Victoria Falls & white water rafting on the
them "the smoke that thunders". It is
a name far more evocative of the power and grandeur
of the Victoria Falls than that bestowed on them
by a white man trying to ingratiate himself with
a far-off monarch.
At this time of
year the broad and hitherto placid Zambezi, swollen
from seasonal rains, flows over the falls at a
rate of 400,000 cubic metres a minute, crashing
on to rocks 100 metres below. Nothing prepares
you for such a sight.
anything prepare you for the enveloping welcome
of the "creamy white buttocks", the
post-imperialist nickname for a set of foaming
rapids greeting those who choose to ride the river
beyond the falls.
All that water,
stretching across the 1km-long falls is concentrated
into a narrow ravine, in some areas no more than
30 metres wide. Little wonder, then, that it was
more than 100 years after the first European set
eyes on the falls before anyone decided to explore
how stimulating it might be to negotiate the rapids.
A group of rafting
enthusiasts from Los Angeles decided to test them
out in 1981. The group formed a rafting company,
now operating from the Zambia side of the river.
Thus was born
one more addition to what has become an almost
bewildering range of stunts designed to produce
adrenalin rushes for young people who have never
heard an air-raid siren or the whine of a doodle
offers what has to be one of the world's top thrill-seeking
assignments. First you can see the falls, then
you must fly over them in a micro-light aircraft
or helicopter. Finally you can ride the rapids.
If that is not enough you can leave your brain
at the hotel and leap off the bridge over the
gorge attached by the legs to a 100-metre-long
piece of elastic. People pay nearly £100
a time to do this. I settled for the rapids. Aficionados
told me they were not as worrying at this time
of year - just after the rains - as they were
in the low water season. The huge volume of water
has a cushioning effect on the rocks.
No one appeared
to have told the crew of an accompanying raft
as we swept down the first set of rapids and they
were catapulted, en masse, into the foam.
All the rapids
have nicknames. Beyond the buttocks were "terminator
one" and "terminator two", and
the "washing machine". The epithet "oblivion"
was reserved for a particularly nasty set of rocks.
Rapids, like rock-climbs, are graded for their
degree of adversity up to six. The Zambezi river
rapids reach a degree of 5-plus.
Safi, the head
guide of Sheerwater Rafts, the biggest operator
on the Zimbabwe side of the river, told us that
we had two choices on the rafts. We could either
have a passive role where an oarsman steered the
boat and the occupants simply hung on, or we could
each take a paddle, perch on the side, and do
our bit to control it ourselves.
It was not an
easy choice. I had been worried enough about the
journey to pen some funeral instructions earlier
that morning. Dylan Thomas's evocation, "Do
not go gentle into that good night," seemed
appropriate so I grabbed a paddle.
Our steerer, a
burly Zimbabwian, nicknamed Hippo, partly because
of his girth and partly because of his love of
total immersion, told us he had no intention of
going in the water. This was encouraging because
I was sharing the raft with seven Australians
from Telstra, the Australian state-owned telecoms
group, one of whom seemed intent on getting a
ducking. "Are we going to flip it?"
he asked expectantly.
Now, I don't mind
doing something with an element of risk, but when
someone over whom I have no control is intent
upon introducing an additional degree of recklessness,
I become upset. I measured the thickness of my
paddle blade against the gap between his chin
and chest. If it came to it, I thought, a swiftly
administered chop to the throat would do the trick.
The only drawback
of sharing a raft with seven Australians is that
they insist on entertaining you with a full compendium
of the perils of living in Australia (even if
they themselves rarely get out of the suburbs).
This included the "red back" spider
which hides under lavatory seats and bites your
bottom (non-lethal), the "stingers"
(lethal), venomous jellyfish which inhabit the
seas around Darwin, the saltwater crocodile (incredibly
lethal), which live among the stingers, and the
funnel web spider (lethal and intelligent) which
creeps into shoes and sleeping bags.
webs have a memory. I heard of an occasion when
one of their number, swiped away in an angry gesture,
pursued its tormentor across a road, ran up his
leg, and delivered the coup de grace.
None of these
dangers seemed particularly immediate or relevant
apart from the crocodiles. We saw small crocodiles
on rocks by the side of the river. These had survived
being washed over the falls.
companions, however, had more pertinent tales
of terror. Colin, a veteran of white water rafting
on the rivers Tully and Namoi, spoke of rapids
so turbulent that they bent the front of the raft
sufficiently to meet the rear. In those circumstances
the occupants tended to be catapulted out as it
The stories could
not have been closer to home. The indemnity form
we signed before the trip seemed longer and more
comprehensive than the US Constitution, enough
to beat off the most formidable stateside contingency
There is a reason
for this. About six people have been lost since
rafting began on the river. Only last autumn a
Manchester woman drowned when she was sucked under
after her raft capsized. The previous May a South
African broke his neck on a rock.
The rapids must
be treated with respect. One raft became stuck
in what is known as the "seven day eddie",
a swirl of water so powerful it is impossible
to paddle out of it. It had to be dragged away
after its occupants leaped to the bank. We watched
them after clambering on to the rocky bank on
the Zambia side of the river.
What was it like?
Is there anything to be afraid of? Is it necessary
to make your will beforehand? It was rather like
riding on a roller-coaster, perched on the top
of the seat, without a safety harness and without
the certainty and direction afforded by rails.
There were no
footholds on the rafts so the most useful prop
was the paddle dug into the water.
do not insist upon swimming ability - it wouldn't
be much use - but they do expect some confidence
in the water and everyone has to practise jumping
in and climbing back on board before they begin.
Some level of
fitness is also desirable, if only to negotiate
the 750ft climb out of the gorge.
I was impressed
by the standard of supervision but depressed by
the foolhardiness of my younger companions who
were at that age when they believe they are indestructible.
particularly after the rains, is usually sufficient
to carry you well clear of rocks. But turbulent
white water can be dangerous. It is that element
of uncertainty that attracts people.
It was probably
an acceptable risk, possibly less than cycling
in London traffic. Definitely less, it seems,
than that undertaken daily by the average suburban
Australian. But then, we didn't fall out.