Adventures: Rafting the Zambezi

"The first thing you have to understand is that the Zambezi is a big river," said John, a master rafter and an expert in the bleeding obvious. We were standing on the water's edge just below Victoria Falls at the time. "In fact, the Zambezi at low water has the same volume of water as the Colorado River in flood through the Grand Canyon."

I shivered. All of us had already seen the awesome spectacle of the Falls that perpetually fill the whole valley with spray. The locals call them "the smoke that thunders". Now we were about to take to that torrent in inflatable rafts. We would run 18 major rapids (and innumerable minor ones) in a single day.

Few of us had ever rafted before. Lynn and I had run rivers in Australia where streams are small and tricky, as well as Nepal's Trisuli River that I'd previously thought of as a large stream.

A good rafting river feels like you've climbed into a washing machine on rinse cycle. But the Zambezi looks like someone tipped Sydney Harbour down the drain.

As we took up our positions in the raft I asked Wilma, the Dutch girl alongside me why she was here. "My sister does some rafting in Belgium" she replied. "And I thought I'd see what it was like."

She'd certainly elected to jump in the deep end.

In Australia everyone from raft captain to paying customers paddles. On the Zambezi only the captain does - using a huge pair of oars to manoeuvre the raft into the right line through the rapids. Passengers have lots of time to admire the view.

I was impressed by the equipment used. The life jackets must be exceptionally buoyant to compensate for water aerated by the rapids. All the rafts were new. But when I asked where the helmets were I was told they aren't used because the river is so deep you don't have to worry about hitting rocks.

In effect, it's the world's greatest waterslide.

The first major rapid put it all in perspective. The river fell away in a steep slope as smooth as a glass sculpture. On the left, the river hit a submerged rock and threw up a solid green wall of water two storeys high. We slid about 10 metres down to hit a foaming standing wave six metres high. And survived.

Nicki, our raft captain, was from London. She had been backpacking through Africa when she applied for, and got the job with Shearwater, a company specialising in rafting. I still think of her as a good river companion, even if she swept me out of the raft later in the day. After all, we were underwater at the time.

When I mentioned that the first rapid had been the most exhilarating I'd ever experienced Nicki laughed and said "just wait for number 18". Throughout the day, we'd skirt whirlpools and plunge into maelstroms while she and the other guides invoked the mantra: "just wait for number 18".

Under the hot African sun, being regularly drenched in rapids was no hardship. Lunch was on a pleasant grassy swathe by a pool. Fortunately the main dish was spicy chicken so we didn't have to contemplate the fate of a dead hippopotamus we'd encountered on the morning's only portage.

Finally we arrived at Rapid Number 18. Nicki stopped the raft in an eddy before it to brief us. "There are three successive waves, each more ferocious than the next. The third wave is the one that is likely to be our undoing - we all have to throw our weight forward to punch through it."

"If we get it wrong, we'll all be swimming. Just hold your breath as you go down. And stay calm - few rafts get through here intact so we wouldn't run it if it was dangerous."

Everyone has their own private view of hell. For me, fear of a hot eternity seems like "The Endless Summer". Instead, the vision of drowning in a maelstrom is my ultimate personal terror. Rapid 18 gave me a preview.

"Not yet!" Nicki screamed over the thunder of the rapids, "This is the only the third largest wave." As we plummeted towards the most monumental wave I had ever seen this seemed a joke in the worst of taste.

It wasn't. Our raft rose to teeter on the crest of the wave from where we could see down into a deep, steep watery valley rising to an even more unlikely wave ahead.

From the top of that one we had a momentary vision of a churning, seething world of white water. Then we were in it.

At first I thought we had got it right. Then the standing wave simply sucked the raft down. It felt as if I stayed with the ship to a depth of two fathoms - until Nicki was swept from her perch and clean bowled me out the back of the raft.

The water forced me downwards more than eight metres (and very unsure which way was up) before my life jacket won out and lifted me to the surface. There was barely time for a quick breath before I went down again in a shallower dive. The third dunking only lasted a few seconds.

When I finally bobbed to the surface, laughing and spluttering, a raft was standing by to heave me in. Like vultures, the first rafts had stopped to watch the show and pick up the flotsam. No-one had stayed in our raft: that made it a "Flying Dutchman" in Zambezi terminology.

Nicki was already aboard. "Is everyone here?" she asked.

"Where's Lynn?" I cried and everyone turned again to the water. Then we noticed a waving figure in a raft over on the Zambian side of the river. After we reclaimed her she related how she was caught in an underwater current that carried her to the other side of the river. She had been swept more than 100 metres sideways in a few seconds.

The remaining rapids that would be viewed as a serious challenge anywhere else seemed an anticlimax to us. The surge of adrenalin had left us euphoric. We sat on the sides of the raft, chatting and reliving our experiences. Wilma, our Dutch companion summed up the day best: "I don't think I'll bother rafting in Europe. I think the waves there aren't even a metre high."

* Bench International (Tel. 02/290 2877 or toll-free 008/022 564 specialises in African holidays including Shearwater's rafting excursions. The cost of the single day rafting is $US70.)

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd