Today we ride the rapids. The Zambezi river in Zambia is the second best white water rafting location in the world so it seems a shame not to experience it.
We have breakfast and then head to a health and safety briefing at our campsite. We’re fitted with helmets and life jackets and warned about the dangers of the waters, then sign a disclaimer to say we understand the risks involved. Boyd, our guide, introduces himself and we all remain pretty confident and jovial on route to the Zambezi river near the Victoria falls.
Walking down the rocky pathway into the gorge David and I stop for a last minute nervous bushy bushy before arriving at the waters edge, it is like organised chaos. Eventually we notice Boyd bobbing about on the giant yellow dinghy that will be our vessel for the full days rafting. The gorge is beautiful, steep rocky sides tower above us and the water is surging. We spend a short while in “the boiling pot”, a huge swirling pond that keeps us away from the rapids giving Boyd a chance to run through instructions on how to row the boat. He shouts things like “team row forward”, “right over left” and, “down and hold”. Suddenly everything becomes very real.
The first rapids we encounter is a class 3. Let me put this in perspective; Rapids are classed according to their difficulty, 1 being the lowest. The Zambezi has one class 6 and it is considered too dangerous for us to attempt. So being faced with a class 3 rapid on our first encounter is terrifying. We follow Boyd’s instructions as he shouts them from the back of the raft and we row with our oars as fast as we can. Thankfully we pass without too much difficulty but we are soaked in the waves and Rebecca falls out, other rafts aren’t nearly as lucky and their entire dinghy upturns and several unfortunates find themselves in the water.
Today we will ride 25 separate rapids, some split into smaller sections, and most have names like stairway to heaven, the cliff, the overland truck eater and the 3 ugly sisters. We enjoy the first few and really get into the spirit of things, shouting and whooping when we clear a rapid, bringing our oars together high in the air in celebration, even copying Boyd’s favourite expression “ooh-haw!”, this is brilliant and we are brilliant at it.
Things then change.
We approach a rapid named Midnight Diner, another class 5. Boyd tells us that the route we are going to take gives us a 95% chance of a raft flip. We laugh and go for it paddling hard into the current, we ride the wave steeply downwards then come up high on the crest of a wave before the entire raft flips sideways then upside down and we are all pushed hard and fast under the water, basically the beginnings of drowning set in as I try not to panic, as per instructions, “If you do find yourself out of the raft and under the water please remain calm, the Zambezi is up to 100 metres deep in parts so you shouldn’t hit any rocks”! Trying to remain calm while trying to find which way is up in a churning rapid is not as easy as you may think. I finally pop up from the depths, along with my fellow sailors, Lisa looks at me with a “please help me” expression but I too am helpless. As I try to catch a breath I’m engulfed in another wave, then another, then another. Just when I think my time has come and this is where I’ll die the water calms, my head is above the surface and I can breath again. Coughing and spluttering out what feels like pints of the Zambezi I make my way to a raft, not mine, and some saviour offers me their oar to grab hold of before they haul me out.
Relief and exhilaration erupt in equal amounts. Boyd and my raft catch up and collect me and my team from various different places on the river. Kayaks are dotted all around to help rogue rafters, or missing oars.
We take it easy for the next few rapids as we try to pull ourselves together. Boyd steers us to the waters edge and encourages us to climb high up onto the cliff and take the plunge into the Zambezi – this is so much fun. We also get to a section of the river that allows us all to jump out of the dinghy and float down trying to avoid the current that tries to pull us into the rocks. Before long our flip is a distant memory and we’re all happily back in our positions paddling hard into another class 5 named the Washing Machine. Boyd shouts instructions “keep right and don’t stop paddling”, unfortunately some of our crew (naming no names) are tired. We head straight into the centre of the rapid – without time to even think we disappear and get sucked down. I feel myself cartwheeling under the water like a rag doll in a washing machine! I quickly find myself with my head above the water trying to come to terms with what has just happened. A nearby boat is calling for me to swim to them with panicked looks on their faces as they look down the river, I quickly realise we are heading into another rapid. I get pulled out just in time.
We are all a little freaked out and ready to call it a day with 12 Rapids still to go. Boyd has a word with us all about rowing hard when he shouts and we manage to complete the course with no more flips. Danielle looks petrified throughout and David is devastated that we’re no longer going for the flips!
Riding up in the cable car (that we sign another disclaimer to ride) I feel like we are survivors of some horrific ordeal. I absolutely loved white water rafting – not sure I’d rush to do it again soon!
We dine out tonight Indian style, eating delicious food and enjoying each other’s company. Tomorrow we say goodbye to 4 more of our campers.
I fall asleep with the sound of an elephant ripping apart a tree just the other side of the camp’s electric fence – literally 20 feet away. This is definitely Africa.