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Journey of a mighty river

24 March 2008

Rizel Maritz frowned at the cellphone in her hand, not sure what she was letting herself in for. “Yes Jan, I will go,” she had said to Jan du Toit, BMW Motorrad’s off-road expert and chief instructor of Country Trax academies. She had just volunteered for a journey that would follow the course of the mighty Zambezi River. This is her story…

Even though I’d not had time to find out exactly what the expedition was all about, I jumped in with gusto, as I usually do when something sniff s of adventure.

I had only four days to prepare, leaving the office for a month, but having worked lots of overtime hours, I managed to be at the Riverside Mixer in Pretoria on ti me.

The truth only hit me when having breakfast with the guys going on the trip – I was about to follow the course of the mighty Zambezi River, a journey of 9000km in 30 days.

After months of preparation, excitement and high expectations, five BMW HP2s, one Xchallenge and three backup Toyota Land Cruiser 4x4s, towing two trailers and one kitchen caravan, made up the convoy. The backup vehicles were stocked with 15 extra motorcycle tyres, tool cases, petrol cans and food supplies.

The focus was to be on the “first team” with BMW motorcycles, following the Zambezi from the source to its mouth at Chinde in Mozambique. They had to stick to the river at least 80% of the time regardless of whether this involved doing it on tar, gravel, sand or through the bush.

The Zambezi rises in the north-western corner of Zambia, close to the Congo and Angolan borders, and that’s where we were heading. We travelled through Botswana and Zambia – a trip of 2600km in four days before even starting the river-bound journey.

Entering Zambia from Botswana, I watched the first of many sunsets with Christo Nel, the expedition organiser, as the HP2 team ramped onto the ferry that took us across into Zambia, with the orange sun sinking into the river-horizon behind them.

My first question to the guys around the fire that night was: “Why did you come on this trip?”

Jan du Toit answered, “For the passion of just riding that bike!” Other responses were: Gunter Henle: “To get away…”; Ronald Nel: “It was time to go…”; André van der Heever: “I just had to come…”; Martin Diekman: “I have to stay ahead of myself”; Eckard Waldschmidt, summing up the BMW off-road lifestyle: “I like squirts of mud under the Xchallenge’s tyres.”

It took six hours to negotiate the 200km of pot-holed tar road from Solwezi to Mwinillunga. I made a mental note to launch a charity network operation, giving bicycles to the rural people of Zambia. Bicycles were the only means of transport between remote villages and towns. Sometimes they were loaded with not one but five bags stuffed with coal, chickens and even a pig. We saw a family of four hanging onto one bicycle. We used the words “eish” and “shame” a lot on that day.

We entered the rain forest where the Zambezi begins its journey to the sea, oozing from beneath a huge tree to form a pool not even as big as a baby’s bath. A local band, playing and singing a song written especially for the tourists, sounded as pure as the water, which has been tested at an impurities ratio of 001 parts per million, compared with bottled mineral water’s 027.

About 250m from the source I could stand with one foot in the Congo and the other in Zambia. Angola was a hop and a skip away. From here the fledgling Zambezi flows gently north before turning west, past Kalene Hill and then curving towards Angola.

The bikers’ first encounter with the river was to cross a little bridge where it is only half a metre deep and 2m wide. Riding in these early stages was technical and tough, following narrow footpaths alongside the river-stream, which at ti mes was visible only on GPS screens. They did only 11km in two hours, sustained by sweet, dripping pineapples bought from villagers.

The 4×4 vehicles took another route here as it was impossible to follow the bikes. We got together again at the first rapids, which mark the start of a hydro project that will supply water to people living within a radius of 23km.

We crossed the Zambezi twice, as well as five tributaries, before the main stream crosses the border into Angola. It soon turns south, however, and re-enters Zambia as a substantial river at Chavuma, about 400km from its source.

At the Angola border the guard just stood there with his AK47 resting in his arms. The officers took our passports and left us to wait outside the small, musty smelling building. We offered them a few crates of Portuguese Bibles, and perhaps this helped. Women and children stood in groups, watching us. And we waited.

Then suddenly we were through, and Jan gave his nickname, “Jan Staal”, a whole new meaning when jetting through the thick loose sand, spurting small pebbles as he went.

We pitched camp between two villages in northern Angola, and the perfect evening, with the sun setting over the grasslands and thorn bush, was one of the most memorable experiences of the trip. Soldiers stopped us in Cazumba town, asking for our passports and wanting to know where we are going. One would have thought it would be plain sailing once you were across the border, but no way – not here. It was as if each town had its own border post and set of rules.

We were kept captive at the immigration office for the night, and allowed to leave only the next morning. They had all sorts of reasons for keeping us locked up, such as having supposedly faulty visas or no visas, but it came out later that they didn’t want us to travel along the Zambezi as there are diamond mines on the route and they didn’t want us around. They were convinced we were smuggling diamonds, and could not believe that anyone in their right mind would want to travel along the river just for fun.

Eventually, after a phone call from the embassy saying we had permission to be in Angola, they let us go – provided we left the country immediately at the closest border post.

So it was back to western Zambia, where the river passes through an area once known as Barotseland. Every year the river overflows its banks into the shallow valleys and floodplains. The Lose people established their kingdom on these floodplains and on the islands within them, maintaining their identity and their colourful tribal ceremonies down the years. But even here the traditional weaves with the present, as many of the women wear wigs, and Avril Livigne songs are heard in the streets.

Nonie Falls marks the point at which the Zambezi encounters dykes of basalt which have slowed the downward cutting of its channel, creating the waterfall and, beyond it, a series of rapids that extends for 120km to Kati ma Mulilo. At that point the river, tracing a great ‘S’ shape, turns to the east, approaching Victoria Falls.

The famous falls are said to be the widest curtain of falling water in the world. The distance from one side to the other is 1 690m and the average drop is 92m.

Beyond the Batoka Gorge, marked by the entry of the Deka River and a transiti on from basalt to sandstone, is a section of the river known as the Gwembe Trough. The bottom end of the trough is marked by the distinctive narrowing of Kariba Gorge, where the dam, with its 128m-high wall, was built in 1958. Lake Kariba’s shoreline is 2164km long and the water mass is 160 000 million tons.

I wished “petrol mass” was that high in Zimbabwe, as we had to cross back into Zambia to get fuel for our journey. The bikes were not allowed into game areas, so unfortunately we could not visit Mana Pools.

The Zambezi continues northwards for a short distance before curving to the east for the final run down through Mozambique. The flowing water has been steadily removing the sandstone that once filled the Zambezi valley, which now has a noticeably flat “floor”. These flat, low-lying floodplains give Mana Pools its special character.

The pace of the Zambezi slackens at this point because the impoundment at Cahora Bassa affects the river as far upstream as Zumbo.

With a wall of 160m, Cahora Bassa is 32m deeper than Kariba, but although the lakes are about the same length, Cahora Bassa has roughly half of Kariba’s volume.

Past this point and downstream to the Mozambique town of Tete, the river has lost much of its power and magnificence due to the two dams. Aft er passing through the final gorge of Lupata, the Zambezi continues to the south-east before being joined from the north by the Shire River, which draws water from Lake Malawi. The river then flows into the sea at a great delta of shifting sands and shallow outlets. With tides reaching 40 to 50km inland, it is difficult to discern where sea begins and river ends.

We concluded our expedition by sailing down river from Marromeu on The Rose of the Zambezi – a small boat with a Janmar diesel outboard motor and a roof of branches and canvas – not quite the finale we had planned. We’d wanted to reach the mouth by motorbike and 4×4, but the swamps made this impossible.

After leaving Marromeu at 06h00 and cruising at a leisurely 12 km/h, we arrived at the mouth only at 12h30 on the 23rd day of our expedition, and pitched our flag on the beach.

We’d survived travelling along the Zambezi through the smart manoeuvres and competent skills of the HP2 riders and 4×4 drivers. We’d crossed rickety pole bridges, wide rivers and swamps, traversed eight borders – and not once did we pay a bribe.

Chugging back up-river at 7 km/h with the sunset reflected on the water, we watched the laughing children taking a bath on the riverside, their bodies glistening in the soft rays. Later, a couple passed us in a mokoro, with a full moon rising on the opposite bank. The intrepid travellers took the chance to doze aft er their exhausting journey, leaving me awake on my own. I felt that the Zambezi was not just another river. It hides many secrets of ancient Africa, and I look forward to exploring it again.