[Ed. note: I’ve been away from reliable Internet access since Friday, so today I post three entries written over the last few days. Notes from my Kaunda interview coming soon. Also note: lots of new photos posted.—Josh.]

I’d signed up on Friday to go white-water rafting on the Zambezi River Sunday. A Canadian couple I’d met in Lusaka, Geoff and Lonna, were going along with some friends of theirs from Jolly Boys. After Saturday’s gorge swinging (and gorge climbing-out-of-ing), I wasn’t sure how well I’d hold up for a day on the river, but I was willing to give it a go.

White-water rafting is the original Vic Falls adrenaline rush — everything else (bungee jumping, the swing, riverboarding, microlight flying) has come in its wake (ha). The 23 rapids downstream from the falls include some of the world’s toughest; the 1995 world rafting championships were held here, and there are a handful of Class 5s (the highest passable) to go with a bunch of 4s. (There’s also one Class 6, Rapid 9, nicknamed “Commercial Suicide.” All the rafting operators walk around that one, although top-notch kayakers can sometimes go through it.) The Zambezi’s water level is at its annual low right now, which makes this the absolute best time for huge rapids. (It also makes it the absolute worst time to see the falls, unfortunately.)

There were eight of us in the raft: me, Geoff and Lonna, an Australian couple, an Irishman, a…um…fellow from a Commonwealth nation (sorry, can’t remember which one — nice guy, though), and our river guide, a short, wiry Zambian named Babyface.

There’s one thing you should know before proceeding: I’m an awful swimmer. Just awful. I’m not the world’s most athletic person under any circumstances, but swimming holds a special venom for me. Those of you who know me may be able to recall instances where you’ve invited me to go swimming somewhere and, invariably, the fact that I didn’t go. I don’t like swimming, I don’t like beaches. I don’t much like water.

That said, the first couple of hours were hella fun. Babyface did a fine job of keeping us oriented and doing the right things, and the rapids were just right: dangerous, perilous, but survivable. We got soaked on every one, but we stayed in the boat.

(Well, I stayed in the boat. Babyface fell out twice in the first five rapids, which didn’t do much to inspire confidence.)

I was feeling good, feeling confident. Then came Rapid 8. It’s nicknamed “Midnight Diner,” Babyface told us, because we had a choice. We could tackle the right side of the rapid, which was only a Class 3, nicknamed “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” The middle was a Class 4. The left was a Class 5, nicknamed “Star Trek.” It was almost guaranteed to flip the raft and dump us into the river.

Having forgotten my senses back at Rapid 1, I joined the raft’s chorus in support of Star Trek.

We survived the first couple surges Star Trek threw at us, but in an instant, the raft’s front was pointed skyward and we were flipping end over end. We were all thrown into the water. I, stupidly, held onto my paddle. (Did I not realize they float just fine on their own? Was it a sign of loyalty to the raft’s owners?)

I’ve since seen the video of this spill, and everyone else on the raft pops up out of the water in about one second. For some reason — I assume it’s related to that damned paddle — it takes me about half an hour to come up. (Okay, it only seemed like half an hour. But it was actually about five or six seconds.) I surfaced, tried to take a breath, and went under again, for another four or so seconds, still holding on to that damned paddle.

One difficulty: Babyface tightened our life jackets before every rapid — tightened them within an inch of our lives. Taking a full breath was impossible in a jacket that tight, even on a calm stretch of river. Underwater, I barely got a teaspoon of air before going down again and inhaling a few gulps of water.

I finally came back up, vaguely panicked at the prospects of swimming to the raft, now some distance away. I grabbed onto one of the Australians, who was offering her arm, and was starting to feel better about things when I realized we were still in the middle of the rapid — and that another huge wave was coming. I went under again, for another five seconds or so.

Life really sucked right about then.

In the end, I somehow grabbed onto the raft and got dragged in. I was wiped out. I was having trouble breathing, even after loosening my jacket a bit. I had the worst headache I’ve had in months, and I had a spacy, glazed look on my eyes. The fun was over.

The rest of the day was an exercise in damage control. I was determined not to flip again. Luckily, I had an ally: Lonna had suffered some sort of ear damage on the Star Trek flip, and she was concerned that another flip would screw up her eardrums. She pleaded with the rest of the raft that we not try to flip; I provided silent support for her efforts.

Luckily, the afternoon rapids are less intense than the morning’s. There was only one rapid that provided much flip-risk: Rapid 18, a.k.a. “Oblivion.” Three-quarters of all rafts flip there, and it would take luck for us to avoid that fate. Unfortunately, the Australian guy was something of a daredevil and he was always trying to find ways to flip us — standing up in the middle of a rapid, jumping around the raft when he was supposed to be paddling, etc.

Thankfully, Oblivion proved anticlimactic. We didn’t flip. The other four rafts in our group did. Much happiness ensued. Other than Rapid 8, it had been a great day.

Unfortunately, after finishing up at Rapid 23, you have to get out of the gorge. The climb out is about twice as hard as the one to return from the gorge swing. Took almost an hour. Then it was an hour’s drive on mud-tracked roads back to the rafting company’s lodge. I was beat, beat, beat.

When I got back to the place I was staying, I made a phone call back to Lusaka. It turns out that Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding father, was willing to talk to me — but only the next evening, before he flew back to the U.S.A. Which meant I had to cut short my trip to Livingstone by a couple days, cancel a bunch of interviews, and take a six-hour bus ride back to Lusaka the next morning.

I have to admit I’d been looking forward to this Livingstone trip as a source of relaxation. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I don’t think “relaxing” would be the first adjective I’d use to describe the weekend.

28 October 2003



Comments

30 October | 8:08  |  Lisa

Hey Josh!

Enjoy reading your travel log. Sounds just slightly more exciting than CVHS.

Stay safe,
Lisa



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Welcome to zambiastories.com, the online journal I kept during the six weeks I spent in Zambia in 2003 as part of a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism. The entries below are in reverse chronological order — most recent on top, oldest on bottom.

To learn more about my trip and this site, check the About page. If you have any comments or questions, email me.

Stories

11 Jul 2004: Where the only growth industry is death; AIDS destroys scarce resources as well as family members

12 Sep 2004: A lesson in dying; Once a refuge from AIDS, Zambia’s schools are now its latest victims

Photos

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Calendar

10 Oct 2003: Leave for London
11 Oct 2003: Leave for Zambia
12 Oct 2003: Arrive in Lusaka
22 Nov 2003: Leave for London
22 Nov 2003: Back to Washington

Disclaimer

Any opinions expressed here are solely mine, and not those of my employer.

 
© 2003 Joshua Benton