One Man, One Kayak, and the Mighty Zambezi River

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.