Swimming with Crocodiles in Zambia

Just because the title of this post is clickbait doesn’t make it untrue.

I was floating on my back in the Zambezi River, watching thick clouds cruise across the sky, driven by winds unfelt on the plateau below. With Zimbabwe on my right hand and Zambia on my left. The seasonal, sandy islands in the river belonging to both countries. And belonging to neither when the waters rose and covered them completely, becoming the domain of hippos and crocodiles.

As I would learn all too well.

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After a day-long layover in the capital of Lusaka, Angela and I had arrived in Livingstone, Zambia, eager to experience a kayak safari on the lazy river that would eventually plummet 108m (354ft) at Victoria Falls.

Establishing our base in Livingstone at the wonderful Ngoma Zanga Lodge, we enjoyed delicious food at the pool-side restaurant and spent time chatting with the staff. While they were all most welcoming and friendly, we came to know Kennedy the best. Not only because of his quick wit and charming personality, but because of his willingness to share stories about life in Zambia.

“You will have to forgive my English,” Kennedy said. “It’s not very good.” To which Angela and I objected emphatically. His English was impeccable.

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The patio of Ngoma Zanga Lodge in a heavy rainstorm

That was something we discovered throughout our travels in Africa. With very few exceptions, every local we met was fluent in English. Yet they would all unnecessarily apologize for their perceived difficulties with the language.

On the day of our river tour, we were picked up outside the gate of Ngoma Zanga in an open-air safari vehicle towing a trailer loaded with three kayaks. Our river guides, Myinda and Matthew, greeted us with big smiles and, once again, perfect English.

“You are lucky,” Myinda began. “We have no other guests today, so you will have a private tour.” With all of the potential hazards of kayaking on the Zambezi, a guest-to-guide ratio of 1:1 certainly sounded good to us.

We hopped in the truck and began our journey westward from Livingstone along the well-maintained M10 highway, passing through checkpoints into and out of the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. Myinda had already fallen into his tour guide role and pointed out flora and fauna that we passed along the way.

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“The elephants are happy,” he said. “We have had rain recently, and they are deep in the bush.”

“So that’s a good thing?” I replied.

“For the elephants, yes. For you, no. They are far away from the river, so we probably will not see elephants today.”

Although Angela and I were disappointed by that, it didn’t last long as our driver, charmingly named Gift, turned onto a dirt road and began creeping along the dusty trail toward the Zambezi. Impalas, zebras, and warthogs scattered at our approach, dashing into the thick undergrowth just deep enough to peer out at us with watchful eyes.

Gift stopped the truck beneath a huge baobab tree, and Myinda motioned for us to get out. “This is the lookout tree,” he said. “It’s over 1000 years old. See the footholds carved into the trunk? You should see how high you can climb,” his face a mask of mischievous daring.

I’ve always been a sucker for a dare. (Insert foreshadowing about previously-mentioned crocodile here.) So, I climbed, if only for a few meters.

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Giant baobab tree and tiny Mike for scale

We arrived at the riverbank just a few minutes later. Myinda and Matthew offloaded the kayaks and refused our offers to help. “Relax! This is your vacation,” they explained. “You should take pictures instead,” said Matthew. And so we did.

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The guides positioned our kayak between them for the journey down the Zambezi. With Matthew moving ahead of us and serving as a scout while Myinda flanked us, directing our attention to various animals and natural features of the river. A baby crocodile sunning itself along a tree branch. A bright blue kingfisher. A pod of hippos bellowing a warning as we glided past.

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And, while close encounters with exotic animals are always amazing, the best part of the excursion was the simple serenity of the river. The sense of moving through wild Africa. Not as tourists, but as travelers. Explorers. Natives. Come to raft this river for the first time.

As the Zambezi grew wider, sandy islands began to appear in the center, parting the once-deep water into a freshwater archipelago, ringed by river trees with exposed roots. Angela and I grounded our kayak on a sandbar as Matthew and Myinda climbed out of their boats to stretch their legs.

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Still thinking about my weak attempt to climb the baobab tree, I approached the guides. “Is it possible for me to swim here?” I asked them. The guides looked at each other before answering.

“It’s possible, but there are crocodiles here. Is this still something you want to do?”

I shot Myinda a look that matched his previous mischievousness. “I swam in the Nile once. And there are crocodiles there.”

He smiled and shrugged. “At least let us check the water first. The bottom is rocky here, and crocodiles do not like rocks.” The two men fanned out and waded through the shallow water for a few minutes before conferring. “We think it’s safe. You can swim, if you want. But don’t go too far.”

So I lay down in the river where I stood. Just a stream, really, flowing between sand banks and rippling over gravel and hidden boulders. I breathed deep, drifted with the current, and watched the clouds passing overhead…

I heard a muffled shout and quick, unintelligible words. And I ignored them, floating on.

The shout repeated, and I raised my head out of the water. “We need to go, Mr. Mike,” Myinda said, splashing toward me.

“Oh, I thought we still had plenty of time left,” I calmly responded.

“No. We need to go NOW.”

I sat up and put my feet down, reaching for the bottom of the river but not finding it. I began treading water. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“In the water just behind you,” Myinda began. “I saw something that looked like a crocodile. Then, when I looked again, it was gone.”

He paused for emphasis, “Which means it was a crocodile.”

I wasn’t able to actually walk on water at that moment, but not for lack of trying. I hurried to the shore and safety, with Angela, Myinda, and Matthew all laughing at me.

Getting back into the kayaks, we slipped into the current and began our journey down the river once again. And, passing the place where I had just been swimming, Angela snapped a photo of my reptilian friend.

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Would I kayak the Zambezi again if given the chance? Absolutely!

But would I swim with crocodiles again? Let’s just say I would rather climb the baobab tree.

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