeting as apocryphal).

Livingstone’s plaque in Chief Chitambo’s village at Llala
Livingstone’s plaque in Chief Chitambo’s village at Llala | Image: Morag MacGregor

This is just one of Blashers’ myriad anecdotes. Still going strong at 77 in his jungle hat, this Royal Engineer was asked by Emperor Haile Selassie to make the first descent of the Blue Nile from Lake Tana to the Sudan border in 1968. Some years later he made the first-ever source-to-sea navigation of all 2,700km of the Congo River, for which he was awarded the Livingstone Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. He also established the youth charity Raleigh International, and even managed to take a grand piano through the jungle to the musical Wai Wai tribe in Guyana, as well as hunting down the largest Asian elephant ever recorded in the Badia forests of Nepal. But unlike, say, Livingstone, or Ranulph Fiennes today, he’s not one for undue hardship. He toasted Livingstone with what I learnt was one of his stock phrases: “I’m a great believer that any bloody fool can be uncomfortable.”

Royal Chundu’s River Lodge
Royal Chundu’s River Lodge

An hour later the Pilatus lands beside the lower Zambezi near Baines’ River Camp and we drink gin and tonics in the twilight with three lionesses that had been stretched out on the runway. The camp was set up by the ebullient conservationist Tim Featherby and it’s a reflection of his huge personality: tucked on the northern bank of the Karima, it’s a neocolonial build of unusual quality, grandly spacious yet welcoming with a bar by a pool that does not close.

Elephants drink from the Zambezi, near Baines’ River Camp
Elephants drink from the Zambezi, near Baines’ River Camp | Image: R de la Harpe/Africaimagery.com

Out on the Zambezi, tiny mica glisten like jewels of plankton in contrast to the brute strength of the river, which throws up varying sandbanks each year. Blashers says, “You can see why Livingstone thought of it as God’s highway into the interior and to the Indian Ocean.” Livingstone was later stopped by the Kebrabasa rapids, which he had not seen on his first expedition – the first-ever authenticated crossing of Africa from west to east, for which he shot to fame in the UK.

Colonel Blashford-Snell by the statue of David Livingstone on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls
Colonel Blashford-Snell by the statue of David Livingstone on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls | Image: Morag MacGregor

Livingstone said this area was the best place for game in Africa and, sure enough, many branches have been broken by big game on its way to the river. Our jeep suddenly comes face to face with a bull elephant in musth; the period of heightened aggressiveness. It charges the jeep, stopping just a few yards away, then trumpets and knocks over a termite mound with his tusks. Our tracker, Leonard, revs the engine back at him. We ride out our luck Livingstone-style with Blashers, who’s blessed with that sort of Napoleonic force field that keeps great men safe in danger. (Livingstone survived being mauled by a lion, whose teeth marks enabled his body to be identified back in London before burial.) After a few too-long seconds the bull backs away. I ask Blashers if he’s been that close before, to which he replies drily, “Once or twice.”

The Zambezi Queen river boat
The Zambezi Queen river boat

On the Zambezi, risk is a way of life – every year fishermen by the water’s edge are taken by huge crocodiles, and the best place to catch chessa bait fish is rather perilously located just behind a hippo pod. While we angle for tigerfish, I see another croc lurking under the boat. Livingstone, of course, fished to survive, as well as shooting elephants and hippos to eat when he had to. But sometimes Africa provided him with delicacy; he was partial to mpasa, a big carp-like fish more common in Malawi, but he also ate crocodile eggs, guinea fowl, Lake Tanganyika potted shrimps and kungo cake, which, made up of thousands of little insects, “tasted not unlike caviar”. Back near Baines’ River Camp, we eat a flame-lit bush dinner of local bream and fillet steak, washed down with South African wine, before we have the pleasure of listening to Blashers lecture on Livingstone and Stanley (with some original slides and a crackly recording of Stanley’s voice) right on the shores of the Zambezi.

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The next day we enjoy one of the best luxury river cruises in Africa, taking us up the Chobe River between Namibia and Botswana. We observe buffalo and giraffe drinking together on the river bank; lines of elephants swim in front of the motor launch on their way to tastier water lilies; nothing seems to be in a particular hurry, as though time is on hold. This is very much how you feel on the 150ft Zambezi Queen, which is like a floating penthouse. Its pristine white decor is dotted with animal skins and populated largely by Germans in crisp white and khaki cotton, with long lenses and designer pith helmets. Catching up on Livingstone’s bestseller, Missionary Travels, we enjoy vodka-tonics in a cool tub at the prow of the boat.

Blashers is not quite used to this level of luxury, but he copes well, and springs to life again when we approach Victoria Falls (known as Mosi-oa-Tunya – “the smoke that thunders”), which Livingstone called the most wonderful sight in Africa. Up close, at human ant level, you only see a little piece of the whole picture, but the thunderous noise is overwhelming and the sun creates a double rainbow through the spray not far from the statue of Livingstone on the Zambian side. While we are standing in green cagoules under the falls, Mugabe is signing an agreement with President Sata of Zambia above us on the bridge for the two countries to jointly host the United Nations World Tourism Organization general assembly later this year. Zambia’s potential seems on the verge of being realised; even the airline KLM has recently opened a new route to Lusaka, despite the global economic climate.

Our final leg is spent at Tina Aponte’s famous Royal Chundu lodge, in one of its magnificent suites on Katambura Island. In my room I mix a drink with sherry and quinine, the essential ingredient in what Livingstone called a Zambezi Rouser, the best antidote to malaria. I find it sends me to sleep in the hot outdoor bath, listening to hippos beneath me on a secluded corner of the river – 200 years have seen significant improvements to the ways one unwinds here.

But the real highlight is rafting from upstream back to the hotel in canoe-like inflatable kayaks with Blashers, the father of white-water rafting, who chartered parts of the treacherous Blue Nile and the Congo in rubber boats not dissimilar to these. “People thought we were mad when we said we would go down the rapids in rubber boats. But it worked,” he says. Indeed, it was the genesis of white-water rafting as we know it today.

Blashers casts his Royal Engineer’s eye over the boats and asks, “Where are the bailing mechanisms?” None of the guides quite understands his experience in these matters, and we are all bundled off in a narrow tributary dwarfed by weeds and hippo grass. We can easily imagine what it would have been like travelling two centuries ago, twisting through narrow channels a foot away from the water before we hit the main Zambezi and some light rapids. I see a hidden hippo or croc in every eddy and bubble.

Blashers tells us that Livingstone’s steam engine, the Ma Robert, had one of the first prototype rubber rescue rafts – although no one had thought to use it in white water. From the other kayak, while totally composed, he proceeds to shout over the roar of the rover: “Now, Charlie, this rapid would only be a grade two, but would still put off the crocs, which can’t see in white water.”

I smile at the mad sense of this – but my mind strays. “And the hippos? Can they see?” Or will I drown first if I fall out? If I did, would Blashers rescue me? But then it’s over. We’re back at camp, lunching again; the wine is out and the plates laid. They are pleasures made more intense in the post-adrenaline glow of adventure – for as Livingstone duly noted: “Not all exploration is a pleasure.” The words of the man whose achievements resonate as much now as they did when he was alive; an anniversary well worth celebrating.

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