A woman in a man’s life jacket – Nicola Simpson

Raft guiding on big volume rivers like the Zambezi is hard work, and normally reserved for tough men who manhandle these big rafts through the monstrous rapids with brute strength combined with well polished skills. There are women who step up to the challenge though, and more often than not, display a certain kind of finesse in doing so. Nicola is one of that special breed of women who succeeded in earning the respect of their more muscular counterparts in this tough environment.

1992. Rafting season on the mighty Zambezi, Victoria Falls. First African Woman River Guide. Grade 5 rapids, big holes, steep gradients, diagonals that hold boats and surf. Big Surf. Terminator, Devil’s Toilet Bowl, Oblivion. Aching arms and back. Bleeding hands, cracked ribs. Open infected wounds from oars smacking into shins, bruised hip bones. Black eyes from surfing in rapids with flying paddles and oars. Swimming so deep below the surface that ears pop, nose bleeds. Dark, murky, quiet. No sympathy from anyone. “You want to be like us – show us you can – carry the boat, pump the tubes and thwarts, fix your own oar rig.” Some 23 km of rowing a day. A sizzling 40 degrees Celsius heat in the gorge. Walking out at the end of the day, against a two-in-one gradient. Cool refreshments at the top, the elation from clients whose expectations have been surpassed. And tomorrow I get to do this all over again. Bliss.

The Zambezi River in the gorges below Victoria Falls is classified as a Grade 5 river. The official definition of a grade 5 river, as defined by the book of the British Canoe Union is as follows: “Extremely difficult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops, pressure areas”. I acknowledge that I am aware that the consequences of an accident whilst rafting on the Zambezi River can be serious. I understand that in the course of a river descent, I can be thrown from the boat and fall into water at any point on the river.
Shearwater Indemnity form

It was the biggest rafting day of the season. We had fourteen boats on the river – 16 feet Avon Oar boats – with an Executive Corporate group from Cape Town. The porters were up early, inflating rafts, fixing oar frames, ensuring there was enough safety gear on the boats. The river guides were making sure that all preparation was in place and that tea and coffee were on the boil. We were looking really smart: clean shaven (my legs, their faces) and shirts tucked in.

The clients arrived on time. Tall, short, big and small – all excited to be rafting on the mighty Zambezi, below the Victoria Falls. They were all wearing T-shirts with their company’s logo and dialogue written along the lines of “man or mouse…?” They were all cloned, indicating that this was a real teambuild.

There were roars of laughter during the safety briefing and a few concerned faces indicating trepidation. What were they in for? It was October 1992, and the water level had dropped, creating big kicking rapids, drops, diagonals that were flipping boats, and surfing white water.

For this event all the boats the company owned were in use. Even a few dinosaur rafts had been pulled out of storage and the cobwebs dusted off. It was a hot day for the river and excitement was in the air.

Following the safety briefing, I found I was at the back of the queue managing those that were finding it difficult to traverse down the gorge. The rails were slippery from the sweaty hands ahead, and the steps were steep, making the walk difficult for those of a nervous disposition.

And there it was – the only yellow boat on the river. It had been out of commission for the past season, as the agreement was that the thwarts and buckles could not manage the strength of the water. All the other river guides smiled and gave me a thumbs up, grateful that they were not the last to arrive. And then it got more interesting – I had eight of the BIGGEST men in the group step into my boat to challenge the only female guide on the river, hoping for the most carnage on the day. “Sweet Brave Souls” – how right they were on the day.

As I pulled out of the eddy with approximately 860kg of weight in my raft, the split pin of my right oar broke! I was not able to fasten the ball inside the shaft, making the right oar extremely loose. We had ferried out of the eddy and were above the rapid with a useless right oar and no spare available from any other boat. I tried to tie the oar with “reggin” (tyre strips) to keep it balanced, and managed a clean run through the first rapid of the day, with a great deal of manoeuvring with my left oar. With the excess weight in my boat, the rapids were in submission, and the hole and wall of water at the bottom of the rapid was managed with relative ease.

Between the rapids, a spare pin was sourced and fixed into my oar frame and the rapid “Stairway to Heaven” (or “Highway to hell”) was a good run. The crew in my boat started shouting and jeering those from other boats who had flipped and swum through previous rapids, having seen the underside of their boats. High levels of confidence and a little arrogance were coming from the group on my boat.

Devil’s Toilet Bowl was around the corner. At this time of the season there is a definite kick on the right side of the rapid and it surges – sometimes with surprising effect. At the bottom of the rapid is a whirlpool that swells, sometimes sucking sections of the boat into its guts. This is the one rapid on the river that has an uncomfortable swim, as the whirlpool can draw and drag a body down deep before spitting it out further downstream.

The first four diagonals at the entrance into the rapid were fine. The men had eased themselves into their safety positions, ready to give a big “highside” when given the instruction. And then we committed! We hit the left diagonal before the main drop and I slipped off my seat, losing my right oar and then losing my balance grabbing the middle of my left oar with the left hand and arm. But suddenly the boat was sucked down on the right side and flipped. I was still holding onto the oar doing a full 180 degree rotation in the air and I landed in the middle of my upside-down boat – without getting my feet wet!

Immediate recovery followed with eight men in the water. I counted the bodies, some with the boat and others being rescued by other rafts. I pulled my flipline from my waist, attached the karabiner to the ring on the flipline and re-righted my boat. Two of the men had serious swims with ears popping and consequently, bloody noses.

The irony was that for 80% of the rafting season, there is no photographer or videographer filming this rapid. Today there were both. As my rescue was now complete, we continued down the river towards “Gulliver’s Travels”, and the video and photo kayakers paddled up to the boat with their mouths agape, having witnessed this extraordinary action. Their comment was “wait until you see what you did!”

At this stage I was completely oblivious to what had occurred. In my mind the boat had flipped in the worst rapid and due to its dreadful consequence for swimmers, I was more concerned about the welfare of the crew in my boat. My ribs ached and my arm was in pain – but this was natural for a day on the river.

The comments from the other boats who had witnessed the event was “how?”, “never seen before”, “do you know what just happened?”, “incredible”. We managed the rest of the rapids with a subdued crew until just before lunch when the boat floor started to sink. I asked the men to take their weight off the floor and put more pressure on the tubes. My floor valve had a leak and was losing air while the boat was gaining water!

We limped to lunch, dragging gallons of water. The porters attempted to get most of the water out of the tubes, but had no remedy to fix the valve. I was going to have a long tough afternoon. I spent most of the mealtime trying to fix my boat and feed my aching body with enough to give me energy to get through the rest of the day.

Number 11, “Creamy White Buttocks”, was the first rapid of the afternoon. The men were back on track, ready for an afternoon of fun. As we punched the right diagonal wave, my thwart (circular inflated tube which is clipped to the two side tubes of the boat) popped. Both of the buckles had broken due to the pressure of the punch, and I landed under the seat on a sinking floor.

The afternoon was torture, facing some of the biggest rapids of the day with a heavy crew, a sinking floor and a useless inflated thwart. A line from one of U2’s songs came to mind: “Does it get any better…”

The eight men were elated – they had just conquered one of the greatest white water rivers in the world, with only a flip and a big swim on a broken boat – they had survived!

The walk out, the 750 feet vertical climb, a cold drink, a few cracked ribs and a headache from hell – I collapsed in the bus back to town, having promised my team that I would meet with them later in the evening to watch the video highlights of the day’s rafting.

What was witnessed that evening has gone down in the history books of rafting. The flip in Devil’s Toilet Bowl was captured on both video and camera and there was continuous replay of what had occurred. Every delegate purchased the video and their photos. To date no guide has managed the same manoeuvre (although many have tried and come close…). My little yellow boat was a beast, and I was privileged to have been a part of the legend.

Welcome to Victoria Falls! Welcome to the Mighty Zambezi River!

Nicola Simpson grew up in Zimbabwe, before completing her school and university studies in South Africa. She travelled overseas in the early 90’s, after which she found her way back to Victoria Falls to spend the 1992-1993 rafting season on the Zambezi. Another stint of travelling followed before Shearwater Adventures offered Nicola a managerial opportunity in the company in 1995, which allowed her the opportunity to pursue her dream of also kayaking the mighty Zambezi.

Contiki Tours and Holidays was her next growth period with trips through Victoria Falls every few weeks, again giving her the change to kayak the gorge, until she was transferred to South Africa in 1997.

Her adventurous marriage to James has included lots of kayaking trips; a highlight being their “Year around the World” trip in 2003. In 2006, Nicola and James ventured up to Zimbabwe once again, taking executive directorship positions at Shearwater in Victoria Falls.