New Internationalist

Rivers Know No Boundaries

Issue 273

Rivers know no boundaries.
All photos by MAX FINKELSTEIN
Rivers know no boundaries
Max Finkelstein and his fellow-travellers paddle through the wilds of Africa’s Zambezi
and Canada’s Thelon rivers and find them forever imprinted on their memories and emotions.

I dig in hard with my paddle, but the canoe barely moves forward into the wind and waves. Spray blows off the white caps, stinging my eyes. The wind is increasing. A big tundra lake is no place to be in a storm. I shout encouragement to Carolyn in the bow, who is gamely paddling although her right leg is propped up in front of her, her ankle swollen as big as a grapefruit from a mishap a few days earlier: ‘We just have to get around this point and then we’ll be sheltered from the wind!’ The three other canoes in our convoy bob brightly, tiny red and blue specks among the black and white water.

As we turn and run with the waves around the tip of a long spit jutting out into Beverley Lake, we see two canvas wall tents, one white and one brown, on the gravel beach. People wave to us from the shore and soon we are warm and dry, sitting cross-legged in front of a Coleman stove, eating bannock and fresh caribou – it had been shot outside of the Game Sanctuary, we are assured – drinking copious amounts of tea and swapping stories with Alex, Keith, Brian and Cathy, four Inuit from Baker Lake who had come up the river to meet us.

Navigating the Zambezi: river guide Paul Matoupos tackles the waters below Victoria Falls. Less than two months later, I am sitting cross-legged in front of another fire, half-way around the world on the banks of the Zambezi in Mana Pools National Park. I am eating sadza (mealie-meal – the staple grain of Zimbabwe) and nyama (meat – in this case impala, killed, I am assured, outside of the park) and drinking Fanta with two new friends, Action Matope and Naison Ncube, two Mashona who work for the park.

I think about the people who live, or lived, along these rivers, for whom they are more than home. The rivers are inexorably mixed with their traditions and mythology. The river waters mix, metaphorically at least, with the blood coursing through their veins. Perhaps there is a little bit of some river, somewhere, in all of us?

On both trips the Inuit and the Mashona opened their homes and hearts to us. These people share more than a tradition of hospitality. They are both known for their skilled soapstone carvings that transform inanimate rock into works of art. The carvings speak of the close spiritual relationship these peoples have with the rivers, the land, and its wildlife. Both peoples are also undergoing a social transformation, working towards a melding of their traditional ways with the new, forging a strong sense of community and taking back control of their own destiny.

Alex, Brian, Cathy and Keith had never been as far up the river as Beverley Lake before. Yet this was the home of their ancestors, the Padlimiut or Caribou Inuit. For thousands of years these people travelled up the Thelon each summer in search of caribou and wood. We also head upstream with our Inuit companions to an old campsite where the Thelon enters Beverley Lake. Alex Iglookyouak, who is 58 years old and grew up on the land, recounts stories of his youth as we walk among tent rings, food caches and kayak stands. Alex is a fountainhead of information, a living museum. He points out the wooden stakes that once held two caribou skins, that had been sewn together for a kayak cover. He explains how the bleached curved pieces of wood were attached to metal blades to make snow knives; that the circular band of weathered wood was once a frame for a skin drum.

Dozens of tent rings and food caches cover the top of a bluff overlooking the river. As we watch Alex gazing over the land, the world of the past and present seem to intermingle. I expect to see a group of Inuit coming up the river in their kayaks.

People have also been a part of the Zambezi for thousands of years. Ancient pieces of pottery lie on top of the dusty ground along the river, reminiscent of the stone scrapers and flaked pieces of chert found all along the Thelon. Mashona fishing villages, with huts and fences made of wood and thatch, look much as they have for who knows how many centuries.

The Upper Zambezi, from Kazungula to Victoria Falls, alternates between calm stretches bordered by papyrus wetlands and lush forests of waterberry, tamarind, poison pod and other species to exhilarating, but runnable, rapids. Islands break the river up into a maze of small channels in many stretches. The water is silty green. We paddle the fibreglass kayaks past pods of hippos – known locally as ‘river pigs’. They remind me of moose among the Ursus Islands along the Thelon, which often dive completely underwater to feed on aquatic vegetation. But the hippos are just resting in the water, not feeding. And unlike the moose, which pose no danger to paddlers, hippos sometimes charge canoes and tip them over. ‘If this happens,’ Dean says in his emphatic manner, ‘swim away from the canoe towards the closest shore. And when you get to the shore, KEEP GOING, BECAUSE YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT’S FOLLOWING YOU.’ Another rule: Always keep to the shallow side when paddling around hippos. Crocodiles – known locally as ‘flat-dogs’ – lurk right next to the shore. I’ve seen a few big pike along the Thelon, but there’s nothing that’s close in size or scariness to a big flat-dog. No-one had to be told not to trail their fingers in the water.

No-one has to tell you either where the Upper Zambezi ends. The river simply disappears into a cloud of mist. Victoria Falls, Mosi Oa Tunyo, ‘The Smoke That Thunders’ – there is a local beer advertised as ‘The Beer That Thunders’.

The trip through the gorge is like no other river trip on Earth. In fact, it doesn’t look or feel like Earth – but rather more like an alien planet from an early Star Trek episode. The river courses between black basalt walls, polished and shiny. Gnarled, twisted trees cling to the steep walls, while klipspringers – small, dainty antelope – dance from ledge to ledge. Rock hyraxes, resembling Arctic ground-squirrels but related to elephants, come out of their hiding places to watch us float by. A black eagle, the African equivalent of a golden eagle, is also watching, and one hyrax’s curiosity costs it its life.

The river slips, slides, falls and plunges, following a contorted course on what felt like, as Brenda put it, ‘a journey to the centre of the Earth’. A few days and many rapids later we see two Mashona fishermen beside the river just above Upper Mowemba Falls, smoking ‘gorge bream’ – bream resemble small bass, and are delicious – over a fire. The aroma is mouth-watering, and I tell the fisherman that I would offer to buy the fish, but all my money is stuffed away at the bottom of a waterproof pack. They laugh and reply that it doesn’t matter, since I will be dead soon in any case. Still laughing, they walk to the edge of the falls for the afternoon entertainment.

The Thelon in a placid mood; one of the world's last great wilderness rivers. Upper Mowemba Falls is a big drop, about three metres. Paul, who shared guiding duties with Barry – Paul was one of the few black river guides – made a perfect run. Drop the back of the raft into a small sousehole at the top of the drop; spin the front around as the raft drops over the falls; ride up on the roostertail shooting between two raft-swallowing souseholes; slide left off the roostertail – there are nasty rocks to the right – into a three-metre wall of water. ‘High-side!’ Paul orders, as the raft threatens to flip over. We all scramble to the ‘high’ side of the raft, and somehow we bounce through, laughing and giving each other high-fives.

We are not grinning the next morning, when our raft is gobbled up by a sousehole at the top of Ghostrider Rapid. There are people and packs all over the river. I end up bouncing down the entire rapid, the longest on the Zambezi, over standing waves that seemed as high as the Rocky Mountains. I am beginning to enjoy the ride when I recall the flat-dogs that might be waiting below.

Our high spirits are dampened when we come to the road and cables across the river that mark the site of the proposed Batoka Dam. This hydro-electric development would flood the gorge almost to Victoria Falls, over 120 kilometres away. The dam, which would be the third across the Zambezi, is currently being debated by the governments of Zambia and Zimbabwe, who share a border defined by the river. Last August, as Zambia’s Minister for Energy and Water Development announced it’s Government’s decision against the project, Zimbabwe’s Transport and Energy Minister was announcing his Government’s intention to build the project on its own.

The Batoka Dam would destroy the homes and ancestral shrines of more than 3,000 families who live along the Zambezi. Local communities are against the dam, which would cost in excess of two billion US dollars, and would destroy the ecologically unique Batoka Gorge, a three-hundred-metre-deep canyon that extends from the foot of Victoria Falls to the proposed dam site. Chief Makuni, who has more than 20 villages in Zambia under his authority, said: ‘I would rather be killed...or imprisoned for life than lose our land.’ Chief Makuni’s sentiments bring back sad memories of the 1950s when the Kariba Dam was built, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and spurring a massive wildlife rescue program.

I think back to the Thelon and the plan for a hydro-dam at the rapids below Shultz lake. A few years ago, a proposal for an uranium mine on the Thelon was put forward. The potential impact on wildlife and the river environment is immense – aircraft noise, road construction, hydro-power development. The sun always shines on the Zambezi; the wind always blows on the Thelon. Surely there are other sources of power.

The evening is so quiet the only sounds I hear are those from within my own body. But when I turn my attention from within to without, there is a sound, or rather the shadow of a sound. Not of blood coursing through my veins or of my heart beating, but a sound that comes from all around. It pulsates, like a distant engine or music playing on a radio. But that’s my own mind trying to take the unrecognizable, and force-fit it into something familiar. Perhaps it is the sound of the earth turning, or of tectonic plates grinding together. Perhaps it is the universal ‘Om’. But whatever it is, it can only be heard in the earth’s wild places, such as the Thelon River or the Zambezi.

As I sit quietly beside the water, I easily forget which river the water belongs to. For though these two rivers are half a world apart, they have much in common. They share the same wildness, and perhaps the same spirits. Rivers know no boundaries.

Max Finkelstein works with the Ottawa-based Heritage Rivers Program. He helped organize an expedition to the Thelon and Zambezi rivers in order to bring international attention to the need to recognize and protect them. Another version of this article appeared in UpHere magazine.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995


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