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Generally I don’t fear too many things, and I’m usually one of the first ones to sign up when there is something crazy to try or experience. Big exceptions to that are spiders, talking on the phone, clowns and water. A cold drink or a bathtub don’t make me break out in cold sweat and don’t set my heart to racing quite yet, but what I really can’t stand is open water, rushing rivers, the depths of the oceans and water in my mouth, nose and lungs.

So why have I decided to ignore all the little warning bells going off in my head and sign up for white water rafting anyway? Who knows? It might have been thoughts along the line of fears have to be overcome or I bet that’s going to be a great experience and you know, nobody has died since 2008.

Gorge

Pick up time at the hotel is at 7 o’clock in the morning. It’s the end of June and thus winter in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The air is still cold and I’m only wearing sturdy sandals and shorts with a bikini. Here’s a tip though: Although it might be cold, wear robust but not heavy shoes, because if you go overboard – and you will – those things will fill with water and suck you down into the depths. Shivering, our little group is loaded into a truck and driven over bumpy dirt roads to the edge of the gorge. Here the equipment (helmet, wet suit, life-jacket and a paddle) is distributed and we are given the safety talk.

Our guides appear to be very knowledgeable and have a lot of experience. They talk us through different scenarios: If you fall in the water, then keep the feet up towards the surface of the water to prevent your legs getting caught in rocks. The group is still smiling bravely but a bit forcedly. There are crocodiles living in the river, but they are usually small and don’t show much interest in the flailing tourists.

Slowly, fear creeps into the eyes of some participants. If you go overboard and get trapped under the boat, there should still be air underneath and you simply have to dive out in one direction. The fear has now definitely washed over all the faces present. To add to the drama, our guide says with a laugh: Do not panic! Easier said than done.  Everyone is already clinging to their paddles with clenched, nervous hands and white knuckles.

preparations

The descent into the canyon takes a good quarter of an hour, and during the short hike the tense atmosphere relaxes again. The surrounding nature is incredibly impressive. The Zambezi River winds its way through a deep, rocky gorge, dividing Zimbabwe from Zambia. Impressive rock formations and the lush vegetation attract my attention and put me under a spell and for a moment, I forget about the challenging few hours ahead. Once at the bottom, we are quickly taught how to paddle, obey orders and how to save someone from the water. Then our life-jackets get tightened to the point of barely being able to breathe and we head out.

rafting

It starts with some “rafting 101”: The rapids are divided into six different categories. A grade six rapid is regarded as impossible to raft. A grade five rapid is considered to be the highest level someone who hasn’t lost all their marbles would still attempt. They are extremely difficult and long, with very violent rapids. Here, rescue operations are often difficult. There is a significant risk to one’s life in case of going overboard. So, it is the upper limit of what is possible on a commercial boat.

So now guess what kind of rapids the Zambezi River mainly produces? Exactly, of course it’s the grade five rapids, one after the other.

The rapids have imaginative and fear-inducing names as “Stairway to Heaven”, “Washing Machine”, “Devils Toilet Bowl” and “Gnashing Jaws of Death”, each of them getting announced shortly before contact by our grinning guide, intent on instilling panic and terror in us.

Eventually, it is “The Terminator” that gets us, a wildly foaming white wall of horror. The two front paddlers are swept from the raft and while attempting to save them, the whole boat gets tilted by a big wave.

rafting3

It is dark, loud and the water throws me in all directions. Once my head goes under water, all safety instructions are wiped away and my brain switches to survival mode. The last thing I remember while the huge wave approaches in slow motion is thinking this is it then, the moment I’m going to die.  I then get thrown into the torrent and the basic instincts take over. Fortunately, the life-jacket still knows how to perform its job and always pushes me up to the top. My stomach is full of water and for the few seconds before the next wave breaks over my head, I’m able to forcedly gulp down some air. Suddenly, a hand shows up out of nowhere and I’m able to snatch it from the air. I get pulled back to the boat, which is now floating wildly upside down  Holding on is virtually impossible. Strong waves repeatedly threaten to tear me away and push me under water again.

I don’t remember how long we were in the water – time seems to slow down in such circumstances – but somehow we manage to drift ahead to calmer waters. I look around at faces that have stared death in the eye and escaped. At this point, the guide seems to be the only one who is still having fun. The emotional state of the other group members ranges from slight panic to outright hyperventilation.

The rest of the trip, I’m busy praying to the old gods and the new, actually to any entity who would hear me, that the raft would not flip again. Luckily it doesn’t, and by the time we reach the exit point I can feel the relief hanging in the air. Everyone is glad to have solid ground beneath their feet again. Now we have to hike up the gorge again; not an easy venture with what feels like half the Zambezi River in my stomach. I almost throw up while dragging my exhausted body uphill and collapse in the shade of small tree at the top a half an hour later.

I vow to myself  to never do something stupid like that again. But hell, it was awesome.

About The Author

Tiffany is a Swiss travel writer, digital nomad, and photographer, who, after a fateful journey through Africa, has decided to get her passport renewed, sell all her junk, and live out of a suitcase in various corners of the world, as well as share the experiences with other travel enthusiasts. This blog is intended to inspire you to pack your bags, leave everything behind for a while, and make you go discover the world. Check her out on .

8 Responses

  1. Lauren

    Dude…you escaped the clutches of the Terminator. You’re like Sarah Connor.

    I’ve always been a bit tentative about white water rafting. Perhaps I’ll try it in New Zealand, where there aren’t any opportunistic crocodiles waiting for me to fall in 😛

    Reply
    • Tiffany Wüest

      Thanks Lauren, I feel pretty badass about it.

      You definitely have to give rafting a try when you’re in New Zealand and don’t forget to update your will before you go 😉

      Reply
      • Dale brown

        Just got back from zimzam and whitewater raft trip. I can’t remember the rapids names but the raft tipped in a level 4 and I went over backwards, in a flash I was underwater going thru the L4 rapids and continued thru to the L5 rapids. Spent most time under water and had little time to catch my breath. the thing that will stick in my head till I die is the sight of a wall of water 16 feet above my head. I thought I was dead. What an experience! By the way, 5 days later I turned 61 yrs old. The hardest part of the trip was climbing out of the canyon.
        got it on video and had a great time and memory.
        Not for the weak of heart. You could die but if you survive, wow! What a beautiful trip and memory!
        Dale.

      • Tiffany

        Wow, sounds like you had quite the experience as well and it really reminded me of my own rafting trip. I thought I was drowning! Congrats on doing it, you can definitely be proud of yourself.

  2. Nelvino

    Hey Tiffany…great experience…u just gave reason to visit Zimbabwe…
    Would be nice to have a video of those moments…

    Reply
  3. Lincoln

    So you’d recommend this? I’ve seen videos of people on it and it doesn’t look pleasant. Zimbabwe is not known for safety. I’ve heard of people getting off at the half way point from fear. (worst story was a friend who was trapped beneath the raft once it flipped) I’ve rafted in Canada and the US, but honestly speaking, the raft is very unlikely to flip and you can simple hold on for dear life. In the case of the Zambezi, I was told you’re guaranteed to flip and so make sure you don’t have a big breakfast and perhaps say a few prayers in the morning!

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Looking back it was fun, but being there in the river definitely wasn’t pleasant at all. They actually tell you that you can get trapped under the raft and if that happens, to dive out in one direction. Scary stuff, especially if you’re like me and already a bit afraid of water. The raft is pretty much guaranteed to flip in the Zambezi. We flipped only once and were told that we got pretty lucky, I think the average is about 5 times.

      I can recommend it in a way that the guides are trained very well and safety is held high. I know Zimbabwe or Africa in general might not give off that impression, but they are actually really good about making sure everyone is safe. The rafts are also accompanied by a couple kayaks that can go in fast and rescue someone if needed. I’ve asked around about deaths and most accidents seem to involve people not taking safety instructions seriously, like loosening their life jackets etc. I personally wouldn’t do it again, but that’s mostly because I really really don’t like water.

      Reply

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