White-Water Rafting in the Batoka Gorge, between Zambia and Zimbabwe

Today is the day that we will have our first white-water rafting experience and where better to start than the Batoka Gorge, downstream from the mighty Victoria Falls? The Zambezi River, known to rafters as ‘The River’ is one of the world’s premier white-water runs with the most exciting and challenging rapids on the planet.

We wake up early for breakfast and then head to the activity centre in the hotel where we will be collected. Once the rest of our group arrive we are given helmets, life jackets and oars before setting off down the Boiling Pot trail. We hike down the steps from the Zambezi Sun hotel gate to the waters edge at the point where the river turns and heads down the gorge. The Boiling Pot is a permanent whirlpool, around 150 metres across, and a deep and treacherous fissure. Anything that is swept over the falls is usually washed up here, on the northeastern bank. Above us we can see people bungee jumping off the Victoria Falls bridge.

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“That enormous gulf, black as is the basalt which forms it, dark and dense as the cloud which enwraps it, would have been chosen, if known in biblical times, as an image of the infernal regions, a hell of water and darkness, more terrible perhaps than the hell of fire and light” said explorer Major A de Serpa Pinto when describing the Boiling Pot in the 1880s.

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Our guide, Boyd, gives us a safety briefing and teaches us the different commands that he will use throughout the day and what we are supposed to do when we hear them. We are taught to ‘forward paddle’, ‘back paddle’, ‘paddle hard’, ‘high side’ (everyone move to one side to stop the raft from flipping) and the very important ‘get down and hold on’. We learn to grab on to the ‘O.S.’ line (meaning the ‘Oh Sh*t Line’) when we get down or fall out, how to pull rafters back into the raft and how to keep hold of the raft while it is being flipped back over by the guide.

Soon it is time for the adventure begin and the rafts are lowered into the water. It is choppy in the Boiling Pot and even getting into the rafts is difficult. One of our group ends up in the water before we even set off but it gives us a chance to practise pulling him in with our oars and helping him on board.

The three rafts and rescue kayaks are ready to go. We are the last group to tackle the Boiling Pot and Rapid 1, known as Against The Wall. We watch as the first raft paddles into it before being turned around by the force of the rapid and ending up back at the start. The group tries again and on the third go the raft flips but they get through (albeit with the crew in the water) and they are on the other side, ready to head down the gorge.

Soon it is our turn and Boyd shouts, instructing us to paddle a little upstream to get in at the top of the rapid. “Paddle hard!” he yells as we enter the rapid. We do as he says but a few second later we find our raft turning and floating back to the beginning. We try again…and again. “One group did this ten times yesterday”, says Boyd and I am desperately hoping that will not happen to us.

As we go for our sixth round in the Boiling Pot I decide that I am going to give up on white-water rafting if we don’t get through this time. “Paddle hard!” Boyd yells and my arms feel as though they are about to snap as I plunge my oar into the water, using every ounce of my strength. Our raft crashes against the ‘wall’ of rocks to the south of the rapid and this time it turns to the right – we have finally made it!

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After a truly exhausting start I am wondering if white-water rafting was such a good idea after all but it is too late to change my mind now! We have just a few seconds to rest as the current takes us down the Zambezi River before we reach Rapid 2, The Bridge. This is a class 3 and so it shouldn’t be too difficult, we are told. Above us the bungee jumper is being hoisted back up and we can see the first two rafts make it through successfully.

We approach, paddling as per Boyd’s orders, when a wave hits the side of our raft and before we know it the raft flips. I find myself under the edge of the raft and, for a moment, am completely disorientated as I try to figure out which way to swim. I feel my way along the tubes, holding my breath. I can feel the other rafters struggling to get out from under the raft too and someone is kicking me in the side. After what seems like ages I have found my way out and take a deep breath. I am still trying to figure out exactly where I am when I feel someone grab me and I am pushed back under the water. I fight my way back up and realise that one of the rafters has started to panic. Being the nearest floating object she is desperately trying to climb onto me which, of course, is not working very well for either of us. I push her towards the raft and instruct her to hold on to the rope. Our guide does a head count and then advises us that he is going to flip the raft right-way-up. We all get hold of the O.S. line and wait to be dunked under the water again. A few seconds later we pop up at the other side but the girl next to me has started to panic again and is grabbing at everyone and everything. Luckily our guide notices and pulls her into the raft first.

Once we are all back in the raft Boyd asks if we are all ok, before adding “wasn’t that fun?!” By now I am seriously regretting our choice of activity and am considering the alternative options that perhaps would have been more fun and less life-threatening. My side is throbbing, where I was kicked in the ribs and I have water up my nose and in my ears, let alone the gallon or two that I swallowed. I ask Boyd how many rapids we have left and he replies with “you are with me for the full day – that means that we are doing all 25!”. There is no way out – we are floating down Batoka Gorge with cliffs on either side that are over 120 metres high.

I don’t have much time to dwell on regretting my decision as we are already approaching Rapid 3. It is steep and fast but has a straight run down the middle which, if you take this route, makes it quite simple we are told. We head for the middle, ‘paddling hard’, and we manage to make it through unscathed. We celebrate our tiny victory with a paddle ‘high five’ and I hope that we are setting a new tone for the remainder of the journey.

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Coming up is Rapid 4, known as Morning Glory. This is a class 5 rapid and our first ‘big one’. It has a big, crashing hole at the bottom and a tricky entrance at the top. “If you have a hangover, this rapid is guaranteed to wake you up” says Boyd, “this is why it is called Morning Glory”. We hang back as the first raft makes it through successfully and then it is our turn. We paddle into it and then get down and hold on as the waves crash over us and we feel our raft being tossed this way and that. We manage to successfully navigate our first Class 5 rapid!

Next is the Stairway to Heaven, a class 5 rapid with an eight metre drop over ten metres, intimidating features and a series of massive, crashing waves. “Mess this up and she could be your highway to hell” we are told as we approach. We enter in the middle, avoiding the ‘catcher’s mitt’ hole on the left and the pour-over on the right. Once again the waves crash over us and this rapid is longer than the last but we make it safely to the other side. We have a few minutes to regain strength before we reach The Devil’s Toiletbowl, a class 4 rapid with a very powerful hole at the top and some strong whirlpools.

Soon we reach Gulliver’s Travels, the longest, most complex and most technical rapid on this section of the river. The name of this 700 metre, class 5 rapid seems to be a little less threatening that the previous ones, however this is made up for with its sections called ‘The Temple of Doom’, ‘The Patella Gap’, ‘The Crease’ and ‘The Land of Giants’. Before we approach the rapid, Boyd gives us a briefing on how we are going to tackle it. “At the beginning there are two big rocks” he explains, “we need to stay far away from them. The rocks create a whirlpool and if we flip there our raft could get stuck between them. That would not be good…” Keeping a wary eye on the two prominent rocks we enter the rapid, paddling hard. As we successfully come out the other side we begin to feel like rafters!

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Boyd invites us to jump in the river and after all that hard work a cool down is very welcome indeed. We jump in and let the current take us downstream. There are some crocodiles that live in the Batoka Gorge but we are told that they are small and it is quite safe to swim here. It is thought that these crocodiles were washed over the falls as babies and survived the fall. Whatever the truth is we (thankfully) don’t see any and enjoy a short but relaxing swim before climbing back into our raft.

We take the ‘chicken run’ on the Midnight Diner, Rapid 8, as the girl who tried to drown me on Rapid 2 does not yet seem to have recovered from her shock and has now decided just to sit on the floor of the raft and hold on. There are three possible routes through this rapid including ‘The Muncher’ with a large wave and ‘Star Trek’ with a five metre hole. While making our decision on which route to take, she asks me if I am able to swim before confessing to me that she cannot and we opt for the safer route. One of the other rafts goes for the more challenging option and flips on a big wave.

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The next rapid is the Zambezi’s most infamous, class 6 rapid called Commercial Suicide. No commercial rafting companies run this rapid and so we paddle towards the rocky shore and climb off. “This is the only way you can get into Zimbabwe without a passport” claims our guide as we step onto the Zimbabwean side of the gorge. We watch one of the kayakers go through, disappearing in the massive, churning waves and reappearing for a few seconds before being swallowed up again by the turbulent waters. Two of the guides push their raft through alone while they walk with us but Boyd has decided to go through with his raft. He manages the huge pour-over well but then the raft flips as it hits a wave.

Once our rafts have made it through Commercial Suicide we board them again for one final rapid before we have a break for lunch. Rapid 10 is a class 4 and we are able to run it right down the middle without much trouble. We paddle our rafts to the Zambian side of the gorge and climb up onto the black, basalt rocks for a picnic lunch that has been brought here by the porters.

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While we enjoy a well-earned break the half-day rafters that have been on our raft this morning leave and a new group joins us. As soon as the new arrivals have been kitted out with lifejackets, helmets and paddles we are ready to continue. Straight away we are heading towards a class 5 rapid called Overland Truck Eater or Creamy White Buttocks. It is a good start to the second part of our day and, with our new team, we ride through the rapid without any difficulty.

Rapids 12A, 12B and 12C, also known as the Three Ugly Sisters, provide a good warm up for our next class 5 rapid, The Mother. We lose two of our crew as we get thrashed around in the wave train that is caused by a constriction in the water flow.

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We approach the Washing Machine and Boyd explains to us how we are going to avoid the dangerous whirlpool by skipping around the side of it. The massive whirlpool has a rock in the middle and a boat-eating hole, guaranteed to flip rafts. Anything sucked into it will be churned over and over, hence the name.

We ride through Terminator I and II, paddling through the wave trains and crashing waters – we are getting quite good at this! As soon as we are out of Rapid 18, Double Trouble, Boyd announces that he has a surprise but we will have to paddle hard to catch it. We follow his instructions and fight against the current to cross over to the Zimbabwean side of the river. “Hurry!” he shouts “We are going to miss it!” I can’t see anything around us apart from the rocks on either side of the gorge but we don’t have time to question the orders and we paddle as hard as we can. We reach the cliffs and Boyd grabs hold of the rocks with a big smile on his face. “We made it” he exclaims as we look at each other with confused expressions.

“Who wants to bungee jump without a rope into the Zambezi River?” he asks, as he invites us to climb up the black rocks that tower over us. “We have to be quick before the others catch up” he says and so we haul ourselves out of the raft and up the side of the cliff. When we are at the top of the protruding rock, ten meters above the water, we hear Boyd shout “jump”. Here the river is over 90 metres deep and so, with no risk of hitting the riverbed, we take a running leap and hit the water with a huge splash.

Refreshed and ready to take on the next rapid we climb back in the raft and prepare ourselves for the most famous rapid in the world, Oblivion. This grade 5 rapid is responsible for more raft flips than any other rapid on the planet. Apparently only one in four attempts to get through the Oblivion succeed and, listening to Boyd’s plan, it is unlikely that we are going to be the ‘one’. “We are going to have some fun” he says, “everyone get to the back and we are going to lift the nose of the raft as we hit the waves”. We do as he says and everyone shuffles to the back of the raft as we watch the first two rafts make it through successfully – the odds are already against us.

We head straight for the middle and as we hit the first wave the nose of our raft lifts right out of water. As soon as the nose comes back down we hit the second wave and it lifts up again. We hold on as the nose of the raft continues to head to the sky until our raft is sticking out of the water vertically. It keeps going and flips over as we all topple into the water.

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We are still in the middle of the rapid and I can feel the waves thrashing us about as I pop up inside the raft. The raft lifts a little and I can see where I am but as soon as I am about to swim out we are hit by another wave and I am dragged under the water. I fight my way back to the surface but before I manage to catch my breath I find myself being pulled under again. After what seems like forever (in fact it is only a few seconds) I pop up  and this time I am out of the raft and the current is taking me down the river. It takes me a moment to orientate myself as I cough up mouthfuls of water. One of the rescue kayaks is making its way towards me and I turn to see Boyd on top of our raft asking if I am ok. I give him the ‘thumbs up’ and start to swim back towards my group.

The final seven rapids are mellow, class 2 and class 3. We jump in the water to bodysurf through a few, getting caught in the small whirlpools as we float downstream with the current.

As we pass rapid 21 we see a family of baboons on a sandy beach on the Zambian side of the river. We enjoy paddling through Morning Shave and Morning Shower, by now feeling quite experienced on these mild rapids.

When we reach the sandy shore after rapid number 25 I am almost sad that the experience is over, feeling quite different from how I did at the beginning of the day. In the past six hours we have travelled 30 kilometres, tackled 25 rapids and flipped only twice on ‘The River’ – not a bad first white-water rafting experience!

We follow our guide up a sandy hill to a cable-car that will take us up to the top of the gorge. The Jet Extreme cable-car is Africa’s second cable-car and will lift us up to the top of the 220 metre high cliffs in around eight minutes. The cable car is lowered and we climb aboard, signing forms to release the company from responsibility in the case of death, and the car is hoisted up. One of the guides opens the door and leans out to film as we climb to the top of the cliffs. The view is quite magnificent and we can see the rafts being pulled up onto the shore as we leave the Zambezi River below us.

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Trucks are waiting to take us back to Livingstone. We set off down a dirt road and find ourselves driving through tiny African villages where the children run out of the mud huts to wave at us and chase the trucks down the dusty roads.

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At the Zambezi Waterfront hotel we enjoy a very well-deserved beer as we watch the video of our day. It feels surreal watching ourselves in the raft, paddling through some of the world’s most challenging rapids in a white-water rafter’s paradise. The experience has been truly amazing (as well as terrifying and exhausting) and one that we will never forget.

Thank you Safari Par Excellence for an amazing white water rafting experience!

All rafting photographs courtesy of Safari Par Excellence.

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White-Water Rafting in the Batoka Gorge, between Zambia and Zimbabwe

by Uncover Travel time to read: 13 min
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