Excerpts from a day in the life of our adventurer, Tim van Coller, owner of Bushwise, as he attempted to conquer the mighty Zambezi River in a kayak!
His Dream, from the age of 18, had been to paddle the Zambezi River from source to mouth. On the 18th of September 2004, at the age of 53, he started from the border post at a place called Chavuma, situated between Angola and Zambia.
His goal was to paddle 2900km to the mouth of the mighty Zambezi river using a Prijon Sea Kayak. Along with him, he took 35kg of provisions and equipment, including a GPS and Satellite phone.
He was alone, and with no back-up, in the middle of Africa!
This is the story.
The first week of paddling was very hard – stiff arms, cramping muscles and time to adjust to sleeping on the ground in a one-person tent with only myself for company. After that, I got into a routine, and paddled eight to ten hours a day, covering 30km on average.
Fishing was excellent, and I was able to supplement my diet with what I caught.
For the first 300km, I didn’t see another white person. Some of the local women and children ran away screaming when they saw me as I doubt they had ever seen a white man before, especially not one paddling down the river in a bright yellow kayak. Generally, the locals in Zambia were amiable though – impoverished but generous with what they had. I manage to trade fish hooks for maize and food. The scenery was spectacular, with beautiful African sunsets and horizons. Peace, quiet and tranquillity were something to behold.
After about five days of paddling, I stopped to make myself some lunch on a relatively narrow section of the river. There were a lot of over-hanging trees and extensive roots in the water onto which I tied my kayak. I sat under the shade of a large tree on my haunches wearing a large white hat with sunglasses, my life jacket and bright yellow nylon splash cover around my waist. I heard a local in a mokoro paddling up the river, and as he got opposite me, I waved at him and said ‘Hello!’. His eyes got huge, his mouth opened and his jaw started moving, but no sound was coming out. After a few seconds I heard a high-pitched scream ‘Tokolosh, Tokolosh!’ and his mokoro took off upriver like a speedboat. Even after I lost sight of the mokoro I could still hear him screaming ‘Tokolosh, Tokolosh!’.
The first mishap occurred at the Ngonya Falls. With the help of four locals, I portaged about 8km’s, but put in too early and fell out on some grade two rapids. I wound up drifting next to the kayak in a large pool with several hippos, and after getting out in one piece, I promised myself I would portage around any future rapids/waterfalls. Paddling the rapids above Victoria Falls was exhilarating and adrenaline-charged. I didn’t see much wildlife until I got below the falls – and then elephants. I was putting up my tent on the riverbank one evening when I got the feeling that something was watching me. I looked up and saw a young elephant walking towards me. With the distance now closing between us, I turned, ran and jumped off a two-metre bank towards the river. The elephant turned and gave chase with its trunk up and ears flapping, trumpeting. It got to the edge of the bank and stood there flapping its ears, trumpeting and kicking up a cloud of dust. It then walked to the tent and trashed it using his trunk and legs.
One morning while I was taking the tent down, two hyenas took an interest in me. They walked towards me from the tree line, so I shouted at them, and they retreated. The second time, my shouting didn’t have much effect, so I threw a couple of stones at them, which stopped them for a while. When they came forward again, I had to use a pencil flair to send them on their way.
One morning I stopped to chat with a local who was repairing his fishing net on the bank of the river, and as the guy was so friendly, I gave him some fishing hooks. He then became most insistent that he had to repay me the favour, and as he was the only one with a few cows in the region, I had to accompany him back to his village to meet his family and drink some milk. He called one of his sons as we arrived, who returned with one of the cows. Using his dirty and muddy hands, he proceeded to milk the cow into a calabash. I had to drink warm milk from the calabash, which got stuck in my throat with each swallow.
And then I met the crocodiles! While paddling down a side channel at Chirundu, I saw a big crocodile coming off the bank. It attacked the back of the kayak first and then let it go, which allowed me to get in two more paddle strokes. But it came back and hit the kayak again, clamping its teeth around the back of the rudder system. I tried to paddle away and got in one or two strokes when the crocodile twisted the kayak in its mouth, which threw me into the water! Fortunately, I was close to the bank.
Unfortunately, the bank was a two-metre high cliff. Just as I got to the top on my first attempt, I fell back into the water – the crocodile was still having a go at the front of the kayak. On my second attempt, I got to the top of the bank, scratched and bleeding on my chin and shoulders. After about ten minutes and a bit of ‘rock persuasion,’ the croc let go of the kayak, and I was able to retrieve it downriver and hide it in the bush. It was a 20km walk upriver to Mana Pools campsite – avoiding herds of buffalo and elephants. The game warden helped me retrieve the kayak and take it to Harare to get the rudder repaired. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, or so I was told.
On Cahora Bassa this isn’t true. I was paddling about one and a half kilometres from the shoreline into strong headwinds and big waves. Something made me turn around, and I saw a croc larger than the kayak coming for me from my left about 100 metres away. It was moving very fast with its neck out of the water. There was no way I was going to out paddle it, so I stopped and waited for it to get closer so that I could hit it with a pencil flare. It took all my self-control not to shoot straight away, and when the croc was about 5 metres away, I fired. It didn’t go off. From then onwards, everything was in slow motion. Although the whole thing could only have taken seconds, it felt like I had all the time in the world to think and act. As the croc got within a paddle length, I hit it on the nose with my paddle – but didn’t get in a good strike as it was right at the end of my reach.
I then brought the paddle back to hit it again, but it came out of the water at me.
At first, it’s mouth was closed, but as it got closer it opened its mouth, and I could see right down its throat. Expecting a significant impact, I lunged forward with all my weight and rammed the paddle into its mouth. It snapped shut, and bits of fibreglass flew out everywhere. The impact, together with the horrific smell of its breath, pushed me over to the right. The crocs front leg was on the kayak next to my hip, and as I rolled back upright, I managed to push it off using the paddle (which at this stage was still in its mouth). Thinking that I had to keep it focused on the paddle and not me, I pushed it around in its mouth. Then I let the paddle go, rolled upside down, pulled the splash cover and froze. I drifted away from the kayak expecting an attack from the croc at any moment. It took all my self-control again not to swim flat out for the shore. All I wanted to do was to get onto land. I thought my life was about to come to an end because if the croc came for me, I knew I didn’t have a chance – It must have weighed about 700 kgs.
I didn’t know how long I drifted for but eventually started doggy paddling to the shore.
It seemed to take hours to get close to the land. As I got close to the shore, my foot brushed past a submerged log – my heart nearly stopped.
Eventually I crawled onto the shore and cannot put that feeling into words. I spent the night in the bush in an African village and was rescued by my son the following day on one of the Capenta fishing rigs on the dam.
It took me five days to find that the kayak was handed into Mozambique police at the Zumbo border post. The police would not give it to me because the diplomatic mission in Maputo had advised them that T.F van Coller was dead – drowned or eaten by a croc.
As I sat on the open-deck of the lodge, cold beer in hand, admiring the changing red hues of the sunset, it felt so good to be back in the bushveld. Yesterday’s drive-in Kruger had been exceptional with the leopard, and its impala kills in the tree opposite Sunset dam at Lower Sabie. Just 17 paces away exposed on a thick branch of the Lonchocarpus capassa. We could not have been more fortunate. Then 15km further on, another leopard with its kill! This time more challenging to see as it was at the foot of a sycamore-fig, somewhat obscured by some dense vegetation. There had been other highlights, with two elephant breeding herds crossing right in front of us, the mothers turning to face us with their stand-off warnings while their disciplined infants scrambled under their mother’s protective bulk.
I popped another beer as the crimson sky in the west flashed its final glow, and leaned over the upstairs balcony of the lodge overlooking the Crocodile River into Kruger. Yes, I thought, realising that the dust in the atmosphere was responsible for the better sunsets these days, we are likely to have some great game viewing along the Crocodile River this dry season. The interior bush has already dried out, and there is no doubt that the game in the south is likely to be reliant on these waters in front of the lodge which emanates from the Highveld region.
The hippos broke the silence and grunted in chorus along the river, agreeing to my thoughts. Then there was silence again as they prepared themselves for their nocturnal wanderings along their meandering paths to their preferred grazing areas away from the river. A slither of red framed the western horizon, and already the thin crescent of the new moon appeared over the trees eastward. It was a perfect evening. No wonder the beers tasted so good.
As always, to our previous guests, thank you for staying with us. To our guests yet to arrive, we look forward to meeting you and sharing our piece of the African Bush with you.
The Bushwise Team
In Southern Central Africa we rarely speak of summer and winter; it’s usually the “dry season” or the “rainy season”. Looking at the Kruger National Park landscape at the moment could be very confusing.
The north, with its associated mopani, is brown, yellow and red. It is bone dry. The odd green sjambok pod tree which leads the way with early green leaf is striking. The South, however, is amazingly green, even ‘tho the main rains have not yet broken. They have broken up on the highveld, the catchment area of Kruger’s main rivers which are flowing steadily for this time of the year, even up in the north. Kruger is a mosaic of colour at present. There is an excellent contrast between the tall yellow grass from last season and the recently burned areas. In the north, this burnt grass is as black as charcoal and in the South, it’s verdant green.
That is what Kruger is all about – the cycle of life with all its contrasts. It’s just amazing what we don’t see when we live in our concrete jungle.
Wow – the rains came, and within 24 hours our dry bush was transformed into a green landscape. We have had about 140 ml of rain since September.
With the change of season also came the birds – beautiful sightings of raptors, plum-coloured starlings and the lesser striped swallows to name but a few were spotted.
Walks from the Lodge along the river have been most productive with guests viewing at least three of the Big Five within half an hour on most occasions. Great excitement when lion made an impala kill right in front of our eyes. The animal sightings in Kruger – well it has been merely spectacular over the past two months. This leopard sighting with clients on the open safari vehicle resulted in this picture taken by the Corelli Family from Italy, and their safari just got better.
And yet another magical safari resulted in this pic taken by Wolfgang and Chris van Wingere from Belgium.
Our resident animals have also started their new year with a litter of offspring. Day by day, the little ones grow and are becoming playful. No doubt soon they will be as wild and threatening as their parents. These families of warthogs are now regular visitors to the Lodge – we shall watch their progress keenly.
It remains our privilege to live in the genuinely superb wonderland of ever-changing activity. To our guests who have stayed at Bushwise Safari Lodge recently, thank you for booking with us, we have enjoyed your company immensely. For those of you who are still to arrive, we look forward to your visit.
Tim, Annette, and the Bushwise Team
We left the Lodge in the wake of dawn in the open safari game viewing vehicle and enjoyed an exciting morning, with great sightings of elephant, lion and giraffe, and one of the biggest herds of buffalo I have ever seen. We stopped to relax during the midday heat to have lunch at a camp site inside Kruger park, overlooking the Sabi River, and were entertained by a pod of hippo cavorting at close range.
By mid-afternoon, we had seen many more species of game and our checklist registered some 15 species of mammal. We stopped on numerous occasions to identify birds, with some great sightings of Vultures, both white-backed and lapped-faced as well as a beautiful pair of bateleur eagles in a dead leadwood tree close to the road. Herds of elephant slowed our progress to such an extent that the sun was beginning to dip fast in the west and we had to make the gate by 6.00 pm.
We were traveling at the maximum speed limit when a movement to the right caught my eye. We reversed back to a clearing and there, not 40 meters away, were a pack of wild dogs tearing at the last remnants of an impala they had just killed. What a sighting! To only see these beautiful endangered creatures in the wild is unique, but to witness them on a kill, their tales swishing from side to side as they gorge themselves to take the food back to their pups at their den is quite amazing.
The western sky was glowing red, and photography was difficult. We set off for the gate. En- route I explained to my companions that even in my teenage days, wild dogs were considered vermin because of the clash between them and livestock farmers. They were shot on sight, and a bounty of five shillings would be paid out for each tail. I went on to explain that although this practice has stopped, the wild dog’s main predator is still man, but in many parts of Southern Africa, it is the tribesman now and not the stock man who is the main problem. The reason? “Muti”!! (sort of medicine or talisman). The wild dog is a very successful hunter. It’s said that when they go out for a hunt, they have (in the right conditions) a 95% chance of success. A leopard’s success is at about 60% and a lion’s at 30%. Ironically, it is the wild dog’s very success that is its downfall. It is in high demand by the medicine men who will sell a dog’s foot, ear or some other body part as a charm.
There was great excitement in the bush recently. A huge snake: ‘Probably a Black Mamba’ we were told, (every snake seen in these parts is assumed to be a black mamba as it is one of the most feared snakes in this area), had killed and was busy eating a buck.
People came from miles around to view this spectacular sighting – forgetting the most fundamental rule in the bush – any animal or reptile is at its most dangerous while protecting it’s young, or it’s prey!
The snake was gigantic, almost 4 metres in length, and what was assumed to be a black mamba, turned out to be a lovely big African Rock python.
The snake was about 5 metres into the bush from the dirt road, and by the time we got there, people had already walked a track through the bush and created a lovely path to the reptile, so finding him was very easy. The bulge in his stomach was huge – it had swallowed a baby Bushbuck.
A lady had filmed the entire show, with the fretting Bushbuck mother standing by, unable to rescue her baby. The snake had quietly approached the baby buck, waited until the mother’s back was turned, then wrapped itself around the buck, suffocating the infant with its coils, and then proceeded swallowing it. You can imagine what a sight that must have been – a snake’s mouth is quite small in comparison to an entire baby buck, but a python can dislocate its jaw, for it to be able to swallow the buck, then re-align it, once done.
After the snake had swallowed the buck, he could not move. He rolled under a tree for protection and settled down to wait for the buck to digest which could take up to 7 days. He was pretty safe, or so he thought.
He never expected – what was to him a natural process of eating his prey – to cause such a stir amongst the human population. Soon, people were coming from far and wide to view this spectacle. Most people watched quietly, some brought cameras and snapped away, awestruck at the sight of this massive snake with this prominent bulge in its stomach.
Eventually, after about four days, the snake was able to move a little and was becoming irritated with the people who disturbed him regularly, so the local Rangers cordoned off the area and allowed no more access to the snake. He disappeared into the bush a few days later, not needing to eat for a very long time to come.
Never a dull moment in the bush. Even regular everyday tasks like eating can become a significant spectacle.
Strange things happen when you least expect them.
One day, while driving along the Crocodile River which separates Marloth Park from the Kruger National Park, a massive herd of about 150 head of buffalo came wandering down to the river for a well-deserved drink and to wallow in the freshwater. The temperatures around that time ranged from 33 – 44 degrees. It was hot, and these were big creatures in need of cooling down. I stopped the car and left the comfort of the air-conditioned interior to try and get a little bit closer to these majestic animals. One of them seemed to be limping along the river bed, with what looked like a snare around its neck with its front left leg caught through the trap and tucked up under its chin.
At that moment, a gentleman who had also been observing the herd approached me. He had a pair of binoculars with him and was able to see the animal’s leg hooked through something around its neck, but what I thought to be a snare was, in fact, a radio-controlled tracking collar. We needed to do something, so I phoned the Kruger Rangers at the Crocodile Bridge Gate, to inform them of what had happened. The person in the office took down my phone number and promised that someone would phone me back. Within 10 minutes, the Head Ranger called to find out more details.
Firstly, he asked what the colour of the collar was. The gentleman with the binoculars had a look and discovered that it was red. Next, could we see the cell number printed on it? At that, we both collapsed with laughter. “What was the Ranger going to do”, I asked, “phone the buffalo and ask him to take his leg out of the collar?” It’s here where my ignorance of all things technical reared its head. The animals are tracked via satellite. Random animals throughout the herd are collared, with a specific cell number allocated to that animal. Once the Ranger dials the cell number, all info of the animal’s movements is sent back to him via satellite – instant tracking.
Unfortunately, we were not able to see the cell number, so the Ranger hung up so he could make another plan.
That was that, I thought.
Later that same night, I received a call from the Ranger. He said that they had climbed aboard a helicopter and had flown along the river and spotted the animal concerned. They then darted her – a female buffalo – and while she was asleep were able to remove her leg from the collar and refit the collar so that the problem would not happen again.
She then woke up and joined the rest of the herd.
The Kruger National Park is home to the largest population of elephants in the world. These majestic animals have long been confined to fenced parks and reserves, a scenario unique to our country. With this, and under favourable conditions, elephant populations can double within 15 years. Denser herds, who feed by uprooting trees or tearing off branches, have the power to transform the entire landscape, especially around waterholes.
Ever since this, the elephant populations in fenced reserves needed containment, and the act of culling was thought to be the only option available to deal with the growing number of elephants. However, since the 1970s saw sharpshooter being employed to help keep the elephant numbers down, other nonlethal ways have since been introduced.
Elephant contraceptive measures are one such a method. The process started to help control the rising elephant populace in all of South Africa’s fenced nature reserves, but also to preserve the plants and habitats that elephants, as well as other species of animal, survive on.
The contraceptive measures utilize a drug called PZP, also used on deer, wild horses and other mammal species for population control. The drug causes female elephants to create antibodies that bind to the surface of their eggs, which prevent sperm from fertilizing them.
The results speak for themselves, though: in the Greater Makalali area, it’s recorded that since the project’s initiation in the year 2000, the elephant population has risen slightly from around 50 (in that same year) to approximately 83 in 2015. Without contraception, this number would have stood at 159 in 2015 and a staggering 238 by 2025.
However, even though there is some measure of success to the method of control, not everyone has fully embraced the idea. The Kruger Park area has sadly not adopted the vaccine yet. However, the silver lining is that regions like the Greater Makalali reserve and its success with the regulation of the elephant population have inspired other fenced reserves to adopt the procedure too. With the vaccine now being used in a total of 20 parks and reserves, which include the nine parks that are home to the largest elephant populations in South Africa.
There is some fear, though.
Should PZP NOT be adopted by the Kruger Park, the reality that culling might become a common practice once more looms on the horizon. Or, worse yet: poaching, although rare, is something to be considered, too.
With PZP, the need to inhumanely kill one of Africa’s most majestic creatures will be no more.
We hear that the culling of elephants in Kruger is to be re-instated shortly, perhaps within the next six months, after a suspension of several years to assess the situation. The suspension moratorium was introduced by our Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism giving further breathing space to the elephants and additional time to the research scientists to try to come up with alternatives to this horrible final solution. But how can one conjure up an alternative solution so quickly when more than 6 billion humans continue their pillage of the planet. It is incredible that the “elephant problem” is at the top of many conservation agendas, whereas it should be the “human problem.”
There are countless factors to be taken into consideration, but ultimately it all comes down to space or more accurately, habitat. Elephants need space to survive, and because of their bulk and primitive digestive systems, needing some 150kg of vegetation to survive each day, they do need a lot of space. Again, because of their size, they happen to make a significant impact on their environments, primarily when confined, which means an effect on the habitats of other species also struggling for survival.
Humans don’t need space just to survive; they want more space to exploit; to extract minerals; to convert to agriculture; to build cities for their burgeoning population. Its all called economic development, the euphemism for the exploitation of the natural environment! It’s a head to head battle between humans and the evolved habitats of so many fellow creatures in the natural world. Unless viruses or other diseases intercede to reduce human impact dramatically, the elephants, as well as the thousands of different species, are certainly going to be the losers.
Surprisingly, an estimated 80% of elephants in Africa exist outside of conservation areas (J.Hanks –Africa Geographic vol 14, no 3). Yet, within South Africa, virtually the entire elephant population is confined within National Parks. Greater Kruger is home to some 85% of them and therein lies our dilemma. With a 6% annual population growth, something has to happen. It is not an overreaction. Sooner or later elephants will change the environment and inevitably impact on biodiversity. Should the fences be cut to allow them to wander more freely (if they choose to), to interact with formal and rural agriculture like the 80% that Dr Hanks refers? Or, should they continue to be confined within Kruger with the risks of heavy impacting on this country’s last great wilderness area? Birth control and migration or expansion corridors are other future possibilities, but there are time constraints, and it would appear that the pressure is on.
Some very bold decisions are about to be made.
“We’re hunting poachers all the time. If you just sit and wait for gunshots, all you get is carcasses.”
So echoes the words of Mark Preston, a former metal worker from Johannesburg who traded a life in the city for one in the bush more than a decade ago. Now, along with a rag-tag crew of anti-poaching rangers, they fight the ever-growing issue of rhino poaching.
What started simply as wildlife conservation, has now become something more aggressive, with Preston and his group resembling an image more closely related to paramilitary soldiers, complete with berets and semi-automatic firearms, to help save rhinos.
However, despite the great fight that these gentlemen campaign with, despite the foot patrols, CCTV cameras, special task forces, and everything else done to make sure the job gets done, the Hoedspruit area is still losing rhinos daily. And this reflects throughout the regions still inhabited by rhinos.
Conservationists and anti-poaching task forces all agree on a frightening new trend that’s rearing its ugly head. More and more poaching operations that used to be based in Mozambique and launched in the eastern side of a private game reserve on the border of the Kruger National Park in South Africa are no more. Operations are now popping up in the west.
In the Kruger Park alone, 750 rhinos were poached in 2015 alone. Last year, 1,215 was slaughtered across the country, which, according to Save The Rhino, equates to about one rhino killed every eight hours.
Working in small groups, poachers, armed with high calibre weapons, kill the rhinos, while carrying smaller arms to protect themselves from groups of rangers such as Mark’s group.
Also, for many, the prize is worth the cost of death. Rhino horn yields more than its weight in gold in both Vietnam and China, driven by demand as it’s seen as a sign of wealth and where it’s believed to have medicinal properties.
With rhino horn made from keratin, the same protein one can find in a human fingernail; it can still fetch between US$1,100 and US$5,550 for a single ounce on the black market – that’s roughly a staggering amount of between ZAR14,800 and ZAR74,694.
While conservationists and anti-poaching rangers have done everything to stop the slaughter of this beautiful animal, all efforts have still been in vain. Now, private and national nature reserves are resorting to fighting back hard with military tactics to stop the slaughter once and for all.
Paramilitary anti-poaching groups, who put recruits through agonizing boot camps, are rushing these men into the field to combat these poachers with necessary might and aggression, and they mean business. Just five years ago, rangers were trained on conservationism and tourism. Today, it’s a different story, with rangers taught how to handle weapons and court cases.
Rangers are trained to call in anything that looks suspect; litter, footprints, broken branches might all seem like tourists who don’t give a hoot about conservationism. But, with the looming threat of rhino poaching, these signs are a surefire indication of poachers being in the vicinity.
With the good that this could do, this bush war against rhino poaching terrors doesn’t seem to be working either.
Vincent Barkas, the owner of Protrack, says that by having boots on the ground with guns is what’s needed, it’s also the problem with fixing the problem, as this aggressive stance creates resentment towards wildlife and nature conservation. And, given that in an area with high unemployment and historical inequalities, there isn’t much love lost for the private reserve who lose rhinos.
In a game where intelligence is everything, groups, the likes of which led by Preston is sometimes a dead-end game. The individuals supplying the information could quickly be leading them on, as poachers are always able to pay more for the right info, making Mark and other rangers’ lives that much more difficult.