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Generally I don’t fear too many things, and I’m usually one of the first ones to sign up when there is something crazy to try or experience. Big exceptions to that are spiders, talking on the phone, clowns and water. A cold drink or a bathtub don’t make me break out in cold sweat and don’t set my heart to racing quite yet, but what I really can’t stand is open water, rushing rivers, the depths of the oceans and water in my mouth, nose and lungs.
So why have I decided to ignore all the little warning bells going off in my head and sign up for white water rafting anyway? Who knows? It might have been thoughts along the line of fears have to be overcome or I bet that’s going to be a great experience and you know, nobody has died since 2008.
Pick up time at the hotel is at 7 o’clock in the morning. It’s the end of June and thus winter in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The air is still cold and I’m only wearing sturdy sandals and shorts with a bikini. Here’s a tip though: Although it might be cold, wear robust but not heavy shoes, because if you go overboard – and you will – those things will fill with water and suck you down into the depths. Shivering, our little group is loaded into a truck and driven over bumpy dirt roads to the edge of the gorge. Here the equipment (helmet, wet suit, life-jacket and a paddle) is distributed and we are given the safety talk.
Our guides appear to be very knowledgeable and have a lot of experience. They talk us through different scenarios: If you fall in the water, then keep the feet up towards the surface of the water to prevent your legs getting caught in rocks. The group is still smiling bravely but a bit forcedly. There are crocodiles living in the river, but they are usually small and don’t show much interest in the flailing tourists.
Slowly, fear creeps into the eyes of some participants. If you go overboard and get trapped under the boat, there should still be air underneath and you simply have to dive out in one direction. The fear has now definitely washed over all the faces present. To add to the drama, our guide says with a laugh: Do not panic! Easier said than done. Everyone is already clinging to their paddles with clenched, nervous hands and white knuckles.
The descent into the canyon takes a good quarter of an hour, and during the short hike the tense atmosphere relaxes again. The surrounding nature is incredibly impressive. The Zambezi River winds its way through a deep, rocky gorge, dividing Zimbabwe from Zambia. Impressive rock formations and the lush vegetation attract my attention and put me under a spell and for a moment, I forget about the challenging few hours ahead. Once at the bottom, we are quickly taught how to paddle, obey orders and how to save someone from the water. Then our life-jackets get tightened to the point of barely being able to breathe and we head out.
It starts with some “rafting 101”: The rapids are divided into six different categories. A grade six rapid is regarded as impossible to raft. A grade five rapid is considered to be the highest level someone who hasn’t lost all their marbles would still attempt. They are extremely difficult and long, with very violent rapids. Here, rescue operations are often difficult. There is a significant risk to one’s life in case of going overboard. So, it is the upper limit of what is possible on a commercial boat.
So now guess what kind of rapids the Zambezi River mainly produces? Exactly, of course it’s the grade five rapids, one after the other.
The rapids have imaginative and fear-inducing names as “Stairway to Heaven”, “Washing Machine”, “Devils Toilet Bowl” and “Gnashing Jaws of Death”, each of them getting announced shortly before contact by our grinning guide, intent on instilling panic and terror in us.
Eventually, it is “The Terminator” that gets us, a wildly foaming white wall of horror. The two front paddlers are swept from the raft and while attempting to save them, the whole boat gets tilted by a big wave.
It is dark, loud and the water throws me in all directions. Once my head goes under water, all safety instructions are wiped away and my brain switches to survival mode. The last thing I remember while the huge wave approaches in slow motion is thinking this is it then, the moment I’m going to die. I then get thrown into the torrent and the basic instincts take over. Fortunately, the life-jacket still knows how to perform its job and always pushes me up to the top. My stomach is full of water and for the few seconds before the next wave breaks over my head, I’m able to forcedly gulp down some air. Suddenly, a hand shows up out of nowhere and I’m able to snatch it from the air. I get pulled back to the boat, which is now floating wildly upside down Holding on is virtually impossible. Strong waves repeatedly threaten to tear me away and push me under water again.
I don’t remember how long we were in the water – time seems to slow down in such circumstances – but somehow we manage to drift ahead to calmer waters. I look around at faces that have stared death in the eye and escaped. At this point, the guide seems to be the only one who is still having fun. The emotional state of the other group members ranges from slight panic to outright hyperventilation.
The rest of the trip, I’m busy praying to the old gods and the new, actually to any entity who would hear me, that the raft would not flip again. Luckily it doesn’t, and by the time we reach the exit point I can feel the relief hanging in the air. Everyone is glad to have solid ground beneath their feet again. Now we have to hike up the gorge again; not an easy venture with what feels like half the Zambezi River in my stomach. I almost throw up while dragging my exhausted body uphill and collapse in the shade of small tree at the top a half an hour later.
I vow to myself to never do something stupid like that again. But hell, it was awesome.