The mighty Zambezi River is 1,678 miles long and crosses five countries before it reaches Mozambique and empties into the Indian Ocean. Below Victoria Falls the river has carved out the Batoka Gorge, providing world-class white water rafting opportunities. The rapids are officially classed as Grade 5: “extremely difficult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas.” Adventure companies on both the Zambia and Zimbabwean sides of the river offer rafting and kayak trips through the gorge.
The river is described as a high-volume pool drop river meaning that the sheer volume of water coursing through the gorge ensures that there are few exposed rocks. So although violent the river is not dangerous. Below each rapid is a large stretch of calm water which provides the necessary pick-up point for those who have fallen out of the raft on the way through the rapids.
The day’s rafting begins with the trek down into the gorge. Carrying life jackets, safety helmets, and paddles we negotiate the slippery wooden stairs that connect the rim of the gorge with the river below. The descent offers magnificent vistas of the river snaking its way through the gorge.
At the river’s edge we are given a safety briefing by our guide (somewhat inappropriately named Titanic). “Don’t tie yourself to the raft; it is safer to fall in than be trapped under an upturned raft. If you fall in don’t panic, we will pick you up from the pool below the rapids,” Titanic assures us. A fellow rafter from South Africa asks the question on all our minds: “What about crocodiles?” According to our guide crocs and rhinos are not found in fast-flowing water and the rafting party visibly relaxes. We practice falling in and being bounced back into the raft. It is a tricky technique. Someone in the raft must grasp your life jacket, force you under the water and use the buoyancy of the jacket to lift you into the boat as you pop to the surface.
We set off. Titanic stands in the back and steers the craft. We paddle according to his commands. We hit the first rapid, aptly named The Boiling Point. The river hits a rock wall and veers sharply to the left, creating a huge wave. We lose two people overboard. Safely through the eddy we emerge into a calm pool and pick up the lost paddles and the missing couple.
In half a mile we hit another series of rapids with such engaging names as Devil’s Toilet Bowl, Commercial Suicide, and Gnashing Jaws of Death. Our rubber raft surfs huge waves and drops 33 feet, we spin wildly in eddies, hit the rock walls of the gorge at speed, and our craft flips over. At one point I am the only person in the raft — even the guide has disappeared over the side. I have lost my paddle so I clutch the guide rope and pray. My prayers are answered when Titanic springs back into the raft. He is the only one able to get back into the raft unaided. Together we find the five missing rafters and “pop” them back into the boat.
Lunch is a hot meal and a cold drink. Although exhausted we are exhilarated and feel as if we are getting to be old hands at this rafting business. Every member of the party has been thrown out more than once but no one has suffered anything more serious than bruised pride.
Perhaps we have improved our technique but the rapids along the stretch of river post lunch seem to be less challenging. The slower pace affords the opportunity to admire the scenery. At one point I see an (admittedly small) crocodile sunning itself on the rocks on the bank. I vow to stay in the raft no matter what mishaps we face. It is late afternoon when we pull up at the end of the day’s run.
The most strenuous part of the adventure is still to come. The guides deflate the rafts and pack them onto their backs. They will carry them out of the gorge. We must carry our own paddles, jackets, and helmets. The route out is a steep, almost vertical climb up the face of the gorge. It takes us an hour to make the ascent; the record, I am told, is six minutes. My leg muscles are burning and I am soaked in sweat. It is a truly arduous climb. At the top we are greeted with a cold beer. It is the best beer I have ever tasted.
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