The last full day of our trip in Africa was another early start despite it being ‘at leisure’. Our safari tour had officially ended and we were now free to do as we pleased in the small town of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. For my second activity after the previous night’s ‘booze cruise’, I had decided to tackle something rather wild which was white water rafting down the lower Zambezi. Having watched the video for rafting the afternoon prior, Laura (our fellow traveller from the US) had convinced me and others of our group to face our fears and get stuck in to something adventurous.
The previous afternoon I had booked the rafting along with Laura, Melyn, Anne, Pei San, Freddie and Manuela whom I had spent the past 2 weeks with as part of our travelling group. We wanted to try something different and outrageous since it would be our last day together before some of us travelled home and others began new tours around other parts of Africa.
Unbeknown to me at the time of booking, the Zambezi is probably one of the most, if not the most, wildest rivers in the world for white water rafting. I’ve done canoeing, hiking up fjords in Norway and other outdoorsy pursuits but nothing quite like rafting. When we watched the video at the booking office there seemed to be a suspicious number of the rafts turning upside down in the rapids and tipping everyone out. We’d been for our last meal together the night before, and a few drinks, so there were a few slightly sensitive heads but we were being picked up at 7am so there wasn’t time to think about it. We were bundled into the mini bus and taken the short distance to the meeting place at The Lookout Café which was precariously balanced on the very edge of the Batoka gorge overlooking the river below and towards the bridge where all the bungees jump from. We were given a safety briefing, as well as a chance to back out now if we wanted, and split into groups. We were then assigned a guide who would be in our boat with us for the remainder of the day and accompany us through each of the 19 rapids we were to tackle along 28km of the Zambezi. We were given our kit (helmet and life jacket) and then guided towards the entrance to the gorge where we would descend towards the water and have to clamber across the rocks to our rafts.
Getting down to the water wasn’t too much to handle, it was mainly climbing down a very steep ladder backwards whilst consciously holding on to the rail and not falling on those in front of you. At the bottom it was a slow and steady scramble over the huge rocks that line the borders of the river. It was dry or ‘low’ season so ordinarily these rocks are covered by much deeper water. Due to this, they have been smoothed over by strong currents over time and were actually quite slippery despite being dry. The local guys and guides hopped across them of course without even wearing any shoes making the rest of us feel rather awkward and ungainly. We eventually arrived at our rafts and bounced in eager to get started on the river.
It must’ve been about 9am by this point and the sun was starting to get hot. Even Freddie, who is from Namibia and well acquainted with the heat and sun, was plastering on the sunscreen. Our guide showed us the basic instructions and made sure we understood his directions as we were to listen to him closely at all times. We had to remember to work together to make the raft go in the direction we wanted and picking up speed is key to make it through the stronger, fiercer rapids. The rapids are graded depending on their intensity with 1 being the weakest and 5 the strongest/fastest. We were off! It started slowly and leisurely but it wasn’t long before we hit our first rapid which was like bobbing about on a small rollercoaster, however, our guide excitedly informed us that a grade 5 was coming up next – nothing like being eased into it. We paddled as fast as we could and faced it head on each one of us apprehensive about if we’d end up in the water or not. The water came thundering over us and hit us all in the face which makes it difficult to remember to keep paddling. Before you make the dip over the edge you see other rafts in the distance disappear into the deep rumbling and metres high spray of the water ahead. It’s not long before you’re spat out the other side though and carried down river at quite some pace. The water was cool but not cold and most definitely not for ingesting. There were screams and whoops as each raft made it through and sailed down to the next one.
Over the next 6 hours we sailed down 28km of the lower Zambezi, staring in awe at the huge cliff faces on either side of us in-between the 19 different rapids. We even spotted a few crocs at the side of the water…! The sun beat down on us fiercely so the constant splashes were rather welcome and when we came to a slow moving area of water a few of us jumped in to cool off. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention – any clothes or shoes that you wear will of course get absolutely soaked through so you are allowed no valuables (the guides take care of that and someone meets you with them at the very end) and most definitely do not wear your best clothing. I had a bikini, old denim shorts and a vest top on along with a pair of these which were perfect for being in the raft.
Everything was going well for our raft since we had not been capsized yet. A few of us, excluding myself (I think I was the only one!) had fallen in. That is, until rapid number 18 called ‘Oblivion’. Let’s just say this one did its namesake justice. I politely enquired with our guide as to how many rafts had made it through this one unscathed and still the right way up over the course of his many years working the river. His answer? One. We knew we were in for it then and just had to accept the fact that the churning mass of water ahead would be like being in a thunderous washing machine. It was exactly that – we had 3 main areas of strong current to try and get through and we failed on the second hurdle with the raft turning upside down, chucking us all out and dragged under the water with no idea which way was up. I had a slight intense moment of panic but remembered that I had my lifejacket on and that I would, eventually, come out the other side. This is all easier said than done when you’re being turfed around underwater like yesterday’s pants on a high speed cycle. But, we made it and were spat out the other side of the crazy rapid before pinging about like a pin ball across the river.
The only word I can think to describe traversing such intense rapids is exhilarating with a feeling reminiscent to being at the top of a rollercoaster just before you make a massive dip. Your heart beats rapidly in your chest; you look around nervously at the others for reassurance before the sudden realisation that you have nowhere to go takes hold. It is at once terrifying yet thrilling…and also fun! If in doubt, do it. You won’t regret it. We booked ours through Wild Horizons which is in the little town centre of Victoria Falls. Rafting such as this is a once in a lifetime opportunity that is definitely not to be missed…if you’re brave enough…