Today we white water rafted the mighty Zambezi River. The Zambezi is known internationally for its rapids. We had heard from people at the hostel who had already done it that it was intense with class 5 rapids (the highest level of navigable rapid). One of the people on our boat was a raft guide from the states and came to Zambia specifically to raft the Zambezi.
We woke up early and were picked up by a bus that took us to the lodge where the raft company was located. We locked up our belongings, signed the release forms, and were fitted with life jackets and helmets. Then we had our safety briefing from a man that reminded me of Trever Noah. I have to say it was much more pleasant to hear a comedian tell us that the holes at the bottom of the boat that bale water can also be used as air holes if you end up trapped under a flipped boat.
Thoroughly briefed on our safety, we loaded up the bus and drove back to Victoria Falls National Park. The rafting trip started at the Boiling Pot, so we hiked down the gorge along the same trail that we had a couple days ago and got in the raft.
Our guide was named Baby Face. I was originally sitting in the front of the raft, but Baby Face rearranged us to get the boat more balanced to his liking. Jay and the raft guide from the states ended up in the front. Me and another girl were in the middle, and two older gentlemen were in the back. Baby Face taught us the commands we needed to know including “forward” meaning paddle forward, “backward,” and “get down” in which we were supposed to jump down in the boat and hold on. We were also introduced to our “safety crew” which included a gentleman in a kayak that completed the rapids before us and a raft with a frame and oars that was used as a rescue boat. If anyone fell out of the boat, the kayaker or rescue boat would paddle to them and rescue them from the water. This was a nice feature of the trip.
With that, we headed out on the river. The first rapid was the Boiling Pot. It was a tame class 2 rapid. But we quickly learned what everyone was talking about the trip being intense. Our first class 3 rapid was a huge drop with waves crashing into us. Baby Face yelled “get down!” And we all crouched down in the raft and held on. Otherwise, we would have been out of the boat.
There were 21 rapids total. Four of them were class 5. Baby Face was an excellent guide and lined us up perfectly for the rapids. He would talk to us about each rapid before we did it. He would give us all the details about a hole or rock we needed to avoid or that we needed to paddle a certain way. I don’t think any of us were able to remember everything he said, so instead we just waited for him to yell out commands. Honestly, once we were in the rapid, it seemed impossible to actually steer anyway.
On rapid number 5, Baby Face told us that there were two ways to run it. The first was going on the left side of the river which was fairly calm. The second way was going down the middle which Baby Face told us was a 50:50 chance of flipping the boat. We all agreed we wanted to do the middle.
The other boat that was with us had already flipped, but we were feeling pretty confident that Baby Face was going to get us through. We paddled according to Baby Face’s commands and he set us up perfectly. We headed into the rapid and heard Baby Face yell “get down” just in time for us to be pummeled with waves. But we made it through without flipping. We all cheered after making it out and clapped our paddles together like the rafters do to celebrate a good rapid.
Rapid number 9 was rated as a class 6 rapid which means it is unnavigable water. Thus, we all got out and walked across the rocks to skip the rapid. The boats were sent down the rapids sans people and it was crazy to see what the white water did to them. No one would have stayed on the boat during that rapid!
We made it through the first 12 rapids without a hitch and were having a great time. The other boat had flipped twice already. They also lost their guide on rapid 13. We saw someone fall out of their boat and didn’t realize it was the guide until someone yelled that the guide was in the water. So the boat completed the rapid without the guide. They luckily were ushered by the water to a calm pool and waited there for their guide to return, but I’m sure they had to be confused about what to do.
Our boat went to try to rescue the guide, but he had already swam to shore and was picked up by the rescue raft and returned to his boat. This guide was wearing a GoPro and we got to see the whole thing from his footage.
After rapid 14, we reached a stretch of flat water and the guides hooked all the boats together. The oarsman paddled us through this section while we had a snack and relaxed.
Then it was back to the rapids. On rapid 15, there was a large rock in the middle of the river. Baby Face told us that we had to pass the rock as close to the left hand side as possible, but if we got too close, then the water would push the boat up on the rock and flip the boat. We watched the oar boat go first and they nearly got flipped by getting too close to the rock, but saved it by both the passengers moving to the high side of the boat. We went and Baby Face yelled at us to paddle harder. I felt the urgency in his voice and paddled as hard as I could. We made it through without flipping or losing anyone. The other boat went next. They ended up T-boning the rock, but didn’t flip. They got stuck there. There was no paddling out because the current was too strong. They ended up having to get out and porter their boat along the shore.
We were fairing pretty well compared to the other boat so far. We hadn’t flipped yet and no one had fallen out. But, we had heard that rapid 18 called Oblivion was the hardest rapid of all. It was rated a class 5 and all of the previous groups at the hostel had flipped on this run.
When we reached it, Baby Face again asked us if we wanted to take the easier route or go straight down the middle and have a very good chance of flipping. Again, we wanted to go down the middle. We had confidence in Baby Face, after all, we had a perfect record so far. After deciding to go down the middle, Baby Face went around and double checked all of our life jackets which wasn’t the best sign. Then we headed for the rapid.
We saw a mist coming up from the rapid as we approached it and knew it was a big one. We hit it hard and Baby Face yelled to “get down!” I got down and held on, but soon realized that I was in the water.
I felt the boat come down on top of me, but was quickly swept out from under it by the rapids. It felt like I was under water for a minute, but in reality, it was just a couple of seconds. I popped up near the other girl on the boat. Just as I was asking her if she was ok, another rapid hit us both and we were back under water.
Baby Face had told us that contrary to what we were told to do on the other rapids, we should not swim for the boat or try to hold onto the boat here. Instead, we should just let the rapids carry us to the pool below. So that’s what we did.
When I popped back up again, I was in the calm water and luckily the boat was right next to me. Baby Face, like some sort of Ninja, was already on top of the flipped boat and pulling people on top. I grabbed ahold of a black handle on the boat and was then pulled up. By this time, the other boat had attempted the rapid and flipped as well, so we were picking up people from both boats out of the water. We eventually got the boat flipped back over and started paddling to rescue people. Once everyone was out of the water, we were able to sort back out to our respective boats. It was a crazy experience. People were either terrified or having the time of their lives. I came out relatively unscathed so was having a lot more fun than others.
Jay ended up being rescued by the other boat. He was thrown further away than the rest us for some reason, and I didn’t see him in the water the entire time. I knew everyone got rescued though, so I knew he was ok. When he got back to our boat, I heard his version of what happened on Oblivion and we were having a blast!
After Oblivion, there were 3 small class 2 rapids and the day was done. We rowed ashore and disembarked. There was quite a climb out of the gorge, but once we all got up, we hopped on a truck and were shuttled back to the lodge for lunch.
After lunch, we got to view the pictures that they had taken of us and the video of us flipping in Oblivion. It was cool to see the video because none of us really knew exactly how we flipped. The cameraman told us that our run was crazy! He said we just disappeared under the rapid and then the boat came back up upside down.
When we watched the video, we were able to see the boat disappear in the rapid and then flip over. Baby Face told us that boats sometimes get caught in the rapids and “surf” there for a long time. One of the other guides showed us a video of a boat that went a couple days ago that tossed everyone out except 2 people and then surfed for about 5 minutes. The whole time, the people were being bounced around like popcorn and the middle seats in the boat were being jostled out. It was an impressive video. It seemed it was almost better for the boat to flip because then you were able to get passed the rapid. Either way, we had a great time on the river and had some great stories to tell.
After rafting, we had booked a sunset cruise. For an extra $10, we got a 2-hour cruise along the Zambezi River, all you can drink alcohol, and dinner and snacks. We spent the sunset cruise watching elephants, hippos, and crocs along the shore and getting our money’s worth of alcohol. It was a really great day!