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Getting a little wet

Rafting the Zambezi River

Floating down the Zambezi river in an inflatable rubber raft, Martin suddenly feels a little uneasy as he ponders the name of the approaching rapid—Stairway to Heaven.

by Martin Wierzbicki

The Zambezi is the longest river in southern Africa, originating in Angola and winding through five countries before emptying into the Indian Ocean, on the east coast of Africa. Above Victoria Falls, the Zambezi wanders idly across a broad floodplain and stretches several kilometers wide. Below the falls, the massive volume of the Zambezi is forced through a deep, narrow gorge, sometimes only a few yards across. The water cascades through this gorge with a fury that can be heard from a kilometer away, creating enormous angry waves, violent whirlpools and powerful currents that have earned it a reputation as the world’s most formidable whitewater river. Many of the best whitewater kayakers come here to test their skills. For me, it was to be my first whitewater experience.

I woke early in the morning and climbed into the back of a run-down pickup truck for the short trip to the Zambezi. As the truck bounced down the road toward the river, I sized up the three other people who would be joining me in the raft. Sitting next to me was an American, in his early fifties, who’d rafted a few smaller rivers a very long time ago. Across from me were two British women, in their mid-twenties, athletic and enthusiastic. Only one had rafted before. No one really knew what we were getting into.

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Sunset at Victoria Falls

Arriving at the river, we picked up our lifejackets, helmets and paddles, and descended a hundred meters to the base of the falls. Face-to-face with Victoria Falls, I looked up at the largest sheet of falling water in the world, a kilometer wide and twice as high as Niagara. We were standing in the Boiling Pot, directly below the falls, where the plunging waters of the Zambezi explode on the rocks, creating a thunderous storm of mist and turbulence.

We lowered our inflatable raft into the water. With our guide and the four of us aboard, we practiced paddling and maneuvering the raft. "Forward! Left turn! Backwards! Get down! HARD FORWARD!" I struggled to hear the commands our guide shouted above the scream of the rapids, knowing that our efforts would decide whether our raft survived the rapids or capsized into the river. Finally, feeling thoroughly unprepared but pumped full of adrenaline, we set off down the river.

The first three rapids tossed the raft and soaked everyone in the boat. One of the British women, who’d rafted a few other big rivers, told us these rapids were more difficult than anything she’d ever seen. But these were only second and third-class rapids and we were rapidly drifting toward a fifth-class rapid: Stairway to Heaven. As I pondered the name of the approaching rapid, our guide explained safety procedures. "Next rapid is class five, big waves, very difficult, fifty/fifty chance the raft will flip over. If you fall out, swim right."

We couldn’t see the rapid, only the precipitous drop into the unknown. It felt like we were about to take the raft over a waterfall. "HARD FORWARD!" We paddled forward with all our strength. A surge of adrenaline overpowered my fears. Sitting in the front of the raft, I was the first to see the river drop almost ten meters just as our guide yelled "GET DOWN!" I crouched down and desperately grasped the safety line encircling the raft. The raft plunged down a wall of water, then crashed through a massive wave at the base of the drop. We were all submerged for a second, but everyone hung on, and the raft didn’t flip. The boat behind us wasn’t so lucky.

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So far, so good

Having survived Stairway to Heaven, and the following rapid, we were starting to feel more confident. The next rapid was Gulliver’s Travels, fifth-class, and the longest rapid on the river. Actually, it was a series of rapids beginning with the Temple of Doom and cumulating in the Land of Giants, a stretch of river where enormous waves explode over the raft from every direction. Our guide screamed "GET DOWN!" as we fell over the precipice of the first rapid and I desperately clung to the safety line. But the force of the impact was too strong, throwing me from the relative safety of the raft into the dishwasher fury of the river.

Disoriented and underwater, I held my breath and counted the seconds until I surfaced, hoping I wouldn't get caught in an underwater whirlpool or pinned against an underwater boulder. "One. Two. Three. Four." I tried to swim, searching for light, but I couldn’t tell which way was up or down. I was powerless against the current. "Five. Six. Seven." Finally, my hands pierced the surface. I grabbed for the raft hovering above me. With one hand I caught hold of the safety line just as we entered the Land of Giants.

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Zambezi rafting survivors

Negotiating for my survival through the Land of Giants, I looked ahead and caught a glimpse of enormous waves crashing in every direction—just in time to hold my breath. I was underwater again. My body was being stretched, pulled apart, torn in every direction. I surfaced in another stretch of whitewater and found our guide leaping to the front of the raft to pull me out. Reaching into the water, he grabbed my life jacket and hauled me into the boat, where I collapsed on my back. The other rafters huddled over my drenched, shivering body and quietly stared at me as if at a ghost. I promised I would never again take land for granted.

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