After three weeks of the overland tour, everyone had heard a lot about Victoria Falls. Some members of the group had already been there, but for most (including us) it was the first time.
Victoria Falls is both the name of the town in Zimbabwe, as well as the famous waterfalls. Known locally as the Mosi-oa-Tunya (meaning “smoke that thunders”) they are among the world’s biggest waterfalls, and their touristic importance has made the town what it is today.
The town itself is a hub of adventure activities and has many restaurants, hotels, campsites and adventure booking companies. Some of the most popular are the whitewater rafting, bungee jumping, a huge swing, abseiling and helicopter flights.
We hadn’t thought of doing any of them, especially because the prices are quite high, but decided to do the rafting if we found a good deal. The base price was $130, advertised everywhere.
As in most touristic places, we quickly got approached by someone on the street selling all kinds of services. After asking for rafting and a bit of bartering, we got an offer on the rafting for $150 for the two of us. We said we would think about it and went on our way.
When we decided to do it, we never saw him again! By then I had already decided I really wanted to do the rafting, so I was determined to find the same deal or better. So I set out into town on my own to try and book a good deal on rafting the next day. It wasn’t long until I realized there were only four operators, the rest were booking agents. Most of the places I went to wouldn’t budge the price, and I was quoted $130 everywhere ($120+$10 park fee). One or two lowered it to $110, but I wasn’t happy with that since I was told $75 by someone on the street earlier!
After 7 or 8 tries at different places I finally found a booking agent willing to negotiate to get my business. It took about half an hour, but we agreed on the $150 for two! The next day we were going rafting!
Rafting in the Zambezi
The next morning we met up with another client in the operator company’s office, and sat there waiting for two more. As the boats can take 8 people and we had paid a discounted price, we were expecting the boat to be full. The two people who we were waiting for were stuck in the Botswana border trying to enter Zimbabwe, so we were only 3 paying customers in the end! We went all the same, with an extra guide and a trainee guide to help since the boat was so empty.
We got in a van and after a short drive arrived at the entry point. The river runs well below the road level, and we had to hike down, carrying our paddle to reach it. The scenery is very beautiful and the trek wasn’t too hard. We met our guide at the bottom again, whose name was Sugar. Sugar thought our boat was still a bit low on people, and invited another trainee guide from another company to come along.
Helmets on, paddles in hand and we were in the boat. The instructions were short but clear. Sugar shouts forward: we paddle. Sugar shout faster: we paddle faster. Sugar shouts GET DOWN: we jump from our seats, crouch facing sideways and grab onto the rope running along the boat while praying not to get thrown overboard.
Apart from this was only a short explanation on how to turn the boat and that the Zambezi is a pool drop river. This means that after every rapid there is a long section of calm water.
Did I mention we would do 18 rapids, some of them grade 5, the highest grade commercial operations are allowed to take people on?
We barely had time to understand everything and we were already hitting our first rapid. FORWARD. we start rowing, trying to keep the pace of the muscular locals in front of us. FASTER. We hit the rapid, with water moving all around us, the bigger waves in front. GET DOWN we jump down into what is supposed to be a crouch but is something more like a kneel, hold onto the rope and feel the boat moving at the river’s mercy, as water hits us from all sides.
As our guide tells us to sit back down and we hit the pool of the river, I look around and everyone is still on board. Margarida’s contact lenses are out of place, but fortunately she didn’t lose them, and makes a note to close her eyes the next time.
We keep rowing, and onto the next rapid. Our guide, Sugar, mentions the names of the rapids as we approach them. The names are very comforting, such as Devil’s toilet bowl, Gnashing jaws of death, washing machine, the terminator…
On the third rapid our trainee guide got thrown out of the boat, and back on shortly after. After some of the tougher rapids, our guide would shout hi-five! and we would all join our paddles together in the center of the boat. One of those times the water was still wavy, and I got thrown out as a small wave hit us and I had no support.
As I came up for air I couldn’t reach the surface, and quickly realized I was under the boat! I remembered what the guide had said about this scenario and pushed with my hands a few times, finally emerging. It was not a strong rapid, but still the water threw me around quite a bit until I managed to swim back to the boat.
The scenery is beautiful, and we kept making our way down the river, getting better at following the complicated instructions of FORWARD, FASTER and GET DOWN. At one point we jumped in for a swim between two rapids, which was quite nice.
We had to get out of the boat and walk around a grade 6 rapid, aptly named “commercial suicide”.
Time flew past and we were soon on the next to last rapid of our day, Oblivion. Sugar proudly announced there was a 99,9% chance that we would flip the boat.
This information caught us by surprise, but there was no way out. The river only flows one way, so down we went.
Rapid 17 coming up. Oblivion. We must get speed to make it through safely. There are three large waves. The third is the biggest and the boat will flip.
FORWARD. We paddle, deep breath. FASTER. The first wave comes into view, it’s big but we’ve done bigger. We hit the rapid. FASTER. we climb the first wave and drop down to the second. GET DOWN. Jump, squat, grab the rope. Look up. That’s a big wave. We crash onto the second wave and then the third comes into view. Oh my god, he was right. NO CHANCE WE MAKE IT THROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOUGH was my last thought before I found myself underwater. I come to the surface but I’m again under the boat, only this time the boat is upside down, so I can breathe. I pull myself out from under the boat and everyone is at the surface.
While we are dragged gently by the current, Sugar gets on top of the boat and flips it back, so we all get back in.
We all take a moment to recover. Margarida is feeling slightly sick, I am pumped by the addrenaline and wish we could continue down river!
By now about three hours have passed and after the last uneventful rapid we row the boat to shore. They don’t tell you at the beginning, but the worst part of such a great day is the climb back up. The path is narrow, long and steep. Fortunately, at the top, lunch is ready and fresh drinks waiting!
If you’re at Victoria Falls and want an adrenaline rush, there are plenty of choices. The rafting is a very good one!
Visiting Victoria Falls
We left the actual Victoria Falls for the last day. We went reasonably early and entered the park before 8. There was almost no one there, so it was peaceful and quiet – if not for the loud sound of the waterfalls!
At this time of year is low water season, but the falls are nevertheless very impressive. The park is well set up with many viewpoints, and it’s a nice walk going to them all.
From one of the viewpoints you get a clear view of Devil’s Pool and the people right on the edge. It’s crazy to think Margarida was there a few days ago!
I really don’t know what else to say about water falling down a big height, other than it’s very beautiful, so I end with some pictures.