Smoke through Thunder: Running the Zambezi
by STEVE BLY
By Steve Bly as told to Peter B. Rose
"If you are suddenly thrust into the air, you have been struck by a hippo!" warned our guide Peter in his British accent. "They have nothing against you personally. Swim swiftly to shore, and do not go back for your sentimental cap or loved one."
No Time for Sentiment
I glanced at Pam, the nearest loved one in question. She looked back at me. We shrugged - after all, we had come to Africa for adventure. For many people, Africa is the Serengeti by Land Rover, snapping the wildlife and holing up in plush lodges. But the continent also is burgeoning with new on-the-edge adventures, including rafting one of the wildest rivers in the world - the Zambezi.
Flowing more than 1,600 miles from Zambian wetlands to the Indian Ocean, the Zambezi is Africa's fourth largest river, after the Nile, Congo, and Niger. In 1851, David Livingstone became the first white explorer to see the torrent. Over a century later, Richard Bangs, president and founder of Sobek, participated on the first known river rafting expedition through the deep, zigzagging basalt gorge beneath Victoria Falls. Now my wife Pam and I would be undertaking this same perilous white-water jaunt - the most concentrated series of Class V drops on the planet.
A Merry Melange
Including ourselves, this 14-day Mountain Travel Sobek expedition had 15 participants from all over the world, including the U.S., France, and Israel. We joined two Sobek guides and seven local Africans who acted as guides, porters, cooks and safety kayakers. Everyone was adventurous and outgoing. "No whiners," as Pam put it.
The centerpiece of the wild escalator ride past hippos, crocodiles, and monkeys watching from the trees is Victoria Falls - "Smoke Through Thunder," as it is known in the local Kololo dialect. Located on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, the tumultuous cascade is nearly twice the size of Niagara.
Although I appreciated the aesthetics of the curtain of froth and the basalt channel peeling boisterously away, I was justifiably concerned about getting through ferocious rapids that rise above 10 feet in places. Notorious sections like "Commercial Suicide" and "Deep Throat" would be portaged -rated Class VI, those rapids are classified as "unrunnable." But other, slightly less predatory jaws awaited us, such as Stairways to Heaven, The Devil's Bowl, and Creamy White Buttocks - which actually pulls down your pants.
Anticipating a rigorous journey, Pam and I had scrupulously dieted and exercised back at home. At 61, I was the oldest participant. The youngest was 21. (Anyone 65 or older must take a physical before qualifying.) Among the challenges we faced were negotiating steep inclines, paddling long hours into strong headwinds, and performing rugged portages.
After 35 hours of travel from Boise, Idaho, through San Francisco, London and Johannesburg, Pam and I were pretty much dead on our feet when we reached the town of Victoria Falls and Ilala Lodge, within hearing distance of the waters. From our balcony, we spotted monkeys, warthogs, water buffalo, and 20 to 30 mongooses at a time.
For Pam, the stop provided an opportunity for shopping. Hand-woven baskets and jugs and a long, wood-carved bowl won her over. Fabrics, earthenware and classic rail antique furniture are other specialties of the Falls and nearby Livingstone.
We spent the first two days on the Upper Zambezi - the section of the river upstream from the falls. A visit to a local African village where we experienced the culture of the Nidebele tribe was followed by kayak expeditions. While we camped on the river banks at night, hyenas filled the air with their weird cries.
Now This Is Adventure
None of the glossy brochures had highlighted one of the scariest parts of the trip: the steep, slippery descent to the river beneath the falls for our white-water expedition on the Lower Zambezi. While we dangled for our lives by fiercely clinging to ropes and rails, the barefoot African porters shouldered boats and gear with the grace of ballroom dancers.
All the local porters and guides were friendly and spoke English, although it was beautiful to hear them speak their local dialects among themselves. When they put the boats in the river they sang in harmony.
They were great cooks too, preparing meals such as satza wahma, a sticky porridge of corn rolled in our hands and dipped into beef stew; and bream, the mild and succulent white fish netted from the river that is one of the staples of the local villages. The fresh vegetables and fruits were delicious.
The Lower Zambezi, the world's biggest white-water rollercoaster ride, takes on the name of "Slambezi" by people who risk its adventure. On the first Day of 19 Rapids, the river was running 80,000 cubic feet per second - big water. Our oar boat piloted by our guide Charles Muroza smashed into a rapid named "Gulliver's Travels," where Pam was thrown from the boat and popped out out of the rapids. She surfaced, got smacked by an oar, and disappeared again.
A Serious Scare
I scanned the waves. It seemed that Pam was underwater for an eternity. Our guide was concerned, too, because he wasn't sure where she was.
"It felt like I was under a long, long time," Pam recalls. "I knew my head was hurt because it was pounding. I didn't fight it. Our safety instructions paid off. I rolled into a ball, knowing I'd come up, and I did."
Although Pam was in the so-called "Green Room" for five seconds or more, she was soon craving more white water.
One of the most difficult river challenges was portaging Lower Mowemba Falls. We pushed the fully loaded boats on air bags over rocks to the edge of the falls, and they were lowered by ropes over a sheer cliff. This strenuous endeavor took three hours, and left us in the dark on the river below, trying to find our campsite.
One boat got caught in an eddy from which it was hard to get out. By the time we made it through the string of narrow, deep, fast and powerful rapids, almost all the participants had been dunked in the Zambezi.
We spent six nights on the river. The camps were clean and comfortable, there were no insects, and after the first day we saw no other rafters or tourists.
We found sandy beaches to laze upon, jumped off cliffs, and watched villagers net bottom fish. Troops of baboons and crocodiles provided company. Cinnamon-shouldered African fish eagles (Zambia's national bird) and reed cormorants, darters and oxpeckers skimmed through the sky during the languorous stretches above the earthen plug of Karibe Dam. Our group muscled paddle and oar boats during the final peaceful days before the take-out, assisted by local kids and families.
"The most striking thing about the trip to me was that as people we like to think of ourselves as the most powerful force on earth," noted Denise McGorrin, a San Francisco attorney who was in our group. "It's nice to be humbled by the sheer size and force and majesty of a river like that."
Wanting to maximize our African experience, after we climbed from the river, we took Mountain Travel Sobek's Chobe National Park Extension in nearby Botswana. It provides three days in one of southern Africa's greatest wildlife sanctuaries, known especially as an elephant refuge.
From our accommodations at Muchenje Safari Lodge, Land Rovers rolled out to view lion, giraffe, antelope, zebra, red lechwe, Chobe bushbuck and a variety of birdlife, in addition to thousands of elephants - the traditional African experience.
Our first evening out on safari we were photographing beautiful white pelicans in the water, and came around the bend to an unbelievable sight -herds of elephant, zebra and impala, all together. One big bull elephant came right up to the Land Rover. "Don't worry, he's a chicken," the guide said. He knew the big guy was harmless.
Out in a boat on the Chobe River, we watched pods of elephants cross the river, using their trunks as snorkels, and keeping the babies in the center of the group so they would be safe from crocodiles. Pam counted 50 different species of animals and birds during our short stay.
Our daylight and nocturnal trips did not conflict with the park's specified closings - the preserve is strictly controlled because of poachers. If you're out when you're not supposed to be, there's a good chance you'll get shot by the patrol.
The combination of river rafting and wildlife viewing made for a great trip. Perhaps Pam said it best. "At first, I just wanted to go on a safari. I was so wrong."
Mountain Travel Sobek offers the 14-day Ultimate Zambezi River Safari from late July through late September. The itinerary includes Class IV/V rapids, three days of kayaking, six days rafting, seven nights camping, and three nights in hotels. Participants do not need rafting or kayaking experience, but must be in good physical condition. Land cost is $2,790 per person sharing double accommodations. The Chobe National Park Extension costs $750 per person (double accommodations). Tel: 888-687-6235; Website: www.mtsobek.com.
For more information on Botswana, go to Botswana Online: http://www.botswana-online.com
For information on additional programs and tour operators, see the Activity Index under "River Rafting."
Photo: Steve Bly