Trekking the Zambezi River through Mozambique – interview with Alasdair Campbell

In August 2017, former paratrooper Alasdair Campbell stepped into Mozambique to follow the course of the Zambezi River all the way to where it finally flows into the Indian Ocean. Inspired by the Great Explorer David Livingstone, who spent years travelling the river, he wanted to see for himself how the country had developed after emerging from a brutal civil war in the 1990’s. 

Walking nearly nine hundred kilometres in thirty-four days, Alasdair travelled through wild areas untouched by man, full of crocodiles, venomous snakes, scorpions, spiders and leopards. He also witnessed breathtaking beauty of the mountains, limitless savannah and malarial swamps, with the Zambezi as a constant companion as it wound its way majestically to the sea. 

He was met with kindness by numerous strangers, but also experienced violence and intimidation from those who were deeply suspicious of outsiders.

Where did the idea come from to trek the Zambezi through Mozambique?

I was researching the rivers in Africa that had been explored and had read up David Livingstone’s expeditions along the Zambezi and was amazed by how much ground he had covered. During my research, I stumbled upon a guy called Chaz Powell who was attempting to walk the entire length of the Zambezi. Having made it from the source, he failed to get into Mozambique because there were election riots in some of the towns along the way at the time. I contacted him to see if he wanted to complete the final section through Mozambique and he readily agreed. After a few weeks trekking across Zambia and organizing visas for Mozambique, we took a boat into the country to begin the expedition. We split up after a few days due to differences in opinion about the route to take; he wanted to cross Lake Cahora Bassa to the south side where the going was easier, but I wanted to remain on the north bank where it was wilder and more adventurous! I didn’t see him again on the expedition. 

What sort of preparations did you undertake prior to setting off?

I was already pretty fit, but I wanted to push myself on a long trek and decided to do the Camino de Santiago a month or so before departing for Africa. It’s an 800km pilgrimage from southern France to Santiago de Compostella in north western Spain and I completed it in 26 days. So that’s about 30kms every day with no rest days. It was a wonderful experience and helped to get my body, particularly my feet ready for some serious walking, day in and day out. I was also able to test out my clothes and gear which was useful. The other main preparation was to study the route, particularly around Lake Cahora Bassa, which is nearly 300kms long, Tete, a major town along the way and the area around Chinde and the Zambezi delta. Google Earth is a fantastic resource for these kind of expeditions, where paper maps don’t exist or if they do the scale is so large that they are virtually worthless as a navigation aid!

Camping in the police station at Chiramba

What was the toughest moment of the expedition?

On the final night, when I was only about 12kms from the Indian Ocean, there was a violent storm and after getting soaking wet looking for somewhere to camp, I eventually went to sleep. In the morning when I unzipped my tent, I saw some villagers standing close by with unfriendly looks on the faces. After packing up my gear quickly and trying to head for Chinde, the final village of my journey, I was attacked by some of the locals and dragged a few hundred metres to a settlement nearby. After getting a bit of a beating, some armed police arrived and took me to the police station where I was questioned and I was released after about 30 minutes. Apparently, there are vampire myths along that part of the coast and the locals had been scared of my presence and would probably have killed me if the police hadn’t shown up. Mozambique is definitely not for beginners!  

And the most memorable moment?

There were many memorable moments. Mozambique is a beautiful country with much to offer the independent traveller. On the whole, the people are welcoming and friendly, but I did have some bad experiences along the way. Also, seeing crocodiles and poisonous snakes up close certainly got the heart racing!

What gear did you take with you?

I travelled as light as possible with a 35litre daysack to carry everything. It weighed about 10 kilos with water as extra weight. As I was camping for most of the expedition, I had a lightweight tent and small airbed, as well as a sleeping bag liner. I should have taken a small sleeping bag as it was bitterly cold on some nights, and instead had to wear one set of clothes and roll into a ball to keep warm. I also carried dehydrated rations (pasta and dried soup etc) to sustain me, but I was lucky enough to buy the odd chicken in settlements I passed through. To cook I had a small titanium stove and used sticks and tinder around the camp as firewood. My Water-to-Go bottle was a lifesaver and provided me with clean water that I took straight from the Zambezi. To navigate, I had a Silva compass and the Sygic app on my phone which was pretty good, although it lacked the detail to easily get around the many lagoons on Lake Cahora Bassa. Apart from that, a few basic camping items including torch, swiss army knife and basic first aid kit and some mosquito spray – essential!

How was the expedition rewarding and meaningful to you?

It was rewarding to walk through untamed wilderness, particularly on the north bank of Lake Cahora Bassa. It was difficult terrain and I was surrounded by dangerous animals, but it was great to be away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.  I was walking in the footsteps of the famous explorer David Livingstone and to my knowledge, nobody has completed a similar route to mine since he was there in the 1850s.

How can anyone find out more about the expedition?

I’ve written an account of my expedition with maps and photos and it’s called ‘Stepping into Darkness

Are you planning any more adventures?

I’m always thinking of new adventures! I’m in the early stages of planning another trek in a year or two and will share the details nearer the time.

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