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Africa Week 3: Rafting the Zambezi

Our first rafting day! We were finally going to face the rapids of the Zambezi. Before breakfast I enjoyed my own yoga practice on the deck of the pool overlooking a distant watering hole, active with animals. After joining Jody in the dining room to eat eggs benedict and bacon, I gathered what I would need for the next three days and stuffed it in my dry bag, hoping that the day we carried all of our gear on the rafts, the bag would live up to its name. We loaded a safari truck for a short drive to the entry point, and then proceeded down steep metal stairs and rock trail from the top of the gorge to the bottom all while wearing or carrying our life jackets, helmets, and paddles. The rafts waited for us in the water, and each person claimed a raft and a captain to ride with for the next three days.

Jody and I along with Gaston, Saira, Jerad, and Kay (and sometimes David) along with our fearless river guide, Lorenzo, formed, what we would later call ourselves, Team Fireball (self-named for our awesomeness or because we had a bottle of Fireball in the raft thanks to Jerad and Saira). The 21 rapids we faced that day (and would redo the following day) had several class V rapids; most notable: rapid 5 (Stairway to Heaven), 9 (Commercial Suicide) which we portaged around, 12 and 13 combined (The 3 Ugly Sisters and The Mother), and rapid 18 (Oblivion). As we approached each rapid, Lorenzo told us the different routes we could take through the rapid and the one that he wanted to take. Sometimes he said, “I don’t know what will happen. We’ll see how Nyami Nyami feels. Just get down and hang on!” Nyami Nyami is a mythical snake/fish creature that personifies the characteristics of the river. When we started the trip, everyone was given a Nyami Nyami hand-carved from bone to remind us of the power of the river.  Rapid 18 became our team’s challenge, and we approached it from the middle, the most difficult route, but with the biggest wave train. As we rafted through the middle, we hit the first wave and water splashed over us. We hit the second wave and more water came into the boat. We hit the third wave, and water anialited our boat. The river swept us all from the boat and into rapid 18…everyone except our guide, Lorenzo. I got caught swimming circles in an eddie, and Lorenzo threw me a rope to drag me in. We rescued the other members of Team Fireball as our boat continued down river. It was my first time to swim while rafting. We watched the other rafts attempts at the same route and saw almost everyone ejected from the rafts. Rapid 18 is the most famous on the Zambezi for flipping boats, and we were all on an amazing adrenaline rush after getting back in the rafts and continuing down river for the short trip to our camp. To see the carnage, check out this YouTube Video of Rapid 18.

Our landing spot for the evening fell in the middle of rapid 21, which was not difficult, and looking up as we neared the site, we saw a group of men dressed in African tribal attire dancing and singing amazing harmonies to welcome us there. We all watched and listened (some joined their dancing) while we changed out of wet clothes, grabbed a beer, and took in the beauty of the place. Massive rock walls surrounded us on either side, the river played its song below, and our camp was a wide expanse of soft sand that rose into trees and brush to the wall behind us. The singers finished their serenade and several people from the group took their sleeping pads and joined me as I led evening yoga on the helipad that happened to be at the site overlooking the river. We ended yoga just as dinner was announced and the moon was shining brightly overhead. We ate dinner, surrounding the campfire, talking and learning about one another’s stories and listening to different people sing their talents. When sleep overtook us, some people crawled into tents and others, me included, slept under the stars on a layered system of sand, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag.  Surprisingly, no bugs bothered us, and though I woke up several times in the night, I watched with pleasure the moon set and Orion travel through the expanse of sky, stars, and uninhibited darkness until dawn began to color the sky.

Then we got up and did it again. We first, however, had to get out of the beach area where we camped. Though our itinerary mentioned a hike, we were not prepared for long, steep trail lined with tree branches that had been secured across the trail to prevent us from sliding and falling backward. It seemed like we climbed 1000 feet in the distance of 500, and just when I thought I had reached the top, I found a false summit. I turned to the right and looked skyward to see the real summit. Taking their own pace, each paddler trickled to the top, feeling like we were pushing water uphill. After everyone summited, we rode in open air safari vehicles to proceed down the same steep climb we did the previous day. The same rafts. The same rapids. The same lunch and lunch spot. But nothing is ever exactly the same. This time when we went through rapid 18, hardly anyone swam…except me. Everyone made it through the middle, over the big wave. Somehow when I looked up to grab the rope on wave 3, all I saw was a wall of water rushing toward me. I was out of the boat, in the water, and swimming toward shoreline, when my boat rescued me. The rapid was considered a success, and everyone was elated, including me! We made it back to the campsite, and though the singers weren’t present to welcome us, everything else remained: the magic of eating, talking, singing, and camping on the beach of the great Zambezi.

In the morning, we all packed our dry bags and passed them down to the rafts to be loaded for the self-supported part of the trip. With all our gear in the rafts, we again started down the Zambezi toward our new camp. The river didn’t have as many big rapids through this section, but still a few that were noteworthy. Fewer people run this part of the river, and they don’t usually number the rapids, only name them. It was a beautiful day as we rafted through The Narrows, tight canyons of black Basalt rock for several big wave trains and boiling rapids. Toward the end, we came to a large rapid called Lower Moemba, and as we watched the first boats go through, they completely disappeared into the waves and water, and then popped out a couple seconds later. Lorenzo reminded us of the power of the water and told us to get down, hang on, and see what would happen. As we moved into the rapid, I saw a wave crash over the front of the raft, then another wave overflowed the right side, and then a towering wave from the left submerged us. I felt my legs go under the bolster in front of my seat as the water rushed over us, and I held on to the straps in the boat. We were sinking, and then, suddenly, we popped out of the water into the sunlight – our boat completely swamped, but completely intact (aside from a few missing water bottles). We all yelled, “Fireball!”, gave the traditional paddle high five, and continued down river. The next rapid, Chabango Falls, was a large waterfall that we had to portage by dragging all of the rafts up and over a rock wall. Because they were full of gear, this task proved to be difficult, but working together, we finally portaged all three passenger boats and the gear boat to the other side.

We arrived to our new campsite a little later – a nice beach of soft, white sand with a trail up to a wide mesa of more soft sand.  We ate and some slept at the lower level while others chose to climb up the mesa to sleep a little closer to the stars. Where the sand ended, the black basalt rock began, and we hiked a short distance for an amazing view of the waterfalls we had previously portaged. It was, again, an amazing night with dancing, music, food, and drink around the campfire on the beach. Some of our guides sang and danced for us, and we only tried to keep up with their musical magic. It was our last beach night, and I again slept under the stars and watched as Orien made his way across the sky.

Our raft time to the take-out point the next day was short. Each member of Team Fireball took the time to write a favorite quote on our paddles for the next paddler to contemplate. Mine? “You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.” A large open-air bus picked us up after hiking from the river to the road, and we found ourselves driving through the real lives of the people of the Zimbabwe country-side. We stopped at a local school so Melinda and Robert could give a few school supplies to the kids, and it was great to see what school was like for them. They had amazing smiles and curiosity, and we drove away with a few of them running after the bus. Then we traveled to our last resort, Elephant Camp, individual tents with every luxury you can imagine: indoor shower, bath tub with bath salts and robes, outdoor shower, cool plunge pool, deck, sitting area, mini bar, and the magical mosquito netting. When we first arrived, keepers brought the elephants for us to pet and photograph – Jumbo, the elephant, was our photo buddy. After about twenty minutes of mingling with Jumbo, we all separated to shower (again much needed), rest, and ready for the evening safari drive ending in drinks and horderves while overlooking a pond that reflected the sunset. Taking in the evening, everyone talked and visited until the drivers collected us and took us back to Elephant camp for dinner. With satisfied bellies, we fell asleep, our beds surrounded in the dreamy cloudiness of mosquito netting and minds dancing with visions of the great Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Our final full day began lazily with breakfast and lingering as we enjoyed Elephant Camp before getting swim ready to go to the falls. Before we left, caretakers brought Sylvester, the pet Cheetah for us to pet and take photos with. Sylvester was found in the wild after a lion attacked and killed his mother and four siblings. Though they tried to release him to the wild, he was not able to survive on his own. Now they use him to help educate people on this vulnerable species.  After visiting with Sylvester and eating lunch, we drove to the Zimbabwe/Zambia border to pass through customs and see the falls in Zambia. Many people want this experience of being in the water before it falls, so when our group arrived, we were guided like clockwork to get to the site. We took a small speed boat through the upper waters of the falls to a location where we could capture part of the magnificence fall. Then, we swam across a canal of water and climbed into Devil’s Pool to look over the edge and see the water falling 355 feet below us. It was an amazingly surreal experience to be so close to the edge. We stayed in the water a moment, and then the guides escorted us to a serving area where we enjoyed drinks and appetizers, which were amazingly delicious. We all ate reservedly because we knew we had a big meal for the celebration of our last night. As we left the facility to board our van, three wild zebras were eating the green grass of the lawn, and we stopped to take pictures as close as we dared (they’re mean!).

When we returned to Elephant camp, we got ready to share our last evening together as a group. Lorenzo’s amazing wife Terry, had not joined us on the rafting portion of the trip, and instead visited a friend in Capetown and in the process collected several South African wines to host a tasting for us before dinner. We enjoyed the wines, and then carried the leftovers to an outdoor dining area set with an exceptional feast. The singer/dancers greeted us again, and we celebrated birthdays for Diego and Saira with cake, kudu, pasta, potatoes, mopani worms and every other delicacy you can imagine.

And so our time in Africa ended, a magical variety of experiences, people, and new friendships. It’s difficult to convey the depth of gratitude I have for this trip. Jody and I both called it a “trip of a lifetime” as we saved money for two years to prepare to go. It was definitely unforgetable, and I hope I get to do it again.

To see a video that Jody put together of all the weeks in Africa, click here.