Swallowed by the Zambezi

SPRAY SKIRT: Victoria Falls is the largest sheet of falling water on planet. Its swirling mist of vapour can be seen from 50 kilometres.
SPRAY SKIRT: Victoria Falls is the largest sheet of falling water on planet. Its swirling mist of vapour can be seen from 50 kilometres.

This doesn’t look good. We’re heading towards a towering wall of water that has capsize written all over it. We paddle hard, digging deep into the swirling river, hoping to power through. We hit the wave square on and the raft is flung skywards.

Suddenly, I’m paddling through thin air and I’m no longer in the raft. Everyone else has managed to grab the safety rope, but I’ve been catapulted into the middle of Terminator 2, a class-5 rapid.

I surface, wide-eyed with fear, and look around for help. Seconds later, a support kayak appears and tows me through the churning waters back to the boat. 

HANG ON: Into the Jaws of Death on a Zambezi rafting thrillride.
HANG ON: Into the Jaws of Death on a Zambezi rafting thrillride.

Tembo, our guide, hauls me back in and hands me my paddle. "Next time," he says, smiling, "grab the rope."

This is the second time I’ve rafted the Zambezi River and this encounter is every bit as terrifyingly exciting as the first one was 10 years ago. After thundering over the 1708-metre-wide Victoria Falls, the river froths and boils its way through a zig-zagging canyon of basalt rock, creating 25 rapids with ominous names such as The Gnashing Jaws of Death.

I’m here in March when the high water flow means we can tackle only rapids 11 to 25. Visit between July and January and you can often run all 25.

We're in safe hands. Tembo has rafted the Zambezi more than 3000 times, but even he can’t predict what the river will do. Fifteen minutes later, we’re all in, this time at the class-5 Oblivion, where a mountainous wave appears out of nowhere and flips the boat like a tiddlywink.

After three adrenaline-fuelled hours of paddling, we stumble wearily out of the rafts and into a cable car that whisks us out of the canyon.

When you’ve just spent the morning battling The Gnashing Jaws of Death, there are few more welcoming sights than The Royal Livingstone Hotel. Located on the Zambian side of the Zambezi River, just a few hundred metres upstream from the falls, it’s a colonial-era haven of antique furnishings, lazy ceiling fans and impeccable service.

Were it not for the wide range of activities available, I could easily have whiled away my stay in a haze of riverside massages, afternoon teas and sunset cocktails.

The hotel’s proximity to the falls is one of its biggest drawcards and the following morning I walk there with a local guide.

While Victoria Falls is not the highest or widest waterfall in the world, it is the largest sheet of falling water anywhere on the planet.

On average, 1000 tonnes of water a second come crashing down into the 108m-deep canyon, creating a swirling mist of vapour that rises 500m and can be seen 50 kilometres away.

We battle through the mist, passing a series of lookouts, before getting buffeted by spray-soaked winds on the disconcertingly narrow Knife Edge Bridge that vaults the river.

While being this close to the falls is undeniably impressive, you are almost too close to fully appreciate its scale and grandeur. Fortunately, there are many other ways to marvel at this natural wonder.

The next day I’m speeding down a makeshift grass runway, in what looks worryingly like a cross between a hang glider and a hair dryer, with a strapping young German called Heiko wedged between my thighs.

It's my first time in a microlight and I’m astonished at how quickly we’re airborne. Thirty seconds later, we’re over the Zambezi River. Five minutes after that, we’re swooping majestically over the falls.

Unlike in a helicopter, where you’re cocooned and somewhat removed from your surroundings, there is nothing between me and one of Africa’s most spectacular sights. Not only can I see and hear the falls, but I can smell, taste and feel them.

From this vantage point, I can clearly see how the falls have moved upstream over thousands of years. This is now the eighth site, the first being 10km downstream.

On the way back, Heiko lets me steer. Despite lasting only 15 minutes, the flight is the highlight of my trip.
For my final encounter with the Smoke that Thunders, I’m collected by speedboat from the dock in front of The Royal Livingstone and whisked across the Zambezi.

In a small way, I’m recreating the journey taken by the first European to see the falls, Scottish explorer Dr David Livingstone, when he was brought here by dugout canoe in 1855. Legend has it that the natives told him that the vapour he could see in the distance was smoke so as not to spoil the surprise.

Stepping onto the island that bisects the falls and which bears his name, I try to imagine how he must have felt when he first saw it. Later, he famously wrote: ‘‘Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.’’

Eustace, my guide, takes my hand and beckons me towards the edge. There are no railings and no safety nets, just a furious torrent of water plunging into an impenetrable cloud of mist. I pose nervously for a photo before hurriedly retreating. I had no idea it was possible to get this close to the edge.

It turns out that Eustace has even more adventurous plans for me. We walk to the other side of the island where, to my horror, he starts wading into the river, just metres from where it cascades over the falls. It turns out we’re headed for Champagne Pool, a natural jacuzzi sheltered by rocks. Thankfully, the river is too high to make it to the more famous Devil’s Pool, which is even nearer the edge.

I sink back into the swirling warm water, feeling quietly relieved. The falls are spellbindingly beautiful, but this is quite close enough for me.

The writer was a guest of The Royal Livingstone Hotel.

FAST FACTS

Staying there: The five-star Royal Livingstone Hotel is located on the Zambian side of the Zambezi River, walking distance from Victoria Falls. See suninternational.com.

Touring there: Safari Par Excellence runs a range of rafting trips on the Zambezi River. Rates start at US$135 per person. See safpar.net.

Livingstone Adventures offers a 15-minute microlight flight over the falls for US$140 per person. See livingstonesadventure.com.

Tongabezi Tours runs five trips a day to Livingstone Island from US$70 per person. See tongabezi.com.

There are also more sedate activities available, such as a sunset Zambezi cruise on the African Queen riverboat and
a six-course dinner on the Royal Livingstone Express, a beautiful, restored 1920s locomotive. See livingstones
adventure.com
; royal-livingstone-express.com.

The Dominion Post