Into the wild: One man and his journey across the Zambezi river

David Lemon (left) on an expedition in Africa

David Lemon (left) on an expedition in Africa - Credit: Archant

69-year-old David Lemon intends to complete his personal challenge of walking the entire length of the Zambezi river in Africa. David, who lives in France Lynch, Gloucestershire, will be alone and reliant on the natives and the food of the land for survival.

David Lemon on his Zambezi trek in 2012, with a baby elephant.

David Lemon on his Zambezi trek in 2012, with a baby elephant. - Credit: Archant

The River

The Zambezi river is the fourth longest river in Africa at 1,599 miles in length / Photo: Jez Bennet

The Zambezi river is the fourth longest river in Africa at 1,599 miles in length / Photo: Jez Bennett [shutterstock] - Credit: Archant

The Zambezi is the fourth-longest river in Africa and the largest flowing into the Indian Ocean from that continent. The area of its basin is 1,390,000 square kilometres (540,000 sq miles), slightly less than half that of the Nile. The 2,574-kilometre-long river (1,599 miles) has its source in the north western corner of Zambia and flows through Angola, along the borders of Namibia, Botswana, into Zambia again, and Zimbabwe to Mozambique, where it empties into the Indian Ocean.

During the course of its travels, the river passes through some of the wildest and least developed countryside in the continent, which has made it a magnet for explorers and adventurers through the centuries. David Livingstone made the river known in the middle of the nineteenth century, but for decades before that, it provided a convenient highway for the passage of slaves, ivory and precious metal from the interior to the sea. Manuel Baretto explored large sections of the river in the seventeenth century and his writings make fascinating reading. His travels were done mainly in hopes of finding the legendary treasure city of Ophir, which was said to be somewhere in the modern country of Zimbabwe.

Frederick Courteney Selous hunted along portions of the river and he too wrote about the wildness of the Zambezi and its surrounding countryside in his books.

There have been many settlements on both banks of the river through the ages and palaeontologists have discovered relics dating back thousands of years, as well as the fossils of a number of dinosaur species.

In modern times, many books have been written about the river, including a fascinating account of its history by Michael Maine, but as far as I can research, nobody has walked the length of the Zambezi since the early nineteenth century when a number of intrepid explorers walked from coast to coast across the continent.

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South African adventurer, Michael Boon was the first person to paddle the length of the river in 2002 and his feat was replicated a few years later by two young South Africans. Solo attempts to travel the length of the river have been few, although in the late nineties, a German adventurer attempted to swim it. His eventual fate is not known!


The Man

At sixty nine, David Lemon has reached the age where he should be putting his feet up and enjoying a contented old age, but after a lifetime of adventure, he finds it difficult to settle down to what others would regard as a ‘normal’ lifestyle.

Brought up in some of the remoter parts of Southern and Central Africa, Lemon is hugely experienced in bush survival and over the past three decades, has tackled the wilder parts of Central Africa in a variety of ways. In his middle forties, he rowed the length of Lake Kariba in both directions, using a ten foot, open dinghy for the purpose. His book ‘Hobo’ describes that adventure and in it he writes about being driven ashore on rocky islands, holing his boat in a number of places and facing the enormous storms that Kariba continually throws at its boatmen. He also had adventures with hippopotami, crocodile and elephant, while at one stage, he was forced to operate on his big toe with a razor blade, following a bite from a night adder.

In his fifties, Lemon cycled alone from Nairobi to Cape Town, taking four and a half months over the journey and on the way he was arrested twice, beaten up by armed soldiery and suffered a severe attack of amoebic dysentery. He also had a number of accidents, but in his book Two Wheels and a Tokoloshe, Lemon cheerfully tells his readers that he had a wonderful time.

At the age of sixty one, David Lemon decided to walk around the southern shoreline of Lake Kariba, a distance of some 1200 kilometres (750 miles). Setting out in temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, he completed the journey in 76 days and on the way, was arrested again, this time for being in the area without a permit, had a number of close encounters with dangerous wild life, lost 20 kilograms (44 lbs) in body weight and was forced to stitch up his own leg when the calf was ripped open by a branch. The book resulting from this particular adventure was Blood Sweat and Lions – a truly riveting read.

In 2010, Lemon decided to kayak the perimeter of Lake Kariba but was prevented from doing so by the authorities, who refused to allow him into Zambian waters. Undaunted by this setback, he explored the lake in his 12 foot vessel and yet again, met up with a number of adventures that might well have killed a lesser man.

“Having done three books on my adventures, I decided not to write about that one,” was his comment afterwards, although his blog account of the venture has been passed around the Internet for many months now.

But David Lemon feels that he has at least one major adventure left before he might – perhaps - be too old.


The Challenge

In 2012, David Lemon attempted to walk the entire length of the Zambezi, starting at the source near the Zambian settlement of Mwinilunga and intending to end where the river empties into the Indian Ocean in the tiny village of Chinde in Mozambique.

“I know the conditions well,” he told a local newspaper. “I know how to survive in that sort of countryside and despite my advanced age – or perhaps because of it – I have both the experience and the knowledge to get me through such a walk.”

He began the journey toward the end of April, when the rains were almost at an end and conditions were cooler for the first few months of walking. He estimated that the entire journey would take him ten months, He travelled alone and survived off what food he could carry, living off the countryside and the river whenever possible.

He completed the first half of his trip from the source of the Zambezi, Mwinilungu through to Kariba, approximately 1200 miles, when unfortunately, due to severe malnutrition, he had to stop his trek half way through.

After plenty of recuperation, a few lessons learnt, and a novel on the first half of his trip, David Lemon (who is now 69) is about to attempt his second leg of the journey. He will trek from below lake Kariba down through to the mouth of the Zambezi which ends in the Indian Ocean in the tiny village of Chinde in Mozambique. He will undertake the expedition alone, reliant on the natives and the food of the land for survival.


The Dangers

The main dangers facing anyone who walks the Zambezi must always be crocodiles and mosquitoes. Crocodiles are numerous in all sections of the river and there are a number of different malarial mosquitoes throughout the region. Prophylactics will have to be taken and a wary eye kept for crocs when anywhere near the river itself.

There will also be the obvious dangers of the terrain, which in many cases is extremely rough and will necessitate steep, enervating climbs and precipitate descents, when falling could well prove fatal. In the Lower Zambezi Valley, there will be the problem of traversing very thick bush, with the attendant dangers of bumping into elephant, lion, buffalo, hippopotamus or other wild animals that could cause problems to the unwary.

In the summer months – October to March – the heat will be hugely oppressive, with daytime temperatures climbing well above 40 degrees Celsius and only falling slightly after dark. Heavy rain will add to the dangers and discomfort of traversing rough countryside and in the lower Zambezi region, tsetse flies and irritating mopani bees will add their depredations to the general discomfort of the walk.

Snakes abound in the Zambezi Valley and some of these, such as the mamba or the cobra are deadly, so once again, a wary eye will have to be kept on paths and the surrounding terrain.

In parts of Zambia, the walker will also be likely to encounter trigger-happy members of the Parks Department on anti poaching patrols and as these frequently shoot on sight at suspected poachers, they become a definite danger to the unwary. Even the buying of permits to enter these areas does not make the traveller safer. The same dangers might well apply in respect of armed bandits in both Mozambique and Angola.

But there will also be times when anyone passing along the river will enjoy some of the most incredible vistas in the world and the sheer freedom of being away from the frenetic pace of the twenty first century will make all the discomforts and dangers feel worthwhile.


David Lemon will be undertaking the final half of the journey on March 24. He is using his journey to raise awareness and support for elephant conservation across the Zambezi valley.