Stranded in the Zambezi

Zambezi river

This story was told to me by a fishing guide at Kanyemba, a great place for tiger fishing on the Zambezi, Zimbabwe. I was assured that it is a true story.

A number of tour operators organize canoe (kayak-type) trips downriver in the Zambezi. They usually start in the Chirundu area and end at Mana Pools National Park or thereabouts.

A group of European tourists were doing one of these trips. This was a party of six, including a very experienced guide and hunter that knew the area very well and who was a frequent visitor to these waters.

The party was progressing slowly between the river banks when suddenly a hippo attacked them and sunk their boats. Luckily, not only did the culprit depart soon after the damage was done, but the tourists capsized in shallow water (chest level) and managed to hold onto some oars!

Fearing a return of the attacker and fearing attracting crocodiles’ attention, the guide instructed the tourists to stay put in the shallow bank while he swam to the Zambian shore to look for help. He knew the farmers on the other side. He calculated that he would return a couple of hours later with a boat to pick them up. Before he left, he strongly recommended that they stay put and use the oars as their defense in case of hippos or crocodiles.

He started wading the river and then swimming. He was very fit and made progress rapidly towards the other shore. However, the river is wide at parts and, about half way, the horrified tourists saw a crocodile swimming towards him and, although they shouted and waved arms and oars, the guide did not hear them and the inevitable happened. The crocodile attacked and took the guide by his right arm. A struggle ensued and, luckily, the guide broke free and managed to reach the shore, injured and having lost a considerable amount of blood.

The guide, now severely weakened by blood loss, was clearly in trouble! Although aware of his lucky escape from the crocodile, he realized that he would not be able to move very far from the river’s shore and there were many dangerous animals in that area, particularly the feared buffalo but also lion and hyena. Before his strength waned he found the best possible place and sat down leaning against a tree trunk. He was no longer bleeding but he could not move, as he was very weak.

Before he fainted he realized that he was in trouble. After a while -he did not know how long- he came to and heard an animal approaching. As it was almost night-time, he did not see at first what it was but there was little he could do anyway so he prepared for the worst. He strained his eyes and managed to see a large shape approaching and he knew that it was a buffalo and that he was a goner. The buffalo was coming straight towards him so he closed his eyes and waited. Nothing happened! Nevertheless, he could smell and hear the buffalo breathing very close. He slowly opened his eyes and his heart missed a beat. The buffalo was lying a couple of metres away from him!

He passed out again and he woke up with the first light. The buffalo was gone and, for a moment he thought that it was a dream. However, the flattened grass confirmed that the animal had been there! His arm was not bleeding and he had regained some strength so he decided to walk to the nearest farm to seek help. He did not make it but was luckily found, unconscious again, by one of the farm workers on patrol.

Our battered guide was immediately taken to the farm. He was in a terrible state so the farmer decided to evacuate him to South Africa for emergency medical attention. As there was no time to waste, an ambulance plane was called and within a couple of hours the farmer and the injured guide were on their way to Johannesburg.

As is the case during a medical evacuation, the doctors started treating the guide as soon as he was on board and in about an hour he regained consciousness. The caretakers realized that he was trying to speak and, attributing this to the fever caused by the infected wounds, told him to relax as he was out of danger and in good hands now. The guide, however, became increasingly agitated until, gathering all his strength managed to say “tourists, Zambezi” “You are not in the Zambezi anymore, you are on a plane to South Africa” came the reply from the doctor.

Eventually he got the message across and managed to describe what had taken place and told them that his clients were still in the Zambezi! Panic ensued and frantic messages from the pilot to Lusaka airport were recieved before the plane’s landing in South Africa.

Eventually the news was relayed back to the farm and a search and rescue party was dispatched with the result that a few hours later the survivors were found, still in the same spot, with the water up to their waists, hanging on to their oars, unharmed and overjoyed to have been found.

The guide recovered from his injuries and continued working for a few more years. Sadly, he died while trying to finish-off a wounded buffalo.


  1. No he didn’t. And he wasn’t a guide and they weren’t on canoes. It was a group of friends on a fishing boat and they all survived.


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