Title

Overboard on the Zambezi River

Published September 15th, 2015

Spring break in the US is notorious for thrilling exploits, worthwhile exhaustion, and unforgettable memories. Spring break in the great African outdoors is no exception.

I studied abroad at the University of Cape Town during the US Fall 2013 semester (springtime in the southern hemisphere), and decided to rough it for mid-semester break. So I went with some friends on a rugged, adventure safari through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Cape Town didn't compare; it was on this trip that I truly experienced the great outdoors. We took game walks on the banks of the Okavango Delta, went on a river safari along the Chobe River, and tip-toed near rhinos at Rhodes Matopos National Park. But these adrenaline-pumping experiences did nothing to prepare me for the rapids of the Zambezi River, an aggressive body of water that runs between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Wildlife Walk Walking with wildlife. Image: Jordan Siskind-Weiss

Falling for the Zambezi

Halfway through our trip, we arrived at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, home to the world's largest waterfall. While it's neither the tallest nor the widest, the falls pour out the largest sheets of falling water in the world.

When we learned that whitewater rafting was offered on the river at the base of the falls, we jumped at the opportunity. In my mind's eye, we would hop on an inflatable raft and bob along the Zambezi.

It would be fun. Almost like a lazy river ride at a water park. My imagination couldn't have been further off.

We were given a very brief crash course in whitewater rafting on the morning of our excursion. "This is how you paddle, and if you're sucked under, don't panic, just wait until you float to the surface."

That was it.

I had little experience in the sport but I could sense something was off. The guides were unusually calm and casual before embarking on Class Five rapids, the highest-grade rapids that humans can raft!

I asked one of the guides if this was a safe activity; did people frequently get hurt while whitewater rafting? He responded, without cracking a hint of a smile: "Sh*t happens, this is Africa."

Why, after his uncomfortably ambiguous response, I still got into that raft, I do not know.

Whitewater Rafting The Zambezi can get rough. Image: Flickr / David Holt

Brave the waves in Liberia: Unusual surfing destinations around the world

Calm your nerves with a G&T in Kenya: 12 bars worth the hangover


No turning back

With our helmets tightly buckled and our paddles in hand, we hiked down into the gorge and began our voyage on the Zambezi. Our guide would yell "get down!" before every rapid, and we would hit the deck and hang on to the raft for dear life.

We were told never to fight the current if we were ejected from the raft – just wait to come to the surface. I was beginning to get a sense of how dangerous the river really was.

The first few rapids were jostling, but manageable. At this point, we were undoubtedly water-logged, but our raft remained afloat.

However, as we approached the ninth drop, our guide gave us 10 seconds' notice that we were entering a Class Five rapid. There was a 99.9 per cent chance we were going to flip. And indeed we did.

Without time to think, our raft (and all the people in it) plummeted into the rapid, our equipment scattering upon impact. I was forced underwater, and my body went into survival mode.

I recalled the pre-rafting crash course and fought the urge to retaliate against the water. I reminded myself I would soon find the surface.

Seven exhausting seconds later and my head was above water. I scanned my surroundings for the raft and my peers. With a great deal of yelling and swimming, we were re-united with our floating vessel. We had made it, shaken, but physically unscathed.

The aftershot. Everyone made it, barely. Image: Jordan Siskind-Weiss

Out of the frying pan

What followed was a period of calm. We paddled fluidly and drifted down the river. I took a sigh of relief. The worst was behind me. Or so I thought.

As we mindlessly glided along, I noticed we were getting close to the rocks lining the riverbank. I loudly alerted my group that we should paddle left, and pointed out the rocks that were nearly touching the right side of the raft (and my body).

But before anyone could register this problem, we made contact with the rocks. In one swift motion, I was ejected from the raft, screaming as I flew and plunged into the water.

"Hello! Guys!" I shouted as the raft drifted away. What a sight I must have been. A helpless floater propelled by the current, shins dragging along the rocks.

After a long fit of laughter, my group got a hold of me and pulled me back into the raft. Half laughing, half crying, I wiped the blood streaming from my legs. "Well, that'll leave a mark," I thought to myself.

Now, I wear the remaining scars on my legs with pride – a vestige of my fight with the mighty Zambezi River.

Rafting Scars Ouch. Image: Jordan Siskind-Weiss

Feel like an African adventure? Check out our Never Stop Daring Adventure Sale (offer ends September 30, 2015).


Author: Jordan Siskind-Weiss

This article originally appeared on Fathom.

This article was written by Jordan Siskind-Weiss from Fathom and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Fathom

Fathom celebrates all the reasons why we pack our bags, get on a plane, hitch a ride, and explore beyond our backyards. Fathom is the travel website reinvented — through inspiring stories, practical advice, and useful tools and products. Fathom is where world-curious travelers indulge their passion for travel — whether they're getting on a plane tomorrow or staying at their laptop.