White water rafting on the Zambezi River

Fancy braving crocs, rapids, and supernatural wrath on a white water rafting trip down the Zambezi? Then read on...

7 mins

The water hit me in the face like a fist. It was less of a wave, more an underwater gale – like being flushed down an enormous toilet. I was hanging on by my fingers – and my toes – to whatever I could as the tremendous force of the river gushed round, over and under our easily bucked inflatable.

Between watery slaps I reflected on the accuracy of the first rule of rapids – they are always twice as big when you’re in them than they look from above.
I quickly stopped reflecting, however, as we hurtled down another churn and crashed headlong into the gorge’s rocky wall. The boat bounced off with a thud and tipped at an alarming angle, but mercifully didn’t flip. The mighty Zambezi hadn’t got us – this time.

The Zambezi River divides Zimbabwe and Zambia and, after its 100m-plus tumble over Victoria Falls, it squeezes through a narrow gorge for 120km, boiling up into the biggest sequence of Grade V whitewater rapids in the world. As Koryn, our guide, put it: “It’s the Everest of whitewater rafting.” But unlike Everest, even a complete beginner can – with expert guidance – complete a descent of all the raftable rapids.

Victoria Falls (Shutterstock)
Victoria Falls (Shutterstock)

I had experience of watery journeys – two years ago I made a nine-month trip by traditional birchbark canoe across western Canada. But whitewater rafting of this calibre was a very different proposition. For most of the time in Canada I was going against the current, towing, poling or paddling the canoe up into the headwaters of the Rocky Mountains; this rafting trip would be downhill – often at white-knuckle speed – all the way.

Zimbabwe used to be the centre for rafting the Zambezi, but people now head to the Zambian side, where the town of Livingstone provides a base for the adventure-hungry. Who knows what the town’s namesake explorer would think of the place now: modern supermarkets sit next to African stalls selling sandals for pennies, and every type of adrenalin-fuelled day trip is on offer to travellers with the will and the wallet.

But I didn’t want a day trip; I wanted to get a real feel for the river. Which is how the six of us – me, Tony (a fit 50-year-old), his sons Andrew and Phil, his niece Helen and thrill-seeker Dan – came to be sitting in a boat that would be our home for the next seven days, listening to a man telling us how to go to the toilet.

“We ship everything out.” Tyler, the safety kayaker, was giving us the lowdown on the etiquette of eco-friendly camping. “And I mean everything.” Next to him sat our expedition leader, Koryn, an energetic New Zealander with the arms of a powerlifter, and Babyface, the Zambian cargoboat oarsman, who didn’t stop smiling.

Down the plughole

Before we could launch in earnest, we had to prepare. We all donned helmets and lifejackets, and the gear was tied in with reassuring severity. Then we got used to perching on the raft’s rubber edge and wedging our feet in whatever cranny we could find to stay balanced as we bumped downstream. This was a whole new mindset for me: while my old canoe was made of bark and resin, meaning you spend much of the time nervously keeping away from potentially hull-ripping obstacles, in an inflatable you can actually use the rocks to bounce you on your way.

Just before we set off we caught a glimpse of Mosi-oa-Tunya – ‘The Smoke that Thunders’ – or Victoria Falls, as the Brits named it. At river level the spray filled the canyon, making the upper reaches of the falls invisible, but the roaring din was all around us. Koryn gave us some paddling lessons and then we were off, straight into a ripping current that pounded against the canyon wall and sent us on our way.

Ahead the river banked steeply and before we knew it we hit ‘Morning Glory’, the first of many colourfully named rapids. Koryn took charge, shouting instructions as the raft plunged into the whitewater. The boat pitched and yawed, and we seemed to be heading straight for the very solid-looking canyon wall. At the last minute Koryn yelled at us to back-paddle, slowing the raft into reverse and bringing us smoothly out the other side, unflipped.

Your best bet for surviving the wild Zambezi is a leader who hates losing their ship. Koryn, with 15 years’ rafting experience on more than 50 rivers, saw a flip as a professional disgrace.

Aerial view of Zambezi River (Shutterstock)
Aerial view of Zambezi River (Shutterstock)

We also had the gods on our side: each of us was wearing a bone Nyami Nyami river-god charm around our necks, including the guides. Zambians maintain that, since the building of the Kariba Dam further downstream, snake-headed, fish-bodied Nyami Nyami – a supernatural safety net for river-goers – has disappeared. I was rather hoping he hadn’t.

The first ten rapids hit us in quick succession. I swallowed lots of river, paddled into air as the raft crested waves, almost lost a foothold (but didn’t), and learned to crouch low and look down as the biggest onslaughts of water inundated the craft. I took hasty sips of water from my well-secured bottle when I could – despite the frequent soakings the noonday sun was beating down and dehydrating my bedraggled body. The only wildlife I glimpsed between waves were taita falcons, hanging as if motionless high above the canyon walls.

After a day battling with the Zambezi, we stopped to camp at a sandy beach surrounded by scrubby dry savannah. There was no one else around; the only sounds were the wind in the grass and the ever-present roar of the river.

By night, Koryn and Tyler made the surprising transformation into rather excellent chefs: steaks, curries, exotic deserts and delicate hors d’oevres – you name it, they conjured it out of the cold chests and ammo boxes. Compared with canoe trips I’d taken, on which a top feed was a tin of sardines, this was five-star river travel.

On the second night, after a day of finally keeping my eyes open in the face of crashing waves, we sat, cold beer in hand, around a crackling fire on another deserted beach. Dry grass and short, stunted trees dotted the hillside.

A baobab, with its great barrel trunk and skyward pointing branches, loomed sentry-like nearby while a troop of vervet monkeys sat on a rock, watching their curious new neighbours.

It was so peaceful – a world away from the tourist hub of Livingstone. We felt like we’d paddled forever, though in fact it was about 21km – there’s nothing like an adventure to mess with your sense of time and space.

At first we pitched our tents, but the night sky was so bright it seemed a pity to be indoors. After dusk the mosquitoes buzzed off so instead we lay on the sand and fell asleep under a twinkling roof of stars.

Plunging & portaging

On day three we shot into the great foaming waves of the Chamamba rapid. It’s one of the few that has an African name: many of the Zambezi’s rapids were named by the non-native pioneer rafters who made the first descent – hence the eccentric and largely terrifying English names: The Muncher, Oblivion, Gnashing Jaws of Death.

But there was no time to consider etymology now. Koryn lined the raft up, and then down the green tongue we went. We were going well when a great curve of water seemed to go through us rather than over us. I felt myself going, felt my grip loosening.

I felt myself going, felt my grip loosening...

Somehow I clung on, but those behind me had less to hold on to. The next thing I knew, fellow rafters Andrew and Helen were popping up out of the foam like eager seals, their jackets keeping them afloat in the raging torrent. Koryn spun the raft and Andrew and Helen kept pace alongside until we reached the quieter water. We pulled them aboard with much grunting and straining, but it was encouraging to know that it was possible to survive falling in.

It wasn’t all such high-energy action. There were stretches of cruising along on more placid waters, taking in the sounds and smells of the African bush. There were no villages on the river, just a few empty huts and waving fishermen. But despite this seemingly uninhabited territory, porters would magically appear at times to help us portage around any particularly violent rapids. Portaging – carrying your boat and belongings along the bank – in a lightweight birchbark canoe is easy.

But two rafts and all the gear for ten people would have taken all day to shift without our helpers. For $7 each they carried everything.

From ghosts to crocodiles

There was no portaging around Ghostrider though. We’d heard about this rapid. Talked about it. It’s beyond the range of the short trips arranged from Victoria Falls so only a minority ever take it on. Finally, after much paddling and being pummelled by water, we’d arrived. In a sense every rapid on the Zambezi is summed up by Ghostrider. It’s the longest, biggest, wildest, most sustained wave train on the river.

I had shot rapids in a canoe before, but nothing like this. First, it’s long – it just stretches on and on. And the waves are regularly spaced, like the humpy spine of some aquatic monster that is trying to buck you into oblivion. They’re also high – several metres higher than ought to be allowed on a river. But a raft is a very forgiving boat. We butted and smashed our way along, hung on tight and lost no one. Was Ghostrider a pleasant experience? Ghostrider was the experience.

Young crocodiles resting next to the Zambezi River (Shutterstock)
Young crocodiles resting next to the Zambezi River (Shutterstock)

After surviving this natural washing machine, there was some respite. The water flattened out and grew calmer. The terrain in the valley grew more wooded; every so often we passed a bulbous baobab tree.

Chacma baboons screeched from the banks, making the boat actually seem like a safe place to be – chacmas can be ferocious and are quite capable of scaring off an attacking leopard.

We also began to see crocodiles. Some were the small, slender-snouted species, but in the main we saw Nile crocodiles, some more than 4m long. The gap between a crocodile’s eyes in inches is roughly equal to their length in feet, so they say. I looked at a pair of eyes – all I could see – poking just above the water, worryingly close to the raft, and did some mental arithmetic.

This was not the point of the river at which to fall in.

But is there ever a good point? If you survived the crocs, you’d then face the hippos. A bloat of the grey-pink beasts wallowed in the river, chuckling to each other and watching us. We watched them, too – hippos can be extremely aggressive if they take a dislike to you. When we saw seven of them on a submerged rock Koryn sheered off towards the bank, taking no chances.

Then, quite suddenly, after crossing a few minor ripples, we arrived at the Matetsi River where a chopper, buzzing like something out of a ’Nam movie, was waiting on the gravel beach to swoop us back up the 120km we’d just paddled. It was an awesome sight, following the fissure of Batoka Gorge from a falcon’s perspective.

I thought back to the first rule of rafting – that the rapids always look smaller from above than when you’re in them – and realised, partly with horror, partly with the smug satisfaction of a homecoming hero, that they looked pretty enormous from up here too.

Plan your trip...

When to go
The main rafting period on the Zambezi is August to October. At this time the water levels are dropping – the more they drop, the wilder the rapids, so expect more ferocious currents later in the season. Only experts and madmen attempt rafting trips in November and December.

Make it happen
Zambezi rafting features on many adventurous group trip itineraries, so there's plenty of choice. Abercrombie & Kent's Family Adventure to Zambia can be tailored to suit all ages, and includes adrenalin-pumping rafting as well as more sedate canoe safaris. If you've got 43 days to get to grips with Africa, try Absolute Africa's Rivers of Africa trip: you'll raft on the Zambezi, as part of a whopping six-country tour. Oasis Overland's Victoria Falls to Cape Town is perfect for budget-wary travellers: £545 will buy you an action-packed 21-day trip, including white water rafting on the Zambezi.

What to take
You need items that you can strap to yourself – river rapids are no respecter of property. Therefore you’ll need strap-on sandals or trainers to raft in, and a band to keep your sunglasses on your head. Also useful are a karabiner for fastening your water bottle to the boat, a cap (worn under your helmet) to keep the sun off and waterproof sunscreen.

Health & safety
While chucking yourself into churning waters in an inflatable sounds dangerous, it really isn’t as long as you travel with trained professionals. You don’t even need to be able to swim – your buoyancy jacket will keep you afloat. You do need to like water, however – you’re going to get very wet. You also need to be fit enough to hop in and out of a raft. Make sure you’re up to date with your vaccinations and ask your GP or a travel clinic about malaria prophylaxis.

Main image: White water rafting (Shutterstock)

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