Saturday, January 8, 2011

Stairway to Heaven and the Gnashing Jaws of Death

Whitewater rafting on the Zambezi river is referred to by some as the "wildest one day whitewater run in the world." It also appears on many "Top 5" and "Top 10" lists of best rivers to raft in the world. I couldn't miss out on an opportunity like that. The section of the river we went on was about 25 km long and there are 23 rapids, including 4-6 class 5 rapids.

The rapids have names like "Stairway to Heaven," "Devil's Toilet Bowl," and "Gnashing Jaws of Death," (which wasn't nearly as bad as the name suggests). The river was as wild as advertised in parts and overall quite scenic. The whole river runs through a gorge that has 100 meter sheer rock walls on either side.

We walked down a precarious pathway to get to the water and got in our boat. After the customary safety briefing and a demonstration of how to paddle and the different strokes, we were off. The first rapid is literally right at the put in point and is called the "Boiling Pot." It is a class 4 rapid that flings boats up against a sheer rock wall. We rowed into the rapid and, unsurprisingly, were flung quickly into that wall. The boat went perpendicular to the water and I held on the raft with everything I had. One of the other volunteers with me fell overboard and somehow the rafter righted itself. We then went underneath the bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe and watched people bungee jumping off of it.

We continued on down the river and through the rapids. Here is a listing and description of all of them. I sat in the front of the raft and definitely swallowed my share of Zambezi River water. Sometimes we passed easily through rapids and sometimes I thought we were going to sink. It was terrifying and time and exhilarating at others.

Then we got to Rapid #8 called "Midnight Diner." On this one all boats have a choice of staying to the right and having an easy class 3 run, or going through the middle, which is a class 5 rapid, and possibly flipping the boat. We voted to run the middle. The guide told us how we would run it and then said something like "when we flip, remember to try to hold on." I thought to myself, "wait, did he just say when we flip?" We shot the rapid and almost immediately hit a large wall of water. We never had a chance. The raft flipped and we were all in the water. I was able to hold on and stayed with the raft while we flipped it right side up and got everyone back in. Some of the others looked terrified that we had flipped but I thought the whole thing was fun.

The rest of the rafting went fairly without incident. there was a class 6 rapid that we had to portage around and it rained for about an hour after lunch. It was cold but really interesting to be out on the water in the middle of a big thunderstorm. There was a clap of thunder directly overhead and it echoed throughout the canyon. It was the longest and loudest thunder I have ever heard.
There were even stretches where we could jump out of the rafts and just float down the river. There aren't any hippos in the area and only a few crocodiles so it was not dangerous to do so. It was a long and grueling day but easily the best rafting I have done.