Once you get past the rapids, a whitewater rafting trip down the Zambezi River becomes a rugged, floating safari.
WE SAW A CROCODILE within the first few minutes of our river-rafting expedition. We had pushed off into the water at the foot of Victoria Falls, about to embark on a five-day journey along a world-renowned stretch of whitewater. The unfortunate reptile was floating belly-up in the spray, having plummeted to its death over a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Victoria Falls is 5577 feet wide and 360 feet tall, roughly twice the height of Niagara. It’s the crown jewel of the Zambezi, Africa’s fourth largest river, which carves a natural border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. The falls are rightfully famous for their scale and grandeur, but fewer know the following series of 25 rapids. Many consider the stretch to be the best single-day whitewater-rafting trip in the world, but, as we found out later, those 25 rapids may not exist for much longer.
A nonstop roller coaster of huge waves and steep drops makes this part of the Zambezi nature’s ultimate water park. Whitewater rapids are graded from one (the smallest) to five (the largest), and most of the Zambezi’s rapids are at the adrenal gland–tickling end of the scale.
More amazing than the rapids themselves is the fact that they are actually great for beginners. You don’t need any prior rafting experience to enjoy them, just an average fitness level and a sense of adventure. On commercial guided trips, you’re handed a helmet, a life jacket, and a paddle, then shown how to row forward and backward. Minutes later, the current is pulling you downstream toward the first rapid: a class five that will leave you soaked from head to toe and smiling from ear to ear.
FOR MANY, THE EXHILARATION of the one-day rafting experience—the most popular way to see the river—is sufficiently epic. But eager for a deeper look, we opted for a multi-day journey with Shockwave Adventures. Not only were we able to run a few extra rapids, but we also saw a different, lesser-known side of the river.
By lunchtime on the third day the last of the class-five rapids was behind us, and our trip took on a meandering, exploratory quality. We lounged in the raft as it floated downstream through the scenic Batoka Gorge, taking note of the wildlife around us; the canyon is home to numerous rare and endangered falcons and eagles, as well as multiple species of fish.
During one lunch break on the riverbank, we chatted with some fishermen who were drying their catch around a small fire. They invited us to look inside their simple thatched hut, where the walls were covered with rows and rows of jerkied fish. We left them a parting gift of bread and beers to round out their meal.
In these calmer currents, we often saw (living) crocodiles sunning themselves on the rocky riverbank. Most remained as still as leather statues as we floated past, but one six-foot-long creature entered the water and beelined silently toward our videographer, Snake, who was paddling a small whitewater kayak. In three strokes, Snake was alongside and leaping into the safety of our eight-man inflatable raft. Thwarted, the crocodile sank back below the surface like a sigh.
The highlight of our floating safari came on the final evening. After pitching our tents on a beach, we followed our guide to a large bend in the river where two dozen lethargic hippos were snuffling and grunting in the deepening dusk. Failing to capture the scene with our cameras, we marveled aloud at their intimidating size and animatedly pointed out the babies in the herd. Eventually though, we fell silent, content simply to witness what wondrous things unfold in the world’s wild and remote places.
The next day as we packed up and prepared to go home, our guides told us about a hydroelectric dam planned for the area. Construction is set to begin in 2018 and once completed, the project will generate much-needed power for Zimbabwe and Zambia. It will also flood the gorge. The fishermen will be relocated, the hippos and crocodiles will probably move on too. But the rapids will disappear forever, submerged in a lake that will stretch all the way back to Victoria Falls.
So if you’ve never been tossed out of a raft in class-five rapids, or looked a crocodile in the eye, or watched an African sunset on the banks of the Zambezi with a cold beer in hand—well, there’s really no time like the present.
>>Next: A Blind Man’s Trip Will Change the Way You Think About Safaris