Finally the moment had come; we were putting on the mighty Zambezi, heading through the Big Water rapid section that I’d been looking forward to for lo these many years! As the day before, we trooped down the trail to the river, where the porters had already mostly set up the rafts, and this time we were heading downstream. As we rigged (and the kayakers sat around!) periodic screams pierced the roar of rapid one as hapless tourists plunged into the gorge on a bungee jump from the bridge and others crossed it on a zip line.
It was at the put in that I got my first few of the the AutoRights (seen in the first pic above). Being able to raft big water has long been a goal, and the hardy Russians – always ready to improvise, charge, and suffer (a great book profiling a trip some Americans did in Siberia is Brothers on the Bashkus), came up with a pretty nutty double donut called the Bubilik:
it’s named after the Russian bagel: (seriously!)
There’s a great video that’s worth 22 mins, and just the first five minutes gives a good sense of these crafts and the guys who “paddle”(??) them….
Then some years ago some guys in Colorado wanted to make a raft that could run anything, and came up with the “Creature Craft”:
a boat that was pretty much unflippable, even in huge water. They are impressive, and a google search of Creature Crafts running huge drops and big flows can blow some valuable time. The problem with Creature Crafts is that they are pretty specific to gnarly whitewater and are not really designed for a multi-day expedition given their bent-upwards bow and stern. And not surprisingly, they are expensive: start at $5k and go up to $15k.
On the Blue Nile trip that I did with Rocky and co in 2017 we had a few “portages” of big rapids that we ghost-boated the rafts through, but the ability to successfully corral the boats at the bottom before they swept out on downstream was highly dependent on whether or not the boats stayed upright. So how to keep them upright for easier capture? Rocky basically realized that putting an inflatable “cage” on the raft to keep them from flipping all the way over, and then was able to test them on the big water of the Blue Nile and the Yangtze river, where he saw their value in running big rapids too. The result is converting a regular raft that is – like all rafts – prone to flipping in big holes into a raft that only flips about 2/3 of a full roll, then slowly – with the weight of gear and people providing some ballast – rolls back upright! Rocky contracts with a factory to make his rafts, so they are making them with the tie-downs ready for the AutoRights as well as the AutoRights themselves. Here’s a quick video clip showing the AutoRights in action:
A critical component of these self-righting boats – that dates back all the way back to the Soviet Bubliks – is that you strap yourself into the boat. Yep, take a regular seat belt and buckle up for the rapids ahead. Normally the concept of being tied into a boat that might be able to hold you under water is a non-thing, but in an auto-righting boat you might as well stay in and enjoy the ride (and provide guaranteed ballast). So at the put in – with rapid number one and it’s wall at the end with the magnetic raft-flipping pile churning away on it that they’d encounter within seconds of launching, the raft captains and passengers did indeed buckle up, with a few nervous titters.
Rapid number one has a very strong eddy line of really fast current blasting past a pretty calm eddy, and that current wants to spit you back into the eddy. This is overcome by rowing (or paddling) harder out into the current…..which will then drive you into the rock with the auto-flipping pile churning away. Fully-loaded rafts don’t ferry across strong eddy lines and currents very well, and even these experienced rowers were getting denied time after time. The famous red raft that Hubert was captaining realized that only with the extra power of paddling by the passengers were they going to make it, so Ralph and Theresa unbuckled and paddled hard to generate the speed to bust well into the current and commit to the move, even as the rock loomed….they ran up onto the pile, the raft tipped mostly over, the earnest paddlers swam, but the raft was pushed into the eddy, slowly rolled up as per the plan, they all hopped back in, and the deed was done.
The rest of the rafts made it through with a variations on the same theme, including Jesse, rowing the cataraft that he flew down, frame and all:
so there wasn’t time to adapt the AutoRights to his Cat (I’m capitalizing the A and the R since I think Rocky is working on trademarking that, and the AutoRight patent is pending) so Jesse was always a bit more in the hot seat than the rest of the raft captains (my dry bag rode on Jesse’s raft in the flatwater above the falls; I had to say to him: “Jesse – I have absolute faith in you, but if you don’t mind I’ll put my drybag on another raft!” Some friend I am….). Of course, though he was the last to make it, Jesse styled the move in the faster cataraft without a flip (which would continue to be the case for the rest of the trip).
At last we were floating the Zambezi! There are 21 rapids on what is normally considered the “Day Run” and all have numbers and all of the bigger, more notable rapids have names as well. Rapids 2 is easy (but has a great surf wave!) and while rapid 3 was easy, the hole that was easily skirted was a big stomper and a good indication of what lay downstream. Rapid 4 – Morning Glory – just downstream is the first opportunity to truly feel the power; it’s a river-wide, huge grinding hole that really has no sneak; we scouted it, but only to prepare for the huge hit that we were about to take!
I won’t go through the rapids one by one, but number 5 – Stairway to Heaven – is notable. The entry features a ginormous hole on the left that fades to a huge green curling wave, and just downstream is a big lateral just above another ginormous hole. The move for a kayaker to just glide over the shoulder of the huge greenie to head for the lateral that seemed to have about a 15-foot pile so you gotta throw a full-body brace into it, whereupon you get swallowed by the lateral but it typewriters you back to the center to miss the hole below and deliver you to the salvation of Heaven below. A little line in a huge rapid, that everyone made just fine.
As we got to Rapid 8 – Midnight Diner – a thunderstorm moved in right as we were getting out to scout it. This beast has a huge hole that stretches maybe 100 feet across the center of the river, and as Julio – the Trip Leader – was giving us the beta on the various lines through the rapid he was getting lashed so hard by the wind and the rain that he had to keep his eyes closed as he faced the rest of the crew while our backs were against the torrent. I had a perpetual struggle on this trip with water in my ears and could barely hear anything, but I did hear him finish with “there’s a sneak on the far side.” We went back to our boats and Mike Hales asked what line I was gonna take and i said “I dunno; I couldn’t hear a thing and I can barely see with the rain, I”ll just take the sneak.” We got in our boats and Stephen – one of two other guides on trip along with Felix – probably overheard what I said and as we were pulling out of the eddy said to me: “I’m going to run the center if you want to follow.” I saw Mike heading across to the sneak and thought to myself: “I love big water….don’t I? This be it!” so I shrugged and said “sure!” We paddled towards a gigantic horizon line, and as I went over the lip I looked down upon about a 40 foot long ramp into the one of the biggest holes I’d ever seen, and I think another “Holy shit!” escaped me lips. Though Stephen was probably only a couple of seconds ahead of me he had already disappeared into the maw, and as I accelerated down the amazing green ramp I spied a tiny bit of green in the bottom and was able to make one or two strokes to get there and tried to tuck up, but when I hit the pile of the hole it slammed me so hard it blew me over backwards. Fortunately the speed of the descent and that tiny lick of green in the bottom pushed me through the hole and upside down I took a very quick – but very tumultuous – thrashing, and within moments I saw light above, rolled up, and was liberated from Midnight Diner. Big Water indeed.
Rapid number nine is the infamous Commercial Suicide that is most-often portaged. It has a huge pourover-type hole at the entrance, but it can be bypassed by a kayak busting over a big lateral onto a kind of dragon’s back that then delivers you into absolute mayhem of more huge holes. Stephen and Felix both ran it, both flipped and rolled up in the maw. I was tempted to push to run it, but as the old saying goes: it’s better to be walking a rapid wishing you were running it than running it wishing you were walkin’ it.
Commercial Suicide was the first opportunity to see the huge portage value of the AutoRight-equipped rafts. We simply lashed the oars into the rafts, pushed them into the river, they flipped or not, but were guaranteed to float upright into the slack water below, where kayakers waited to paddle up alongside, hop in, drag the kayak in, unstrap the oars, put them in the oarlocks, and row to shore for the captains and passengers to jump back in. This was to be a sequence repeated several more times downriver.
Just below rapid #10 is a huge beach on river left that was our camp, and as we got close Julio hooted and waved us into an eddy above, explaining that we all needed to hit the beach almost simultaneously, which was sort of a weird request. But we said fine, we floated around the corner…and there was a big posse of drummers and singers all dancing on the beach! There’s a village above the river there with an access trail, and Rocky (??) had engaged with some of the villagers to not only give us a show but also cook us a fantastic traditional meal centered around a village goat.
As we pulled the boats onto shore the locals continued to sing and dance for a while, then took a break as we went about setting up camp. After a bit we set up our chairs on the beach and the show got going in earnest, complete with pretty rad outfits and super fun, energetic singing and dancing:
while some of the crew set up a big barbeque they had carried down to cook up a feast:
We were all sitting in a row in chairs on the beach watching the dancers, but it was also a bit hard to miss the fact that another round of thunderstorms was winding up and was literally thundering towards us up the canyon. The music and dancing continued and generally the rain and air temp was warm enough that getting cold in a rainstorm was not a problem, but very suddenly the rain-pushed air came raging up the river and turned our beach into a sandstorm The wind starting tearing the camp apart, with tents, gear, and tarps all coming unglued and blowing down the beach. The program ended abruptly as everyone scrambled for their gear, including the dancers (the drummers didn’t want their super cool drums to get wet either!).
As always, the thunderstorm passed and one by one the river trippers came back to the central area after managing the chaos. By now darkness had fallen and the locals had built a big fire, and as we were kinda milling about all of a sudden one of the women started to sing, all alone. Her magical voice echoing off the walls of the hard black basalt canyon sent shivers down the spines of all of us, and it seemed even her pals were mesmerized by her as well. After a bit one of the guys picked up a drum and started a soft back beat, a couple of her pals started harmonizing with her, and the show was back on.
Only this time we were not just sort of awkwardly lined up in our beach chairs watching politely, we were right there with them, dancing as well (Note: not dancing well, just dancing as well!). The pace of the music very gradually picked up, and most everyone on the beach was in a sort of sandy mosh pit (without the thrashing/bashing of a mosh pit!) just given ‘er dancing and singing together as the lighting bolts of the now-retreating storm periodically lit up our incredible band and their painfully-terrible – but enthusiastic! – white dancers. Dancing hard in deep, squeaky sand is not easy, and it was probably the best workout I had on the entire trip as the tempo of the music continued to increase to a near-frenzied level.
Finally the drummers and singers brought it to a wild finale, which seemed to correspond with even more lightning bolts like the end of a 4th of July fireworks show. I was sort of staggering around trying to get my bearings in the fire-spackled darkness when suddenly a very sweaty and nearly-naked Mike Hales grabs me in a huge bearhug and gasped in my ear: “Doood! That was the best fuckin thing that’s ever happened to me!” with tears streaming down his face. Though Mike’s a bit prone to hyperbole, is a live-in-the-moment guy, and I had to laugh at this, there was no doubt we had been able to have a unique and supercool experience.
Though I wanted to let go of trying to record this and – like Mike – just live in the moment, I did try for a few seconds to capture a little:
Next – the trip wraps up, with a few more monster rapids, crocs, and hippos!