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November 22nd 2007 by Tina
Zambia Part II: “The Smoke That Thunders” & The Mighty Zambezi

Posted under Africa & Zambia

The transfer from Kabwe to Livingstone was surprisingly smooth and we settled into Fawlty Towers Hostel around 6 o’clock. The hostel was centrally located in the tiny town and we walked down the road about five minutes to a restaurant called Funky Munky and shared a pizza. The food was decent and the sodas ice cold, but the place itself was a hot box with only an industrial fan battling the heat waves from the sun and the pizza oven. We decided to use the next day to relax and regroup so we stayed around the hostel and spent time making plans.

Livingstone is your basic underdeveloped African shanty town with a big international attraction: Victoria Falls. The Falls were officially discovered by a British explorer named David Livingstone, who named the incredible natural wonder after Queen Victoria. The enormous waterfall flows through the Zambezi River which divides Zambia and Zimbabwe, and is one of the world’s premier locations for extreme sports. Just a few of the adventures that adrenaline junkies can sink their teeth into include bungee jumping, skydiving, rides on zip lines and gorge swings, abseiling, microlight and helicopter rides, and world class white water rafting on the Zambezi river. On Zanzibar, we had spoken to a few people who had personally experienced the rafting on the Zambezi. Their descriptions were all the same: it was the scariest thing they’d ever done and someone had perished in the violent rapids during or around the time that they were there. In Lusaka, we happened to walk by a display window in which a television was showing highlights of the Zambezi rafting. Every raft flipped like a pancake, throwing all of the helpless riders into the white, rushing water.

All of these data points lead us to swear off the rafting even before we arrived in Livingstone but we eagerly browsed the menu of activities and booked a few others: the sunset booze cruise, a day of unlimited gorge swing/abseiling/zip line/flying fox, and a visit to Livingstone Island in the middle of the Zambezi, at the edge of the falls. We also booked flights to Cape Town, South Africa after determining that overland travel would have involved forty hours on sweaty African buses. We’ve become greedy with our time lately and relished the idea of a full month in South Africa.

We woke the next morning with vigor and vitality, energized by the excitement of our upcoming adventures. The hostel offered a free shuttle to the Falls at ten a.m. so we decided to check it out. We entered the park and walked along the scenic, winding path with lush greenery and sweeping tree branches creating an arbor above. Victoria Falls is known as Mosi-oa-Tunya in the Kololo language, meaning “The Smoke That Thunders” and, as we rounded a curve into a clearing, we discovered why. From the park entrance, you can hear a low, thunderous roar of rushing water. Just as the Falls come into view, you begin to feel a cool mist on your skin from across the wide ravine. The velocity of the water is so high that a thick cloud of mist rises above the edge and hovers in the air, and this was at the end of the dry season when the Falls’ water levels are lowest. An almost constant rainbow glitters above the pool at the bottom as mist and sunlight collide.

We walked the length of the path, pausing at each vista to marvel at its unique view. It was a romantic, leisurely stroll and our moods reflected the peace of our surroundings and the perfection of the day. As we rounded the path, we met the Zambezi for the first time and caught sight of some rafters floating along the green river which snaked through the picturesque Batoka gorge and under the Victoria Falls Bridge. We watched silently as the three rafts bounced through a rapid and then looked at each other with reciprocal devilish grins. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” he asked. “Yep!” I replied. And that was that. Gorge swing was out. Rafting was in.

The best views of the Falls are supposedly from the Zimbabwe side but that view would have cost us two Zimbabwe visas, two more park fees on the other side, plus a new visa to re-enter Zambia since our initial $100 visa fee (extortion!) only bought us a single entry. Needless to say, we decided that a view from Zambia would suffice.

The Victoria Falls Bridge is an orange bridge which spans across the canyon from Zambia to Zimbabwe – bungee jumpers cast off from the center of it – and we thought we might be able to walk onto it without leaving Zambia. The walkway ended near the end the bridge but the entrance was fenced off. We learned that there was a separate entrance which was controlled by Immigration. As we were turning back, a young man on the other side of the fence beckoned us across, offering to guide us onto the bridge while avoiding Immigration…for a small fee, of course. We considered it for a brief moment and then decided that, since we’d already been busted by Immigration once, we would be best not to push our luck. We opted to head back to Fawlty Towers to rest up for the booze cruise.

Around four-thirty, we were picked up from our hostel and shuttled to the Waterfront Hotel for the cruise. Our ride had arrived almost thirty minutes late so we were the last ones on the ship and the bar was already rocking! We climbed to the upper deck, ordered some cocktails, and melted easily into the crowd, some of whom were already “three sheets to the wind”. Most everyone was going for fruity vodka cocktails, which slipped down a little too easily. My target intoxication level lay on the border between “just drunk enough to calm my nerves about our newly scheduled whitewater rafting trip the next morning” and sober enough so as not to have a hangover.

As our ship slowly cruised along, we admired the tree-lined river banks, spotted a few elusive hippos, munched on some pretty sad but sufficiently salty appetizers, and unwittingly slid over the target level of intoxication as the vodka kept flowing and conversations became increasingly animated. Dinner was served buffet-style on the lower deck just as the sky began to change to a foreboding shade of gray. Some of the crewmembers distributed plastic ponchos, which we good-humoredly donned during dinner. A heavy shower poured down as we continued our silly antics on the lower deck. The bars were upstairs so we were only exposed to the elements as we refreshed our drinks. The cruise came to an early conclusion due to the weather, which was probably for the best.

In my muddled state of mind, I somehow convinced my only-slightly-less-intoxicated husband that we needed a night cap at Hippos, the bar conveniently adjoined to our hostel. After a quick round of cold, local beers, we stumbled to our room and fell into our terribly uncomfortable hostel bed with the big dip in the middle. As I lay there, my head slightly spinning, I could already feel the beginnings of a hangover. Damn! But it was too late to do anything about it at that point. A wave of nerves suddenly washed over me and I began to have paranoid delusions of getting eaten by crocodiles, swallowed by the Zambezi or smashing face-first into a jagged river rock. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to drown. Would it be painful? How long would I suffer before losing consciousness? All of these crazy thoughts swirled around in my brain, working my nerves into an anxious frenzy. I tossed and turned for hours, marinating in my own apprehension and sweating like a pig on account of my racing heart, the hot breath of a Zambian summer panting upon us, and my peacefully sleeping husband absorbing every whisper of the fan. As I gradually breathed through the panic and calmed myself down, the fear gave way to guilt over the prospect of dying and leaving my puppy motherless. What kind of a mother was I to take such extreme risks?

Yes, I realize that some of the thoughts that pass through my mind are vividly imaginative and borderline crazy but if you plant thoughts of death inside anyone’s head – anyone who truly loves life – and take away his inner monologue, I suspect that you will discover another ticket holder for the crazy train. In any case, I must have eventually dozed off because I woke to the alarm on Aaron’s watch, heavy-eyed and dehydrated, a shadow of my former self. Half-dazed, I pulled my clothes on, brushed my teeth, and staggered into the kitchen for a steaming cup of instant coffee – the only kind you get in Africa. Without my morning caffeine fix, it would walk through life in a zombie-like state. The older I get, the stronger the addiction becomes. Caffeine: the means of producing twice as much on half the sleep!

I never thought I’d hear myself say this but I think that having a hangover actually worked to my advantage. Throughout the shuttle ride to the rafting office, breakfast, safety briefing and subsequent shuttle to the ravine, I was too busy feeling like shit to feel nervous. In my deflated state of being, I simply followed the crowd and did what I was told.

The safety briefing was humorous and informative; we all signed the waiver form, acknowledging that we were well-informed of the probable risk of injury or death and promising not to sue in either case. Blah, blah, blah…you have to sign it or you can’t go. What struck me about the form was the bold-faced definition of Class 5 rapids: White Water Rafting on the Zambezi River in Victoria Falls has been classified by the British Canoe Union as Grade 5 – “extremely difficult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas”. Translation: Pretty F—ing Scary!

After the briefing, we selected our gear – helmet, paddle, life vest – and hopped into the shuttle. As our vehicle neared the park entrance, I began to notice a transformation from Hangover Hell to adrenaline-fueled excitement! We were dropped off at the edge of the cliff and had to hike down to the river – a steep, slick, and jagged descent – which left us breathless and perspiring in the morning sun. The inflated rafts were waiting for us at the bottom and, before we knew it, we were climbing aboard – seven rafters and our captain, Sanka Man.

In a low, raspy smoker’s voice (though we never saw him smoke), Sanka Man familiarized us with the various commands and guided us through some preliminary drills, including one in which we all jumped into the water. The water temperature was refreshingly cool and, despite the crocodile thoughts in the back of my mind, I thought that it might be okay if I fell out of the boat a few times.

Of the twenty-three rapids on the Zambezi, three are Class 5 and the first half of the course is comprised of Class 4 and 5 rapids. After faring well through our first patch of whitewater, Sanka Man said, “Okay, guys, you can go for a swim if you want.” We all looked at each other, trying to discern whether he was joking, but Sanka Man ran through the center of the boat and dove off the front end. A second later, we were all in the water, floating along the current, all smiles as we enjoyed the beauty of the canyon.

There were about five rafts on the water along with ours as well as a first aid team and several rescue kayakers if you washed up too far from the raft. We’d been told during the safety briefing that, if we fall out of the boat, we should try like Hell to keep hold of the “Oh Shit rope” along the perimeter. That was one piece of advice that I intended to heed.

We braved the first few rapids with wild excitement and surprising ease. Between the rapids was a lovely calm during which we could regroup, reposition ourselves, and enjoy the sunlight sparking off the canyon rocks. Our team worked well together and, by the third rapid, we had begun to paddle to an unspoken cadence. From the moment that Aaron and I had stepped into the raft, we loved everything about it and kept exchanging ecstatic looks. We couldn’t believe that we’d even considered skipping it!

As we paddled into a Class 5 rapid, called Gulliver’s Travels, the longest and most technical rapid on the course, the right side of the raft sailed upward, holding the raft almost vertically, and flipping me, heels over head, into the drink. I managed to keep a one-handed grip on the “Oh Shit rope” and held on for dear life as the rushing water pounded my face. I’d barely had a chance to get my bearings before Sanka Man valiantly pulled me back onto the relative safety of the raft. It was my first spill and it was exhilarating! We reached the calm between rapids 7 and 8 and our captain called us in for a huddle. “Okay, guys, the next rapid is called ‘Midnight Diner’ because you have a menu of choices. The right side is called the ‘Chicken Run’ – it’s a Class 3 and it’s for the chickens. The middle run is the salad; with that one, you have a fifty-fifty chance of making it through.” Then he paused and smiled mischievously. “The left side is called Star Trek – it’s the steak. If you choose the steak, you have an eighty-five percent chance that the raft will capsize and dump everyone into the drink. Now you need to decide among yourselves which way you’re going to take me today.”

We hesitated for a moment, gauging the courage on each other’s faces. Four of us almost immediately called for the steak while the other three more timidly expressed their preference for the chicken. After a brief discussion, we called for a vote. One of the chickens swayed to the steak side to impress her carnivorous boyfriend so it was decided by a 5-2 vote to bring on the beef! I did feel a bit sorry for the two chickens on board for it was plainly obvious that they were uncomfortable with the group’s decision. On the other hand, one probably shouldn’t endeavor to raft a river known for its Class 5 rapids if he has left his steak knife in the drawer. That said, we paddled toward the steak with racing hearts until we heard the captain’s command to “Get down! Hold on!” The raft flipped so fast that none of us even knew what happened until we watched it on video at the end of the day. All I remember is holding onto the “Oh shit rope” with one claw like the hungry hawk that stole my sandwich and suddenly being submerged in a rush of whitewater. Even with a hold on the raft, it was difficult to breathe with the water thrashing on all sides and I coughed and choked a bit. Suddenly, Aaron surfaced beside me, grabbed my life vest and lifted me above the rush and I knew that everything was fine. Sanka Man had already recovered his position atop the raft and was pulling us up, one by one. The adrenaline rush from the spill was truly spectacular and Aaron and I later discussed that we definitely see how serious injuries and deaths can occur from such rapids as these – some of them are intensely violent and you have no control over which way the water throws you once you are in its clutches. However, it is that exact powerlessness, that total surrender to the will of nature, that makes it so thrilling!


The ninth rapid, Commercial Suicide, is a Class 6 rapid so they don’t raft it. After recovering from our spill, we docked just before #9 and walked across the rock ledge to the right of it. The rapid was a narrow passage between jagged rocks and had a huge drop in the beginning – it looked positively fierce! We rode #10, an easy run in comparison with the first nine and took a break for lunch.

The second half of the day was a series of Class 3 and 4 rapids but no fives. They were fun but a bit like riding the kiddie coaster at the amusement park after you’ve spent the morning riding the scariest ones. By the twenty-third rapid, we were ready to conclude the adventure. We disembarked and climbed a third of the way back up the steep ravine wall, where a cable car lifted us over the remaining distance. We had drifted twenty-four kilometers along the river and an open-air bus drove us back to the lodge with a cooler full of ice cold beer, water and sodas.

The company that organized the trip, Safari Par Excellence, did an impeccable job – we were so impressed with every aspect of the experience from the expertise and professionalism of the staff to the precise coordination of events. Their operation is top notch and we highly recommend them. And, for that matter, we seriously recommend Livingstone, Zambia as a destination for the adventure traveler. The Zambian people are easy-going and friendly and Livingstone offers enough action-packed adventure sports to entice even the most experienced adrenaline junkie. We didn’t stay long enough to quench our thirst for action and we will undoubtedly leave wanting more!

1 Comment »

One Response to “Zambia Part II: “The Smoke That Thunders” & The Mighty Zambezi”

  1. Jean Nelson on 23 Nov 2007 at 8:01 am #

    Sounds like a great place for Mikey!! I’m nervous just reading!! Enjoy