Skip to content

Zambezi River Trip – Intro

Many years ago when I was first getting into kayaking in Oregon (I was tired of the mediocre skiing during the same season) I was all enthusiastic about the many low to medium volume creeks and rivers in the Pacific Northwest.  There were times when big rains would bring the local class 3/4 rivers up to “pushy” levels that I found pretty exciting, but between the medium-sized Clackamas river and the behemoth Columbia river I knew that therein lay a lot of rivers with both gradient and the push of a LOT of water.  But just kept doing fun little rivers having a nice time.  Then one day while I was working at Nike a colleague came to my desk and said “Diegel, you gotta come see this!”  I knew that he had taken his young family to Africa to do the safari thing, but what I didn’t know was that he had also used the opportunity to raft the Zambezi river.  He grabbed a big rolling cart thing that had a big old TV on it as well as a video machine, popped in a bulky video cassette, and suddenly I was watching rafts running what appeared to be the biggest-water rapids I’d ever seen.  The rapids are numbered, and I’ll never forget watching raft after raft getting chundered in huge whitewater with this guy narrating in a South African accent very dramatically calling out the numbers:  “RA-PID NUMBAH EIGHT-TEEN!” and then seeing the carnage as raft after raft flipped in the gigantic waves, spilling their hapless passengers into the river.  I was agog. (here’s an amazing quick modern video of main feature of that rapid) These were rapids with a similar vertical drop as those on our local rivers, but with exponentially more water and seemingly wayyyy more power.   i vowed that one day I’d go check out the mighty Zambezi river; one of the world’s great rivers, deep in the heart of southern Africa.  

Fast forward 30 years, and I’ve done many rivers since then, big and small, loved ‘em all, and continued to chase Big Water:  the Zanskar and Indus in Ladakh, India, the upper Ganges, the Karnali in western Nepal, the Grand Canyon at all different flows including prescribed flood flows,  Cataract Canyon at highish flow, the Futaleufu in Chile, the Romaine in Quebec, a bunch of rivers in Mexico with Rocky Contos that flooded while we were on them, and others (here’s an article I wrote about Rocky long ago; it needs to be updated, which I’m hoping to do in my newly convalesced state)  But one of the king rivers of Big Water still loomed out there, still emblazoned on my brain from the VHS so long ago:  the Zambezi.  Fortunately, as he’s wont to do in his recent era of being an outfitter and guide on “Global Grand Canyons” (his company name) Rocky set his sights on the Zambezi a few years ago and with an extraordinary amount of money and effort set up an operation in Zambia to run this extraordinary river.  Of course, he was setting his Zambia program up as he was also running commercial trips on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, the Rio Colorado/Grande in Argentina, the Usumacinta river in Chiapas, Mexico, two different rivers in Bolivia, the Fraser and others in British Columbia, the Yangtze in China, and the Rio Maranon in Peru.  Whew; I have just barely enough bandwith to remember what rivers he’s been doing at all, much less making sure that there are rafts, kayaks, frames, oars, paddles, dryboxes, camp chairs, water filters, kitchen setups, etc for all those trips!  But on his first trip down the Zambezi Rocky – also a keen aficionado of big, powerful water – realized the special nature of the mighty Zambezi:  of course there’s incredible, iconic rapids, but they exist in a stunning gorge that is near world famous national parks full of all of the cool African wildlife:

and the local people are incredibly friendly and endearing.  

(this is a good time to credit Hubert d’Autremont, who took all of the actually good pics in this post!)

And lastly, the Zambezi – like many of the rivers that Rocky has been doing – is endangered by a dam that would – if/when built – would/will flood the Batoka gorge, home of all the great rapids, drowning one of the most iconic sections of river on the planet.  But more on the dam later.  

While Rocky and I had been in touch and last spring we were able to get together for a great descent of the Little Colorado, I hadn’t done a “Rocky Trip” (as they’ve come to be called in the whitewater community) since I’ve kinda grown away from big-production raft trips and gravitated towards smaller, simpler, self-contained kayak and  – mostly – packraft trips (ironically, Rocky has spent more nights living out of his kayak than probably anyone, ever, but that’s not a very successful business model as compared to running commercial raft trips) .  The Zambezi actually has a small infrastructure set up to enable independent kayakers to just show up and get shuttled and have a posse to paddle with.  But knowing that Rocky puts on a good show and getting some good friends interested in an unusual river trip and knowing that a bigger raft trip would enable not only seeing more river but also include more animal stuff was really appealing, the fact that I was already going across the Atlantic for a fall bike tour around Spain with Ashley, Amy, Meghan, and Megan that would end about the time a Zambezi trip was starting I realized that I could do a dual trip of bike tour and the long-desired Zambezi. 

The Zambezi is located in southern Africa, with its headwaters in northern Zambia before quickly going into Angola, where it picks up most of the water for its journey back into Zambia down to the Batoka Gorge, where the four “corners” of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia (a weird “finger”), and Botswana come together.  

The drainage area is over twice the size of the Colorado River’s drainage area, and en route to Mozambique and the Indian Ocean is the Kariba Dam and reservoir, which is the largest man-made lake on the planet; several times larger than Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam.   On the section that we would be floating it forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, so some nights we’d be sleeping in one country, on others we’d be in another.   Many years ago in a bit of a frenzy I made up a list of places I wanted to see and things I wanted to do, and knowing full well how silly it sounded, but never having been to the continent, I wrote “Do Africa!” on the list.  Ashley saw that and thought it was hilarious, and still every once in a while busts out something along the lines of: “Hey, weren’t you planning on Doing Africa next week?!”  But on this short trip I was actually going to potentially be in four new countries; a good start to Doing Africa!  However, I was reminded of the ridiculousness of my goal as I flew down almost the length of the continent over about 10 hours; Africa is Big!  

Not only is the Zambezi one of the most notable rivers in the world due to its size, importance to the people and animals who rely on its water, and its rapids, there’s the other thing:  Victoria Falls. 

One of the “Seven Wonders of the World” (a kinda cool, kinda weird concept; why seven?  and who decides?   and a couple of them are a little weird themselves:  the Rio De Janeiro harbor? Not that I’ve seen it, but….) Victoria Falls is certainly an incredible place. 

Even from 30,000 feet the river appears to meander for zillions of miles before it suddenly plunges over a 300 foot, mile-wide basalt ledge, where it then zigs and zags through incised meanders.    According to the Wiki, it’s “neither the highest nor the widest waterfall in the world, but the Victoria Falls is classified as the largest, based on its combined width of 1,708 metres (5,604 ft)[7] and height of 108 metres (354 ft),[8] resulting in the world’s largest sheet of falling water. The Victoria Falls are roughly twice the height of North America’s  Niagara Falls and well over twice its width.”  The local name is Mosi-oa-Tunya, which is translated to “The Smoke That Roars”, which is pretty cool, but of course due to the hubris of early colonists it got named after a far-off British queen by David Livingstone (more on him later).  Regardless of its status or its name, it is indeed impressive.  The main reason for the “smoke” is that most of the base of the falls is rocky, so the much of the water hits rock instead of a pool, so it vaporizes the water into mist that rises.  As we approached the falls in the rafts I thought it was literal smoke from a fire, even though I knew the falls loomed downstream.  The mist is impressive, and during the rainy season floods apparently the mist rises 1200 feet high!  

After a long journey, complicated by unusual early season winter weather in low-elevation German cities that resulted in a day layover in Zurich (with clothes more fit for summertime in Africa than winter in Switzerland; a good travel lesson!) and coincidentally got me onto the same flight as my old paddling pal Ken Bender

coming in for the trip from Portland (Ken was with me my first foray into big water; as more or less complete newbies around 1990 Mike Elovitz and I put on the Oregon coast range’s Wilson River during a big rain event that put the Wilson at flood stage; I swam instantly and went about a mile fairly certain I was going to drown before Ken pulled me out!  I can’t believe I kept with the sport…..).  We landed in the airport for the town of Victoria Falls, which is right across the gorge/border/bridge from the bigger town of Livingstone, which also has an international airport (not a big deal, although as always border crossings are a bit of a PIA, this one in sort of a chaotic, endearing way) and found our way to our hotel, which was clearly river trip central:

While most of us were dundering around trying to figure out what to do, a guy strode in like he owned the place, which was particularly impressive because he’s about five foot nuthin tall, but he does always carry a gun!  Chrisborn Kapocko is a guard and naturalist for the national park we were to be floating through above the falls and was destined to become a fantastic resource for us, and pretty much within seconds he had endeared himself to all of us with probably the biggest laugh I’ve ever seen:

I knew I was gonna love this guy!

The other folks at the hotel had just come off a trip, and it was interesting to see that most of them were limping:  one guy was on crutches from a dislocated ankle that occurred during a portage of one of the big rapids, and most of the rest had gotten a foot fungus from the warm water.  They also had some sort of norovirus or somesuch and most had gotten sick, and they talked a fair bit about infernal heat.  It was a bit daunting, but these tales were offset by their overall glow about their amazing trip despite these issues, which was good to hear.  

After a day and a half of the requisite dundering around and getting gear sorted and loaded we finally were packed up and headed out to the put in for the mighty Zambezi:

Where Kaz – a fellow Utahn who had done the trip two years ago – had the foresight to endear herself to the younger locals with cool tattoos:

To be continued…..tho I kinda can’t believe I’ve done an entire post and haven’t even made it to the river yet….


  1. Dave R Dave R

    Yep, one helluva intro but it does help prep readeres for what’s to come by setting the stage properly. You’ll have to tell me more about that Wilson River flood foray where you nearly drowned. Don’t know that I ever knew that.

    • Dave C Dave C

      Was that the one where the kayak was found about 60 miles down river?

      • Tom Tom

        hah! it’s been so long that the distance has about doubled, but yes, a fellow swimmer’s boat was found in Tillamook Bay a few months later. Mike’s boat and mine were somehow wrangled to shore; one quickly and one a bit later by driving downstream and looking for it, spotting it, and launching another (actually competent) paddler into the river to get it.

  2. RS RS

    Dont leave us hangin too long Tom!

    • Will Will

      Tom wow … great writing as usual. And I’m beginning to get a feel for you Zambezi trip. You are one tough hombre!!. I look forward to reading more when you post additional chapters.
      Maura and I just returned from 5 days in Amsterdam where her daughter got married. A great urban experience. Including a boat trip along a maze of 16th century canals. Fabulous views of old Amsterdam. Quite the urban contrast to your intense Zambezi journey!!! Will

    • Michael B. Michael B.

      Agreed! Tick tock Tom!

  3. Karine Genest Karine Genest

    Thank you so much for this Tom! Hopefully our path will cross again on a river somewhere on our beautiful planet ! Keep creating yourself amazing adventures!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *