I promised myself if I made it to Livingstone, Zambia I would raft the Zambezi river no matter how scared I was. I was petrified after talking with travelers earlier in my trip who shared their stories rafting this river. A twenty something woman told me, “you will fall out of the raft. Sure, it’s scary. It feels like it’s forever before you come up for air and then you have to wait to get pulled back in the raft but when the ride ends you’ll just want more.” Somehow, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea. Falling out of a raft into cold water in rapids doesn’t sound like fun to me.
So I signed up! It was slightly easier knowing Martin and Ingvild were rafting too. We got picked up at 7:30 am and I was signing a silly indemnity form by 8:15 am. It was lengthy but readable and was very not reassuring when the company snuck in a line, reading: “the company will not be held responsible even if it’s gross negligence due to staff or company.” Hmmm… No responsibility even if it’s their fault. Great. Sounds good. But I guess that’s what fine print in the US probably says too.
We all ate breakfast of eggs, toast, sausage and beans and then listened to safety tips, grabbed gear-helmets, life jackets and a rash guard- and then jumped into one of the five open land cruisers with bench seats. We were driven 15 minutes away with the wind blasting in our face. Occasionally I would duck down to avoid the rush of the wind and perk up to observe the villages and the people we were passing by. It’s a bit strange to go from a nice hotel (with camping) with a full bar, restaurant, lots of electricity to a village without access to electricity, woman fetching water and fire wood and walking a long distance, cooking over a fire, and their homes made of wood and thatch. How can both worlds live so closely? Do the people from the village feel annoyed by all the “white” folks passing by in a nice vehicles to raft the Zambezi? What do they think?
I would later learn one of the raft guides was born and raised in this village and was sharing all his knowledge about it. Where the school is, the bell only elders can ring for a community meeting, building their homes etc. It brought new perspective as he benefited from the rafting and yet was still proud of his culture and his village and happy to share.
We arrived at the destination and sat on broken down wooden bleachers to have a briefing on safety and what to do if you fall out of the raft. Step one: DON’T PANIC! The camera man took an awesome photo of me- arms crossed, hair in a ponytail, with an expression of uncertainty of rafting down the Zambezi.
The fun part began when we all had to trek down to the river, a good five stories below with me wearing flip flops and carrying my gear. The paddle was handy and good for stability. Climbing down would be the most difficult of the rafting experience.
Finally, we all made it down to the river. We were divided into groups from 5-8 amongst 5 rafts. Our group of five boarded the raft last as our guide, from Zimbabwe with 15 years of experience on the Zambezi, would have one of the safety rafts with 2 long oars strapped to the raft. I questioned our safety, if we capsized. He wasn’t concerned. All rafts did a quick rafting 101 dive course in forward and back paddle and down- get inside the raft! All rafts but ours had everyone fall over board and then practice pulling everyone back in in a calm stretch of the river, of course!
I was nervous and happy for the calm stretches but that’s not why anyone goes rafting. Our guide would tell us of each approaching rapid and it’s given name. The first few rapids we encountered, I was secretly counting them down, excited to have managed to stay in the raft and be fine, adrenaline pumping.
It’s amazing how much you focus on paddling when you’re nearing ducking for cover when you approach and hit the rapids. A game. I was happy to just be done with them while enjoying the excitement. Only a few rapids in, we reached a danger rapid zone due to the water levels so we had to navigate our rafts ashore, climb up the steep rocks and walk to the other side as our raft guides carefully navigated the rapids solo. Bravery. In hindsight, trekking along the steep rocks as well as getting down to the river, was the most challenging of everything.
As I steadily got used to paddling hard and ducking into the raft as a wave of water washed over us, I was really starting to appreciate and respect the experience. My countdown slowly turned into my hope we could add a few more stretches of river to our plan. Of course, it was high water season so some sections of the river were a no go zone unless you really wanted to tempt faith, so much so that the likely outcome would be death! I was enjoying the thrill but had no intention to test the earth’s natural wonders. There were four solo kayaks who were part of the safety and photo crew. They were professionals flipping in and out of rapids, whitewashed numerous times and having a grand time as if this were a day in the park. I would be terrified. I wonder where any of them got the courage to give kayaking a try in the first place. Occasionally, a kayaker would shimmy their kayak on board our raft for a moment to relax and get a temporary lift down the river or splashing passengers when we least expected it.
Before I knew it, we were paddling ashore, posing for one more photo for the film crew. Lucky us, we didn’t have to trek up the hill to get back to our land cruisers as a gondola was waiting for us. Once we made it to the top, we saw other rafters who went with another company walking up the steep long hillside Poor things. Apparently, the owner of this rafting company is French and didn’t get on with the owner of the Gondola requiring their passengers to do it the old fashioned way- walk. At the top, a small kiosk of African trinkets for sale were carefully placed for us to notice. Chocolate, fruit beer and soft drinks were also awaiting us until we made it back to the hotel for our lunch.
We had a lunch of white rice, vegetables and ground beef in a red sauce. Some complained that it was mystery meat. Though I may have hoped for something a bit more or different considering this was part of a nice hotel, I wasn’t complaining. I’d eaten far more sketchy items. It’s all relative. Right?
then lunch… of stewed vegetables and ground meat. somehow the veggie option seemed more appetizing but African dishes aren’t always looking so good.