A Trip is Born
The dream is a brand-new river route through a vast, primordial, wildlife-rich wonderland on the verge of environmental salvation. The reality is what happens when a small band of marginally prepared adventurers attempts the 400-mile first descent of Mozambique's mighty Lugendaa journey past kayak-eating crocs, out-of-nowhere waterfalls, and a multitude
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Day 1, THE PUT-IN
The bridge’s fractured pilings had been cleared of land mines since the civil war. Or so the locals, who’d materialized from out of the bush, told us. There were about a hundred of them, wearing ragged T-shirts and leaning over the railing near our Land Rover. Below us, the Lugenda River of northern Mozambique—only 60 feet wide here, near its source in the swamps of Lake Amaramba—wound placidly between grassy banks and patches of forest.
In the bridge’s shadow, five of us gathered around one single and two double sea kayaks. Our plan was to paddle 400 miles and three weeks down the unexplored Lugenda River, through one of Africa’s last great wildernesses.
“OK,” Clinton Edwards, our 28-year-old Rhodesian-born lead kayaker, called out. “Before we go, here’s the safety talk. If a hippo knocks over your boat, swim away from it. It wants the boat, not you. If a croc swims at you, hit it with a paddle. If a croc bites your boat, hit seven colors of shit out of it. If you’re knocked into the water and a croc’s about, try to get on your boat. Don’t leave your arms and legs dangling. If you’re in the bush and run into an elephant, make yourself look small. If you run into a lion, make yourself look large. OK, everybody ready? Let’s go.”
The bare, muscular torso of our whitewater expert lent credibility to his words. The paw prints of a wild dog were tattooed over his left shoulder, nearly to his sun-bleached hair. A scar from a 9mm bullet puckered his hard belly. Another scar curved up his left forearm, where doctors had excised the putrefying flesh from his second venomous-snake bite.
“What if a croc gets hold of you in the water?” I asked, hungry for every safety detail. I’d been reading my Livingstone. His exploration journals from the 1860s were the only accounts I could find that touched anywhere near the Lugenda (pronounced “Loo-jen-duh”) River. Livingstone described how one porter escaped the jaws of a croc by gouging out the beast’s eyes.
“Try going for the eyes,” Clinton confirmed. “Or if you can jam your arm down his throat underwater, he can’t close his breathing passages. You can drown him.”
“Thanks,” I said. As I clambered into one of the white kayaks, I instinctively touched the river knife clipped to my blue swimming trunks. Could I unsheathe it fast enough to stab out a croc’s eyes while in a “death roll”? The knife had looked so lethal when I’d purchased it two weeks before. On the banks of the Lugenda, however, it felt impossibly puny.
We shoved off, expecting some large animal to attack instantly, but the river remained placid. Our boats bristled with cudgels, axes, knives, and machetes. We also had a flare pistol, a night-vision scope, and a satellite phone. Since Mozambique had outlawed guns after the civil war, we had none—leaving us less well armed than Livingstone, who’d traveled 140 years earlier with a large pistol in his belt. He had twice neared the Lugenda in a state of obsessive determination, or desperation. In 1862 he attempted to force his way up the Ruvuma River, into which the Lugenda empties, to open a “highway of commerce and Christianity” to Africa’s pagan heart. But sand shallows, cataracts, and poison arrows turned his small boats back. Four years later, he traversed the Lower Lugenda watershed during his ultimately fatal search for Herodotus’s mythical “four fountains” of the Nile.
Few outsiders have visited this region since. While the Portuguese controlled the coast for centuries from their fortress at Mozambique Island, they rarely penetrated the interior— especially the northern regions. After Portugal finally withdrew from Mozambique in 1974, civil war erupted, further isolating the north. By the time peace came in 1992, thousands had died, the economy was shattered, and many of Mozambique’s large mammals had been mowed down with automatic weapons as bush meat for soldiers and starving villagers. But in one place, the animals survived: the vast, remote wilderness around the Lugenda River basin.
When you fly over the forests of northern Mozambique and the Lugenda River drainage, beneath you stretches an unbroken forest thinning occasionally into reddish patches of earth, green wetlands, shimmering rivers, and domes of rock. Except for a few trails, you see zero signs of human presence.
The miombo woodlands—as ecologists now identify this ecosystem of dry, scrubby, oaklike forests—are slung in a giant belt across Africa’s hips, below the waistband of equatorial rainforest and above the deserts and steppes to the south. At the center of the river’s drainage lies the fledgling Niassa Reserve, a 16,216-square-mile tract that straddles the Lower Lugenda. As far as anyone knew, no one—African or European—had ever descended the length of the Lugenda River.
This would be our task.
Day 1, Mile 12
WHACK! CLINTON SLAPPED HIS BACK, yelling, “Suffer and die!” A blood-bloated tsetse fly plopped into the water. Dispatching the occasional tsetse was about as exciting as it got for the first miles of the Lugenda, which brought to mind the narrow, twisting rivers of my southern Wisconsin youth. I first went wilderness canoeing with my grandfather at age four and have paddled thousands of miles since, including the length of the Mississippi. Here on the Lugenda, waterberry trees, instead of silver maples, drooped over a greenish, sun-dappled current, and in place of cows, troops of vervet monkeys and yellow baboons knuckled along the muddy banks. Clinton pried or macheted a passage through fish traps, sievelike dams of woven sticks. Children emerged from a mud-and-thatch village and, screaming, chased us along the bank as though we were rock stars riding in long, white limos through their backyard.
If it keeps on like this for three weeks, I thought, it’s going to be the boredom that kills me.
Boredom and listening to Cherri Briggs—her long blond hair glamorously streaming from beneath a Katharine Hepburn-esque straw hat—issue orders from the bow of the other tandem kayak: “Right!” “Left!” “Watch out for that log!” Cherri, 48, owns Explore, a Steamboat Springs, ColoradoÐbased adventure travel company specializing in African trips, and was the driving force—the epicenter, really—of the Lugenda River expedition. “There aren’t many expeditions like this left on Planet Earth,” she’d e-mailed me a few months earlier. Cherri had also reported to me with some pride that Town & Country had called her “The African Queen.”
As a young girl, Cherri had wanted to be an explorer. When she heard three years ago about the Lugenda River, from kayakers who had completed the first descent of the nearby Ruvuma, she pledged to be the first to paddle down it. She secured the cooperation of Mozambique’s government and the Niassa Reserve, which is hoping to increase its funding by introducing adventure travel in the region.
Clinton teased Cherri for “lilydipping” her paddle. Neither she nor her 45-year-old brother Steve, a genial and brawny electronics salesman from Phoenix who now sat in the bow of my boat, had ever paddled a kayak until a few weeks before. The fifth member of the party, muscle-packed Rod Wilson, a 31-year-old South African safari guide, sat in the stern behind Cherri and dug their boat powerfully through the water.
“Duck!” Cherri shouted. “There’s a branch!”
“Cherri’s a born leader,” Steve finally said, “and she’s going to lead whether she knows what she’s doing or not.”
Day 3, mile 53
WHERE WERE THE RAPIDS? We’d been expecting them since the afternoon of the first day, but it’d been all smooth paddling so far. Cherri, scouting the Lugenda by plane three weeks earlier, had marked some of the rapids by GPS. It was mostly a flatwater river, she reported, with the rapids concentrated in the first few days.
Earlier in the morning, a fisherman poling a bark canoe had warned us of four cataractas ahead. The river braided between willow-cloaked granite outcrops before suddenly narrowing and tumbling over a six-foot ledge onto jagged granite. Even with a fair amount of whitewater experience, I wondered if I could steer the heavily burdened sea kayak over the ledge without tipping.
Clinton studied the drop
“It’s too steep for these boats,” he finally pronounced. “It’d be no problem in a river kayak, but it might knock the rudders off the back of the sea kayaks.”
I was relieved. Clinton and Rod—who was so strong he could single-handedly heft his and Cherri’s big double with all its gear—and Steve and I hauled our boats over the rocks to the channel below.
When we reached the next rapids, a five-foot ledge plunging into standing waves, I was ready to portage again. But Clinton hopped into his yellow single, dropped down a slot in the lip, paddled gracefully through the waves, and eddied into a pool, waving his paddle at us.
Steve and I stroked upstream. Then I wheeled the boat around, aiming at Clinton’s upraised blade. The big kayak tilted over the lip and dove into the waves, water crashing into the air. Rod and Cherri followed, whooping loudly.
We’d run our first rapids on the Lugenda.
We ate breakfast on a sandbar. With military precision, Clinton and Rod had structured our daily routine: up at dawn; a quick energy bar; on the river around seven o’clock; paddle until breakfast at 10:30; paddle nonstop until late afternoon; make camp. (Every night after dinner, as he crawled into his bag near the fire, Clinton asked me to read a “bedtime story” from Wild Africa, an anthology I’d brought along.) With this stripped-down schedule, we’d make maximum daily distance, whatever the shortfall in daily calories or sleep.
Clinton and Rod built a fire and tossed about a rugby ball as a pot of amber-colored river water came to a boil. The satellite phone—for “emergency use only”—emerged from its waterproof case. Rod checked his safari-business e-mails. The night before, Cherri had called her office. Is this truly wilderness? I’d wondered, hearing muffled voices in the thick African night. We finished our mugs of instant oatmeal.
“If you ‘okes are properly rested, let’s carry on,” Clinton would say after a short break, his Rhodesian accent suggesting empire on the march. “We have a rivah to conquah!”
Day 3, mile 75
“YOU KNOW,” I SAID TO CHERRI as I was lying on a slab of granite near our campfire while massaging my back against the bumpy rock, “I’m sore all over, I have diarrhea, there are lions out there—but I’m strangely content.”
Cherri laughed. She sat nearby peeling sweet potatoes for the sauce that Rod, the usual cook, stirred. I sipped the small nightly ration of whiskey that Rod had poured us. It was a beautiful spot—”a lekker place to kip,” said Rod in Afrikaans-flavored slang— with granite slabs, beds of sand, and a large baobab tree. We hadn’t seen anyone since that first fisherman. Stars shone intensely: the Southern Cross and the band of the Milky Way. Crickets chirped. The river shushed by. At dusk, Rod had spotted hyena and lion tracks, asked us to gather big logs for the fire and pitch our tents close, and warned us not to wander out after dark. Whatever one had to do during the night, it had to be right beside one’s tent.
As Cherri peeled, she mimicked the sounds of the night: the huff…huff…huff of a lion, the sawing sound of a leopard, the whoop of a hyena.
“If you’re really lucky,” she said, “you’ll hear a lion roaring right outside your tent. You’ll never have been so scared in all your life. But don’t panic and run out.”
She described the fate of a British tourist who bolted from his tent straight into a pride of 12. She’d already told of the Israeli tourist on honeymoon who, ignoring the guide’s warnings about standing too close to the riverbank, had been swallowed whole by an 18-foot croc while having his picture taken with his bride. I’d begun to think of Cherri as part mother hen, part “Cherri Danger”—putting the most dramatic face on things.
“Bear in mind,” she continued, “that if lions use this spot to drink from the river, they’re probably watching us right now. The thing is to be aware but not paranoid. That’s what I like about Africa. It makes you be aware.”
In addition to the civil war, the poor soil and the sleeping-sickness-bearing tsetse fly of the miombo woodlands have minimized human presence in this region, which had been set aside as a protected area by the Portuguese in 1954 but was never managed. Then, in 1992— while the civil war still crackled—a Norwegian businessman named Halvor Astrup and his longtime African safari guide, Zambian hunter and conservationist Phillip Nel, decided to explore northern Mozambique. The two were astounded by the region’s beauty and the number of elephants still roaming its forests. After months of lobbying, Nel persuaded the Mozambican government to give a concession for a three-year trial period to run the reserve. But in 1996, Nel, along with his wife, died in a plane crash on a flight from the reserve to South Africa. In 2002, Astrup signed a ten-year lease with the government in a unique public-private partnership to manage and invest in the reserve.
This wilderness still remains largely unknown. Recent estimates suggest that there are more than 12,000 elephants, 3,000 Cape buffalo, 9,000 sable antelope, 3,000 elands, and a few hundred each of leopards, lions, and spotted hyena, among other animals. One species, the Niassa wildebeest, has been identified as unique to the region, and undoubtedly there are species in the reserve still to be discovered. In 1999, the Mozambican government doubled the Niassa to its current size, partly by creating a “buffer zone” where safari hunting is allowed on a limited basis. If, as has been proposed, a wildlife migration corridor connects the Niassa Reserve to the nearby Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania, the two would create the world’s largest managed wildlife reserve—an area roughly the size of New York State.
Day 5, mile 132
CLINTON LOST HIS SPRAY SKIRT in the river as we portaged our boats around the day’s final rapids. He asked me to look for it. I walked down the riverbank. Hippo tracks were pressed deep into the mud, like a pile driver’s imprint. I stopped. I was alone. I heard something. My eyes, never keen, seemed unable to distinguish shapes in the vine-hung forest. My left ear felt blocked. Only my nose was clear. It detected a musky odor, as if big animals were about. I now understood Cherri’s comment about how Africa “makes you be aware.” I’d never felt so much a member of the animal world. I’d never been so cognizant of the power, and dullness, of my own senses.
Day 6, mile 161
“COME HERE!” Clinton screamed at us. “Come right fucking here!”
The river had separated into small channels, and suddenly we were rushing through dense forest. Clinton’s kayak had disappeared around a bend. Branches flicking against our paddles, Steve and I swept around to spot Clinton standing barefoot atop a large boulder midstream. He was shouting and wildly jamming his finger down where the swift current was pressing his kayak against the rock. I swung our big kayak and piled it into the boulder, climbed out, and poked my head over to peer downstream.
Splitting around the boulder, the channel instantly formed a thick white torrent that plunged a good 30 feet in a powerful S-curve through rock and forest. The air shook. A cool mist swirled. If we’d missed the boulder…The thought made my stomach drop.
We heard shouts. We turned upstream to see Rod and Cherri’s overturned kayak floating downriver, the two of them swimming beside it and grabbing at bushes on the left bank.
“Waterfall!” we screamed. “Waterfall!”
They stopped the kayak 50 yards from the drop. Rod dumped out the water, and they climbed in. As Clinton shouted instructions, they attempted to cross the swift 40-foot channel to the far bank, where portaging looked easier. The current suddenly spun their boat and sucked it toward the lip.
“Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!” shouted Clinton.
Rod’s big shoulders and biceps flexed. Their kayak surged upstream like a porpoise. The nose plowed into the bank a few dozen yards upstream from the drop.
“Do you think you can ferry across?” Clinton asked me.
I studied the channel, the lip at our feet. There was zero margin for error. If the boat swung in the current, I knew Steve couldn’t correct it, and I wasn’t sure I could alone. Besides, we’d already dumped in a rapids just upstream.
“I think we can make it across,” I told Clinton. “But I really don’t like the consequences if we don’t.”
“OK, we’ll tie a rope across and Rod and I will ferry you. Get me the throw rope!”
I hesitated. I liked this plan even less—if we tipped, the rope would secure the boat while Steve and I spilled over the lip.
Branches suddenly shook in the trees across the channel. A baboon family, I thought…But it was Rod. He yelled down that portaging didn’t look good on his side, but Clinton pushed for us to cross anyway. I finally convinced him to let Steve and me paddle through easier water to the near shore, so I could bushwhack through the forest looking for a better portage. I found a dry streambed that led down below the waterfall to a sliver of beach, where we set up camp.
We were all banged up. Clinton plucked huge thorns from Rod’s palm with pliers. Steve’s shoulder was hurting. Everyone’s legs were masses of cuts and scrapes from numerous portages and wading through rocks. I slathered my shins with antibiotic cream. The waterfall pounded overhead. I thought of how vulnerable we were out here. My trust in Clinton’s river judgment— nearly total at first—had been shaken by the way he’d tried to get us to ferry near the lip. My greatest asset, I realized, was not strength or boldness or good eyesight. My greatest asset was my own judgment.
Day 7, mile 178
A WILD 40 MINUTES. We rushed down a granite chute, our kayaks smashing through wave trains, and spilled into a quiet pool. Then the water erupted just behind our boat.
“Hippo!” shouted Clinton. “Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!”
The Hummer-sized creature submerged as we sprinted to the shelter of some boulders. I might have thought it was cute if I didn’t know it could crush me and my boat in an instant. Highly territorial, hippos are said to kill more people than any other animal in Africa. Regrouped, we paddled past an abandoned fishing camp of a few thatched huts, drying racks made of sharp stakes, and an empty bark canoe on the bank. Had the fishermen fled at our coming?
“Shhh!” Clinton whispered.
He pointed to a forested island gliding by on river left. I heard a few sticks crack, then a sound like a wrecking ball through the branches.
“Elephants!” he whispered. “Don’t move!”
We drifted silently, hoping to catch a glimpse. We’d seen plenty of elephant tracks, but no elephants.
“Hey!” Clinton suddenly shouted with alarm. “Hey, get out of here!” Spray flew from his paddle and I heard a whump! whump! whump! as he struck a large crocodile trying to sink its teeth into his plastic hull.
The croc let go. We cheered Clinton. Rod paddled up and slapped him a victorious high five: “Nice work, bru!”
“It was just a testing bite,” Clinton said modestly.
Day 9, mile 220
OUR BODIES HURT from the long days. “I feel like I slept on an anvil,” Cherri said, climbing into her boat.
The river opened wide under a grayish sky and gray-green border of forest. Louries cooed and trumpeter hornbills bawled in the trees like babies crying. It felt like deepest Africa, but Clinton and Rod suddenly seemed in a huge rush to get out of it. Was it because of their safari dates later in the month? Clinton, I felt, was diving into rapids too blindly. Rod refused to take our breakfast break at a beautiful waterfall pool—he wanted to carry on.
“What’s the hurry?” I finally asked him.
“This is an expedition, Pete-ah,” he said. “We have distance to make. People are counting on us.”
I hated being in the wilderness while simultaneously subjected to the time pressures of the modern world—symbolized by the ever-present sat phone, now unboxed on sandbars two or three times a day to check incoming e-mails or place calls. I wanted to follow the natural rhythms of the wild.
“You won’t have a problem,” Clinton reassured us as we queued our boats above a big granite shield forming a natural dam where the entire Lugenda River funneled through a 50-foot split. “Just eddy out left at the bottom of the chute.”
“And if we do have a problem, what’s below the eddy?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Clinton said. “The river turns, and I can’t see around the corner. Just eddy out and then I’ll have another look.”
The first wave was huge, the second even bigger, the third bigger still. Our boat spun left as we trampolined along—I couldn’t hold it straight. I saw an eddy, yelled to Steve that we’d grab it and prepare for the chute’s last drop. Our kayak surged across the powerful eddy line— and flipped.
We’re really screwed now, I thought.
Surfacing instantly, I grabbed for a large boulder and tried to claw up its smooth, steep face. The swamped sea kayak pressed against my back, slid off, and plunged into a big hole downstream, followed by our paddles and then Steve, who disappeared into the maw. My fingertips lost their purchase and, like a clawing cartoon cat, I slid down the boulder’s face and swirled after them.
I resurfaced in big waves, gasping. I saw the others in an eddy on river right and swam hard toward them. But the powerful current was dragging me around the bend into more rapids, into— for all anyone knew—another waterfall.
“Swim!” I heard Cherri scream. “Swim harder!”
Something orange rocketed across the blue sky; Rod had hurled a throw rope. I noticed a dark head bouncing through rapids downstream: Steve being swept around the bend. I stroked with everything I had toward shore. Suddenly I popped into the eddy.
“Take this!” Clinton shouted to me, shoving our swamped kayak with the bow of his. “Swim it in!”
“Get Steve!” Cherri screamed at Clinton from the shore. “Leave the kayak and get Steve!”
Clinton was already sprint-paddling around the bend. I dragged myself onto granite slabs, panting heavily, as Cherri and Rod jumped into their kayak in pursuit of Clinton and Steve.
For five minutes I could do nothing but stand there by myself and hyperventilate, the swamped tandem kayak pulled halfway up on boulders in the midst of the African wilds. I wondered if Steve had drowned. Would I feel guilty? Could I have prevented it? If he had, what next? Keep paddling? I knew one thing absolutely—this was the last time Steve and I would paddle rapids like that, at least rapids that were unscouted by me.
We were going to slow down—it was that simple. But if Clinton and Rod refused to slow down? What would I do? I contemplated the prospect of walking out on my own. We had neared the Niassa Reserve. Would I find a road there? Even if I could find a road, it might be days before anyone came along. Would I survive in the bush alone? I pictured myself stumbling along, huddled at night around a fire, yellow eyes blinking in the surrounding darkness.
This, I suddenly knew, hunched and panting on the empty shore, was true wilderness— this sense of utter animal nakedness. I was in the midst of true wilderness, and I didn’t like it at all.
Day 9, mile 228
“THAT’S THE CLOSEST I’ve ever come to dying,” said Steve quietly.
He looked shaken and waterlogged. He’d dragged himself to shore after tumbling through several rapids. His head was poking through the armhole of his life jacket. I helped him straighten it out and cinch it down hard. I’d angrily berated Clinton about going too fast without scouting better, especially with Steve and me in this boat, and Clinton had chastised Cherri for screaming orders at him in the rapids. “Whitewater rescue is what I signed on for,” he told her. “Don’t tell me how to do my job.”
Clinton now paddled across a calm patch of river. We followed, silent. I felt a rising sense of dread, like a prisoner led across the courtyard to an unknown fate. Within 200 yards we neared another chute of big waves.
“How do you feel about this one?” Clinton asked.
“Maybe I’ll walk it,” I said, not trusting him anymore. “I’ll go take a look on my own.”
“Would you feel better if I gave you the single and I paddled the tandem with Steve?” he asked, gazing at me with those penetrating blue eyes.
“Do you think I’m being a crybaby?” I blurted out.
The word had arisen unbidden from my childhood—the term my grandfather used on my first wilderness canoe trips, so many years ago.
“I think you’ve done just fine,” Clinton replied kindly. “I don’t think any less of you than I did before.”
I hadn’t wanted this to be a test. I hated that old notion that wilderness was a test of your manhood. But somehow in my mind it had become a test. Now Clinton had given me a passing mark.
“OK,” I said, nodding toward his boat. “I’ll take it.”3
Day 10, mile 241
WE’D REACHED THE BOUNDARY of the Niassa Reserve. Or so we thought. It was demarcated by a tributary on river left. But it wasn’t like there were signs.
The terrain flattened, the forest opened, the sun grew hotter. At our breakfast break, in an acacia’s sandy shade, Rod made a sat-phone call to our driver, Lance Young, and heard stunning news: Zimbabwean Paul Connolly, one of the premier first-descent kayakers of African rivers, and a paddling partner were somewhere behind us on the Lugenda. Cherri had originally recruited Connolly as the lead whitewater paddler for our trip, but he had backed out a few weeks before departure. This was the first any of us had heard that he’d be on the river.
Was Paul Connolly trying to beat us to the confluence? We mulled the question while stirring our oatmeal.
Day 11, mile 295
BEAUTIFUL INSELBERGS—”island mountains”—thrust bluish in the distance over palm-lined stretches of sandy shoreline. Rapids grew infrequent and far easier. I now had the safety net of Clinton’s kayak, if I needed it, which I found much easier to handle in big rapids. Clinton, by contrast, had instantly flipped in my tandem with Steve—to my secret satisfaction.
We drifted past a Makua fishing family. They stood on a sandbar, their thatched shelter and drying racks staked behind them, and stared at our bright plastic boats. How much of the world’s resources we use, I thought, and how little they use. And yet we are asking them to preserve their forests and animals for us.
Twenty thousand or more Yao and Makua reside in mud-and-thatch villages in the Niassa Reserve, raising crops or netting fish. A huge question facing the reserve is what should be done about these people. Do you expel them, as in many African national parks? Or do you encourage them to stay, and offer a “vested interest” in conservation—jobs in anti-poaching units, a piece of safari income, hunting rights, or meat quotas?
Elephants, for example, are a tremendous nuisance, stomping fields and eating crops. According to Rolf Baldus, a former conservation adviser to the Selous Game Reserve who has worked among villagers in Tanzania, “the people say, ÔWhat we know is that countries where there are elephants, they’re poor, and countries where there are no elephants, they are rich. So why don’t you come and take all these elephants?’ You have to convince them there is some monetary value to having these elephants here.”
Day 11, mile 302
AT ABOUT TWO O’CLOCK, we arrived at the Luwire Hunting Camp. The African staff ran down the mud bank to greet us. Among them stood a skinny white guy in a floppy hat, very pale, with a jumpy manner that looked imported directly from the streets of Manhattan—which it was. This was photographer Josh Paul, who’d flown in by bush plane to the dirt strip. Steve, long overdue for work, would fly out.
The afternoon and evening melted into a pleasant beery haze—a party in the bush. Lance had flown in for the evening, as had bush pilot, hunting guide, and camp head Jamie Wilson and his hunting partner, Derek Littleton. Primitively elegant, the thatch-roofed dining hall overlooked a big bend of the Lugenda. The hall’s rafters were adorned with croc skulls, hippo jaws, and buffalo horns. A white-jacketed Makonde waiter brought plates mounded with chicken and rice cooked over a fire. Canvas safari tents equipped with, remarkably, flush toilets and hot showers stood at the end of a lantern-lit path. A single bed in one of those tents during hunting season, I learned, costs $1,200 per night—with a 15-day minimum.
It strikes those unfamiliar with African wildlife management as very odd that wildlife reserves allow hunting. In fact, some African reserves fund themselves almost exclusively through safari hunting—and thus pay for anti-poaching units, monitoring, and management of the herds. Some hunting revenue from the Niassa Reserve funds village projects: a school, medicine, a grinding mill, solar-powered electric fences to keep elephants out of village fields. The impoverished Mozambican government can’t support the reserve. Astrup, whose current contract to manage the reserve ends in 2012 (he hopes to extend the lease another 40 years), contributes about a million dollars a year, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has kicked in $216,000 since 2000.
According to Wilson, the hunting camp and the reserve also employ the villagers, hiring old poachers and young people as hunting guides and enforcement wardens.
“We tell them, ‘You’re looking after your own resource,'” says Wilson.
Day 13, mile 302
“Hari! Hari! Hari! Get up! Get up! There’s paddling to be done today!”
Clinton was at the tent I shared with Josh, yelling at us to hurry—yelling, in fact, to awaken everyone in camp. It was 5:30 a.m. We’d had a single day’s rest. People laughed, it was so Clintonian.
A few hours below Luwire, the river began braiding again.
“Hey, this is pretty intense,” Josh noted from the bow of my boat as we flew through whitewater chutes and banged off tree limbs.
“Hey, this is pretty dangerous,” he observed moments later, as crocs launched themselves off riverbanks and we back-paddled furiously from a bolting hippo.
“Hey, did you see that big white snake in the last little channel?” he asked a few minutes later. “It was crawling on a branch about a foot from our shoulders.”
I found the tandem more maneuverable with Josh, who weighed far less than Steve and learned paddling quickly. Still, we broadsided a rock at a hairpin bend and I gave him a Lugenda baptism.
Around one o’clock, we heard Jamie’s bush plane buzzing overhead. He radioed down to one of Rod’s several communication devices to report that Paul Connolly had passed Luwire’s satellite camp a few hours before. He was hard on our heels.
“There is absolutely no way I’m going to let Paul Connolly get to the confluence before we do,” Cherri announced.
“Expect to paddle late today,” Rod proclaimed to everyone. “And tomorrow, we’ll be on the river at first light.”
What is this? I wondered. We survived the rapids and now we’re in a race?
Day 14, mile 391
WE HAD PADDLED TO within two hours of the confluence by pushing hard almost until dark. Still, Connolly could appear behind us at any moment.
Rod lay prone on the sandbar in the firelight, his back hurting him. I hurt everywhere. Everyone but Josh looked tattered, worn, and very thin—with a beef-jerky quality to their physiques.
“Thank you for saving us hundreds of times,” Cherri said, toasting Clinton and Rod with a ration from our renewed whiskey canteen. I toasted them and Cherri, for all her organization. Although I had been irritated with her on many occasions, I admired her drive and her uncomplaining coolness in the face of the dangers we’d encountered.
Clinton asked me for the usual bedtime story. I chose “The Death of Hugh Clapperton.” A famed Scottish explorer in his day, Clapperton had expired of fever in the arms of his compatriot Richard Lander on an 1827 expedition to West Africa. “No mournful cypress or yew weeps over the lonely spot,” wrote Lander, “no sculptured marble shines above all that remains of heroic enterprise and daring adventure!”
My stomach started grinding as I lay in my tent. Drums pounded in a village somewhere. Accompanying the drums was a strange sound, like someone huffing through a loudspeaker. Diarrhea repeatedly dispatched me into the darkness of the nearby willows. Were there animals about? I didn’t care. I slept briefly. I awoke suddenly and crawled halfway out my tent door before vomiting copiously onto the sand.
“It is not all pleasure, this exploration,” Livingstone, lost in the swamps of Lake Bangweulu, wrote a few days before he died of dysentery.
“Did you hear the lion out there?” Rod asked sleepily when I awoke him around midnight to borrow some iodine tablets for the water in my canteen.
I lay awake. Was it something I’d eaten or something special offered up by Africa’s “disease barrier,” the wall of exotic diseases that decimated early European explorers? I felt that nakedness again. Was this what the 19th-century explorers found so intoxicating about Africa, despite the fatal risks? In one way, I was glad we didn’t have a gun. It accentuated this feeling of being among creatures far more powerful than us—whether hippos, crocs, and lions or the invisible inhabitants of the disease barrier. Was this, finally, the Niassa Reserve’s greatest contribution to the earth’s health? Like all great wildernesses, it forces us to recognize that we remain only an animal among animals.
Day 15, mile 391
AS THE SUN ROSE, I was kneeling on a sandbar, stirring a packet of rehydration drink into my water bottle with my river knife. I looked up to see three men approaching our camp, one with a pistol drawn, another with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, and a third, apparently the leader, with a very unhappy look on his face.
“Bom dia,” I said in my bit of Portuguese, rising shakily.
The others hurriedly kept packing our boats. With as friendly a smile as I could muster, and hoping I could distract the men, I asked in Portuguese if those were their drums in the night. Yes, they said, the drums greeted their chief from Negomano, the village at the confluence. Now we must go with them to meet the chief.
I gestured and fumbled. The three men deliberated tersely. Yes, they finally allowed, we could paddle to the confluence, but then we’d return—and soon—to see their chief. Cherri handed them each an energy bar, plus one for the chief. They turned the shiny packages over in their hands, unsure of the contents. We jumped into the kayaks before they reconsidered.
“Pete-ah,” Rod said once we’d pushed into the mainstream, “you know why they call the AK-47 the ‘African credit card’? It works everywhere, and you don’t even have to sign.”
We paddled downriver. First I was chilled, then hot, then so weak I could barely pull myself out to drag our boat over sand shallows. My body was beginning to fall apart— all our bodies were.
“Pete-ah!” called out Clinton. “Don’t die on us now!”
I asked to stop and rest. They didn’t object. Just before we left the sandbar, Rod got out the sat phone. Jamie had sent an e-mail saying that Paul Connolly was at the main Luwire Hunting Camp, leaving today. He couldn’t possibly catch us now, unless the chief detained us.
I lay down on the warm sandbar, closed my eyes, and let a cool breeze play over me. I drifted into a tropical African subconsciousness.
Drums in the night, huffing lions, men with AK-47s in camp, hippos, crocs, rapids, waterfalls: another day on the Lugenda River. There would be many other adventures, too, when Josh and I flew in Jamie’s plane to Niassa headquarters camp and spent a week in the bush, going on a buffalo hunt by full moon, watching a leopard feed on a baboon carcass, sleeping in villages, celebrating Mozambique’s independence day with a wild, hip-thrusting dance with the women of Mbamba village. Riding in Jamie’s open-sided Land Rover our last day in the bush, I finally thought we were safe, especially with the high-powered rifle mounted on the dashboard. But that’s when a 12-foot black mamba—the most feared snake in Africa—rose from the track and struck the Rover’s side, leaving twin scratches in the paint and narrowly missing my left leg.
They let me sleep, briefly. When I woke, feeling a little stronger, a fisherman had poled his dugout to the sandbar and greeted us warmly. We gave him an energy bar, too. I asked him how far to the Ruvuma River.
“Uma hora,” he said.
We paddled on. The river broadened further. Flat banks of white sand covered with tall grasses stretched into the distance. Then we spotted it: the tiny square of Cherri’s Land Rover parked on a distant bank and dwarfed by the immensity of white sand and blue sky.
Peter Stark’s book Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival will be published in March 2014 by Ecco.