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Zambezi River – 4th and final

To catch up……Our Zambezi trip started with a coupla few days of flatwater that was an interesting combination of mellow because of the flatwater and stressful due to the presence of crocs and hippos in the water with us, but we had no problems and had a memorable short safari that got us very much into African Animal land.  We spent a day dealing with the 300+ foot Victoria Falls – which I forgot to mention included a white River Tripper vs The Locals soccer game, which was surprisingly close and exciting, particularly with a Pele-style bicycle kick goal by TL Julio! – then ran the first half of the iconic Zambezi rapids day run that ended in fine style with a memorable beach dance fest and goat feast with fun locals.  

Still buzzing from the day before, we headed into the second day of the Zambezi rapids; an equal number but overall a touch less difficult, but with rapids named Overland Truck Eater, Oblivion, Terminator, we knew there was still going to be some Big Water fun.  

Since I still had the vivid memory of the narrator in the video cassette so many years ago, I was quite keen for RA-PID NUMBAH EIGHT-TEEN! – aka Oblivion.  It’s actually very straightforward  – and in fact, is quite straight; just paddle over a bunch of waves until you hit The Big One, which the commercial raft folks always take, because it’s almost a guaranteed raft flipper, many times the rafts take wild surfs, spilling out their contents one by one, and it’s a long mellow runout to pick up the pieces. As we were scouting a commercial trip of two rafts (and two locals paddling little spud-type play boats who were videographers and safety boaters) took the main line and did indeed get the anticipated towering long-axis flip, which was fun to see.

I included a link to a great raft beatdown in the first post; if you didn’t watch it then you should, and if you did watch it then it’s worth another viewing!

It’s pretty easy to miss the big feature, but of course given my history I had to give ‘er a go after coming all the way there, so I took the plunge.  As hoped and expected, I tucked up, dove in, had a ferocious-but-quick underwater beating, floated free, and rolled up with yet another reminder of Zambezi power.  

Something the Zambezi doesn’t get enough credit for is its beaches. 

Beautiful white sand beaches tucked into and backed by brilliant black basalt make for incredible lunch spots and campsites, even if the black rock intensifies the heat a bit (though we had thunderstorms daily, including a nightly one that fired up a trib stream that nearly flushed a few of our party into the river!).  Most nights on the river we were visited by a coupla locals, and one evening we had a coupla artists come in:

Note the little rafts and kayakers.

Like all major tourist attractions, Victoria Falls has a major ad hoc industry of folks trying to sell you cool little local things, and we were constantly – but good naturedly – being plied while we were in Livingstone and near the falls.  But for some reason when these guys came down to the river and unfolded their blanket with stuff that they carved (we knew they did, partly because they told us, and partly because they started carving little kayakers while sitting on the beach) buying some souvenirs felt very appropriate.  I had been told by The Boss that a coupla new salad tongs would be nice and a nice serving spoon, so that’s what I picked out. I felt a little weird about bargaining with him on price, because basically he has nothing and I have everything and a coupla bucks has a far greater impact on him than it does on me, and like so many of the local people he was super soft-spoken.  But I also felt compelled to play the game, because it is The Game.  So I talked him down a little bit and we were both happy.  I asked him his name, and he said “I am Polite!”  I couldn’t help it; I laughed pretty hard, and then said “No one has ever called me polite!” and we had a nice laugh together.  

the closest I ever come to Polite! Or….at least on this trip I was able to hang out with Polite company!
signature edition

Rapid 21 is the end of the day run since there’s nice access there, but there are still some big rapids that loom downstream, including a couple of the biggest. These are not only big but – unlike most of the Zambezi rapids – they are dangerous and unforgiving, with a lot of gradient and terrifying holes with deep corner pockets.  But this is where the AutoRights really shined; for each of Chibango Falls, Moemba Falls, and Deep Throat we sent the boats through on their own and retrieved them below. 

Hubert photo

It was not quite as simple as it was on Commercial Suicide, because we needed to try to get them correctly positioned to run the rapids’ least-gnarly lines and hopefully flush out on the correct side of the river so that we could corral them.  I have been part of a couple of major raft linings/ghost boatings in the past and know how tricky it can be with long lines attached to big rafts in big whitewater (the last group had a significant shore-based injury doing this) so I was very respectful of the efforts of those who had more relevant experience, and moving 7 rafts through these rapids went very smoothly. 

Kas teaches this stuff and was a huge asset.
and still maintaining a dashing look! Hubert photos
sending over the edge. Hubert photo
a nice parking spot for most – but not all -the boats. The current here was pretty swift for quite a ways, so this little spot was super helpful. Hubert photo

It was interesting enough that I wasn’t too tweaked about having to deal with rafts (vs a quick/simple kayak/packraft portage).  

They kept me well out of the way, occupied with some make-believe duty!

One of the best runnable rapids is saved for the near the end.  Ghostrider has a long entrance to a sequence of 3 waves that come in quick succession that get progressively bigger, and as we scouted from above the waves looked BIG, even by Zambezi standards.   They can either be taken straight on to take your licks, or start from the side that almost feeds a raft into the three waves, but there’s a chance of not taking the full hit.  The kayakers all elected for the hero run and paddled into the current. Even after feeling the power of nearly 30 of the Zambezi rapids, heading into these gigantic waves was pretty intimidating.  I roared into the bottom of the first  -smallest! – wave and shot up the other side and flew off the lip like a ski jump, flipping over backwards in the air to land upside down and backwards on the backside of the wave as I blasted down into the bottom of the second.  I fortunately landed in one of those positions that enables a quick roll and came up just as the hit from the second wave slammed into me; this one shot me a bit sideways and I missed the even-more ginormous third wave and bobbed down the rest of the rapid.  Exciting!  

The raft captains were taking a bit of time scouting Ghostrider – how much time do you want to spend dangling from the seatbelts as the boats almost flip?  (and a few of the seatbelts were not quite strong enough for holding people dangling upside down and were popping open…).  I took the opportunity to hike my boat back up the bank to give it another go.  As such, I was in a good position at the top of the rapid to watch the rafts do their respective runs, and I whooped at all of them.  All of the passengers of the rafts excitedly whooped back, moments before they plunged into the daunting 3-wave sequence, and all had successful runs.  Then came Jesse in the cataraft, sans AutoRights.  As he was staring down the barrel of those gigantic waves I gave him my biggest, most encouraging whoop, but he was so fixated he didn’t dare look my way and only managed a feeble little “whooo” with no exclamation points! His raft went into those waves, the bow leapt towards the sky and……came back down right side up.  Not that it mattered; we coulda flipped his boat back upright very quickly, but it was pretty exciting.

Here’s a video clip with different perspectives on Ghostrider:

,Soon we were approaching the end of the rapids, which meant that we were re-entering croc and hippoville (locals have pretty much eradicated them in the popular day rafting stretch, and there’s a lot of current there anyway).  The plan was for the kayaks to tie onto the rafts for the last stretch to the takeout, but….there was one more small rapid.  Julio had just clambered onto a raft as I was nearby, and he said “this last rapid has a really nice surf wave at the top!”  I love surfing and knew it was my last surf for probably 6 months, so off I went.  Sure enough, near the top of the rapid was a decent-sized wave with a nice little pile rolling off the top; perfect.  I backed in, got a coupla the key strokes, and was slicing back and forth across the wave on a fabulous, dynamic surf.  A coupla rafts came by and  – with my water-filled ears – I vaguely heard them hooting and hollering, no doubt celebrating my fun surf with me.  After a bit more surfing a coupla more rafts came by and the vague hooting and hollering that I could hear seemed to be bit more than it shoulda been, even for my sweet surf,! I finally glanced over at the raft going by and to my surprise I saw someone giving me the “Big Chomp” signal:  Crocodile!   My eyes bugged out for a second as I instantly ruddered hard and peeled off the wave into the current and started paddling hard towards the rafts without looking back.  I got to a raft and the folks said “Did you see that croc?”  Uh, no; there was one?  “It was about 10 feet long and was hanging out in the eddy just above you!”  Eeek.  Okay, back in the rafts!    

A hot couple of half-days of rowing brought us to a little riverside lodge with some blessed shade and hoses, and the big de-rig commenced.   Once again, super soft-spoken people whose shy glances easily morphed into magnetic smiles were our hosts for the evening and the morning as we sat on their deck and watched a pod (some call them a “crash”, which is much better) of hippos grunting away about 30 yards offshore.  (there’s a little 3 foot fence with a simple latched gate to keep the two-ton hippos from grazing on the nice grass at the lodge; seems to work!).  

A lone guy in a dugout canoe was unconcerned by the hippos:

Hubert photo

And even gave us a huge weird fish he caught! Again, a strange example of people who have nothing and people who have everything, and the kindness of these folks.

Darwin with the guy’s present. Hubert photo

I have talked a lot about the river and the animals and the rapids and the beaches and the dancers….but I haven’t said enough about our crew.  Signing up for a trip with strangers is always a bit of a roll of the dice, and I haven’t done it often because I’m picky about who I do adventures with!  But in addition to the small, great crew of old friends I (easily) talked into this adventure, the rest of our crew was great; all with deep river and other adventure experience, funny, both interesting and interested, thoughtful, and efficient.  I was particularly impressed by the fact that they were all pretty accomplished, alpha folks  – especially on the river, where they were most comfortable – yet were very respectful of the guides and super easy going about the schedule, the rapids, the pace, etc.   

My Rocky Trip pal Mike, who celebrated a birthday on the trip
Mo is a river guide and was my perpetual chore buddy (thanks!)
NIco has owned a raft company on the Rouge River near Montreal for a long time, and rows like he’s rowed even longer. Hubert photo
I met Derek last spring in the Yukon and thought “I wanna do a trip with that guy!” Hubert photo
Brian’s living the newly-retired life living on the Arkansas river Hubert photo
Roman put his long arms to work keeping Uncle Mike from dangling too much by his seatbelt. Hubert photo
Like Nico, John owns a raft company too )n the S Fork American)l and like Nico he rows effortlessly. Hubert photo
Kariine makes movies about northern alpha animals and has a smile that rivals the Africans’. Hubert photo
Darwin grew up on the river and “doesn’t have time” for any negativity. “Good One!”
Stephen is a super mellow cat livin’ the kayak dream
Felix wears his mullet as smoothly as he paddles, Hubert photo
Fred whips up a mean salad, and his spare time drives a snowplow and guides in Colorado
Jesse doesn’t have quite the years on the oars that Nico and John have, but with 280 days on the water in ’23 and a nice long reach he’s well on his way to mastery
Fredric is a widely-accomplished Quebecois adventurer who makes his living….adventuring!
Hubert photo
My old pal Mayor Ralph; game for anything at 71
I met Theresa on the Alsek a few years ago and reconnected with her last spring; she’s got more rivers under her belt than anybody! Ken looked after me as a babe kayaker and is a stellar global adventurer
Julio is also living the river dream who’s prowess is matched by his leadership skills
Graham is an English Vermonter in Colorado, and was a great surf buddy. Jocelyn rivals Darwin in positivity.
Kas instructs swiftwater instructors, and pretty much ran the kitchen.
Hubert rows a mean red raft and is responsible for all of the actually-good pics in these posts.
Mike’s one of those amazing paddlers from SLC who has strong skills despite always lived too far from good whitewater.

I felt very fortunate to get to know these folks, and would be keen to do another adventure with any/all of them tomorrow.  

As I mentioned at the beginning, my old pal Rocky is an amazing guy and being able to keep trips going simultaneously on three different continents (at that time:  Argentina’s Rio Grande Colorado, southern Mexico’s Usumacinta, and the Zambezi) is extraordinary.  The Zambezi is an unusual river trip in that it’s not wilderness the way we are fortunately accustomed to in our river trips, but the whole package – the animals, the local people, the falls, the heat and warm water, the big water – is equally good to a wilderness trip in a much different way.   Like everyone, I was fascinated with big African animals when I was a kid and always thought it would be fun to do a safari in Kenya or Tanzania or somesuch, but to be able to get some cool safari time (a few of us spent the day after our river trip end in Chobe National Park; tons of elephants, and got the addition of Cape Buffalo too) along with the ability to float a legendary river that’s surprisingly friendly despite its big rapids is truly unique.  I’ll be back to experience it again.  

Seeing this is reason enough:

Friendly little hippos…..
Peekaboo! this big guy was a bit startled by us. Startling an elephant is….startling itself!
Something I realized about safaris: it’s mostly watching animals graze…..until there’s a kitty of some kind nearby, then shit gets real. For better or worse (better, if you’re this guy) we saw no kitty-types.

Last note:  the Batoka Gorge is on a short list for a dam.  As mentioned in the first post, the Kerala dam downstream holds back the biggest reservoir in the world, so clearly the Zambezi is worthy of dammage.  It would probably be presumptuous of me to say that all dams are bad when I am only viewing them from a privileged American perspective, but….All Dams Are Bad!  In many developing countries where dams overwhelm wild rivers they also displace a lot of local people and typically the energy is sent elsewhere, with private companies – not the citizens – getting all the benefits, despite using plenty of taxpayer dollars.  At the moment the Batoka Gorge dam is on hold, but particularly with China’s huge influx of development dollars in Africa and their own dam-building hubris I have no doubt that the Batoka Gorge Dam will not go away easily, so going to the Zambezi sooner rather than later is a good idea, both to ensure your own experience and as yet another person contributing to the sizeable economy around the river itself (according to Wikipedia, this is a very legitimate barrier to the dam).

For more info on the Zambezi check out Rocky’s Sierra Rios site, and here’s a fun video that a pro videographer pal of his did from a recent trip at a bit lower water. 

One Comment

  1. Howie Garber Howie Garber

    Hi Tom,
    Del Draper told me about your Zambezi River Adventure. It was most enjoyable reading your blog post. thanks for sharing.

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