In which I drink half the Zambezi River; Dinner in Livingstone

Today was our whitewater rafting trip. What a ride! I’ve done a lot of kayaking and canoeing, but I’ve never really been on white water before. It’s an incredible thrill. We met up at 8 at the campground and the rafting company whisked us off to breakfast, then we had a safety and procedural briefing. It took only 15 minutes to get to Rapid 1 just downstream from Victoria Falls, but 20 to climb down the gorge - first via a footpath and then just by clambering over rocks to the water’s edge. There were six people to a raft, so Sheryl, Gabby and I got split up from the others and put on a different raft. That was a little disappointing since their captain looked much more fun than ours, who was a grumpy bastard with no sense of humour, and who only spoke to reply to questions or to bark instructions.

The Zambezi (or as the company employees insisted on calling it - The Mighty Zambezi) is low right now, at the end of the dry season, but it’s still a huge, fast river. Our first instruction after Rapid 1 was to “take a swim” and so we all bailed out of the raft into our bright orange flotation vests and crash helmets. The water was incredibly warm and none of us wanted to get back into the raft. Getting into the raft isn’t easy - you have to kick straight up while someone grabs your vest and hauls you up and over the edge.

The Zambezi Gorge is utterly spectacular. Brown and orange rock above the wet-season high-water mark, and black below, contrasting with the foamy blue-green-white of the water Fantastically-shaped outcroppings of rock look down from the cliff edges. We saw goats halfway up the cliffs, and occasionally a crocodile sunning itself on the rocks at the river’s edge. This made us a bit nervous about swimming, but we tried not to think too much about it.

We did 24 rapids through the day. There are 25, but Rapid 9 is too dangerous so we had to walk around it. All the rapids have silly names like the Terminator, The Devil’s Toilet Bowl, or my own favourite, Creamy White Buttocks. Some of them are easy and a few are quite hard. I’m not sure if it’s universal, but the rapids on the Zambezi are classed from 1-6 in difficulty. Most that we did were class 2 or 3, not very difficult. Some were Class 4 and there were three Class 5 rapids (Rpids 7, 8 and 18). Rapid 9 is a Class 6.

Our raft never flipped, but the one carrying the rest of our tour did - twice. The second time on Rapid 8 was deliberate - they wanted their captain to take them down the side of the rapid that more or less guarantees a flip. The first time on Rapid 7 was an accident, though. We’d gone through first and were looking back as they flipped, and our hearts were in our throats because none of them came back up immediately - they were all trapped in the air pockets underneath the raft. Scary or not, it looked like fun and we wanted to try it, but our grumpy captain didn’t want to spill, so he wouldn’t let us. Some of the rapids were very rouch though, and I was swept completely overboard three separate times (and Sheryl twice). Only once was I in any actual danger, when I resurfaced between the raft and an onrushing boulder. The others got me into the boat unscathed except for a smack in the teeth with a paddle handle, so only minor damage. All of us were covered ehad to foot in bruises anyway, so one more hardly mattered.

The only real discomfort was caused by the weather. We’d come prepared for sun, but instead we got a torrential rainstorm with thunder and lightning and strong, cold winds. The rain was nothing - we were already wet after all - and we weren’t in any danger from the lightning since the gorge is quite narrow. In fact, the thunder and lightning really added to the thrill - it felt like we were being fed into a crashing meat-grinder made of water. It was the wind that caused us problems - we were frozen and shivering and welcomed every chance to get out of the boat and under the water. The difference in temperature between air and water was huge - the water actually felt hot to our chilled skin. Poor Sheryl’s teeth were chattering.

At the end of the day, after Rapid 25, we put the boats in on a bit of sandy beach. We didn’t have to climb up the gorge - there was a cable-car to take us up. This made us all very happy because we were all worn out from the day.

Physically punishing though it was, it was still an amazing experience and a thrilling ride. I’d do it again in a second. Someday I’d love to get good enough in a kayak to come back and do the rapids again in one of those stubby little white-water kayaks.

They drove us back to camp, and fed us while they edited the video from the day. They’d had guys with still and video cameras onshore at all the more photogenic rapids. They were asking $40 for the video and $40 for the still pictures. Everyone passsed on the video, but some pople bought the pictures - one person per boat, mostly. Sheryl and Gaby went halves on the pictures of our raft - I think she’s going to try to post them soon, but there aren’t many that show us.

We had an hour of rest and recuperation, and then we all trooped down to a restaurant in Livingstone for our big farewell trip-breakup dinner. Unlike the restaurant in Lilongwe, which had taken us by surprise, Sheryl and I were prepared for the expense this time. The food was good - generic international fusion, but still good, and we enjoyed ourselves.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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