Feel like putting your paddling skills to the test? Kayak the Zambezi River, feel the fear and remember - no regrets!
AN ADRENALINE HOT SPOT
The spectacular zig-zagging crack of Batoka Gorge has become a hub for adrenaline activities. You can try jet boating, abseiling and bathing in the ‘devil’s bathtub’ on the lip of the falls. I had already enjoyed a microlight flight over the area – essentially a motorbike attached to a hand-glider, out of which one could drop like a rock in the event of a catastrophic seatbelt failure. Naturally a bungee jump could be done off the Victoria Falls Bridge, which spans the gorge and provides the no-man’s-land between Zambia and Zimbabwe. In 2012, an Australian backpacker jumped off only to have the bungee rope snap. She fell 40m into the rapids, but survived with severe bruising, partially collapsed lungs and an illegal immigration warning for dragging herself out on the Zimbabwean side of the river. With this in mind, I gave the bungee a miss.
The main cataract divides Africa’s fourth-longest river into the Upper and Lower Zambezi. The full width of the river at the lip of the falls is over 1.7km, but after crashing down over 100m into the chasm, that full volume of water is then funnelled through a slender defile only 110m wide, hence the raging torrent. The narrow gorge zig-zags away to the south and then east, creating a series of intense rapids flanked by the sheer walls of the canyon. This 25km stretch of river is classified as Class 5 – “extremely difficult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas” and each major rapid gets its own rating between one and six, the latter being almost unrunnable. I’d been planning to get serious about my paddling, and thought this would be the perfect way to test my mettle.
THE PRACTICE RUN
My guide in this venture was Scott, a South African, who would be accompanying me in a Topolino Duo tandem kayak. He took the back seat, steering and providing the main muscle, while at the front I paddled as hard as I could and got the best view of my potential watery grave. Kitted out in helmets, splash-decks and life-vests, we bounced the 10km to the Mosi-ao-Tunya National Park and hiked down to the put-in point in the gorge, just around the corner from the bottom of the falls.
Some rafters ahead were already in the water along with a group of Irish kayakers I’d met in the hostel. People come from all over the world to ride these rapids, hiring a guide for the day to show them the lines. One of the Irish had lost his nerve after a couple of early duckings and, with a look at the raging inundation ahead, he’d bailed. The poor guy – an experienced paddler – wobbled back up the hill on shaky legs. The Zambezi will do that to some.
Once in the water Scott and I practiced a few rolls and the capsize protocol – once flipped, I bent forward and hugged the nose of the boat while Scott instantly righted us with a wave of his bladed wand. So far so good, but our efficiency was tested when the relatively pedestrian The Wall tipped us over. I didn’t expect that from a few mild ripples but we must have caught it at a bad angle because I didn’t have time to catch a breath before my face hit the water. Unexpectedly submerged, I didn’t feel inclined to hang around waiting until Scott got around to rolling us back over. I scrabbled for the quick-release on my splash-deck and took a swim, as escaping from a capsized kayak is called. We chalked that one down to inexperience.
NOT SO FLIPPING FUN
Having crossed the Rubicon I finally discovered the fundamental difference between rafting and paddling: flipping in the former was fun – nervous excitement with plenty of warning followed by a brief plunge, safe in the knowledge that nothing bad will happen. The latter was a brain-melting, stomach-dissolving ordeal that bore no relation to the word ‘enjoyment’ but threatened rapid death by drowning. The fifth rapid (Stairway to Heaven) was a class 5 and ducked us like virgin schoolchildren encountering the school bully. When I saw the danger my jaw dropped, creating the perfect shape to funnel water down my throat. Paddle forgotten, I clutched my plastic torso for a good long while (maybe 0.7 seconds) before bailing again, bobbing up and grabbing for the safety kayak where I retched, spluttered and burped to the delight of the watching rafters. Despite Scott’s assurance that no tandem kayak clients had ever died, (only independent paddlers who thought they knew what they were doing) I lost a big slice of confidence and wondered what I’d gotten myself into.
There were plenty of rapids ahead and I started to get panicky before each, even the small ones. As a result of the shallow, low-season water the rocks were closer to the surface and created more hectic runs. I was more than happy to portage around rapid number nine (the Class 6 Commercial Suicide, attempted by only one paddler after a long look and plenty of advice) but number eight, Midnight Diner, was another class 5 monster. From my position low in the water the main wave (‘The Muncher!’) reared up like a five metre high fist. Failing to garner enough speed to pierce this liquid sphere, our nose pointed skywards and the kayak folded in two like a flimsy baguette. I emerged an ashen faced wreck, sallow and sodden.
PADDLE INTO THE FACE OF OBLIVION
I felt better at the restart only to get dumped again on the next rapid, but then things took an upturn. We cruised through Washing Machine and I managed to stay calm long enough to complete a roll at rapid number 17. The gorge is incredible, and a couple of times we were buzzed by helicopters roaring up and down between its walls. A crocodile sunning itself on the rocks is, in the face of Oblivion, a harmless diversion rather than a man-eating handbag. Reality eventually caught up though and with Oblivion lurking around the bend, the icy grip of fear tightened around my bowels. Scott urged me to paddle as hard as possible the moment I see ‘the wave’.
Somehow, we smashed right through the wave and out the other side, still upright! Ecstatic, we shook our paddles in the air and nearly capsized ourselves anyway. Sheer relief swept me away and I forgot the earlier tortures as we blasted our way through the last few rapids to the exit point.
During the 25km course we’d dropped about 120m, so we hiked up over 200m back out of the canyon to the truck, spurred on by the thought of a cooler box of ice-cold beer. On the bumpy road back through the bush and tiny settlements, the guides forced beer down our parched gullets like they planned to take advantage of us. It had been a day of high emotion, from stark terror to whimpering panic and everything in between. Did I regret the experience? Of course not! But I’m not sure I’ll take this up as a new hobby.
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