Canoe with the Hippos: Rivers in Africa’s National Parks

Canoe with the Hippos: Rivers in Africa’s National Parks

What a Big Mouth You Have, My Dear!

As the hippo yawned, the huge pink crevasse opened up and exposed rows of sharp teeth and big tusks. Hippopotamuses are vegetarian by nature, but even so you carefully skirt around them while canoeing in one of Africa’s national parks. The sight of one next to your canoe is enough to make your heart skip a few beats.

Paddling down the Zambezi River at its broadest reaches in Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park, you’re gliding around lush islands topped by wild fig trees. On the riverbanks African buffalo are grazing, and baboons scamper up trees as the elephants move in to drink. In the distance, you can see the steep hills of the Zambian escarpment dressed in thick, scrubby brush. Canoe safaris let you view animals at their level. In addition to seeing the tremendous hippos while canoeing, you may pass elephants on the banks slurping up water with their trunks and crocodiles resembling rotting tree trunks motionless in the river.

Your guides and you watch for hippos. When a pod of them is spied all the canoeists give them time to move to deeper water before passing by in the shallows close to the riverbank. You don’t want to startle a hippo—especially males who can weigh up to four tons. They submerge if they feel threatened and can pop back up to the surface anywhere, including underneath your canoe, possibly capsizing you.

Choose the month of your safari with the weather in mind. During the dry season, June to October, the wild animals tend to stay near the river and the lush vegetation along its banks. During the rainy season, when it’s hot and humid, the animals gravitate toward the escarpment.

Most of the canoe trips are on portions of rivers that tend to be flat water. Where you overnight can range from rough tent camps alongside the river or on sandbars, to luxury tent camps and lodges. Ask your outfitter what kinds of accommodations they offer.
Several safari companies offer tours on the lower Zambezi River, which runs through the Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia ( and the Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe ( Mana Pools, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, encompasses a portion of the Zambezi River as it emerges from a gorge and spreads across a floodplain. In the park there are large pools that are remnants of ancient ox-bow lake that the river carved out eons ago, where hippos and crocs congregate.

The Zambezi Travel & Safari Company (see below) offers a variety of canoeing tours year-round, plus combination canoe and walking safaris on the Zambezi through Mana Pools. Many of the trips are semi-participatory, although the guide does the cooking and the washing up. Chiawa (see below) offers canoeing safaris in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park with overnights at luxury camps.

Zambezi Travel & Safari Company ( 44/1548-830059; Chiawa ( 260/211-261588;
When to Go: June–Oct.

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