What is it really like? Melanie van Zyl headed to the Zambezi River to find out
y mother warned me about white water rafting. But I guess it’s fair to say she cautioned me on several things.
Sitting at the Zambezi Waterfront in Livingstone, her words came back to me as I overheard an Australian woman relaying her calamitous day to an ear across the continents. She’d had an awful time on the Zambezi, much like my mother had years before. For each of them, the raft had flipped and they’d had to struggle through the shock of frothing cappuccino water. Mum had vowed never to return.
Above the Victoria Falls the Zambezi is a stark contrast to the churning river that gushes below the steel bridge that links Zimbabwe with Zambia. At its highest, the falls stand 107 metres. At the foot of this monstrous drop, the Safari Par Excellence white water rafting experience begins.
The Zambezi is a Class-V river—the highest commercial level—and one of the best places in the world to raft. Class-V is defined by the British canoe union as “Extremely difficult: long and very violent rapids with severe hazards. Continuous, powerful, confused water makes route-finding difficult. Precise maneuvering is critical.”
We are briefed on safety procedures beforehand, but the instructions do little to settle my nerves after eavesdropping on that phone call.
“When I say so, hang onto the ‘Oh, shit! line’ and don’t let go”, says guide Boyd Mabole, referring to the thin ropes that surrounded the raft.
Once in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, strapped into a colourful helmet and bright lifejacket, I pass the tourist hordes, skip the Victoria Falls viewpoints and tackle the steep staircase down to the river below.
Heart a-thump, I manage a strained smile when my guide encourages me, saying, “Don’t worry, it’s going to be the best!”. My anxiety was obviously apparent. Luckily for me, the wiry but strong Boyd is a champion athlete paddler who has been navigating the Batoka Gorge for almost twenty years.
The Boiling Pot is where our journey begins. Wearing sneakers, shorts and a peak cap below my helmet, I clamber over boulders and take a seat on the yellow inflatable raft. We are three women aboard. I am joined by Leigh from Amsterdam and Amy from Lusaka, both currently working in the UK. (I later learn that both are doctors—I couldn’t have arranged a better crew if I’d tried).
Balancing on rocks, almost perpendicular to the water, we slide down onto the river. Boyd helps us get the hang of our paddles, and we practice drills in the spray and swirling waters at the bottom of the falls. An experience in itself. The water is warm, foamy, drenching and swirling, but a relief in the hot January sunshine.
I spot two small crocodiles eyeing us from their rocky sunloungers as the commands come for our first rapid. “Paddle, paddle, paddle!” Boyd shouts. Nobody argues. Our arms work in unison to scoop up the water (a new definition for ‘army’) and then my worst visions are realised. Water rushes over us. I sploosh in the Coca Cola-coloured water and it goes dark. Probably only for a millisecond. Then we surge again, like a pinball in some twisted arcade game.
To my horror, I emerge grinning like a total maniac.
The Zambezi is what’s referred to as a “pool drop river”. The big crashing rapids commonly empty out into placid pools and we have time to rest and rearrange ourselves in the slower streams after each dunking.
Each set (the rapids are named and numbered) bears a dreadful name. The Devil’s Toilet is so-called because it will drag you under and spit you out. Then there’s Commercial Suicide, which no rafting company is brave enough to paddle over, Creamy White Buttocks etcetera.
I begin to relish each introduction from Boyd, that is until he describes number five, Stairway to Heaven, “or the Highway to Hell”, he grins. As we approach, he tightens my life vest again. A sign of things to come. Rocks jut out everywhere, and we narrowly avoid ‘The Gap’ which would have squeezed our boat, turning it into a trampoline that could have sprung us out.
I lose my paddle in the commotion, choosing to hang on to the rope instead, but Leigh gets flung from the raft. Engulfed by the chocolate milkshake, she’s spat out below the rapids, emerging with tendrils of hair wrapped around her shocked face. She is rescued gallantly by another guide on a support kayak. A constant alongside the raft, the support guides test every set first and wait to save any ejectees on the other side.
Every TripAdvisor review moans about the climb out of the Batoka Gorge, but I didn’t find it too severe. Just don’t try to keep up with the guides, who dominate the staircase every day. I take my time, stopping regularly to admire the view (thoroughly enjoying gulps of much-needed air too) and recognise that I not only survived the Zambezi River, but I had fallen for her.
I want to say this was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, but I could never lie to my mother.
Already been rafting? Consider a return to try the multi-day rafting epic that takes travellers camping along the river banks. Or perhaps round up a crowd of friends for the merriment of the annual rafting festival.