Roll out a map of Africa and point directly to the centre of southern Africa — there it is, Zambia; carpeted in vast floodplains, evergreen forests and high plateaus decked with baobabs. And there’s the mighty Zambezi, a sprawling patchwork of wetness and wildlife strewn with hippos and man-eating crocs. A place that’s so far removed from your Monday morning routine you feel anything could be possible: where staring into the eyes of a crocodile as you go to the loo behind a bush is perfectly feasible; fireflies bounce across the night sky, scattered with constellations you pretend to know the name of; and young villagers splash on the banks of crocodile-infested waters. Have I mentioned the crocs and hippos?

The problem was it started off with a MASSIVE hangover from Berlin. I’d travelled there with a girlfriend. It was one of those mental bender weekends and I ended up losing my phone  – and half the contents of my bag – on the last night. We headed home, heads in shame, to our apartment and passed out. 02 must’ve thought I was an absolute idiot the following day on the phone: “You need to send me a new phone immediately,” I pleaded. “Tomorrow I fly to Zambia to kayak down the Zambezi.”

 

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Kayaks on the banks of the Zambezi

 

I arrived back to London on Sunday night and was back at Heathrow on Monday afternoon – with a new phone. But I was feeling rough as anything. This trip was to navigate 62 miles of the legendary Zambezi before arriving at the fierce wall of water that is Mosi-oa-Tunya — the ‘Smoke that Thunders’ — christened Victoria Falls by the great Scottish explorer David Livingstone. Days would be spent kayaking besides man-eating crocs and hippos, before wild camping on the banks beneath cracking African starry skies. And I was sh*tting myself about the wildlife. Our guide, Sven, did nothing to ease my worries.

“If a hippo wants t’attack, jump out the boat — he just wants to throw his weight around,” he warned in his soft Yorkshire accent.

“If there’s a croc around, you seriously need t’stay in the boat. And if there’s both, well, we’ll see when we come to that,” he smirked. Yikes.

 

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Helen kayaking the Zambezi

 

Within minutes on day one, I discover kayaking is seriously thirsty work – thrashing against a headwind under a baking sun, I start to wish the hours away. I pause to nibble on some chocolate and take a picture of Zimbabwe on the far bank, its thick vegetation and gnarled trees concealing all manner of birds and beasties. Curiously-shaped clouds provide momentary shade from the sun, and grey pockets creep into view. Just as my stomach starts rumbling, Sven signals we’ve arrived at our night stop.

“Jump as quickly as you can onto the bank,” he shouts. “Pulling your boat from the water — a croc could be lurking among the grasses.”

Anxiously, I leap out into ankle-deep, muddy water, and run as fast as I can to my tent that our guides, Dom and Titus, have already erected. Later, whilst staring at fireflies bouncing across the night sky, I learn they have both had serious brushes with the deadly crocs and hippos of the waterway having spent nearly two decades on the upper river.

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It’s all pretty serious, and secretly I’m half wishing a horrendous storm will dash our chances of continuing. But tipping my head backwards, all that blinks back at me is a serene spectacle of stars, with not a whisper of wind in the air, just the electric cacophony of frogs, nightbirds and the call of the hippo, like an old man’s chuckle — seemingly metres away from our fireside.

As I bid goodnight, Sven issues his last warning of the day: “If you hear a beast next to your tent, whatever you do, don’t get out. Stay where you are.” I choke on my last swig of water — there’s no chance I’m unzipping my tent until daybreak.

Over the next four days, I’ll paddle rapidly from a female hippo as she charges at us from the bank; glare in to the eyes of a goliath croc, sliding in to the shallows; sweep across the rusty brown waters as rain thrashes their surface like a thousand pin pricks; and take my first wash in four days in the pools above Victoria Falls on Livingstone Island — the spot where the explorer first glimpsed Mosi-oa-Tunya.

Check this out… .

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Devil’s Pool, Victoria Falls

 

I’d survived the crocs and the hippos. But the white-water rafting was yet to come. And I was terrified having been capsized and dragged downriver on Peru’s Urubamba a few years ago. Type ‘whitewater rafting Zambezi’ into YouTube and you’ll understand my fear.

In dry season, punters will raft the full 25 rapids with name such as ‘gnashing jaws of death’ and ‘devil’s toilet bowl’. But the falls were as aggressive as they come with it being wet season, so our launching point was rapid 14.

The rusty water churns a burbling white and our boat is powerless against the destructive waves. Within minutes we plough head first into a formidable wave – and it savages us. Within seconds the raft is flipped like a weightless feather and us paddlers thrown from the vessel. I take a gulp of air but without warning, I’m sucked underwater and flipped in somersaults as though in a washing machine. I could’ve been underwater for two seconds, it could’ve been 20, but the buoyancy of my lifejacket eventually thrusts me from the depths, and I push out through the waves.

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Victoria Falls

It was all slightly terrifying yet unforgettably exhilarating, but there was still one final thing left to do — a microlight flight above the Victoria Falls themselves.

Dressed in a thick, all-in-one suit, I take a seat behind my pilot before we rumble down the runway, gracefully ascending in the misty morning air. Bobbing closer, I huddle away from the wind chill into my suit and gaze as the falls’ vast vapours slowly claw themselves towards us. It’s a mesmerisingly beautiful sight. The roar fiercely extinguishes all other sounds, and I stare in awe, as though hypnotised, at one of the world’s greatest wonders, recalling Sven’s words: “Sometimes we have to be reminded we’re not the boss.”

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Microlight flight above the Victoria Falls

 

Are you thinking about kayaking down the Zambezi or have you done it?

This was adapted from my original piece published in the May/June 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)