Posted by: Ele Quigan | August 2, 2014

Africa Part 3 – The Zambezi; Canoeing & White water rafting & Victoria Falls in both Zambia & Zimbabwe

Africa Part 3 – The Zambezi; Canoeing & White water rafting & Victoria Falls in both Zambia & Zimbabwe

There’s something like a relaxing few days on a canoe, camping on islands in the middle of the Zambezi, starting from Zambia.

The start of canoeing

The start of canoeing

Elephants, the gentle giants that they are, at the waters edge. Crocodiles, the giant gnashing teeth the have sunning themselves. Hippos, grunting at each other, splashing about, giant heffalumps…

The first day was incredibly windy, making it a bit tough heading into wind even with the strength of the current behind us. The Zambezi is wide but with islands throughout, and smaller channels where the water speeds through, various places where the current suddenly speeds up, or eddies and whirlpools where if you get stuck in you’re pulled straight into the bank.

Canoeing takes a bit to get used to; you need to be a bit instinctive about it. There were more than a few cross words between the two of us while we got used to it.

It’s hard to explain what it’s like, huge big birds flying in formation. Hot African sunshine beating down from a blue sky. Hippos talking in their funny honkhonk, looking at us from their sunken selves with just their eyes, nostrils and squidgable ears visible. Being closer to elephants than we’ve ever experienced, while they trumpet at us as we canoe past.

The wind picked up all day, so we had a siesta of about 3 hrs after lunch. Strange to be snoozing next to an elephant, on an island, in the Zambezi.

The afternoon had the most incredible sunset we’d seen in Africa. Red, orange, yellow – but the whole horizon rather than just a single shining disc in the sky. The night was clear too, making for hours of stargazing, stars are bright blues and yellows it’s so clear. As the night goes on the obvious constellations aren’t as obvious, you can see more stars here than I’ve ever seen in my life, planets even brighter.

The next day dawns grey and windy, not the most auspicious start for what is going to be a long slog. People have open blisters from paddles the wrong size. Sore backs and arms and shoulders – strangely I’m fine – no pain, no tension, so I keep quiet and commiserate with those in pain.

It was such a hard slog – I got soaked and cold, no sun to warm me up, braving white caps and waves into the canoe & mostly into my face rather than at the back.

The wind kept rising, so we kept having to stop, lest we start losing canoes from too much water.

The afternoon we waited and waited till the wind died down, and from 3:30 onwards it started to drop. It was white caps to nearly flat in just under an hour.

It was a cold windy night, but with another 6 hours of canoeing I was exhausted, dreading the 4:15 alarm.

Cold and cloudy, our early start with our tent down & everything packed by 4:45 as I was on cook group.After breakfast we waited for our pickup. And waited. It got colder. And windier. By the time they arrived I was freezing.

The Sunset

The Sunset

But the boat journey back, was probably the highlight of the trip. The Zambezi was like glass, and we zipped past while the clouds parted and the sun was finally up, speeding past hippos, past crocs, birds – it was the nicest part of the two days.

At the Zambian side of Victoria Falls you can hear the falls before you see them, even smell them. There’s suddenly ferns, and more jungle like forest, different from the dry tree laden dusty ground of Zambia.

I didn’t know what to expect, but they were awe-inspiring. The sheer power behind the Zambezi is incredible. After being in a canoe and feeling how fast we were being swept along in some stages you can understand how these falls have such power.

It’s 1km cross, a crack in the earth where the falls drop. You can feel the spray like rain on your face, jackets a must. Both sides (Zambia on one side, Zimbabwe on the other) offer different vistas from the boiling pot below, to the famous bridge. When the sun is up there are strong rainbows, a cheerful part to what is essentially a breathtaking experience.

The backdrop sound and power of the water makes you want to raise your arms to the air and laugh and smile. It’s excitement, it’s earth, you feel like you’re a part of this planet just by being there. Mosi-oa-Tunya, I raise my arms to you and bow down in awe of your glory and power.

Happy Canoers

Happy Canoers

We’re camped not far away now in Zimbabwe, and I can hear them (alongside the helicopters hovering for 15 minutes at a time), the falls being the backdrop of the most peaceful white noise I’ve ever heard.

We booked for an activity, white water rafting – which I hadn’t done before, and I’ll probably never do again.

I was a little ambivalent about it, it was expensive ($150 USD each), and Dan was keen, and while I wasn’t really bothered either way, the last thing I wanted was to be left behind, so I decided to go along.

I was impressed by the quality of the gear, brand new lifejackets, and wet suit vests in case you got cold (I put one straight on, the Zambezi wasn’t too warm at all), did the long precarious walk down the near vertical gorge walls to start our ride down the post-falls Zambezi river.

We were with a Dutch family, which made me slightly nervous, the other full boat with our friends from our trip couldn’t fit the two of us (there were 9 of us rafting), so we volunteered to join the other.

We learnt the usual instructions – “Left Back”, “PADDLE FASTER”, “Get Down!”, “All out”. Jumping into the cold Zambezi with a life jacket pulled so tight you can’t quite breathe shocked me into starting to realize what I got myself into.

The first couple of rapids were a bit nerve wracking. Still high water, we started at number 11 “Overland Truck eater”… Faced with huge white-capped waves, boiling whirlpools, and a massive amount of volume pulling in from all sides, I started to feel nervous, but there’s no time for that on the water, we pushed through, soaked trying to paddle and get down, the raft hitting the waves.

It was a bit nerve wracking, but kind of fun at the same time. I got my confidence together, tried to send Dan a watery half smile (he was at the front of the boat, I was at the back on the other side) and continue.

We had a couple more “freebies” and I felt my confidence rise, but I was still nervous, we got through “The 3 Sisters” and then hit “The Mother”.

I’m not afraid of things, I’ve bungee jumped, jumped out of a plane, been gliding, wanted to hang-glide for years now. I’m not an “adrenaline junkie” but I’m not really afraid of anything. Except Earthquakes, but that’s another story.

We approached this rapid, paddling, not holding on, and suddenly I was gone.

I tumbled underneath the water, pulled this way and that totally out of control. My head bobbed above water, I was far from the boat, I started to cry. I was pulled under.

It’s hard to explain what it’s like under there. Seconds turn into hours. The awesome power of the water pulling and pushing. boiling under me, hopeless to even think about what to do with my feet, and being pushed up to surface again. I spotted the boat even further, oars out of reach, panicking more than I thought I ever would and I was under again.

I keep seeing a visualization in front of me of Dan holding out an oar – and I can’t reach it, the water is taking me further and further away as I watching crying out. It’s a day later and I can’t stop seeing it.

I’ve never been so frightened in my life. Utter terror, I can’t put it into words. Rolling under the river, wondering if I was ever going to make it out. I swallowed more and more of the brown water water and felt heavy. My shoes were on, I should have been sinking. Thank god for the lifejacket, with trainers on and no ability or strength to fight against the waves and water, I think it genuinely saved my life. The rapids felt like forever.

The safety kayak was trying to get to me; and somehow (I honestly have no idea how) I still had my oar in my hand. In such a panicked state, he couldn’t pick me up (for safety reasons they can’t let someone who is panicking on a kayak, as it risks the kayaker), I tried to calm myself down for a few moments. I held on, trying to kick, still feeling at any moment that I’d be pulled off down stream.

I was pulled into the boat in a complete state of shock. I couldn’t stop crying.

Unbelievably, we moved on.

I wasn’t pulling myself together, I wasn’t calm, tears wouldn’t stop streaming down my face. I picked up my paddle, tried to stop my insides from screaming, and kept going.

A couple more smaller ones, and then a bigger one approached. I started to hyperventilate. I couldn’t stop, we moved through.

Looking back (I’m actually tearing up as I type this) I should have been pulled off. I should have walked the rest around the rocks. (which probably wasn’t possible) I was shaking and crying, with a bunch of strangers who didn’t speak my language and who offered no support, and with Dan at the front he couldn’t move down for a cuddle or a pat, and knowing it was the start, I was terribly frightened of what was ahead.

Each one we moved through terrified me further. Tears and shaking wouldn’t stop, our guide didn’t mention any more levels. A mere mention of the next set of rapids I would go further into shock, shaking, unable to breathe, tears coming faster. I wanted to be sick, but I’m not sure if that was the volume of water I swallowed.

Another one approached, I started to shake. I couldn’t breathe. I started to see Dan in the same position as me, drifting away. I was in a complete state of panic.
I thought we were okay as we moved through, but a huge wave pulled into the side I was on, and the boat flipped.

Somehow I ended up next to Dan, again unable to hold on to anything, floating away again, crying like I’ve never cried, in a total state of shock. Someone managed to get me. I think the only reason I was able to cope when we flipped the boat was because Dan was there. The idea of putting my head underwater and getting lost again terrified me.

The rest of the trip is a haze. Our friends would come close – their boat seemed to go an easier route, no flipping, no people involuntarily out.

I wish our guide had told us when the hard ones were over, I was in a terrible state, I just wanted it over.

And suddenly it was.

There were beautiful parts to the trip, the wide Zambezi River, full of rafts. The sharp sides to the gorge, Lion rock.

But as I slowly walked up the steep steep walk, I was still wondering how I manage to survive. Seeing an oar I couldn’t reach, my husbands face as I again was under the water – over and over and over and over.

Later that evening, we reviewed the DVD of a couple of the rapids. Interestingly it included the one I came off and the boat flip. On the first one, something had come up from below and tipped me (and the woman opposite me) off. I’d done a complete somersault, and went into the water backwards & headfirst. No wonder I panicked and was disorientated.

Our full boat flip had happened before the rapids really started, we moved through them, me starting to drift away again, somehow collected back to the boat.

I don’t know how I feel about it. The boat our friends were in didn’t flip, I’d like to say they had a much easier ride from reviewing the DVD, but maybe that’s me trying to explain to myself it was okay to be frightened.

A few of them said “Oh you had your life jacket you were fine” or “It wasn’t so bad, our boat didn’t even flip!” I started to feel ashamed of my fear, embarrassed that I’d completely lost the plot for a few hours.

After such a tough day I didn’t want to talk to anyone, so back to camp we ventured in search of coffee, which with icecream, totally soothed my soul.

Here’s a breakdown of the rapids and their levels if you’re interested:

“Overland Truck Eater” # 11: Class 5: A big barrel for about two weeks in the year during the transition between high and low water in mid January and early July. Watch out for the hole, eddy line and whirlpool. This is the first rapid on the “high water” run.

“Three Sisters” #12A,B,C: Class 3/4: 12B is the famous Zambezi surfing wave for kayakers – surfs best between August and December with two windows and a massive green shoulder and a big eddy. Rafters prefer the term “three little pigs”.

“The Mother” # 13: Class 4/5: A massive wave train at its best, first 3 waves super fast.
Rapid # 14: Class 3: Big S-bend in the river. Center chute to be avoided at lower water levels.

“Washing Machine” # 15: Class 5: Simple wave train but un-runnable in the middle because of a huge crashing hole – go left or right into the eddy.

“The Terminators I and II” # 16: Class 4: A massive wave train and trough at higher levels, not much when low.

“Double Trouble” # 17: Class 5: A simple wave train but un-runnable because of 2 large holes – also known as “The Bitch”.

“Oblivion” # 18: Class 5: Three waves make up THE rapid on the Zambezi.. The 3rd crashing wave is responsible for more raft flips than any other in the world – only about 1 in 4 attempts succeed! This rapid marks the end of the “low water” one-day run.

Rapids #19 to #25: Class 2/3: Easy runs at the end of the day. Rapid #23 is the last rapid on the “high water” one-day run.


  1. Brave brave Ele, what a terrifying read! X

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