Travel: A wobbly journey to the centre of the river

Anna Rockall braves tree-trunk transport and strange blood-sports on her way to Jungle Junction, an island in the Zambezi
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The Independent Culture
CUBA AND Chico just had to laugh when I fell out of the mokoro into the Zambezi. The crocodiles probably laughed too but I only saw the funny side once I had safely clambered onto the shore of the island. The upper Zambezi, a thick murky river teeming with crocs and hippos, is not a good place to swim. So travelling in an unsteady mokoro requires a finely tuned sense of balance, as well as a cast-iron behind.

When man first noticed that wood was buoyant, and thought of using it to help him float down rivers, he probably fashioned something similar to the mokoro. Roughly carved from the trunk of the Manketti tree - which has wood light enough to enable the boats to cope with small rapids - it is guided by two oarsmen, one standing at each end. Passengers sit in the hollowed-out trunk, cross-legged and as still as possible, with the water lapping just a few inches from the boat's rim.

There are more modern modes of navigating the Zambezi but mokoros are still in everyday use locally and not just brought out to entertain passing tourists. As well as being a useful form of transport for night- smuggling between Zambia and Zimbabwe, mokoros are mostly used for placing fishing nets.

These are rigid bamboo cones, 8ft long, placed in small rapids to trap the fish that come tumbling down. A fisherman's main enemy here is the otter, which will chew a hole at the end of the cone and simply sit there all night, lazily scoffing the fish as they pop through.

Keen to test out a mokoro, we set off from the Zambian mainland towards an island mid-stream, passing through the jungle of the shallows. The scenery along the way, a tangle of reeds and papyrus, palm trees and vines, seemed worlds away from the dusty bush only metres from the water's edge.

My oarsmen, Cuba and Chico, filled the time with talk about the wildlife and their village, Katombora, home to the Toka tribe. We passed some of their friends sitting with their dogs, ready to go baboon-hunting. This vicious sport, where dog is pitted against baboon, is a source of amusement for the men, and a source of food for the dogs, whose owners are too poor to feed them their valuable meat supplies.

Glueing birds to trees is another unpleasant local sport. The sap from a strangular tree is boiled down into glue and placed in the Bird Plum Tree, which has sweet yellow berries beloved by birds. As the birds land they are unable to fly away and the locals look on, laughing.

Back in the mokoro, lulled by stories and the fierce heat, we break out of the jungle waterways and onto the open river, the dull roar of the rapids becoming ominously closer.

In a normal boat, the rapids would seem almost insignificant but in a mokoro, you check carefully which is the closest shore to swim to if you sink. But with great dexterity, the oarsmen guided us safely to the island's shores.

Jungle Junction, as the island is known, is a refuge from the modern world: no electricity, no roads, no buildings other than a couple of bamboo shelters, no phones and no money to spend or save.

It is worth spending a night or two under canvas on the island for the joy of being totally removed from "civilisation". I was woken before dawn one morning in my secluded glade by the sound of a hippo playing in the river. I watched it as light broke, the vervet monkeys started leaping around and the trumpeter hornbills began to call.

So, apart from listening to wildlife, what do you do stranded on an island in the middle of a river full of crocodiles? Not a lot, is the answer. Swimming is out of the question, although there is a small "safe" area where you can cool off. The idea is to relax, rough it, and take advantage of the mokoros and guides to explore other islands and local villages. Fishing is an excellent way to while away some time, as is bird-watching and, after a strenuous day, cooling off in the "safe" rapids with a beer in one hand and a view of the sun setting over the bubbling white water.

Anna Rockall paid $100 for a five-day trip to Jungle Junction, booked through Jolly Boys, PO Box 61088, Livingstone, Zambia (00 260 3324229). The only direct link between the UK and Zambia is on British Airways (0345 222111), from Gatwick to Lusaka but it is often easier to travel via Zimbabwe. Air Zimbabwe (0171-491 0009) and BA fly most days between Gatwick and Harare, with easy connections to Victoria Falls.

From Harare the fare to Victoria Falls is around pounds 70 return. From there, take a taxi to the border, walk across and pick up a lift or taxi on the Zambian side to Livingstone.

The helpful Zambia National Tourist Board is at 2 Palace Gate, London W8 (0171-589 6343)