The “Mighty Zambezi” has become one of the most incomparable rivers in the world. It is big, wild and intimidating, but relatively easy and safe, making it a mecca for commercial river rafters from all over the globe, and a playboater’s heaven.
At a length of 3540km it is the fourth longest river on the continent. It rises in northwestern Zambia, from where it makes a bend through Angola, and then travel south through Zambia, before heading east to the Indian Ocean. On its course it forms the border of northeastern Botswana and the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe, where it flows through Lake Kariba. Further down it crosses central Mozambique, where it flows through the lake of Cabora Bassa Dam, and then into the Mozambique Channel, before meeting the ocean. Along its course, various sections of whitewater can be found, but the most famous rapids can be found in the Batoka Gorge.
Victoria Falls, alias “Mosi-o-Tunya” or “Smoke that Thunders”, is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It is also a World Heritage site. The Falls mark the start of the Batoka Gorge, where the Zambezi provides the best one-day whitewater rafting trips in the world.
Apart from the rafting, other commercial activities are also offered, providing a full-on adventure holiday. Anything from bungi-jumping to body-boarding to hot-air ballooning is on offer for thrill-seekers.
Several luxurious hotels and bush camps in the area cater for all levels of affluency. More rustic activities can also be undertaken, such as game drives and flat-water cruises above the Falls. The river is wide and flat above the Falls, offering close-range viewing of Africa’s plenitude of wild animals.
The myth of the Nyaminyami, the river god, has been exploited on a large scale by entrepreneurs, who have amplified its status far beyond that which the BaTonga people could have imagined.
The small town of Victoria Falls used to be the hub of activity for travellers, but since the political turmoil in Zimbabwe, it has lost some of its business to Zambia on the other side of the river. The little town of Livingstone on the Zambian side, named after explorer David Livingstone who discovered and named the Victoria Falls, is used as a base by many kayakers who want to play the Zambezi.
All the rapids below the Falls, where the rafting trips start, have been given names and numbers. These rapids are well known in paddling circles and even among members of the general public, in whose eyes these rapids are the ultimate whitewater challenge. Although the rapids are really big with oversized holes, most of them are straightforward to run and few genuine hazards exist. The rapids are mostly short, with long pools between them, giving enough time for recovery. At commercial water levels the rapids are mostly within the class 3 to 4 range. The rapids are described below, showing what the hype is all about.
• Rapid No 1: A big wave-train running into a wall. The start of the intimidation for first-timers in the gorge.
• Rapid No 2: Easy rapid to run, with a mixed wave/hole for playboaters.
• Rapid No 3: Easy to run, great fast wave to surf.
• Rapid No 3.5: Small retentive hole on the left for surfing. Nothing to worry about when running the rapid.
• Rapid No 4: “Morning Glory”. One of the more difficult (and enjoyable) rapids to run, resulting in lots of swims. When the water gets higher, the top pour-over washes out and forms an excellent wave.
• Rapid No 5: “Stairway to Heaven”. There is an amazingly big wave at the bottom, causing major action when rafts hit it. On the right is a pour-over for those who want to do a more unorthodox run, with a nice hole to surf just above it.
• Rapid No 5.5: Nice waves to surf, nothing to worry about when cruising down.
• Rapid No 6: “Devil’s Toilet Bowl”. A deep washing machine hole for the brave hearted, easily avoidable by everyone else.
• Rapid No 7: “Gulliver’s Travels”. The longest and most technical rapid of the stretch. At low to medium level, avoid the “Gap”, and the “Temple of Doom”, two nasty spots in the rapid.
• Rapid No 8: “Star Trek”. A really massive hole with a great surfing wave on its left.
• Rapid No 9: “Commercial Suicide”. The rafts portage it, some kayakers run it. It has a big pour-over and hole, not avoidable, but runnable by competent paddlers.
• Rapid No 10: “Gnashing Jaws of Death”. Easy.
• Rapid No 11: “Overland Truck Eater”. It is run on the left to avoid a nasty hole, but be careful not to go into the boils next to the left bank. At high levels the rapid is open from left to right. An amazing barrel wave forms in the centre twice a year for about a week and a half each time, at the end of June and mid January, depending on the water levels.
• Rapids No 12A, 12B and 12C: “Three Ugly Sisters”. 12A is easy. 12B is the famous surfing wave. It is a big, river-wide wave, 2 meters high, with green and foamy sections, and it works from mid August to mid December. 12C is nothing special.
• Rapid No 13: “The Mother”. This is a huge wave train, with some nice waves to surf.
• Rapid No 14: “Surprise Surprise”. A little rapid, but the bony centre should be avoided at low levels. At medium level, a good playhole forms in the middle.
• Rapid No 15: “Washing Machine”. A wave train with a big hole at the bottom centre that must be avoided. At high water the hole disappears.
• Rapid No 16: “The Terminator”. It is small at low water but becomes a very long and big wave train at high water.
• Rapid No 17: “Double Trouble”. It has two holes close to each other. At low levels they should be avoided.
• Rapid No 18: “Oblivion”. It is a big, violent hole where rafts do all the freestyle moves with clients going everywhere. The hole is actually not dangerous, and it is great fun. Try to surf it, and hold your breath when the thrashing starts.
Just above Rapid No 1 is the Boiling Pot. Rapids No –1 and No –2, which are beneath the Falls and accessible at low levels, have been run, but are solid class 5’s.
A trip down the gorge starts at rapid No 1 from the Zambian side and rapid No 4 from the Zimbabwean side. The trips can end anywhere from 18 to 23, depending on which rafting company you join. At high water, the section from 1 to 10 is not rafted commercially (because rapid No 9 cannot be portaged at a high level), and trips start at number 11.
The best time for serious action is from September to January, when the water is low and the waves are big. Most rapids wash out a bit at higher levels. Don’t underestimate the river at higher levels when in a kayak, though. Some monster whirlpools form, especially at the narrow sections between numbers 11 and 18.
One other aspect of the trip down the gorge that has gained a reputation in its own right is the climb out. The gorge is 220m deep at the take-out point, making for a strenuous climb.
Below Rapid No 18, the rapids become smaller and further apart. There are, however, a few really big rapids further down, which can be run when joining a multi-day trip. The multi-day trips are either 2 ½ or 5 days long. From about the fourth day, hippos can be seen.
Shearwater, Safari Par Excellence and Intrapid Rafting offer various commercial trips in the gorge.
This river description is taken from my book “Run the Rivers of Southern Africa”.
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