For the record, the official score reads Sengwa Basin 4 – Old Legs paddlers 1. We came, we saw and we got clubbed like seal pups, apart from Billy Prentice.
The Sengwa Basin has loomed large like Mordor in the Lord of the Rings since before we left Milibizi with every mention preceded by the theme music from Jaws. It was always going to be our toughest leg on Tour. And because we’d retreated the day before after holing one of the cats in the first tree line, our longest day would be 6 kilometers longer, plus we would paddle unsupported for most of the day, just to make it even more interesting.
Plan A had the fleet of yachts tacking around both tree lines to meet the paddlers at McKenzie Point on the east of the Basin. If we weren’t there for whatever reason, Plan B would kick in and the yachts would track back on our path until they found us. We even had a Plan Z for extreme emergencies, using the Sengwa croc farm as a point of evacuation. Alas, as it happened, our best laid plans of mice and men also got clubbed along with the seals.
At first light the paddlers headed back into the forest of dead trees fully loaded with enough sandwiches and snacks for an army, while the yachts set sail for the deep waters of the Basin.
We were 5 paddlers. Because his surf ski the HMS Penga is notoriously tippy in big waves, Ryan was promoted to deckhand and tree stump watcher on board the Sanyati for the day.
The paddle through the 10 kilometers of Sengwa tree lines was epic with no music, no talking, tap tapping for hippos, and with eyes wide open for crocs. As compared to the day before, the water through the tree line was rough, which made croc and hippo spotting tougher, ditto tree stump watching. Tree stumps banging into the bottom of your kayak sound horribly like hippos attacking. I clocked my highest heart rate of the Tour at 143 beats per minute sitting still in my kayak, straining every sense, waiting on hippos and crocs.
When eventually we emerged from the forest, we headed to shore for a welcome pit stop and to stretch our legs, before striking out across the Basin to rendezvous with the yachts. I turned my music on loud for the first time and we enjoyed an impromptu dance and laughed that Mark Johnson has absolutely no rhythm.
We spotted one of the yachts on the distant horizon tracking towards McKenzie Point. I was going to eat my sandwiches, but stupidly didn’t, deciding instead to eat them at McKenzie Point. Alas. My sandwich box never made it to the other side, along with my sunglasses, and half my other stuff, including my phone. I am typing this on a borrowed phone.
We were 500 meters offshore when the waves started building from nowhere. And within minutes, we were in the middle of a maelstrom, paddling as hard as we could, but getting nowhere fast. According to my watch, I was paddling just 2 kilometers an hour. We paddled alongside trees full of cormorants clinging on for dear life, too frightened to fly away, lest they end up in Gokwe. I had to hang on to my hat with my teeth.
My first panic attack happened when I lost my lunchbox complete with sandwiches and snacks off my front deck in a big wave. I was down to a packet of Jelly Babies and 3 Fizzers for sustenance. Because they are jolly nutritious, I started with the Jelly Babies. Bugger. They were soaked and slimy and impossible to hold. I schlurped less than half and lost the rest. Rather than risk losing the Fizzers, I ate them with wrappers on.
In front of me, Greg started taking on serious water as the waves crashed over his bow. He was paddling without a splash cover. In his position, I would have abandoned ship, kayakers first, women and children next, but Greg had the presence of mind to grab the bilge pump off the back of Andy’s kayak in the surf and pump like crazy in between paddle strokes. But there was no way he was going to win.
By now we couldn’t hear ourselves shouting over the noise of the wind and the waves. Mark thought he heard instructions to turn and head back to shore and almost lost his boat fighting to get his nose around in the surf. A wave grabbed him and suddenly he was 300 meters past us heading in the wrong direction at speed before he realized he’d misheard.
I looked up and the yacht that had been on the distant horizon fifteen minutes earlier was now suddenly right in front of us, rocking and rolling in the heavy surf. It was the Biriwiri with John at the helm, and Les and Cathy clinging on for dear life. They’d come back to look for us.
I have no idea how long it took to paddle out to the yacht but seemingly, it took forever. Greg was the first off his kayak and on to the boat. I was next. I find it almost impossible to climb out of my kayak and onto the yachts in flat water. In those waves, it took no time at all. Mark and I collapsed on trampoline of the yacht like beached jellyfish while Greg went to help John steer the yacht into McKenzie Point now 6 kilometers away.
There was no way we were getting Billy off his kayak and on to the yacht so he paddled in behind us. Billy lives and trains on the open ocean in California.
The yachts had been scattered as soon as the big winds and waves first hit them and there was no sign of the others. But we soon passed the Halcyon on her way out to look for the Biriwiri and the paddlers, with Jenny clutching on for dear life, with the Magic Carpet and the Sanyati not far behind.
Our lunch stop on McKenzie Point was all war stories. Ryan said he almost died more than once on board the Sanyati, and wished he’d rather paddled instead. But just as well we had him onboard the Sanyati though, because their outboard motor jumped off the transom twice and he was the only one onboard strong enough to wrestle the motor back up.
With 40 kilometers of fetch, that’s the term sailors use to refer to the expanse of water over which the wind can build, the Sengwa Basin waves can get to 3 meter plus. I have no idea how big our waves were, but they were every bit as big as the waves in my nightmares. Andrew Chadwick had the waves at at 75% of Kariba maximum, while Billy allowed they were ocean rough.
After a 2 hour lunch stop mostly spent hugging dry land with all my might, we got back into our kayaks and paddled another 10 kilometers to our night stop on Paradise Island. Mercifully, the waves had died right down.
So we owe the Crocodile Tour 6 kilometers. But I have no problem whatsoever coming second to the Sengwa Basin. Andy Lowe Evans and I have only been paddling since December.
Apart from having rubbed a second hole in my bottom, and almost losing toes on both feet to either leprosy, frostbite or too much wet for too long, I remain in good health, but still no sign of any Popeye muscles as promised. Alas.
Apologies for a blog almost as long as our longest day. But today will go down in the Old Legs books as one of the most epic on record. I hated big chunks of it but loved the physicality of the challenge. And I am still happy with our decision to paddle from Milibizi to Kariba against the prevailing wind and waves. Climbing up Mt Everest is way more epic than climbing down it.
If you happen to be in Kariba on the 18th, please be invited to join us on our last leg from Sampakaruma Island to our finish line at Lomagundi Lakeside. Our plan is to arrive by 14.30.
I would like to thank and acknowledge Mark Lawrence of Crispy Fresh and the Cutty Sark Hotel for help with the logistics, plus Probrands for breakfast oats, milk and delicious fruit juices.
Apologies the blogs are getting to you late but we have struggled with no cellphone signal the length of the lake.
We are paddling to raise money and awareness for Zimbabwe’s pensioners. Please help us help them by following the donate prompts on www.oldlegstour.com