By Trevor C. Hale
The greatest Birmingham weekend rituals my son, Spence, and I shared had to be canoeing the Cahaba River and visiting the Birmingham Zoo. Several times a year, we’d round up a crew, rent canoes at Bulldog Bend, and spend the day lazing down the glorious Cahaba River. It’s a smooth and serene ride, except for one rapid/rock traverse that, more times than not, dumped us into the chilly water. And thanks to our pal Rob Rookis, we had a season pass to the Birmingham Zoo and would start most Saturday mornings there. We’d beeline past the flock of flamingoes and weirdo Capybara to the hippo pen. In the early 90s, there was a baby hippo so cute it has ensorcelled Spence for a lifetime. To this day he collects hippo tchotchkes.
These favorite B’ham memories re-emerged recently while on a trip to Zimbabwe. My wife, Michelle, and I were there to see Victoria Falls and we booked a canoe trip down the Zambezi River…which is filled with hippos. Not the cute babies. The 9,000-pound beasts with razor-blade-sharp teeth that kill more people in Africa than any other animal. Oh, and there are crocs as well.
We drove about an hour from our lodge near Vic Falls, through groves of the uniquely African Baobab trees, to where we’d start. The canoes are much different than those on the Cahaba. They have two giant inflatable pontoons, with multiple internal bladders, in case a hippo attacks and bursts the canoe.
This wasn’t on our radar before the safety briefing. Our guide warned of hippos and crocs, saying hippos were very territorial and have been known to attack boats. If we were attacked, he added, immediately swim to shore. Hippos will focus on the boat as it will perceive it as the biggest threat. What if we swim to shore and there are crocs? Well…bad luck, he said. In 15 years of guiding people down the Zambezi, he’d never lost a canoer.
So our group of six canoes began the journey down the Zambezi. It’s the fourth biggest river in Africa and includes the glorious Victoria Falls. We entered from the Zimbabwe side of the river, but the opposite bank was technically Zambia. Zimbabwe and Zambia were former British colonies known as North and South Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes, of Rhodes Scholar fame.
We were paddling along when we heard what sounded like mooing. We were approaching a pod of hippos and they were getting restless. It’s a bit unnerving to see them submerge, as they are very fast swimmers. Our strategy was to go single file, hugging the coast. This scenario played out four or five times on the three-hour tour (wait, a three-hour tour?!), and we saw a few crocs as well. It was surreal to see herds of elephants on the river bank as we slowly passed.
It was a glorious day on an exotic river with a dash of danger.
The next day we trekked down to the place we’d come to see: Victoria Falls. We hiked through the park to the precipice and became damp from the mist of the falls gushing down from the Zambezi. Vic Falls boasts the largest sheet of falling water. It is neither the highest nor widest, but is classified as the largest due to its length of 5,600 feet. There are about 14 spots along the cliff to see different parts of the falls. Breathtaking views. Double rainbows around every corner. Hiking through tropical fauna. Battling the selfie sticks for unimpeded photo ops.
We’d seen it from a helicopter tour the first day, but nothing compares to seeing the massive wall of water crashing down the crevice, while peering over the edge, which in many places has no fence. The threat of hippos, crocs, and precarious precipices added some interesting spice to our trip in a time when many excursions have been over-engineered to safety.
Victoria Falls was named after the queen by David Livingston (of “I presume?” fame) just a few years before B’ham was incorporated. In the typical British narrative, a native son “discovers” world wonder (Vic Falls, Machu Picchu, Everest, etc.), but of course the locals have known about it since forever. The much cooler and descriptive indigenous name for the falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means “the smoke that thunders.”