My Day in the Zambezi River

In World

I’d like to say Dad talked me into it, but I’d be lying. I’d also like to say that I hated it, but that would be a lie too. But what isn’t a lie, is the roller coaster of emotions I would feel during the next six hours.

It was the beginning of November back in 2013, I was in Zimbabwe on holiday with my family. I was sitting on the back seat of an old African Safari truck next to my 40-something year old Dad, we were the only Australians there, and we were about to white water raft down the Zambezi River, the river that divides Zimbabwe and Zambia.

My Dad and I are what I would call, beginner-level adrenaline junkies, especially when we’re on holiday. We are constantly daring each other to do crazy things. Ride the biggest roller coaster we can find in Disneyland with our eyes closed? Check. Strap ourselves into a sling-shot that flings you 52 meters into the air in Bali? Check. Slide down the tallest water slides in France to land in freezing cold water at the bottom? Yep we did that too. It’s kind of a tradition that we’ve got going, so why would we stop now?

Sitting in the back of that old Safari truck, I had no idea what I was getting myself into nor what it was going to be like. I had been told that the rafting down the Zambezi is one of the best in the world and I knew that I’d be crazy not do it since I had come all this way.

It was hot, I mean really hot. I’m Australian, born and raised in country Western Australia where temperatures can reach almost into the 40’s during the summer months, so I know what hot feels like, but this day in Africa was something else. I remember thinking about how the rest of my family was going to spend today. Back at our hotel, relaxing and lazing around the pool. Compared to how I was spending my day; in a life vest, with a crash helmet strapped to my head, in the back of an inflatable raft with an oar in my hand and holding on for dear life.

Each of the rapids down the Zambezi are classed by their level of intensity and how dangerous they are. Most of the Zambezi rapids are classed between 3 to 5. There are about 23 rapids all up and each of them also have their own suitable name. ‘Devil’s Toilet Bowl’, ‘Washing Machine’, and ‘Gnashing Jaws of Death’ to name a few to get your heart racing.

The walk down into the gorge takes about twenty minutes, if you’re reasonably fit. My Dad was so keen to get started which meant we were one of the first to get down there. We were divided into groups of six and assigned to our rafts along with our local rafting guide. After a quick safety talk and a demonstration on how to survive being flung out of the raft and how to rescue those that had been thrown out, we were off and heading towards our first rapid – ‘The Boiling Pot’.

My first rapid was bit of a blur. There was a whole lot of rushing water, my guide was screaming at the top of his lungs telling us to get up to start paddling and I was trying to wipe the water from my eyes. I was sitting at the back of the raft, as my vision came into focus, I did a quick head count. We were one down. My Dad wasn’t in the raft and panic started to set in.

I could see my Dad’s bright red crash helmet bobbing up and down across the other side of the river, probably about fourteen or so meters away. My heart felt like it was about to beat out of my chest and my breathing had increased dramatically. Before I could even process what had just happened, my guide had already maneuvered our raft over to him and the other guys had pulled him back onboard. Dad’s facial expression was priceless. Excitement, surprise and disbelief are a few words that come to mind. But I was packing myself. If Dad had been thrown out on the first rapid, how was I going to survive the next 22? I wasn’t. Simple as that. I was convinced that I wouldn’t make it out alive. But I was already too far in to back out now.

By the time we had gone through the next two or three rapids, my raft team had mastered the art of keeping us all onboard, which gave us some time to float down the river and take in our surroundings. The gorges are breathtaking. We were floating approximately 230 meters below ground level, in gorges that have been cut and carved by the Earth’s elements over the last 300 million years. It is truly spectacular. The Zambezi is 2,574 kilometers long, making it the fourth-longest river in Africa. It rises in Zambia, flows through eastern Angola, along the eastern border of Namibia and the northern border of Botswana. It keeps flowing, along the borders of Zambia and Zimbabwe and then to Mozambique, where it crosses over the country to end up in the Indian Ocean.

I was one of only two girls in my entire raft. We were both seated across from each other and at the back. I could tell by the look on her face that she was just as terrified as me. As we were approaching a rapid, our guide would either tell us to paddle or get down. Nine times out of ten, us girls would already be down and in the brace position before our guide had even instructed us what to do. We quickly learnt that if we kept paddling, there was a very high chance we would become the rapid’s next victim and end up out of the raft and in the river. Whereas if we kept down and held on, the chances of that happening definitely weren’t as high. Call us whatever names you like, but if you were in our shoes and could see how crazy the rapids looked, I can assure you you’d be doing the exact same thing.

It felt like we zoomed down the Zambezi and its 23 rapids at an incredible pace. Before I knew it, we were coming to the finish line and pulling our sore and exhausted bodies back out of the gorge. The climb out was hard, extremely steep and something that I won’t be rushing to do again. My legs were shaking and my knuckles were white from holding onto my oar so tight. The African sun wasn’t making the climb out any easier either, it was still just as hot as it was when I was sitting in the back of the truck. At one point my Dad and I stopped on the side of the path for a quick rest before continuing back up. We were over taken by the African guides who were almost breaking into a light jog, all while carrying the rafts above their heads. The shear sight of them doing this made me feel slightly sick. Had they not just rafted down the same rapids I did? Where were they getting all this extra energy from?

I was almost on all fours by the time I reached the top. By now, I was beyond the point of exhaustion, I thought I would pass out at any moment. The lunch that the guides had set out under an old shelter was like a gleaming pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. I also don’t remember the last time I was so grateful to swallow a mouth full of cold water. They say that they use to stop for lunch half way through rafting, but too many people were bringing their lunch back up for everyone to see after going through a few more rapids. I am so glad that they now serve lunch after all the rapids are done. I remember sitting there next to my Dad, in the middle of the Zimbabwe bush, in disbelief that I had just white water rafted for six hours down the Zambezi River and I had finally ticked something off my bucket list.



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