22: “You’re Kidding about the Crocodiles…
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
….right??” inquired Jason, finally showing his first signs of life after last night’s bender. Raylene, Jason and I were learning what to expect from our upcoming whitewater rafting trip. Until the warning about crocs in the river Jason had been barely sitting up, much less paying attention.
When the guide didn’t answer, Jason assumed he was just making a joke to get the tourists riled. “Screw the crocs,” I thought. I was more worried about all the other horrors they had just mentioned: getting stuck in the “washing machine” whirlpool that would churn you around and never let you out; ending up under the boat if we flipped; getting flung to an early death if I should catapult in to a rock. Besides, I figured the croc story was just a farce too.
Our little trio had decided to attempt to whitewater raft the mighty Zambezi, the river that flows from the powerful Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. With rapids of 6+, it is known as the prime whitewater rafting spot in the world. And because of its width and depth, it’s also known as one of the safest as all those killer rocks are far away from the action. But nonetheless, we had to be briefed on all possible scenarios, no matter how minute the chance of one happening.
Raylene and I were nervous wrecks, but Jason, having previously rafted the Zambezi, tried to reassure us, with all his Aussie confidence, that we had nothing to worry about. Having driven with Jason from Harare to Vic Falls in “Prima Donna”, his temperamental yellow station with no taillights, license plates, back seats and a tendency to stall at every police check, I knew Jason’s idea of “no worries” was everyone else’s idea of a problem. So Raylene and I opted for the least worrisome rafting option – a “ride along” where the guide does all the work and we just hang on for dear life and pray not to flip over. Jason chose to come with us, figuring it would be amusing to laugh at us all day.
Once in the water we relaxed and had a great deal of fun getting bounced up and about the rear of the boat, screaming and laughing like teens on a wild rollercoaster. Jason, the big showoff, kept defying the guide’s admonitions to keep all of himself in the boat, occasionally making us wonder when he would launch out.
But we survived the first half of the day without incident and graduated ourselves to a partially-guide controlled boat, where the guide handles about 25% of the load and the participants the other 75%.
Before the rafting: doesn’t Ria (right) just look so confident and exuberant? Not to mention dry?
So with our newfound confidence and paddles in hand, Raylene and I shoot our first rapid, a grade four, the second-highest grade that amateurs are allowed to ride. We’re not in the rapid 15 seconds when I and another paddler pop right of the raft. I feel myself flying through the air and I’m thinking, “oh f*&^!” as this is specifically what I was afraid of happening.
I quickly remember our instruction to put a hand up to see if I’m under the boat. Hand clear, I only need to relax and wait for the lifejacket I’m wearing to pop me out of the water like a cork out of champagne. Three seconds, they told me. You’re down, you’re up, no worries. It didn’t hurt to hit the water, no rocks, so I’m cool. I feel the rapids swirling over me and I’m counting, “One mississippi, two mississippi, three mississippi, four mississippi…”
“Uh,” I’m thinking, “this isn’t so good. Five mississippi – oh shit – six mississippi – augh! dammit! – seven missi,” and then up I pop! Any longer and I’d be drinking the Zambezi. But I’m laughing as Raylene runs to the side of the raft to rescue me, grabs my lifejacket and yells, “Get ready!” then dunks me under the water and yanks my ass into the boat, per our guide’s instructions on the proper way to haul someone out of the water. In response to my thanks, she gives her characteristically nonchalant kiwi reply of “no problem”.
I finally figure out how to balance myself by leaning partially on my right foot rather than sitting squarely on the pontoon. Throughout the rest of the day, the guides keep warning us about rapid #18.
“The dangerous one,” we’re told. “The one that always capsizes boats, yada yada yada,” but we dismiss it after awhile as more tourist talk.
Meanwhile Jason is riverboarding, hopping out of the raft whenever we approach a rapid and sailing gleefully down them, his ill-fitting helmet constantly sliding over his eyes. With his face-encompassing grin, oversized helmet and curly blond hair plastered to him, he looks like an big six-year old riding a sled down a bumpy hill. But later during one rapid run, a raft veered toward him. On the video we watched later, we could see look on his face as he lifted the helmet out of his eyes and saw the raft a split second before it hit him in the head and rode right over him; reminding us that rafting the Zambezi is not kid’s play.
There were expanses of the trip where there were calm waters. Often the guides would let us jump in and float downstream to escape the African heat. But at one stretch they insisted on no jumping and pointed at the bank – where two five-foot long crocs were sunning on the rocks. I wish I could have seen the look on Jason’s face when he realized the guides hadn’t been yanking his chain. Because crocs avoid fast-moving water, they weren’t a hazard except in this stretch of river.
Despite all the plunges and dunkings from the rafting, Ria’s high and dry at the top of Vic Falls.
Eventually infamous rapid #18 came along. After even more hype about the danger of this level-5 rapid, the first boat shot the rapid with no drama whatsoever, the paddlers whooping and waving paddles in the air in triumph as they emerged from the whitewater.
The second raft met a different fate, flipping its two “ride-alongs” into the drink. Our guide kept asking if we “wanted” to flip, and we loudly insisted that we had no intention of going over. After all, we figured with seven healthy, young rowers, us women (there were only two guys on board), would get through this just fine. We figured wrong.
I realized we were flipping when I saw Raylene doing her Superman impression over my head. Next thing I knew, the guide was standing on our now-upside-down boat, counting heads and yelling for us to not swim to the boat but to float toward the rescue kayaks. Remembering to keep my feet pointing downstream and grab any errant paddles, I lay back and enjoyed the ride.
We didn’t beat the rapid, but the spectacular flip made for a great ending on the video. But to this day I swear our guide flipped us on purpose. After all, he was laughing while he was counting heads.