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Canoe Guiding – Assorted Notes

Written by Ernie van Staden in consultation with Bryan Orford, photos by Bryan Orford

Outcome of studies

1/ The canoe guide will be fully conversant with all aspects of canoe guiding.

2/ Having written and passed the canoe guides ‘learner exam’, the canoe guide candidate will be expected to have spent 250 hrs on the river as an understudy before being eligible to do the Canoe Guide proficiency exams.

Introduction and protocol;

Having introduced yourself to the clients, they need to;

  1. Sign an Indemnity form provided by the company. This document covers and to a certain degree protects the Operator from certain liabilities not covered by his liability Insurance.
  2. Be encouraged to place passports and valuables in ‘safe keeping’ with the person in authority before leaving for the trip.

Clients and canoes are then conveyed to the embarkation or launch place of their canoe safari by vehicle.

Before the safety talk there are the following to be covered by the guide;

NOTE ; Familiarity puts people at ease, so the more informed a person is of the days activities ahead, the more comfortable and less likely to complain they’ll be! Therefore;

  • Ensure that all the clients are aware of the distance the safari will cover on a daily basis.
  • Introduce staff and guests to each other. Ensuring that the clients are aware of the seniority profile within the staff. This prevents them from asking junior staff questions they cannot answer and precluding wrong information being disseminated.
  • Discuss what of the clients luggage can be carried on the canoe and that which is to be transferred to the ‘camp’ to await their arrival at the end of the canoe safari. Apart from hats, sun glasses etc. They should have the right walking shoes and/or water shoes for the boat. Clothing should be checked – lightweight easy drying ‘earthy toned’ dull coloured clothing is best. Make the clients aware of the sun burn factor on water and discourage sleeveless tops and shirts. Make sure they don’t forget their cameras and/or binoculars. Because weight is an issue in the canoes make sure they don’t bring unnecessary luggage. Awesome photo opportunities occur whilst canoeing!
  • Explain the layout of camps to come briefly – this would be taught to you by the operator as it suits him.
  • Before embarking, ensure the clients have been to the toilet.
  • Describe the programme for next few days briefly.


SUN – Talk about covering body with clothing, the danger of too much sun and sunlight reflection off the water causing sunburn and also of dehydration. Highlight the use of sun block cream, hats etc.

HIPPO – Discuss the dangers of hippo encounters briefly. It is important that the clients appreciate the dangers without getting terrified. Mention the size of hippos, that they are vegetarians and only attack aggressively occasionally. Most importantly that it is important to always have clients follow the guides instructions and to avoid the hippo. Hippo, by virtue of their size and temperament are capable of tipping over and damaging canoes and of course causing great injury to people too. Explain briefly to the clients that the guide will be tapping on his canoe, but clients should not tap as well. Below is a hippo damaged canoe in the foreground, and some stranded people on the island behind to the right of the termitaria! There wasn’t another canoe to fetch them so they had to wait for another boat from the closest camp!!

Hippo dentition can be very intimidating!

CROCS – Can be dangerous so no ‘dangling’ of arms and legs etc in the water and no swimming unless the guide allows it in very shallow water.  If a croc does surface near the canoe keep a paddle between you and it and preferably paddle away from it. It is important not to dip paddles too deep in the water in an area where crocs have slipped into water. You may hit the croc lying in shallow water, giving it a fright and causing the upset of the canoe. Also avoid water where a large croc has submerged and areas where there are many crocs like at a carcass or on a basking on a sandbank.

BUFFALO & ELEPHANT – Both buffalo and elephant have attacked canoes in the valley. Drinking buffalo can panic and charge back toward the mainland and may attack the canoes if they are too close, this also applies if one gets too close to them for pictures. Elephants are dangerous as they can charge through shallow water faster than a canoe can paddle. It is not wise to paddle too close to them and if they are up on a bank they could fall off down onto the canoe (has happened).

TREES, ROCKS & WIND– Trees and rocks can be seen visibly or just under the water by a ’V’ ripple. They should be avoided as they can tip a canoe over, especially if hit at speed and sideways. They can also puncture canoes. Don’t get caught in overhanging branches. In a bad area follow the forward canoe if it is negotiating successfully. These obstacles should be considered well before hand as the current will be carrying the canoes towards the obstacle. To add to this the wind can be a problem and in some cases the guide needs to direct the clients to the bank to wait it out. Bailing may be required and the wind might make paddling difficult. It is important to hit the waves straight on and not sideways.

SAFETY ON CANOES – No clients standing up. Canoes should not be overloaded. Netting can be used to secure loads. Paddlers should avoid leaning over sideways too much, especially at the same time. Dry bags will/should be provided and valuables on the canoe should be tied down well.  This includes the tying of sunglasses. Life jackets should be used at all times. Explain bailing techniques using sponges or drink bottles used. All canoes should go in single file and the guide must specify the sequence of canoes. The guide will also decide who canoes with who. This is important for safety reasons (weight for instance) and for the enjoyment of clients.

NOISE – Noise just like on land should be kept to a reasonable limit and the guide may ask the clients to be quiet for safety reasons e.g. sneaking past a hippo.

RADIO – The guide should have a phone and radio for emergencies and that there is a first aid kit. Give the clients a brief introduction to radio and sat phone usage.

PADDLING INSTRUCTION – Explain to the clients that the canoes are Canadian canoes, they are very stable with buoyancy tanks, and very hard to sink. This will give them some confidence. Explain that 80% of the control is from the back and 20% control in front. A three man canoe is faster that a two man. Explain the paddles, how to hold them by the handles, how to dip in and pull against the water to pull the canoe forwards. The importance in working as a team whether 2 or 3 people should be emphasized. Try and not splash water or hit the other persons paddle. Try and compensate the other persons paddling so the canoe goes straight. A good system is to say paddle 3 strokes on the left then 3 on the right then switch again. The person at the back should control using the rudder stroke. Push forwards on the right and the canoe will turn to the right. Alternatively you can do the opposite on the left side. While paddling avoid close contact with the canoe in front, especially when near hippo, as a collision can cause a lack of control and a canoe might go towards a hippo. Don’t stay too far behind as this is dangerous, giving hippos a chance to catch up to canoes and attack. Ensure that the clients understand the following instructions ; that if they guide tells you to paddle fast, you must do so as it could save your life. You may also be told to paddle slowly or by the bank. All these instructions should be followed. If you are crossing open water, follow exactly in the guide’s tracks. Don’t drift too far down stream or upstream as you may paddle into a danger zone and readjust by watching the current. The guide might paddle you closer to hippos; this is safe as the water may be shallow. In danger zones and any times while paddling, don’t get too carried away with cameras and then lose control of the boat. Try and avoid too much speed when going towards the bank and on landing, remember there could be rocks; you don’t want to put holes in the canoe.

RECOVERY – If the canoe does overturn do not swim away from it unless your guide tells you to. The best thing to do is hold onto the canoe or climb back onto it. However do not climb back into a canoe that has a passenger in and is still upright, as you may overturn it endangering the occupants. The guide will then paddle his canoe to yours forming a raft and will help you to regain entry to the canoe by going to the bank or pulling you back in. Do not panic and splash around as it attracts crocodiles

ANY QUESTIONS? – You will do your best to do this without instilling fear and help settle the clients minds. Inform them that this is for their safety and to cover a worst case scenario.


INTER-OPERATOR ETIQUETTE – make sure the camping sites you stop into are the correct ones organised with National Parks for your company. If there is any potential clash between you and other operators on camping sites, picnic or walking sites, try and arrange with other guides so as not to clash. This may mean a discreet visit to their camp to talk with them or a habitual use of the same site, so they know where you are likely to be. Try to avoid being visible to other companies on the river. It makes the area seem wilder to the clients. Some clients do not like to see other canoes. Don’t bad mouth other companies and guides at all and most especially not in front of clients.


  1. Before leaving in the morning ensure there are ropes to tie everything down. There should be ropes at the end of the canoe to tie up canoes when landing. The canoes should be clean. Check on leaks. Make sure drinks and lunch are adequate. You need a table and chairs. A first aid kit. You need a radio and if you have one, a satellite phone. You need seat cushions and enough life jackets. If you are fishing pack your rods, tackle and bait. Your drinks need enough ice for the whole day or on long hauls for the time period. To preserve ice try and keep the cold box well sealed and open briefly. Make sure the drinks the clients like are in the box. Don’t pack it with beers when they only drink coke. Always have lots of water and you can stack extra water out of the cold box, somewhere in a canoe. Restrict the consumption of alcohol to evenings where possible. Alcohol is a diuretic and impairs judgement. So it’ll dehydrate you and slow your reaction times. Sun stroke can soon follow this type of behaviour!
  2. Don’t trust your clients, keep an eye on them and be aware that many of them have never paddled in their lives. This is important to consider, especially at the beginning of the trip. They may panic and move into danger.
  3. Try and not scare clients in the safety talk or on the trip. You need a fine balance. If they show no respect, they will walk off or paddle off on their own, swim where they shouldn’t, fish in a croc zone, paddle too close to the hippos when they should be paddling where you told them. On the other hand the nervous clients become a hazard as they are more likely to be erratic. They make mistakes like freezing in a danger zone, or paddling into the bank or out into deeper dangerous water. They may even paddle towards hippo in a panic. They also will not enjoy their trip and could make it unpleasant for everyone else. The first type of client is normally a man, especially those who have always been the ‘boss’ or they may be from this region. The second type is normally a woman. However there is no hard and fast rule to this.
  4. Guides should always keep their eyes and main focus on the water.
  5. Be very conscious of too much time bird or game watching and allowing your attention to wander from watching the water.
  6. Safety is more important than paddling up to a bird or animal. Don’t risk the clients by paddling across a ‘danger zone’ (deep still water likely to hold a bunch of hippo) to look at an elephant.
  7. Safety is also more important than showing off. Some guides want to do the most dangerous channels and the closest approaches to get a reaction from the guests. They feel that the more danger, the more successful they are. It is important to consider the feelings and fears of the guests, not your own adrenaline fix. The guide should not show off by trying to get too close to any dangerous game.
  8. Be patient as hippos do go under water longer than 8 minutes. They may even go up to 15 or more. So if it doesn’t come up it might still be there – watch carefully where it goes.
  9. In some cases you may have to ‘portage’ or pull / carry canoes around or over an obstacle. When ‘portaging’ you may have to pull the clients boats. If they want to pull their own, ensure they don’t pull it into deep water and endanger themselves with crocodiles. Ensure that clients do not injure themselves pulling boats.
  10. Don’t have lunches in shallow water (even though it is thought to be safe) if the clients are afraid, if they don’t like cold water or if they want lunch in the shade. Watch them so that they do not walk off to deeper water.
  1. While stopping for lunch or picnics make sure the land is safe before disembarking. Watch especially for elephants, hippo, buffalo and Lion on land.
  2. On landing ensure the canoes are tied up properly and are out of the water.
  1. Make sure that if you leave the canoes, clients take their valuables with them. Anything left behind should be left in the canoes and preferably tied up in case elephants play with anything. No food should be accessible to baboons.
  2. If you do a walk with a full professional guide, help to ensure that there is enough water and a radio taken on the walk.
  3. Learner Guides, respect the walking guides by staying at the back of the group. Don’t contradict him or have separate talks with clients.
  4. Without a walking guide, the canoe guide should be aware of the rules of no walking and of the max distances that should be kept from the water i.e. 50m.
  5. Clients should be instructed to burn their toilet paper and try and bury their faeces. Give them toilet paper and matches.
  6. They should be warned about wandering off on their own and toilet spots should be checked carefully. Where possible, introduce a ‘buddy buddy’ system in which one buddy doesn’t move anywhere without the other tagging along.
  7. The guides should have a rifle available. .375 or bigger. An additional weapon in the form of a handgun is advisable.
  8. Guides may also use ‘Bear bangers’ and other noisy instruments to help in defence. Fog horns have been used successfully! Shouting – not swear words – and sometimes just loud talking can make animals aware of your presence and keep them from walking towards you.
  9. While resting make sure that someone is always on guard and not everyone is sleeping. Wild animals especially elephants often wander into a resting zone and can be dangerous.
  10. Keep your food stuffs elevated and in sealed containers where possible as ants are a problem
  11. While resting, clients should be instructed on the best way to sleep under trees etc. – try to keep some orderly fashion so that if something happens there isn’t a general melee.  Mats can be provided and they can use seat cushions and life jackets. Don’t sleep in the sun!
  12. Choose lunch sites that are safe as possible and have shade.
  13. To protect yourself you can place life jackets or seat cushions by your feet or use a double seat cover – Don’t tell the clients that you have a double cover otherwise they’ll want one too!
  14. You can also use this extra cushioning to elevate yourself as you paddle.  This extra height enables you to see the water ahead better. When approaching a corner it helps to stand up (guide only) to see what is ahead.
  • To intimidate hippos, standing (guide only), shouting and slapping the water with the paddle all help. You can also park the canoe and walk down the bank. Bear bangers and shooting a handgun to the side can be used as a last resort. This is necessary to make hippos move away and get them to feel that you are not easily scared. Large crocodiles should also be intimidated and not allowed to get too familiar.
  • Don’t paddle right up to large sleeping crocodiles and avoid where possible the paddling right over a spot where a large croc has submerged. They may get a fright and upset the canoe.
  • Handguns or other weapons should only be used in extreme emergencies. If you do have to shoot anything, make sure you had no other options, get written support from your clients and report as soon as you can to Parks. Remember NP law!
  • Try to always move through shallow water, always checking water depth and the sand banks. These are hippo free zones.
  • Be very careful of ‘drop off’ zones as these often have pods or single hippos resting there.
  • If you do move through deep water with a wide expanse, check well ahead and negotiate the hippos, taking advantage of the amount of water available.
  • If you are confronted by a ‘wall’ of hippos stretched out, then back paddle if necessary and make sure you choose a safe route through. If you have to go to the bank before carrying on then do so.
  • Don’t rush through a danger zone. Take your time to check it out thoroughly and make a firm decision on how you will negotiate the obstacle
  • While moving along the bank, be patient while waiting for hippo to move out to deeper water. If the water is deep close to the bank and the hippos stubbornly refuse to move, then try and back paddle and move to the other side of the channel if possible.
  • If you do creep along the bank, watch that your clients don’t panic and lose control, drifting away from the bank. You can use your paddle stuck in the water to stabilize the canoe or the T grip to hold onto a root or grass.
  • If a canoe does lose control moving away from a bank where it needs to be, get them to back paddle out of the danger zone or do a semi circle using the current to get back to the bank.
  • When possible, try to always have a guide steering a canoe. For those canoes without a guide, choose strong and mature people, especially those with canoeing experience to steer canoes.
  • Tapping of the canoe to get hippos to come up is a necessity, but does not have to be overdone. Make sure the clients don’t join in.
  • In some cases you may try and quietly move past a hippo in a narrow channel. You only saw it at the last moment. These are often injured hippos, immobile and like to hide in weeds. This is an important time to ensure everyone is quiet until you exit the area. Avoid narrow deep channels with lots of weed.
  • Don’t paddle up to what seems to be a dead hippo. Often old bulls can have terrible wounds and still be just alive. If they are dead the water may be boiling with crocodiles and should be avoided.
  • Don’t trust any water. The river is different every day and hippos can move. It does help though to recognise regular spots.
  • Lone males and females with babies are normally the most dangerous and should be especially avoided.
  • With steep banks, watch out that a hippo doesn’t launch itself off the bank onto your canoe.
  • Don’t paddle at night. Visibility is poor. Hippos are now starting to move around more and crocs are more dangerous. You may not see under water obstructions well.
  • For fishing be aware of the valley heat with worms, they need a good packing and transporting to keep them alive
  • While fishing make sure clients do not try and retrieve fish or tackle by entering deep water. They also need to be aware of crocodiles. Instruct them on the dangers and try to fish in shallow or safer water. Tell them what to look for. Try and avoid fishing from canoes as they are not stable and more risk for crocodiles. Paddling with a line behind is also a hazard and a headache. Just don’t allow it!.
  • Don’t fish just because you want to. If the clients don’t like it, do something else…you are there for their benefit not yours.
  • Many clients have never fished in their lives before. Choose Bream or Chessa fishing to start off with. Make sure they are aware of the dangers of hooks, fins, teeth, of tigers running with the line.  Instruct them. Put the worms on the hook and take the fish off when required.
  • If you are not going to eat all the fish then ‘catch and release.’
  • Always make sure your camping and picnic sites are clean after leaving – NP law!.
  • If you make a raft with canoes, ensure that it is in a safe zone. If danger is approaching, break the raft immediately and make sure the clients are aware of the need to do so. Don’t think hippos will avoid you because you now look bigger with more canoes tied together
  • The wind can be a problem especially from mid morning to about 2 in the afternoon. Try and use these times for walking and resting. Be aware that waves can swamp canoes and cause them to overturn. If necessary go to the bank and bail out. You might have to move along the bank.
  • On returning to canoes and while on the canoeing, ensure clients get enough non alcoholic drinks.
  • Try and use good ‘polarised’ sun glasses. Look after yourself with creams, hats, good clothing, shoes etc. What you tell your clients to do in the safety talk is also good for yourself. A comfortable, healthy, well fed, wide awake guide is safer. Get good sleep and avoid alcohol.
  • Binoculars are not only good for bird and animal watching, but for looking ahead to see if suspicious objects are hippos.
  • In some cases you will have to rush through an area that has suddenly become dangerous. Make sure all the clients are aware of the need to paddle as fast as possible. Communication backwards to the last canoe is often a problem, so ensure that everyone is always aware of your intentions and what they should be doing.
  • Don’t let canoes hang back. If they are weak paddlers and you are ‘He Man’, don’t try and show off by wearing them out. Take breaks, paddle slower, form rafts. HAVE FUN!
  • If canoes do capsize then try and get everyone first of all out of danger. In rescuing others don’t endanger yourself and your passenger if there are two in your canoe. Make sure they are following your instructions.  Get them to the bank so as to flip the canoe back upright and to get the client to safety. You can also form a raft which will be stable and help to get the client back in a boat. If it is a hippo attack, normally it will hit once and leave the canoe. If the hippo does continue to attack the canoe, then it might be the rare occasion when you tell the client to leave the canoe. In some cases the hippo might attack a canoe against the bank. In this case you can also instruct the clients to vacate and get up the bank. However these are rare cases and best left out the safety talk.
  • Make sure your radio and satellite phone are always charged and your first aid kit well stocked.


Cover with the clients the catering, camp layout, security, cooking, rooms / tents, latrine areas etc. If one decides to stop and camp on islands though, there are a few extra things to consider;

  1. Make sure your canoes are pulled high up and tied securely
  2. If you have small tents, help and instruct the clients on how to set the tents up, sort out bedding etc.
  3. Designate toilet areas and washing areas. Make sure that males and females will not see each other when they shouldn’t. Ensure privacy by correct set up of camp.
  4. A canoe safari of more than one day is essentially a ‘participant activity’, therefore get the clients to help with ‘menial chores’ such as camp set up and food preparation in such a way they look forward to doing it! But by the same token don’t abdicate responsibility for anything to them. You as the guide are responsible for everything. Yours is the head that will roll when anything goes wrong!!

Make sure there is a ‘washing up and cooking roster’ – let them decide who does what! Ensure that you are involved to make sure there won’t be complaints about the food. Avoid heavy spicing on the food and anything that may cause upset tummies.

  • On the long haul trips, watch your ice and make sure you have enough food until your next supply stop.
  • In some areas security is a concern – be cognisant of the dangers before you start and make the clients aware to. You may have to post sentries or watches in the night. It is important to ensure that valuables are well stacked away in the tents.
  • If you are sleeping ‘under paddles and mosquito nets’, then make them comfortable and do this only on islands. Hyenas are not to be trusted.
  • Make sure everyone gets a good night rest. Try and keep clients off ‘the alcohol’ as much as possible. They may make your next day a misery if they were drinking all night. Any physical tourists’ activity is one where you should limit unhealthy behaviour.
  • Make sure the ‘bonfire’ / cooking fire is not going to set the island on fire.
  • It might help to keep the fire burning if there are wild animals around and if someone is doing sentry duty.
  • Avoid camping under Albida Feydherbia  and Kigelia trees.
  • When using tented camps warn clients to zip up doorways at all times!
  • Sitting on the waters edge is extremely dangerous…it may look romantic and all…warn clients of the dangers!

The following are documents that various kind people posted on the WhatsApp group HRE LPH that contain various types of canoeing information that you might find useful, for example, the Shipping Act will give you the official Zimbabwean law’s definition of various terms to do with boats.

Paddy Pacey

Zimbabwean field guide and trainer of aspiring guides

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