Today, we risked life and limb to go whitewater rafting on the mighty Zambezi River. It is apparently rated as one of the best spots in the world to do it, so nine of us daredevils from our group signed up for the ride. This decision may have been against our better judgement, but we wanted to do it anyway! I had been rafting once before, five years ago in Belize, but I was still very nervous, as Class 5 rapids are huge, dangerous, and quite honestly easily capable of flipping your raft. Ken, on the other hand, was a rafting virgin, so he was just excited rather than nervous because he didn't know any better! The safety briefing included rescue procedures for a capsizing scenario, so as we hiked down to our starting point in the Zambezi Gorge at the foot of Victoria Falls, the real nerves started to set in when we got our first glimpses of the frothy water below. We were split into 3 rafts: one with people we didn't know, another with Ken, me, and four other people, and one full of the rest of our GAP crew. We were loaded into the rafts and practiced paddling instructions, and then set off into the first of ten rapids. The first one was a nasty one where the river turned a sharp corner and the water slammed up against a rock face before continuing downstream. The trick here was to position your boat so that the raft rode close to the rocks to be carried overtop of the water bouncing off the rock that would otherwise flip your raft instantly. The first two rafts maneuvered through it effortlessly, and so we followed. The next ten seconds were a blur, as one moment we were paddling exactly as the guide instructed, and the next moment we were flying through the air and plunging into a churning mess of green water. I tried to swim up, hoping that up was the direction I was facing, but the bubbles around me were swirling in all directions and with no air in my lungs, panic set in fast as I needed to find the surface to take a breath. There was nothing I could do to prevent smashing into a rock if there was one, so all I could do was try to get to the surface. Finally, I popped up and I swallowed a bunch of the river trying to take a breath. I saw the other two rafts and the rescue kayaks paddling toward us, our upside down raft floating nearby, and orange helmetted people bobbing in the water all over the place. A girl that was in our raft popped up about ten feet away from me, and I was horrified to see that her face was covered in blood. She must have hit her head on a rock, or even a flailing paddle, as a deep puncture wound above her left eye was gushing blood. Everyone was quickly pulled into whichever boat was closest, and the first aid guy quickly assessed the injured girl an stopped the bleeding. She was concious and able to walk, so she and two other people were taken back to the side of the river where we started to hike back up out of the gorge to a waiting ambulance. A helicopter was available, but they didn't judge it to be necessary. Poor girl. What a way to start the day. My nerves were completely shaken, and though I was happy the rest of us were ok, my hands couldn't stop trembling. We reorganized into our original rafts, took a deep breath, and carried on.
The rest of our trip down the Zambezi was a wild ride of monsterous rapids and huge waves, but thankfully there were no more incidents. All of the rafts did capsize several more times though, and I would be lying if I said it wasn't terrifying at times! Each rapid was different, but some just made your heart drop as you fell into them, certain that you would be in the water within seconds and wondering why the hell we're doing this to ourselves! But the adrenaline rush was insane - zooming down a steep 10 foot drop and crashing through a wall of whitewater, getting pummeled by the river and pushed around by the churning water - it was a crazy ride! In between the rapids were lovely serene pools where we could relax and drift, taking in the amazing scenery. The walls of the Zambezi Gorge were vertical black cliffs of volcanic rocks about 100m high, with lush jungle vegetation along the top of the gorge and vines draping over the rocks. Since the river is the international border, Zambia was on the left, and Zimbabwe was on the right. People were bungee jumping off the bridge far above where we started, and a crowd of people had gathered on the patio of a lodge at the edge of the cliff to watch the crazy rafters below.
One of the rapids was classified as a Class 6, which the guides say is "bad for business" if they take people through it. So we crawled out of the rafts for a brief (and illegal!) visit to Zimbabwe as the guides took the rafts through empty. By the time we made it to the end, everyone had been thrown in by capsizing rafts, some three or four times. It was definitely an extreme ride, but the rush of blasting through the whitewater and realizing you made it through without leaving the boat is awesome. They actually had a video and a still camera guy in the rescue kayaks who perched themselves on the rocks above each rapid to catch the action as we went by. It was a steep climb out of the gorge, but they had cold beer waiting in the van at the top, so it was worth it. Everyone loved the trip, even those of us who were scared to death the whole time. Back at our camp, we watched the video set to music that they filmed, catching every capsizing and showing them in slow motion several times.
Later that afternoon, we all piled onto a big cruiser boat for an evening 'booze cruise' to celebrate the last night for most of our group. The open air view of the wide (and calm!) Zambezi above the falls and full of hippos and birds, plus the open bar, made for a fun evening. We danced in the makeshift nightclub after at the campsite, and enjoyed the last few hours with our friends. It's hard to believe that we are only at the half way point in our trip across Africa - and loving every minute of it!