Rafting the great Zambezi

Eight rafts, 23 rapids, 18 kilometres of the great Zambezi river. Two unplanned swims, one raft flip, about seven grade five rapids. Altogether, one hell of a day.

My brother and I spent Wednesday white water rafting. After the briefing and breakfast, the approximately 50 of us in today’s group head down to the river. Most of the rest of the people are here on wilderness group tours — travelling in a touring truck, camping at sites along the way. It’s the usual mix of backpackers — Australia, England, South Africa, a few from American and Germany.

The route starts within sight of the base of the Victoria Falls, with the Mist that Thunders hanging over the top of the gorge walls — all 700 feet of sheer rock. We spent the rest of the day in the gorge, with the Zambezi running swift and deep between towering cliffs, and the (very welcome) sun high overhead.

The rafts hold eight people each, one of which is the guide. They’re simple inflatable rafts, with high round walls on which one sits. There is a distressing lack of things to hold on to — all one has is a rope around the outside, to help holding on should the raft flip. During “normal” rafting this isn’t really used much, as you’re supposed to be paddling through the waves, holes and whirlpools. Also in our group were five kayaks, used to retrieve lost paddles, or paddlers for that matter, and also to take footage of the rafts sailing through / flipping in the biggest rapids.

Apparently the Zambezi has the highest drop in a commercial rapid in the world, as well as lots of rapids that are barely commercial-grade. One could tell right from the start, where the first move involves breaking through a rapid and onto the other side before the current rams one into the cliff face, and likely sends everyone for a swim. As luck would have it, my front-left position on the raft hit a big bump (that’s my story, anyway), and I took a swim right on that first rapid. After a few seconds of fighting the huge waves, I was pulled back on board, and we made it through the rapid on the second try.

The river flows strongly, so the there is not very much paddling to be done between the rapids. Most of this time was spent trying to get information about the next rapid out of our guide, who is the most laid-back person I’ve met in a long time. Unlike the other guides, who were all local, he’s from West Virginia, via some years in New Zealand. Anyway, he wasn’t big on describing rapids. Or, for that matter, giving instructions loudly enough for the front of the raft to hear, so we were soon improvising merrily — always fun with a wave breaking over the raft.

Our raft worked well together, and we were lucky enough to not lose anyone else for most of the course, despite some hairy moments. One rapid saw one of us fly over the head of another, but land in the raft — so they just landed up in each other’s places. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of taking a raft almost vertical into a wave, bouncing perhaps a metre off the walling, but paddling all the way and making it through.

Our flip happened on rapid eight, where most of the rafts who took our (somewhat tougher) line flipped. I managed to hold on as it went over (I have a great photo of me hanging from the vertical raft), but ther rapid went on for easily 50 metres — with us all scattered around in the water. Each successive wave completely swamped us all, so we spent the time hyperventilating whenever we came up.

Lunch was on a ledge on the edge of the river, before the second half. Either the rapids were a little smaller, or we’d improved, as we didn’t flip again. The end of the course meant a big climb up the edge of the gorge, but to waiting drinks and beers. After a long bumpy ride back through the bush, we had a braai (barbecue) and watched a movie that had been editing with amazing speed, of the day’s events. And what a day it was!

News on the rest of the trip, plus photos, arriving as soon as I get some more time.

5 thoughts on “Rafting the great Zambezi

  1. I am intrigued by the super-fast video editing skillz of white water rafting guides. Especially if it took place on a bumpy bus ride.


  2. Man, that sounds freakin’ awesome! I absolutely love white-water rafting. The more class 5’s, the better the ride. Unfortunately, Tennessee only has one good place for whitewater rafting (the Ocoee) and it only has one class 5. However, if you have a cool guide then someone gets to “ride the bull”, which means sitting on the very front of the raft (with legs dangling over the edge) holding onto a big metal ring. It’s quite a ride and somewhat dangerous (trying to swim in a class 5 isn’t the safest thing in the world, but in this case if you fall out you get clobbered by the raft as it goes over you). Anyway, the Ocoee is fun, but the Zambezi sounds amazing.

    One cool thing about the Ocoee however, is that at night the water gets shut off (or, at least, it can be shut off), I believe so that it can be stored in a reservoir for energy production. When the water is off, industrious and clever rafters, canoers, and kayakers will go out and actually move the rocks to create new/different rapids. Additionally, I believe that the Ocoee might have been used for some of the whitewater events in the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta.

    Anyway, post some pics if you can.


  3. Paul, awesome description. As I’ve already told you, this was definitely one of the funnest things I have ever done in my life. I can still picture that first rapid that you mentioned. Did anyone try boogie boarding the second half? Another great experience. What about the Gorge Swing or bungie jumping? If anyone reading this is considering doing it, it’s a no brainer. Like Nike says, “Just do it!” You won’t regret it! (The river rafting that is, not the gorge swing or bungie jumping)


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