Varty’s Full Circle: Recounting a Misadventure Along the Zambezi

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Full Circle

An excerpt from Dave Varty’s book ‘Full Circle’ in which he recounts his misadventure along the Zambezi. Almost two decades later, he revisits the Katombora rapids to see the positive impact that eco-tourism has had in the area and interviews the very same river guides who pulled him out of the water.

Before we went into the next phase of the development, we decided to take a break and get to know each other. Howard Geech, Alan and I decided to go canoeing on the Zambezi – about 40 kilometers upstream from the Victoria Falls. We started our canoeing safari, clad, as you would expect, in our bathing shorts and bright yellow life jackets – the remainder of our equipment was to be transported down river where we would arrive later that day.

Some way downstream our guide, a typical Rambo-Zimbo boytjiie advise the team that we were approaching the Katombora Rapids.
‘Girls go down the right channel. Boys go down the left,’ he said.
‘Which way do you want to go?’
Of course, the bullet-proof brigade had no hesitation in shouting:
‘Left’

But we soon discovered that the only navigable channel down the left side was blocked by a fallen tree and within seconds we were at the mercy of this mighty river. There was nowhere to go. And there was no reverse gear. In a split second we were sideways on, jammed by the current against rocks and had white water pouring over us. We were in real trouble and were lucky to be able to extricate ourselves from our canoe, which had turned turtle. We rode down the rapids in our life jackets miraculously avoiding a head-on collision with the many rocky outcrops that punctuated the rapids. One canoe snapped in two. One of the guys in it went missing for several hours: we thought he had drowned. It was to be the first of many close shaves with Africa. Eventually, bedraggled and shocked, we pulled ourselves out onto the north bank of the river, altogether forgetting about the Zambezi crocodiles and the fact that we had now illegally crossed an international boundary. More was to come.

As we began to reorganise ourselves, an armed man in uniform approached us. I greeted the Zambian in my usual way, assuming that as we now belonged to a new democratic South Africa, all would be well. Then our Zimbabwean guide quietly told us to get into our canoes and get going quickly. But when we made our move, the attitude of the gun-wielding Zambian changed. Suddenly more armed people appeared out of the bush. Some we just kids brandishing handguns which were fully coked and pretty menacing. We found ourselves staring into the barrels of automatic weapons. We were then marched at gunpoint through the bush and told: ‘You have no passports, you are illegally in Zimbabwe. What should we do with you?’ We were in a worrying situation. The young heroes from South Africa were taking yet another lesson from the great African teacher.

Dave Varty in the early 1990's 

Dave Varty in the early 1990’s

The previous night we had had animated discussions around the campfire about the folly of international boundaries.
‘Africa’s wildlife once walked across the whole African continent,’ I said. ‘How is it that we are so arrogant that we impose boundaries are not related to the ecology of a region?’ I finished my lecture with the comment, ‘We share the river. It belongs to us all.’

Our guide tried this line on the very important Zambian official who was deciding our fate/. But he did not agree with our expansive view and we were unceremoniously bundled into a police van, fate and destination unknown, still dressed in our life jackets, swimming shorts and with one flip-flop between us which – for some inexplicable reason – had stayed attached to Alan’s right foot. And, of course, we had no passports.

One place you do not want to be on Friday afternoon in Zambia is in the back of a police van. The first priority of the driver is to get home quickly. The second priority is warm alcoholic beverage that will make the journey less tedious. So the speedometer climbed rapidly as we zigzagged our way, dodging potholes at about 120km an hour. From the rear of our truck we saw a military vehicle approaching, which – with the driver in the same state of mind as our – attempted to overtake us on the narrow road. Picture the scene: two worn-out government vehicles, two drivers racing home, lots of warm beer, and guns. Just as the army vehicle got alongside, our driver swerved to avoid a pothole. Both vehicles nearly overturned. But, by the grace of God, we arrived in Livingstone in one piece.

By that time the Livingstone border post was closed and, still clad only in our bathing shorts (and still with one flip-flop), we were hand over to immigration. But this was the wrong place: we were told that as the border post was closed we had to got to Internal Affairs. Here we told our story for the umpteenth time. For the first time the mood lightened.

‘It appears that you have suffered from a misadventure,’ the official said.
‘Yes, sir, we have indeed,’ I replied.
‘And furthermore,’ he continued, partly for the benefit of the other officials and definitely with a twinkle in his eye,’if you were coming to invade our country, I hardly think you would come dressed like that,’ referring to our severely torn lifejackets, shorts and the single flip-flop which seemed to stay with us.

Nervous laughter grew into uncontrolled mirth as ten o’clock at night he launched on the junior officials who had gathered along the way. With the theatrical flair that is so wonderfully African, he said, ‘I am sick and fed up of this bloody nonsense. Can’t you see these men are on holiday? Why do you not leave them to continue their canoe safari? You make unnecessary trouble for all of us. Take them to the Mosi-o-Tunya Hotel where they will be my guests for the night.

So, from having guns stuck in our ribs, were guests of the state in the best hotel in Livingstone.

Dave Varty
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