A PIONEERING SURVEY OF THE REMOTE RUVUMA RIVER

by
Jo Anderson
8 May 2015

“There is no way that we can canoe the next section!” For the eighth time in two days, Gian brought the news that another section of the narrow, rocky channel that we had been negotiating would be too dangerous to attempt in our open canoes. Gian was the master boatbuilder who had constructed our craft by hand, based on a beautiful wooden original, and we would just have to trust his judgement.
   The process of unpacking the gear from each canoe, carrying it hundreds of metres across scorching basalt rock fields, and putting everything back into the river where the water was less implacable, began again. And the answer to why this river had attracted so few expeditions became ever more apparent.

Like any worthwhile destination, the Ruvuma River does not give up her secrets easily. The journey from Arusha in Tanzania is a three-and-a-half day commitment by Land Rover, made marginally easier by the stretches of blacktop which are gradually being added to the national road network. First to Iringa via Singida, Manyoni and Dodoma, then to Songea over the Southern Highlands and through the Makambako Gap, where you geographically enter southern Africa. The stretches of Miombo woodland and riverine vegetation in Ruvuma Region are more akin to the mopane woodlands of Zambia and Zimbabwe, and the further south one drives in Tanzania, the more you feel that this is a different country altogether.

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The road between Lukumbule and Makande passes through the “Sea of Miombo”.
©G. Schachenmann &
A. Soresina
Tanzania feels like a different country the further
south one goes

From Songea, following a short meeting with the charming and helpful Regional Administrative Secretary, we continued to Tunduru, a backwater town dominated by artisanal mining of precious and semi-precious stones – soon to be transformed by uranium mining operations in the southern part of nearby Selous Game Reserve. Thanks to heavy rains and deteriorating roads, it was only at lunchtime on the fourth day that we reached the object of our plans, and dreams.
At Tungane the Ruvuma is a broad, lazy stream broken by low rocks and wide sandbanks. On arrival we set about hauling the canoes, supplies and other equipment off Gian’s trusty Land Rover, affectionately known as “kiboko” – as sturdy as a hippo and equally unwieldy! Once all was packed into the canoes we waved goodbye to our anxious looking ground support, who would pick us up at the end, and we paddled off into the afternoon heat.

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At the midway point of the expedition, the river opens up into a landscape of giant inselbergs.
©G. Schachenmann &
A. Soresina

Unfinished business

Back in September 2000, Marc Baker and I travelled to the Ruvuma to see where the river could be navigated, and to obtain a preliminary idea of the conservation and tourism potential of the landscape. It has always been known that the wide expanses of Miombo woodlands between Selous and the Ruvuma River is the wildlife corridor to the equally wild and remote Niassa National Reserve in Northern Mozambique. But little was known about the Ruvuma River itself, and if it harboured any important populations of flora or fauna.

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The team check their co-ordinates during the expedition.
©G. Schachenmann &
A. Soresina
Aside from fishermen, there is scant record of people on the river

In the 19th Century, Livingstone had navigated the river up from the coast, a little way past the confluence with the Lugenda River flowing in from the south. In modern times there has been scant record of people on the river, aside from local fishermen. An internet search yields a couple of accounts by South African teams who have managed to canoe or raft certain sections, but nothing systematic has been attempted in terms of covering a defined portion of the river, unsupported by land-based teams, while recording specific data along the way.
Our foray in 2000 did little to add to this scant knowledge, but it did emphasise how difficult the river was to access for long stretches, and how difficult it was to navigate in an inflatable craft due to the wildly varying nature of the waterways – sometimes broad and shallow then narrow and rocky, often disappearing into sandy shoals or meandering through mazes of thickly vegetated islands and rocks.

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Into the Unknown

Even in today’s digital world where the internet gives us answers to the most prosaic questions, obtaining facts, figures and a sense of what to expect during our expedition was not easy. Google earth offered interesting insights into the varying widths of the river and where obstacles such as rapids and islands were. One of our key sponsors, Garmin, provided GPS units that allowed us to “see” ahead to some extent using basemaps and downloaded datasets. But even the highest resolution images or GPS data could not accurately reveal the depth of water at any one point, the presence or absence of hippos or the seasonal fluctuations in the river’s main flow.

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Alessandra guides her canoe through one of the tricky parts of the river.
Marc and the author perform the daily ritual of pumping river water for purification.
Sandbars in the river form ideal camping spots away from insects in the woodlands.
©G. Schachenmann &
A. Soresina
Small victories buoyed us while dark storm clouds gathered

Our first day took us a few kilometres downstream, leaving haphazard agricultural areas radiating out from Tungane Village, then entering the Mwambesi Forest Reserve. By evening we had found an exposed sand bar, a feature that would become a regular favourite campsite on our trip. The distinctive tracks of the African clawless otter were found and we had already recorded two of our target bird species, the rock pratincole and the white-fronted sandplover. While these small victories buoyed us, the dark storm clouds quickening in the west cast a very real cloud over our plans for the next day. If it rained heavily what would that do to the water levels and would it make sections of the river ahead impassable?

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As dawn broke on day two, the grey clouds were still there and a fine drizzle had started to fall. We decided there was nothing to do but push on, and although the morning was quietly passed paddling in light rain, by lunch the skies had cleared and the sun was out, a state of affairs we enjoyed for the next eight days. By late morning we encountered our first real rapids, an area of rocky cascades and wooded islands that required us to carry and float the canoes through the foaming waterways. Due to our need for eight days worth of supplies, and our expectation of long stretches with very shallow water, our canoes were open topped Canadian “Trapper” style. This meant they were not equipped to ride out areas of water that had the potential to spill over the canoe’s edge. With a full load this further limited their ability to run white-water since they sat low in the water. But our second day proved an excellent testing period as we began to appreciate the limits of their performance in various water conditions.

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After tumbling down through the Sunda Rapid, the river carves a narrow channel through basalt baserock.
©G. Schachenmann &
A. Soresina

The Anvil of the Sun

Day three proceeded much as the first two with some stunning sections of river. Some channels ran between thickly forested islands reminiscent of tropical rainforest and punctuated with the calls of bush-shrikes and hornbills. These alternated with open sweeping stretches of river, sometimes close to a kilometre across, flanked by the multi-colour hues of late season miombo woodland tumbling down to the water’s edge. Cool clear waters mitigated the heat of the day, and our camps on wide sand bars in the midst of the river kept us away from the insect ridden woodlands at night. We observed few large mammals but were thrilled with sightings of some truly special birds: the deep orange coloured Pel’s fishing owl skulking in the branches of an overhanging tree; the large-eyed, nocturnal white-backed night heron silently fleeing from its perch, and pairs of perky rock pratincoles dancing in flight over the river or boldly standing their ground on their special rock homes as we passed by.

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Guiding a canoe through a particularly tight spot.
The river picks up pace as it carves its way through basalt rock.
One of the narrow channels of the Sunda rapids.
©G. Schachenmann &
A. Soresina
The easy rhythm of these first few days was shattered

The easy rhythm of these first few days was shattered on day four when we came upon the Sunda Rapids, an area of confusing rocky channels, boulders and islands where the river drops a few hundred feet in a short distance. These rapids, clearly visible on Google Earth, herald the beginning of a 12 kilometre section dominated by a sheer rock canyon that cuts its way through a land of giants – enormous granite megaliths soaring into the sky on either side of the river. The canyon, while not deep or very wide, provides few options once inside, and where the channel narrows and the water boils through a six foot wide chasm, polishing the basalt to a shining sable blackness, there is no option but to portage to a less hostile section of water.

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For two days we repeated this ritual, portaging to avoid the more aggressive parts of this wild canyon, scalding our hands on the black rocks which we dubbed “The Anvil of the Sun” after T.E. Lawrence’s rocky Arabian desert. We eventually emerged from the mouth of the last rapid into a wonderworld of giant rock outcrops surrounded by oceans of miombo woodlands on both sides of the river. It was unanimously agreed that our campsite that evening on the lip of one of the megaliths, looking west down the meandering river, ranked with the best of our many bush trips. Anyone who loves finding hidden corners of treasured wilderness, out of cell phone range and beyond sight of human settlement or electric light, would recognise why this counted as a genuinely special place. For me, that campsite defined the trip, encapsulating what it meant to be on a self sufficient expedition. After the two physically strenuous days of portaging through the canyon, we slept happily and deeply, lulled into unconsciousness by the barking of yellow baboons and the eery whistling of bush hyrax.

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A view of the river from one of the many monoliths found along its course.
Hauling canoes over rocks in one of the many slack parts of the river proved frustrating.
©G. Schachenmann &
A. Soresina
It seemed we were walking and carrying more than we were canoeing

The final few days saw us alternating between easy paddling on slack water and arduous hauling of canoes and equipment over flat rocks and through thick vegetation. Frustration built as it seemed we were walking and carrying more than we were canoeing on water – the antithesis of a river journey. To add to this, regular encounters with pods of hippo ate up time as we walked our canoes at a distance from the dangerous creatures. As for the highly publicised presence of giant crocodiles in the Ruvuma, either we missed them or they had moved to another part of the river for, aside from a few smaller specimens, we saw few of these infamous reptiles.

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Where The Wild Things Are?

And what, I hear you cry, of all the other wild animals, lurking in the bush ready to eat us? The sad reality throughout the areas that we surveyed is that, while officially designated as wildlife conservation areas of one kind or another, the large mammal populations of these vast woodlands have been steadily reduced through a combination of poorly regulated hunting, illegal bushmeat hunting and poaching. Specifically in the case of elephants, the startling upswing in ivory poaching over the last eight years has drastically reduced populations. In a land where giants once roamed in great numbers, now the only ones of significance are those of immobile granite.
These remote and difficult to access habitats are a challenge to patrol against poaching gangs, and lack of direct tourism revenue, or interest, means that they will remain a low priority for a cash strapped government when compared to the ‘poster-boys’ like Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
Finally, having come to the edge of the Lukwika Game Reserve, we met our long-suffering ground support team and begun our long journey back to Arusha, happy to have largely fulfilled our goals, but hungry to return to complete other sections of this enigmatic waterway, and to bathe in its breath-taking landscapes.africa-geographic-logo

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Expedition team from left: safari guide and film-maker Gian Schachenman; ornithologist and conservationist Marc Baker; mammal specialist Alessandra Soresina; author of this article, biologist and conservationist Jo Anderson.

Location & geopolitical significance of the Ruvuma River:
Forms the international border between Tanzania and Mozambique for 650km.
Total length: 760kms.
Basin catchment: 152, 200km2 of which 65% in Mozambique, 34% in Tanzania.
Physical features: Crystalline/sandy soils dominated by Brachystegia/Julbardnnia woodland of the Central Zambesian Biome.
Main protected areas along length of river: Mozambique – Niassa Game Reserve (and associated hunting blocks); Tanzania – Liparamba Game Reserve; Lukwika-Lumesule Game Reserve; Mwambesi Forest Reserve; Mbangala Forest Reserve.
Wildlife of interest: Historic range of large savannah elephant population, important populations of African wild dog, significant sable antelope populations, African clawless otter, hippopotamus and greater kudu.
Sponsors: Ferarelle; The Italian Association of African Experts; Code 39Films; Garmin; Swarovski Optik.

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  • Viccy Baker

    Fascinating article – a real adventure. Glad you made it while it’s still a wilderness.

  • Patrick Mukora

    .. that poaching and other unregulated hunting practices have decimated the large game brings tears to my eyes …

  • Paul Oliver

    Great read. Wish I had been along. Fantastic landscapes wonderfully captured. How many wild places have lost their wildlife before we have really ever been there? Too many I fear.