Wild Horizons

An African safari – Day 16 – White Water Rafting

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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An African Safari – Day 15 – Arrival in Victoria Falls

Waking up the day after being at Hwange National Park meant that we were on our way to Victoria Falls in north western Zimbabwe.  I was keen to take in this location as part of our trip as the falls are classed as the largest sheet of falling water on earth being 1708m wide and 108m in height, which is twice the height of Niagara falls, so I knew they were not to be missed.  The falls divide two separate countries with Zambia being on one side and Zimbabwe the other.  So, after yet another early start we were on the final leg of our trip now and headed to our last location which was the town of Victoria Falls for 2 nights.  It wasn’t a long journey from Hwange to the falls and after a quick stop for ‘bushy bushy’ we arrived early afternoon and were dropped off at Wild Horizons tour office to decide what activities we wanted to do whilst Matt and Freddie headed to the nearby campsite.

Our ever-present and faithful guide, Manda, came with us to the tour office to ensure all went smoothly and we got our bookings done after watching a video of all things on offer.  There was bungee jumping, gorge swing, white water rafting, micro light flights, game drives, riverboat cruises, elephant back rides, horse riding, helicopter tours, bush walks, canoeing – you name it, it was there.  A number of us opted for the late afternoon ‘booze cruise’.  If you’re imagining one of those boats from the Ibiza summer parties then your average booze cruise this was not.  This was to be a much more subdued and leisurely affair of sipping drinks whilst cruising up the Zambezi river at sunset whilst absorbing the sights and sounds.  ‘Yes…’ I thought, rubbing my hands together with glee, ‘Now I get to sip my favourite beverage whilst also getting photo opportunities…’  I was also looking forward to a bloody good shower and being able to rid my feet of Africa’s constant sand (really, it is everywhere and not just near the coast) and for a chance to get a bit dressed up for the first time in what felt like an age!  So, after our booze cruise and my activity for the following day was booked (which was white water rafting but more on that in my next post) we headed to our hotel to get ready.  Yes, we were headed to an actual hotel.  It felt really odd being near civilisation, albeit quite limited, and seeing lots of other people.  For days and days we had been touring in the wilderness across national parks and endless dusty roads and now we were back in amongst people out-with the small family that was our tour group.

We had already pre-booked our hotel room but Kathy and Dave had not and, since they had upgraded to lodge accommodation throughout the trip like myself and mum, I think they were keen to join us at the hotel and make good use of the AC and comfy beds.  The rest of our travellers were staying at the campsite a 5 minute walk away from our hotel.  After we were showered and ready we waited in the hotel reception waiting to be picked up by Wild Horizons to be taken to the river to begin our sunset cruise at 430pm.  Joining us were some of our fellow tour members: Pam, Pete and Manuella as well as Kathy and Dave.

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We boarded a mini bus and were driven the short distance to the river where we boarded a wide, flat river boat and all sat together as we lazily glided up the Zambezi towards the setting sun.  The waiters were attentive and didn’t take long to hop on over and take our order, it was G&T’s all-round and doubles no less.  Well, you’ve got to take full advantage of the price, don’t you?  For the 2 hour cruise along with unlimited drinks it was $50 which I thought was pretty reasonable.  I think we were all grateful for a chance to relax, chat and enjoy some gin after 2 weeks of solid touring – it was quite the novelty.

Along the river we spotted giraffe feeding on tall trees, various birds wading through the shallow waters then we came across this guy peeking out from the water’s edge…He was a youngster at only 4 or 5 feet long…

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And these lovely ladies were keeping themselves cool in the deeper water occasionally rising to the surface to twitch their ears and yawn…

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For me, hippos immediately conjure memories of watching Disney’s ‘Fantasia‘ as a child.  In particular, the scene where the hippos are the most delicate of ballerinas playing a game of cat and mouse with dastardly crocodiles…and here was the real thing!  Except with, you know, less tutus and classical music…

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After we’d been in the boat for an hour or so (and a good few double gins later) the sun started to descend towards the horizon and gave us probably the most beautiful sunset we’d seen the entire trip.  Remember what I said about those African sunsets whilst at Hwange?  Well, they were equally as dazzling on the water.  The sky was a brilliant fiery orange at first with the sun’s reflection shimmering on the water and as it gradually came down towards the trees it melted into a baby pink and faded into sumptuous lilac.  For a short time you could just see the top of the sun peeking out from above the horizon before it disappeared again until morning.

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Now that we were all suitably merry after our double G&T’s, we were off to meet the others for a meal to celebrate our last evening together as a group.  There was a restaurant next to the campsite where we met and got fired into some of the local cuisine including crocodile and mushroom tagliatelle, warthog schnitzel and crocodile curry.  Even though I did try some of these that the others had ordered I played it safe and had a chicken salad.  I had a big day ahead of me the next day as I was getting picked up at 7am to head off on a white water rafting trip along the lower Zambezi.  Looking back, I’m not entirely convinced that we were told exactly what was involved and how extreme it would be but that all added to the anticipation…

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