White Water Rafting the Zambesi River – back from a potential watery grave with a smile on your face!

What better way to face a near death experience than with one of your best mates? Our first go at white water rafting was on the Zambesi River below the mighty Victoria Falls in Zambia in August, 2004 (almost 10 years ago to the day. Wow! Where does the time go?). This proved to be such a “wise” decision…the rapids are mostly only Grade 5 (Grade 6 is “un-runnable”)!

Victoria Falls at sunset Zambia
The sun sets on Victoria Falls (August 2004)

Just getting down to the Zambesi river was a challenge! Some took a helicopter in and out but most of us scaled the cliff, down steep paths and rickety wooden stairs and ladders. Quite an adventure in itself!

Once we got down to the river we did some rudimentary training and preparation for getting knocked out of the raft and getting back in. This really did not prepare us at all, but was somewhat reassuring!

So we donned our helmets and life jackets and set off down the river. A mixed bag of travelers from different countries, we were all on the same overland camping trip. It was all smooth going through the early Grade 3 and 4 rapids but then we started to hit some of the big boy rapids and things got serious! We struck some nasty ones and had a few minor incidents! These have names like rapid # 5: “Stairway to Heaven” (a Class 5 rapid with a steep drop of 8 metres) and rapid #7: “Gulliver’s Travels” (a Class 5 rapid that covers a distance of 700 metres and includes the “Temple of Doom“, “The Crease“, “Patella Gap” and “Land of the Giants“). You are really in the game by this stage and there is no turning back! Just before you break for lunch on the riverbank you have to pass rapid # 10: “Gnashing Jaws of Death“, just a Class 4 rapid…oh joy!

Rafting Map of the Zambesi River
Rafting Map of the Zambesi River

Now you would think you would be safe on dry land enjoying some lunch, but no, we got attacked by a swarm of bees! The river rapids were looking good all of a sudden!

So we ventured back onto the Zambesi and faced down rapid # 13: The Mother“, a Class 4/5 rapid with a massive and very fast wave train. we got through that OK but one we really wanted to avoid was rapid # 15: the “Washing Machine“. A Class 5 rapid described as a simple wave train but un-runnable in the middle because of a huge crashing hole. Basically a huge whirl pool!

Whitewater rafting zambesi river zambia africa
That’s me in the front on the right side

We survived that, but I am pretty sure it was rapid #18: “Oblivion” that totally smashed us! It is a Class 5 rapid made up of three waves and known asp THE rapid on the Zambezi river. The 3rd brutal wave is apparently responsible for flipping more rafts than any other in the world and only about 1 in 4 attempts succeed!

As our raft flipped I will never forget people flying through the air and my mate Scotty careening into me head first! His full weight collided into me and we sunk fast! Eventually I came back up to the surface in that water that was like a boiling cauldron, coughing and spluttering! I was being smashed by waves and being kicked and hit by oars from just about everyone who was tipped overboard. Except for my poor friend Esther who was temporarily trapped underneath the raft!

In the end, after being kicked and hit in places where you just don’t want to be and despite being told not too, I just let go and drifted into the relative calm of the river. Ah serenity…before being slammed into a rock and being rescued by a kayak and lifted into another raft like a bedraggled wet cat!

The people of the other raft looked at me in terror. How did this guy survive that? Ha, ha! It will take more than that to finish my off I thought as I was coughing, spluttering and heaving for breath! I had this huge egg of a lump and cut on my arm but otherwise I was unharmed. A number of people including Scotty swallowed a lot of river water during this incident and were sick for a few days afterwards. Although I swallowed plenty of water I luckily dodged that bullet. All in the name of adventure!

Scotty and I vowed we would not be flipped again after that mega one! We paddled like no tomorrow (when you are in the front you set the pace of rowing)!

white water rafting zambesi river zambia
Paddle hard man! Scotty and I were leading the way

Towards the end of the day our river guide told us just around the corner there was one last huge set of rapids we must clear. We didn’t want to be dumped again and as Scotty and I were in the lead we starting paddling hard! After a little while we cleared the corner, noting there were no rapids and also how quiet it was behind us, we turned around to see no one paddling and everyone had a huge grin on their faces. Yes we had been set up! Bastards! 🙂

We made it to the end of the river run without further incident and then faced the trudge and climb back up the cliffs to our truck, drinks and comfort. What a day!

Zambia zambesi river white water rafting
The survivors! Back at the camp we are all proudly displaying the certificate we received for completing the river run






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