The magazine fell open to page 81, as if it was calling to me, “And the Zambezi’s dozens of rapids, which roil with waves as high as 30 feet, are famed as the best commercially run white water in the world”. My attention was caught. The Zambezi River runs between Zimbabwe and Zambia, fed by the great Victoria Falls, was one of the stops I would be making on my trip through Africa. I kept reading. “…Boaters buck through house-size rapids and dodge hippos and crocs”. Okay, a little danger there, but what the heck! I turned and headed to the counter with “National Geographic Adventures of a Lifetime” tucked under my arm. In that moment I made the decision that I would raft the Zambezi. Little did I know that I would take it just one step further.
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All five of us crammed into the tiny travel center office at Shoestrings Backpackers, where we were staying in Victoria Falls. Each, with a list in our hand of available activities in the area, we made our decisions. Ignoring the cries of my bank account and succumbing to my impulses, I picked my next activities.
It took some time to make my decision, but I settled on four activities: A lion walk, Devils Pool, a microlite flight, and rafting and riverboarding the Zambezi. My original plan had just been to raft the mighty river, but while making our choices a video was playing on a small TV in the corner of the room. It was a loop track of the rafting experience but every so often a shot would come up on someone among the rapids on a boogy board. The idea seemed crazy, the footage looked crazier, and myself and another girl on the trip decided that it was just crazy enough. I closed my eyes as I shelled out the $660 USD required for the four activities. This was a huge sum to pay, especially while the Canadian Dollar was so low, but I have not a single regret for doing it.
The Wild Horizons bus showed up a couple mornings later. Four of us, sporting swimsuits, sunscreen, and sneakers, boarded and were whisked off to the Lookout Cafe for our safety briefing. We were split into groups of 8 and fitted for wetsuits and helmets. My friend and I were pulled aside and handed fins and boogy boards. We were the only two signed up for the riverboarding.
We all piled back into the vans and headed to the beginning of the rapids, right at the bottom of the waterfall. It was incredible. The hike down to the water was a little tougher. Carrying our gear we all trekked over 100 metres down into the gorge. We took our places in the raft and paddled to the base of the waterfall, looking up at the beauty as the spray cooled us off in the muggy morning heat. This was where we practiced our strokes and turns in the raft. We were then ready to begin the course of nineteen rapids.
The first few rapids were a good warm up for the day. Two grade threes and two grade four rapids, all a lot of fun. As we hit the flat and approached the fifth rapid the riverboarding guide summoned my friend and I, telling us to remove our shoes and tie them to the raft. We then strapped our boards to our wrists, slipped on our fins, and jumped in. The guide quickly gave us a set of instructions. Hold your board near the top, lay on top, go through the rapids, and DON’T go near the edge of the river. Easy, right? Not so much.
We laid across our boards and started kicking, following our instructor. As we approached the rapid, Stairway to Heaven, I sucked in a deep breath and braced myself. All of a sudden we were dropping. Down the rapid we went in a two story dip, it was terrifying and thrilling, then I hit a wave.
My board was out from under me before I realised what happened. I put a hand over my head, searching for the surface. I found it and sucked in all the air my lungs could hold. I followed the cord down my wrist and recovered my board, holding on tightly as I braced for the next wave and was just as quickly overturned and off my board. As I reached the surface for the second time I searched for my instructor. I found him ahead, still safely on his board, waving for us to follow. I kicked and kicked, swimming sideways to the current, aiming for the calm pool where he was waiting. My friend hand’t had much more success that myself on that rapid.
As we climbed back into the raft, looking like drowned rats, I couldn’t help but laugh. We had been given the option to run our riverboards first on a grade three as a trial, or to go straight to the five. Someone picked the five. That someone may have definitely been myself. Go big or go home, right?
Being back in the raft was a nice break for the legs, giving us a couple more rapids before jumping back in for another grade five. Again, we strapped on our boards, slipped on our fins, and climbed back into the water.
I felt more prepared for these rapids, they didn’t look nearly as intense as the previous one. Lucky for me, I stayed on my board for at least a third of the rapid, ducking my head and swimming through the waves. As I came out the other side I realised something was wrong. My friend came out of the rapids just after me but just laid across her board. Her face was twisted in pain and she wasn’t kicking despite the calls of our instructor. As the flow slowed she made it to where we were waiting.
We had reached a grade six rapid, too large for commercial rafters to go through so everyone was climbing ashore to walk around this monster, waiting for their rafts on the other side. As I helped my friend out of the water she collapsed. She had hit her knee on a rock and was in a lot of pain. I helped her hobble over the slippery rocks to where the rafts were waiting. Unfortunately, her white water adventure ended there. She was taken in a separate raft to an end point where she had to climb the stairs back up the 100+ metre tall gorge where an ambulance was waiting. Read her story here.
As I was ready to head back out with my raft one of the kayak safety guides paddled over. The riverboard coach had left with my friend and had told the safety kayaker to guide me. He had never done the riverboarding before it was bound to be interesting. I had a couple more rapids in the raft before facing the river, this time as the sole boarder, trying to follow along behind the kayak.
The last set of rapids I faced were rapids 12 and 13. The Three Ugly Sisters, and The Mother, the kayak guide told me these rapids were unrated. I didn’t know what that meant. I headed in with confidence, hitting the first few waves in stride. I took a few big splashed of water up my nose but didn’t give up. I came off the board during the three sisters but didn’t waste time climbing back on.
The Mother came straight after the three sisters giving me no time to catch my breath. My legs were sore and I was feeling the exhaustion as the first of five huge waves smashed me. I lost my grip straight away. I kicked as hard as I could to find the surface again, my head popped up but I didnt have time to finish my inhale before the second of the waves sent me cartwheeling. As I was thrown violently thrown through the massive waves I lost all sense of direction. I continued to kick as hard as I could, relying on my life jacket to pull me in the right direction.
My legs seared with pain and I kept inhaling nothing by murky water. My eyes burned from the pressure of the water beating on them as I opened them to try to see what way was up. As soon as I reached the surface I was immediately slammed by the next wave. I was running out of energy fast. Being a strong swimmer was no competition for the assault of these rapids. The safety kayaker had already reached the calm water. I was completely on my own.
Eventually, the assault stopped and the water was calm. It was over. My energy was completely gone and I floated, slowly towing in my board. I didn’t have it in me to climb back on so I threw my arm over instead and just waited drinking in all the air that I could.
The rafts showed up after a couple minutes and I was pulled back in, unable to climb up myself. As I positioned myself in place, ready to paddle, I noticed the crocodile basking in the sun at the edge of the river. At least I was done on the board for the day.
We finished the day off with two more grade five rapids, both of which I had to stay in the raft for. One was too rocky, and the other had a giant whirlpool in the middle- No thanks.
The climb back up the 150 metre gorge wall was slow and tedious. A staircase rising straight up the rock wall. I declined the kind offers of a piggy back up from two of the guides. When we reached the top there was a glorious array of food and a cooler full of cold beer waiting. Despite the fear that had gripped as I was thrown like a rag doll through the waves, the day was an experience I loved. Although I am very glad I chose to do the riverboarding and would recommend it to anyone considering (with the suggestion to stick to the lower grade rapids and maybe test out one grade 5).