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« polymathy and motivation | Main | a new variety of experience »
Wednesday
Mar102010

rafting the mighty zambezi

Imagine going down a log flume in a theme park. No. It’s nothing like that. Imagine you are astride an inflatable banana being flushed down the world’s biggest toilet. The green water hits you like the muscled arm of a sea god- you hang on by your toes and fingers to whatever comes to hand, and hang on and hang on- this thing is less of a wave and more of an underwater gale. But this isn’t a toilet or even the sea- it’s the mighty Zambezi- and you’re on a raft and you’re only on the second rapid- and there are over twenty more to come.

Two years ago I made a nine month trip by traditional birchbark canoe across Western Canada so making a nine day trip by raft would be quite a contrast. The biggest difference was that most of the time in Canada I was going against the current, towing, poling or paddling the canoe up into the headwaters of the Rocky Mountains. The raft trip, however, would be downhill all the way, down one of the most powerful rivers in the world, the Zambezi.

The mighty Zambezi, that divides Zimbabwe and Zambia, tumbles over the Victoria falls. Nearly 2km long it’s the planet’s largest single sheet of falling water easily dwarfing Niagra. For the next 120 kilometres this water is forced through a narrow gorge boiling up into the biggest sequence of grade 5 white water rapids in the world. As Koryn, our guide from the respected company Waterbynature, put it, “It’s the Everest of white water rafting”.

Zimbabwe used to be the center for rafting the Zambezi- now it’s Zambia. Thanks to Robert Mugabe’s extreme economic measures tourists are now coming in increasing numbers to the small town of Livingstone, named after it’s most famous visitor.

I spent a few days walking around. As in north Africa there was a marked difference in wealth between the new shopping mall, that has a Spar supermarket pretty much like one in the UK, and the ‘native’ shops where a new pair of sandals cost me only 90p. People were friendly and since Zambia has several competing languages English is widely spoken for general communication. 

The town museum had several of Livingstone’s original letters and a series of displays including a motorcycle once owned by former President Kuanda. After that I repaired to the excellent Jollyboys backpacker hostel/bar/general meeting place to contemplate a Mosi beer, which, I was quickly informed, the locals favour over the imported Castle brand. I then walked back to the luxurious Nyala Lodge where I stayed my first night. The Lodge was a few miles out of town and the sudden change from new buildings to shacks surrounded by mealie gardens was striking. A young man called Adam attached himself to me and said he was going down to the river to get work. It seemed the stray chance of portering rafts and luggage for tourists was the only job on offer. I had been told to watch out for elephants along this road. I asked Adam and he said that they only came at night.

I was a wildlife doubter until the first evening introductory ‘cruise’- a short river trip just above the falls on the flat wide section of the Zambezi. Just as I was sipping my second gin and tonic the helmsman gestured towards two swimming hippos. Zambia has Africa’s largest common hippo population, hippopotamus amphibious, reportedly something over 40,000 in number.  Almost immediately we then saw an elephant herd, about fifteen feet from the boat- swathed in three metre high reeds. African elephants have recently been divided into two species- these were the bolder and bigger Savanna elephant, africana loxodonta, rather than the shyer forest elephant found further North and West.

The next day we headed down to the river. There were six in the boat including me and our expedition leader, Koryn, a New Zealander with the arms of a powerlifter. He  handed out our 100% waterproof kitbags.  Tyler, the safety kayaker, instructed us on the art of using the camp toilet. True to its ecofriendly mission, waterbynature ships out everything- and I mean everything. Babyface, the Zambian cargo boat oarsman just smiled benignly and looked on

The first thing about paddling a raft is that you sit on the rubber edge of the raft and if you’re at the front you get to stick your right foot in a kind of pocket. Everyone else balances themselves and wedges their feet where they can make sure that if the raft goes over their shoe won’t actually be trapped. The gear was tied in with ropes and gear straps with a reassuring severity and thoroughness. We all had helmets and lifejackets, and though I normally wear neither on the more placid rivers I had paddled before, I was not about to say no out here.

In a birchbark canoe the outer skin is tree bark sewn with split pine roots and sealed with pitch or resin. That means you cannot afford to hot rocks, sticks or even ground out on sand. A lot of birchbark canoeing is spent nervously keeping away from stuff and if in doubt you walk the boat through any rapids. A rubber inflatable raft is the opposite. You can actually use rocks as something to bounce off and you need have no fear about descending rapids.

We caught a glimpse of mosi-oa-tunya, ‘the smoke that thunders” just before we set off. Livingstone wrote of the falls, “No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England…scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” From river level the spay filled the canyon making the upper reaches invisible. The thundering noise was all around us. Koryn gave us some paddling lessons and then we were off, into a ripping current that pounded against the canyon wall before making a steep turn into ‘Morning Glory’, the first of many, crazily or aptly, named rapids. There was only one thing we had to do- backpaddle at the last minute to stop hitting the wall. If we hit we might flip.

Midstream we picked up the tremendous force of the river. I recalled the first rule about rapids- they are always twice as big when you’re in them than they look from above. Like the Duracell rabbit I paddled madly through the spray and I continued my mad paddling forwards when I should have heeded Koryn’s cry to stop and go in reverse. Oops- then BANG- we hit the wall- and bounced off. But mercifully no flip. Better listen harder next time.

Actually, the Zamebezi, though an incredibly powerful river, is relatively benign to people who make mistakes. There are flat stretches between the most horrendous rapids which allow you to escape. Though there are midstream rocks with ledges and underwater holes the river is not rife with them. But your best bet is a guide who hates flipping boats. Koryn, with fifteen years and over fifty rivers behind him, saw a flip as a professional disgrace. We also each had our bone Nyami Nyami river god lucky charms to wear around our necks. Since the building of the Kariba dam downstream, Zambians maintain that Nyami Nyami, the snake headed, fish bodied, river god has disappeared. We were rather hoping he hadn’t. The guides wore theirs too I noticed.

Each of the first ten rapids hit us quickly in succession. I swallowed lots of river, paddled into air as the raft crested waves, almost lost a foothold but didn’t, learnt to crouch low and look down as the biggest onslaughts of water inundated the craft. I took hasty sips of water in the noonday sun- despite the soakings the weather was hot- and though I seemed to be swallowing enough water to avoid dehydration I was taking no chances. The only wildlife I glimpsed between waves were taita falcons, hanging as if motioneless high above the canyon walls.

This first part of the river was in steep, black walled canyons full of pounding water. When we stopped to camp it was at a little sandy beach surrounded by scrub like dry savannah. The grass was brown since we were traveling in the dry season. In the rainy season the river rises so high it obliterates the rapids and is impossible to descend.

The second night, after a day of finally keeping my eyes open in the face of crashing wave rides, we sat around a fire on another deserted sandy beach. Dry grass, and short stunted trees with a few leaves grew up the hillside. There was a baobab with its great barrel skyward pointing branches like mad roots. Vervet monkeys, chlorocebus pygerythrus, or velvet monkeys as they are sometimes mispronounced, sat on a rock and watched us. It was very silent and very peaceful and it felt we had all come a very long way, though in fact it was about 21 km- nothing like an adventure to mess with your sense of time and space. And of course, despite a fair few warnings about the sense of drinking alcohol when you’re a)despite all precautions probably dehydrated and b)on the antimalarial malarone I did- and felt somewhat the worse for wear the next day.

There were no villages on the river, apart from some seasonally occupied huts that were empty when we passed. We did, quite often, see fisherman standing almost invisible on the rocks as we went by. They always waved – but only if we did first. At one point we had to portage the rafts- that is carry them around some especially bad rapids. In a birchbark canoe this is easy as it weighs very little- but two rafts and all the gear for ten people would have taken all day to shift if some helpful porters hadn’t turned up on the Zimbabwe side. For seven dollars each they carried everything.

At first we all pitched our tents at night but then the night sky was so bright it seemed a pity to be indoors. There were no mosquitoes at night so it was pleasant to just lie out and stare at the stars.

On day three we shot into the great foaming waves of Chumumba rapid and lost two people. The rapids were named by the pioneer rafters who made the first descent. Many of these rapids were shot by non-Africans- hence their English names- though not in Chumumba’s case. Koryn lined the raft up and then down the green tongue we went. For those new to the game the best line is usually somewhere at the end of the curving green water that slopes into the melee of waves below. The third wave seemed to go through us rather than over us. I felt myself going and thought unless I get a better grip I’m going overboard. Those further back had less to hold on to. Like eager seals I saw fellow rafters Andrew and Helen popping up out of the foam. The raft spun and they kept pace alongside through the massive turbulence. In quieter water we pulled them back aboard with much grunting and straining and pleasure that the river could, indeed, be survived by those falling in.

By now we had become a well integrated team, helped by four rafters being in the same family. Tony, a fit fifty year old had brought along his two sons Andrew and Phil and his niece Helen. The other rafter was Dan who had come “for the buzz of it.” He looked longingly at the super high bungee jump we went under at the start of the trip that hangs from the Zambesi bridge.

At night Koryn and Tyler made the surprising transformation into rather excellent chefs: steaks, curries, exotic deserts and delicate hors d’oevres- you name it they conjured it out of the cold chests and ammo boxes containing supplies. Compared to canoe trips I’d made where a top feed was a tin of sardines without a key this was great nosh indeed- it certainly made the challenge of the river more pleasant. Koryn said, “After my first trip I went and told mum sorry for never having helped out at home- I never realized what a never ending job it was!” “She said, “at least one man now knows.”

And so to Ghostrider. We’d heard about this rapid. Talked about it. Finally, after much portaging, paddling  and being pummeled by water we’d arrived. In a sense every rapid on the Zambezi is summed up by Ghostrider. It’s the longest biggest wildest most sustained wave train on the river. It’s also beyond the range of the short one and two day blasts down from Victoria Falls. And, if you fall in, it’s a long long swim.

I had shot rapids in a canoe but nothing like this. First it’s long. It just stretches on and on. And the waves are regularly spaced, like the humpy spine of some aquatic sea monster that is trying to buck you into oblivion. And they are high, several metres higher than ought to be allowed on a mere river. But a raft is a very forgiving boat. We butted and smashed our way along, hung on tight and lost no one. Was Ghostrider a pleasant experience? There were milder rapids that were more pleasant I’m sure. Ghostrider, however, was the experience..

The water flattened out and grew calmer. The terrain in the valley grew more wooded though it was still dry. Every so often we passed another baobab tree. On either we saw chacma baboons, papio ursinus, which, like hippos are underestimated for their ferocity. The chacma can weigh up to 40 kilos and can scare a leopard from attacking. Later we also saw the smaller yellow baboon, loping in troops along the dry forested foreshore.

We also began to see crocodiles. Some were the small, slender-snouted crocodylus cataphractus. But these were isolated populations. In the main we saw Nile crocodiles, some over twelve feet long. A crocodiles’s eyewidth in inches is roughly equal to their length in feet, and sometimes the eyes are all you can see.

And then came a surfeit of common hippos. The collective noun for hippos- is a subject of argument-  wallow, bloat or bevy, and plain pod are all acceptable. No one could agree even when we saw seven of them on a submerged rock (we’d thought they were the rock). Koryn sheered off towards the bank. The other raft took no chances and hugged the bank. If a hippotamus charges, for example if you separate it from its young, then the boat takes the impact as you scramble to shore.

Then, quite suddenly, after crossing a few minor ripples, we were at the Matetsi river and there was a chopper like something out of ‘Nam movie waiting on the gravel beach with its rotors going. The guides and gear had a five hour lorry trip through Zimbabwe. We had an incredible swooping half hour back up the 120 km we’d come, around the falls like Livingstone’ s angels, before touching down at the remote but luxurious Taita-Falcon lodge.

Stunned by the rapidity of our return to ‘real’ life we sat for an age on the clifftop verandah of the Taita-Falcon looking down at the rapids below. Looking at fast water is fascinating- especially when you’ve drunk a fair amount of it. Would I do it again? Maybe a different river, or maybe go up-river- now that would be a challenge. 

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