Besting the Zambezi
(Saturday 27th October, 2018)
Today was the day that three of us from the group bested the first 19 rapids on the Zambezi river, white water rafting-wise. We packed our stuff up in the morning because we had to switch to another hotel, then we got picked up for our little rafting adventure by 7:15.
First we were brought to the headquarters of the rafting company for a briefing on today’s activity and to sign indemnification papers. The guide there explained to us the things that could go wrong: 1) someone can fall overboard and be a ‘short swimmer’, which means they were able to grab onto the rope on the side of the rubber boat or be pulled in via a paddle. 2) someone can fall overboard and be a ‘long swimmer’, meaning they couldn’t get hold of the boat and the currents took them away – they’ll be picked up by other boats or towed by the kayak crew. 3) The flip-situation: the boat flips, i.e. ends up being up-side down with everyone falling overboard. Most important is to not panic. The talk did put a few butterflies in my stomach.
We were taken to the gorge by truck/bus, picked up our life vests, paddles and helmets, got assigned teams and then assigned a rafting guide. Then we started the descent down the gorge on some very steep and narrow stairs and climbing rocky paths. Our raft guide was called Little Stuart; he was very small but very strong and experienced. Our group consisted of the 3 of us from the Nomad truck and then a couple from Qatar/Italy (who brought with them a go pro and said they’d share the videos), and two women from Botswana.
After the descent where you sometimes felt more like a mountain goat than a human, we started to get in to the rafts. We got some instructions from Stuart, such as: “Forward!” “Backwards!” “Forward fast!” “Left forwards, right back!” “Get down!” – you get the picture. We had a little test run where we practised before taking the first rapid right outside the starting point. When we first started paddling towards the rapid, you could see the angry water from the raft, knowing you’d sail in there, and you’d be simultaneously terrified and excited.
Before every rapid, Stuart would tell us about it, which side to avoid and where to aim for, what to expect, how to paddle, but he’d yell the commands while we were going, too. As we paddled into it and hunched down inside the raft, it felt really thrilling and exciting, water splashing into the boat and covering us – are we going to fall into the water?! Hold on tight to the rope! The adrenaline got pumping, and as we made it out of the rapid, soaked in refreshing Zambezi water, I noticed that people’s hands were shaking from it. Everyone was having a blast.
They have given the rapids some intimidating/fun names, like Gulliver’s Travel and Truck Eater and The Washing Machine. It was maybe also a big part a mental game from Stuart, to instil that fear in us. When we came to the first Grade 5 rapid, Morning Glory (#5), he started mentioning how large a chance percentage wise there would be of the boat flipping. It really was a lot of fun. We made it through the rapids on the river with no incidents until the end, although T and I were very close to falling overboard on Gulliver’s Travel.
Between the rapids we could enjoy the scenery of the gorge. The steep sides of it going almost vertically up, with rocks being smoothed by water over many years. You could tell from these just how much water flows through the Zambezi in rainy season, how high the water gets. It’s a lot, maybe 10 metres more than currently. They don’t do rafting in this period because the water flows too fast and it’s too dangerous. But seeing the gorge from this angle was really beautiful, too, and we also spotted some crocodiles on the shore.
At rapid no. 9, called ‘Commercial Suicide’, we got out of the rafts and walked past it on the shore. Didn’t look too bad from the raft but seeing it from the shore you could see why they skip it. Long, fast flowing, a lot of rocks underneath. You’d probably be underwater for quite a while here if you fell in. They don’t go through it with clients but the guides can navigate it for themselves.
At some point there was a stretch without rapids and everyone tied their rafts together, and the guy with two oars towed us all. It was a little break where they gave us an orange to eat, and the lucky ones got some water to drink (not us).
After the break we continued doing well and not falling overboard or flipping. By rapid 14 or 15 I started to think that this is not so crazy, though it is fun, and started to sort of hope that we’d capsize. Then at rapid no. 18, ‘Oblivion’, Stuart told us there’s about 80% chance that we will flip. Our Qatar woman had an injury and she got moved into the more stable boat with the guide with two oars.
It was pretty exciting to sail into it. Suddenly I found myself being sucked into the water, the boat apparently having flipped, the stream pulling me under and I felt my right shoe get pulled off my foot, too. That was crazy and I wasn’t prepared for it at all, because I thought we had gotten out of the worst of it. Probably swallowed a bit of water there. There was a pang of fear as I got pulled under, but then I thought that the life vest would make me pop up again and to just wait and stay calm and try to not get under the raft (I feel like that would have been a lot worse).
I popped up by the side of the boat and held on to whatever I could. It was probably only a few seconds under water but it had felt like longer. Coughing and breathing heavily for air as Stuart asked if we were okay and started pulling us up on the up-side-down raft. I had seen our other Nomad family member by the raft but not T, so I had to assume he was on the other side of it (he was). A helmet floated by without an owner, so it was a little bit creepy to not have a tally on everyone.
When the boat got flipped the right way up again, our family member floated away, became a long swimmer and got rescued by another raft in front. We picked everyone up and then also rescued someone from the boat behind us that had also flipped. That guy got back to his boat but now we were lacking both the Qatar woman and our Nomad family member on the raft, so we were essentially only 3 people paddling against the wind (the two Botswana woman were too busy chatting). It was very hard and slow-going. Before the last rapid, though, we did get our missing team member back, although that was a nice and easy rapid. It was rapid ‘Oblivion’ which defeated us, and though scary at the time, it was also fun and I was happy we did go swimming. Made everything so much more awesome!
The hardest part was still to come, though – the 220 metre climb up the gorge side on a rocky path where you mostly had to climb and take care of lose stones. By now it was probably 14:00 and the sun had been baking down relentlessly. It was extremely hot despite the wet clothes and there wasn’t really any shade on the path. I hadn’t drank enough water and with already used leg and arm muscles I was struggling and started to feel sick and dehydrated. I took a long time getting up and didn’t feel much like eating anything from the included BBQ lunch. I just sat in the shade and recovered, drinking a few bottles of complementary water and one coke before they took us back to our hotels. The guides were nice enough to bring our bags from our old hotel to our new hotel.
After a shower back in the hotel we had to go meet our new guides and fellow travellers in the reception. We met everyone and had a briefing about the upcoming leg of our trip, filled in names and insurance details for them etc. Our new driver guide is named Simba (from Zimbabwe) and then we have our Food Engineer, Jojo, who is from Malawi. Our new fellow travellers are: A couple from New Zealand, 2 older ladies from the Netherlands, a young guy from New Zealand and a man from Spain. We introduced ourselves briefly but then everyone had decided to do their own thing for dinner so further getting-to-know-each-other had to wait.
Some of the ‘old family’ and I went to have some dinner in town, getting some pizza for a change. Then we went to a bar by a hostel where we hung out and had fun for a few hours.
By the way, I did get my sandal back from the Zambezi. The boat our Nomad member got rescued by had also rescued my sandal which had floated by. When we got him back, I also got my sandal back! It was really lucky and I had been sure it was lost for good and I’d have to climb up the gorge bare feet. Yikes. But the mighty Zambezi had been merciful and refused my offer.
I’m on a Boat, Again! (Entering Botswana)
(Sunday 28th October, 2018)
Today’s really short drive was from Victoria Falls to Kasane by Chobe National Park, Botswana. We started the day at 7:30 with breakfast and then drove off by 8:00. For this, people were on time! Since the drive was so short we didn’t have any stops between Victoria Falls and the Zimbabwe/Botswana border. The border houses in Zimbabwe looked very dilapidated and shabby, but they were efficient in giving us an exit stamp and they were nice and friendly. Got a compliment on my t-shirt (the t-shirt we’d bought with the map of our journey on the back).
Simba, our new guide, told us that there is a point named Kazungula, which is the point where the 4 borders of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia meet.
Getting into Botswana was also very easy, just a quick stamp in the passport from a rather talkative official. Of course, it takes a little longer with 15 people than with 9. Most of us had to sit next to someone in the truck, which is now called Keith, by the way, because we’re so many. But not me, today I kept both seats to myself.
As we drove into Botswana, the houses looked neat with fenced in yards. Otherwise no huge difference to notice yet. Right after the border we made a stop at the mall to buy supplies and withdraw money in the new currency, Pula.
As we arrived in the camp site for the night, we pitched our tents and had our lunch. First meal with our new cook who has been trained by Godfree. It was simple but nice, green salad, bread and some mixed beans salad.
At 12:00 we were picked up for a game drive in Chobe National Park. Before we entered the park we saw a pack of African Wild Dogs trying to cool down in the shade of a tree! They are so pretty and I had hoped to see them so I was very happy. We didn’t see that much else on the game drive. It was really hot and everyone was sweating a lot, animals included. We mainly drove by the river bank – very nice scenery – where we saw:
– Various birds – Impala – 3 groups of elephants near the watering
– A giraffe – Hippos – Kudu
The park had a nice landscape with the blue river contrasting the sandy river banks, the green islands in the middle. I found it pretty charming. Away from the river, there were a lot of trees, currently without leaves because of the dry season.
After the game drive we got taken to the boat for our Chobe sunset cruise. We sailed around the grassy islands and found wildlife to view from the water side. It was excellent for bird watching and it was calm, peaceful and pretty. We saw:
– Crocodiles – Hippos – Iguana
– Various Birds – Water Bucks – Elephants
Some in the group found it a bit boring and long. It was 3 hours of sailing around, but I thought it was pretty great and relaxing. I enjoyed it very much and felt like I saw a lot. The sunset over the Chobe landscape was nice but I didn’t think it was that special until the very end where it turned the sky pink, something which I don’t think I have seen back home, ever.
Reflections on Zimbabwe:
We left Zimbabwe today, but I haven’t really experienced the country so I do not have reflections on it. It seemed nice? Victoria Falls was very impressive, though, and I enjoyed what little time we had available there. I guess one more day there could be useful; we were so busy that we were barely in the hotel, plus there were so many activities available to everyone. Had a great time, though, beautiful scenery and very thrilling rafting.
The top picture is our rafting boat with our guide, Little Stuart. Pictures from river rafting is taken by the rafting company’s photographer.
Last updated 5th December, 2018.