I arrived in Victoria Falls in the afternoon and took a taxi to my lodge, Mambo Backpackers. The lodge was located a five-minutes walk from the town center. The owner’s name was Mambo. He was a skinny, medium height man with his head clean shaven. As soon as he saw me, he smiled and greeted me with a handshake: “Welcome to Zimbabwe my friend, my name is Mambo. Let me show you your room.” Mambo wanted to carry my backpack but I declined. The room was small but charming. It had one single bed and a small table with one chair. The walls were covered with traditional fabrics and a black and white photograph of giraffes.
I asked Mambo for the best place to eat dinner. He offered to drive me to the town center where I could find a decent restaurant. When I asked Mambo how much he would charge me, he said: “You are my guest, so no charge. If you want I can ask my wife to cook for you.” He smiled. I’ve been travelling in Africa for many years and I’ve been offered food many times, but it was the first time that the owner of the lodge invited me for family dinner. This is Africa, the land of sweet, warm, and generous people, I thought to myself. Mambo asked me if I had plans for the next day. I told him about the Zambezi rafting trip. Mambo told me to be careful. He also said that I should be fine and the company who was taking me on the rafting trip should take care of basic safety.
After Mambo left, I got a message from Leonie. She decided to join me for the rafting trip and that she would be waiting in front of her hotel.
The next day, at 8 am, a van picked me up. The guide introduced himself. His name was Hama. In the van was only one person besides the driver.
“Ay-up mate, Matty,” said he with a heavy Leeds accent.
“Ilia, nice to meet you, mate,” I smiled and shook his hand.
We drove to Leonie’s hotel. She was waiting outside. We picked her up and drove for thirty minutes, when suddenly we heard a very loud elephant trumpet.
“Somewhere is an angry elephant, watch out!” Hama said to the driver. Suddenly, 40 feet from the van, we saw a mother and two calves starting to cross the road.
“Back up, back up!” screamed Hama to the driver. The driver immediately started driving backward and stopped 80-90 yards away. The elephants crossed the road and disappeared somewhere in the forest.
“In this area elephants are very dangerous. They can attack a car. We need to be very careful,” said Hama. “Do you have elephants back in England?”
“Absobloodylootely,” sad Matty, “They all wear Led Zeppelin T-shirts and love hanging out in pubs. Hama cracked up. He started laughing so hard it brought tears to his eyes.
“You are killing me, mate.”
We continued our drive and after one hour we stopped on top of the gorge. Hama informed us that we were going to have a safety briefing.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Hama started talking. “My name is Hama and I am the trip leader and the paddle raft captain. Please listen carefully. Ask me any questions you might have. This is our last stop before we head to the gorge. From here we’ll hike down to the gorge and pick up three paddlers. We will also have two safety kayakers with us who will be paddling in front of the raft for support. They will also advise you what to do if our raft should capsize and you needed to swim. The Zambezi is a Class V river and its important to acknowledge that. Class V is the highest you can go in commercial rafting. Also keep in mind, now is low water, which means that the Zambezi at this time is extremely dangerous with fast currents, lots of holes, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, and big drops. So, you have to follow my orders no questions asked. We are having three more paddlers to help us. Two things are going to save your lives: a helmet and a life jacket. People die in the Zambezi because they don’t properly wear a life jacket or a helmet. I will personally check each of your life jackets and helmets. As I said, now is low water and this means high season. So, you will see other rafts too… If a raft capsizes and turns from an upright to an upside down position and you end up in the water, don’t panic. A safety kayaker will be near you to help you out. Just listen to him and you’ll be fine. I will be carrying “fliplines” to re-right the raft and get everyone back in. In the worst case, if you fall into the river and can’t make it back to the raft or don’t see a safety kayaker near you, swim to the side of the river and stay there until the we come to get you.”
“What’s a hole,” Matty asked Hama.
“Where water flows over a rock or a tree log in the river, drops down, flows downstream and then back up towards the falling water.”
“Any other questions?” Hama asked us.
“I heard there are crocodiles… Do we need to worry about them?” I asked Hama.
“Yes, there are crocodiles, pretty large ones too. They walk into the gorge from the upper Zambezi. All the evidence suggests that crocodiles avoid fast-moving water and that they prefer quieter water pools. We are aware of their presence in the river and take all precautionary measures. It doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. They probably love to have you for dinner. I don’t want to scare you, but you need to be aware of the risk.”
I looked at Leonie. She looked horrified. I tried to comfort her:
“Hey Leonie, it will be ok, trust me. I’ve done many rafting trips in my life, so I know what I’m talking about. I’ll be sitting next to you and I’ll take care of you. Don’t worry about it. Just be calm and enjoy the raft. Trust me, you are going to have so much fun.”
She looked me in the eyes, gently squeezed my arm and whispered: “Thank you.”
“Any more questions?” said Hama. “No? Okay, let’s roll. Today we do a 28 km stretch. This part of the Zambezi is the wildest, most difficult, and dangerous section. Each rapid has a name. We will raft through the Morning Glory, Stairway to Heaven, Land of Giants, and The Devil’s Toilet Bowl rapids and set up our camp near rapid 21. Should be no later than
We hiked down to the gorge, where the raft and five people waited for us: two safety kayakers and three paddlers. Hama gave each of us a paddle, lifejacket, and helmet. I decided to take a swim in the Zambezi before the rafting. The water was warm and clean. I lay on my back and looked into the sun. Its blinding beauty was rising from the gorge. I was thinking about Jorge Luis Borges: “The pavilion of the limpid sun was set into the middle of an intricate garden. This might have suggested the idea of a physical maze.”
“Are we ready? Here we go!” said Hama and our raft started to float.
I was sitting in the front. After ten minutes of rafting our first rapid – The Wall: A big wave turned into a large wall. “Raft, raft, raft,” screamed Hama. I felt a little bump from below and the raft went through the wall easily. The sun rose up from the mountains of the Batoka Gorge and the wind started blowing. The cloudless sky was so blue it hurt my eyes. I looked to Leonie. She was there, in the barren order of the Zambezi, where we were rafting on the edge of our existence. In the distance, sparkles of the sun floating on the river were suspended between river and sky.
“Next will be our first Class V rapid called Morning Glory, Hama said. “It has multiple lines with an almost river-wide hole at the top followed by a few diagonals off the wall. It also has a big hole at the bottom. We are going to have fun. If we capsize don’t panic! Just listen to the safety kayakers’ instructions and you will be fine. Here we go!” We approached the rapid from the Dragon’s Back dissecting two holes. After one minute up and down we went through the rapid. Matty started screaming with excitement. Leonie was smiling. One of the safety kayakers shouted to us with a big smile: “Are you having a good time?” I gave him a thumbs up and said: “It’s awesome!”
The Zambezi gorge was stunning. The sound of the river rushing through huge rocks was hypnotizing. Warm and soft sunlight glittered in the blue sky without blinding. I looked at the sky. The river, the sun, trees, rocks were in harmony with the human voices.
“We are approaching the Class V rapid Stairway to Heaven, Hama said. This isn’t too technical a rapid, but its size makes Stairway to Heaven absolutely beautiful. Rafting through it is like dropping our raft off a roof of a two-story house.
And it’s whispered that soon, if we all call the tune, then the piper will lead us to reason, a new day will dawn, for those who stand long, and the forests will echo with laughter.” Hama was singing Led Zeppelin’s song. “We need to approach the rapid from the left side because on the right side is a big pourover. But not too far left. We don’t want to end up in the huge wave called Catcher’s Mitt. So, paddle slowly to the left.” Hama started screaming “not too fast, not too fast!” It was too late: we were going through the huge pool of water with 3-4 meter waves. “Hold ooon!!” Suddenly I felt a strong push from the bottom and the raft, after standing at one point at a fifty degree angle, started spinning uncontrollably. The waves were hitting from all sides. I couldn’t hear or see anything. I was just holding onto the raft’s rope hoping to stay on the boat.
“Is everybody okay?” asked Hama. I looked around. Everyone was on the boat, Leonie holding on the rope, her hands were shaking. Matty was laughing:
“That was bloody awesome!”
“Great,” said Hama, “keep paddling, coming up is the longest rapid of Zambezi-Gullivers Travels. This rapid is a 700 meter long stretch of the main channel with smaller channels flowing into it. Keep right,” Hama said.
We started to paddle slowly on the right side until we reached a big rock. I looked downriver and saw an endless stretch of water with huge waves that reminded me of briskly boiling water.
“Oh boy,” I thought.
Then it started: the raft bobbed up and down while violent and wild waves tried to throw us from the boat. Hama was screaming something, but I couldn’t hear anything he was saying. One minute felt like an eternity. My mouth was full of water and my ears were clogged.
“Is everyone on board?” Hama yelled.
“We are fine,” I said while coughing.
Our raft was floating down the Zambezi. I knew it was only a matter of time until our boat would flip over. I was feeling dark clouds gathering around us. I didn’t care that much about myself, because I knew what I had signed up for. I worried about Leonie. What happens, if the Zambezi tears up our raft and throws us deep into the river. We’d probably die…die like a lost ship in a perfect storm. What happens, if Leonie dies and I survive? I’d probably blame myself for the rest of my life. I don’t even want to think about it. Ah.
I looked up at the sky. The sun wasn’t the same as it was in the morning. It was burning hot, and the river felt like a crocodile stalking its prey and waiting for the perfect moment to crush our bones with its jaws.
“Coming up rapid Midnight Dinner, said Hama. “Let’s try to slide from the right side. The line is a little bit technical but it’s easier. We will have fun with bouncing waves. Also keep in mind, we need to avoid going through the left. Let’s keep it right. In the worst case we need to run through the center. Here we go! Right, right, right. Ah. No, no, no!”
We went through the left side. The raft was hit by a big wave, and at one point reared up on a 90 degree angle before flipping over. I was thrown out and dumped into the river. I tried to keep my head up to breathe, but ferocious waves started hitting from all sides. I couldn’t breathe.
“F…! This is it! I guess that’s how my life ends.” I thought and looked up. The sun slowly got brighter and brighter, then melted into my eyes and poured into my blood. Suddenly a dark shadow, it looked like a human form, appeared in front of me. It was staring at the sky.
“…. But, from the end of the avenue, from the main house, a lantern approached; a lantern which alternately, from moment to moment, was crisscrossed or put out by the trunks of the trees; a paper lantern shaped like a drum and colored like the moon. A tall man carried it. I couldn’t see his face, for the light blinded me. He opened the gate and spoke slowly in my language.
“I see the worthy Hsi P’eng has troubled himself to see to relieving my solitude. No doubt you want to see the garden?”
Recognizing the name of one of our consuls, I replied somewhat taken aback.
“The garden of the forking paths.”
Something stirred in my memory and I said, with incomprehensible assurance:
“The garden of my ancestor, Ts’ui Pen.”
“Your ancestor? Your illustrious ancestor? Come in.”
“Garden… Garden of the forking paths…” I was mumbling.
“Ilia, Ilia can you hear me?” I heard a muffled sound.
I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was Hama’s horrified face. I was floating on the water.
“Are you alright? Say something!”
“Something” I said, “What happened?”
“When the raft flipped over, everyone fell into the river. You managed to hold onto the boat ropes, when a huge wave hit you. You had your eyes closed and I thought you had drowned.”
“No, I’m fine.” I told Hama. “Is everyone ok?”
I looked around and saw Matty coughing violently. Leonie was shaking and crying.
“Leonie are you ok?” I asked her.
“No, I’m far from ok. Merde! I hate this fucking place!”
“Let’s focus,” Hama said, “we all are fine, just fifteen more minutes and we are going to stop and have lunch. It is already prepared and waiting for us. The lunch will be at one of the most beautiful spots on the Zambezi, near Creamy White Buttocks.”
I looked at Matty and Leonie. At first, Matty chuckled and looked at me. I looked at Leonie and she started giggling. Suddenly we all, including Hama, were laughing hysterically.
“It’s a rapid, that’s what it’s called.” Hama tried to explain with a laugh.
“I wonder, if lunch is at Creamy White Buttocks, where will dinner be?” Matty said.
I was laughing so hard that my eyes started to tear.
“Ready for the next rapid?” Hama asked crying-laughing. “The next rapid is called The Gnashing Jaws of Death. Don’t worry, it’s nowhere near as scary as it sounds. It’s a relatively easy rapid with a few big waves and we won’t have any problems going through it.”
Hama was right, just a few bumps and we went through the rapid swimmingly. Soon after the rapid we saw someone waving from the shore. It was the guy who had made lunch for us and his name was Masimba.
“Here we are,” Hama said with excitement. “This is our lunch spot and food is waiting for us.”
We pulled our raft onto the shore. Leonie took out a cigarette from the dry bag and started smoking.
“Do we have booze, mate?” Matty asked Hama. “I don’t want to get soused, but just a beer would be lovely.”
“Yes, we have cold beer, Coca-Cola, and water in the cooler,” said Hama and opened the cooler. “Leonie do you want anything to drink?”
“Water, please,” Leonie said.
The lunch was simple: dry sausages, canned ham, cheese, bread, onions, tomatoes and cucumbers. I wasn’t hungry but I didn’t want to offend Hama and made a small sandwich for myself. We ate quietly and didn’t talk much.
After lunch we continued our journey down the Zambezi heading for more rapids like Three Ugly Sisters, Terminator I and II, The Mother, The Washing Machine, Double Trouble, and one of the most famous rapids in the world: Oblivion. I don’t know what was the reason, the hot, burning sun, or I just got used to rafting through huge waves, but to my surprise, suddenly I was calm and confident.
As soon as we went through Double Trouble, I noticed something red floating in the river.
“Is that a person?” I asked Hama and pointed at the red floating object.
Hama looked carefully and screamed:
“Oh, my goodness gracious, you are right, it’s a human being.”
“Buba, look,” Hama shouted to one of the safety kayakers and pointed his finger to the floating person. Buba immediately started kayaking up against the current. He approached the person from the left side and yelled:
“I’m going to push you down to the river, just follow my instructions and don’t try to get onto my kayak.” Buba told her (it was a woman). He used the paddle to push her toward us. Matty and I helped her to climb into our raft.
The woman was in her early twenties. She was shaking uncontrollably and couldn’t speak. Every time we asked what had happened and what was her name, she stared at us, her teeth chattering.
“She probably fell off from a raft. Her boat should be somewhere near by,” Hama told us.
Hama was right: two or three minutes later we saw the raft and two safety kayakers looking for her. Hama helped her to get into her raft and we continued our journey.
After fifty more minutes of rafting, Hama suddenly announced: “We reached our destination for today. Here we can set the camp.”
To be continued…