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Published: September 17th 2008
Author Patricia Shultz in her best-selling travel book “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” remarks that the Zambezi River is one of the best rivers in the world for white water rafting, partially because it is one of only a few rivers where you can go down class V rapids, the most dangerous rapids. I read the Zambezi entry in Shultz’s book, and I can honestly say from experience that it would have been only fair of her to write: “Author’s note: The traveler might want to make this place #1,000 due to the high chance of death that could occur.”
The night before rafting, we arrived in Livingstone, Zambia and went to see Victoria Falls, another place mentioned in Shultz’s book. The falls are one of the natural wonders of the world and are a World Heritage sight. The view from the Zambian side wasn’t nearly as impressive as the Zimbabwean side, but from Zambia we had a great view of the Zambezi River and of the sunset over the falls. Victoria Falls has its own majesty to it. While Niagara Falls is louder and thicker, Victoria Falls is a series of falls instead of a giant downward
wall of flowing water. The sunset over the falls was terrific, and it was a nice soothing view to calm us before facing the rapids in the morning.
You know you’re in for an experience when half of the safety briefing is on how to pull your fellow raft mates out of the river. There are 25 rapids in the Zambezi River, and 15 of them are either class IV or V rapids. This is the river equivalent of black diamond and double black diamond ski slopes, only the slopes move underneath you and there is a chance you could drown, break your neck, crack your head open on a rock and bleed to death, and get bitten by a crocodile. Our raft guide’s name was Simba, and if there was ever a reassuring raft guide, it was Simba: a giant, muscular black guy with dread locks who resembled Al Harris of the Green Bay Packers. Simba asked if anyone had white water rafted before and I reluctantly raised my hand. I learned from my shark diving adventure that things are a lot wilder in Africa, and that activities I’d participated in back home didn’t translate into instant success
Bridge between Zim and Zam
Bridge seperating Zimbabwe and Zambia with the Zambezi River flowing beneath it.
in this part of the world. I’d rafted the Youghahaney River in Pennsylvania with my family a few summers ago, and going from the Yough to the Zambezi is the river equivalent of going from Disney World’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to Universal Studio’s Incredible Hulk roller coaster. Just because you’ve ridden one ride, doesn’t mean you’ve ridden them all.
Regardless, Simba put me at the front of the raft to be a pace setter for the entire boat. Thanks Simba, no pressure. The river started out fair enough with a few small rapids, just as Splash Mountain starts out with a couple water squirting animals before getting to the big drop. We came up to a class III rapid that Simba called a “gimme.” If the Zambezi River was a college football schedule, a class III rapid would be Southeastern Connecticut State in the first weeks of the season before conference play. Our raft went into the “gimme” and the rapid caught me at the perfect angle, and I popped right into the river. There goes your pace setter for you, way to lead by example. I was the Michigan Wolverines of rafting, falling to the Appalachian State of rapids. In the water I thought of our family rafting trip, and my dad yelling “Keep your feet up! Keep your feet up!” to my brother who’d fallen overboard. Little did we realize my brother fell into three feet of water and could easily stand up and reenter the raft. My raft eventually caught up to me and pulled me back in. I didn’t pull a Peter Sellers and try to act as if nothing happened. “What a stooopid place to put a rapid!” Instead I grabbed my paddle and returned to pace setting. Hey, even Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders fumbled every now and then, right?
The class V rapids gave new meaning to the term “Big 5.” You could hear the rapids churning from down river, and as we waited to enter the rapid, we watched rafts flip and bodies fling out into the river. Waiting to go through the class V rapids is kind of like when you’re a little kid waiting in the doctor’s office to get your booster shots and all you hear are other kids screaming, and you see crying kids clinging to their mothers as they leave the office. Only this time, the rapids were a lot more fun. Rapid #9, nicknamed Commercial Suicide, was too big for white, obese Americans to go down, so we carried our rafts around it. On rapid #13, named The Mother, our entire raft went 90 degrees and everyone fell out except Simba and one other girl. This helped develop the three “F’s” of the Zambezi River: flip, fall and (Oh!) Fuc#! Rapid #18, Oblivion, was the last in the Amen Corner of Zambezi rapids, and our entire raft flipped over. I popped up underneath the raft and for the first time since falling out I got scared for a minute. Every other time I’d fallen out I stayed calm and waited for my raft to pick me up, but popping up underneath the raft, in the darkness with water splashing around my face was a scary, trapped feeling. Simba managed to right the raft and get us all back aboard, but I was still reliving my entrapment underneath the raft, and fortunately that was the last time I fell in during the day.
So I survived rafting, and after rafting I felt like eating a Mega Mac or a Steer’s King Steer burger, but instead settled on the chicken and potatoes they served us back at the campground. We watched a DVD of our day and while the DVD showed our raft’s partial flip on 13, it didn’t show our entire flip on 18. The Zambezi River was everything I wanted it to be: exciting, dangerous, thrilling, trying and breathtaking—quite literally.
The next day would be our visit to Zimbabwe. Yes, the same Zimbabwe with hyperinflation, political and social chaos, and whose president takes lessons from the Tony Soprano School of Management and sends cronies out to beat up dissenters. Hey, as the Joker said in The Dark Knight, “let’s introduce a little chaos!”
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