The Mighty Zambezi
In the early months of 2016 I decided this year would be the year I should take on the mighty Zambezi river. Growing up I always got told of stories of the Zambezi and was always amazed by the raw power of the river that I could see while watching endless hours of Steve Fisher running the river on YouTube, or reading magazine articles and seeing pictures of Kayakers like Johnny Snyder running rapid number 9 and being drawn to this Everest of rivers in the kayaking world. This river had always been the one river that I’ve always wanted to run and to hear that they were going to be constructing a Dam on the river made me even more hungry to get out there. At this point in my paddling career I was happy with my skill level and my mind was set for taking on such a powerful river. So I did some research on how I could go about doing this trip. After many hours of research and asking friends if they wanted to join I first discovered I was going on my own and second discovered logistics in and out of the gorge was going to be hard. So I decided to play it safe and book on to a guided trip. This turned out to be the best way to do it and worth every penny!
The trip I decided to book on was called The Zambezi Dream with Water By Nature and these guys sorted everything for me. This trip included all accommodation while I was in Zambia including the extra days I stayed out there at the beginning and the end, guiding on the river, 3 nights camping in the Gorge and a helicopter ride out of the gorge on the last day over the Zambezi river and Victoria Falls.
Get a Guide:
You can go out and try and learn the river by yourself or with friends, but I would highly recommend getting a guide for a day as they know the river like the back of their hands. It is also good to give some money back to the white water community that work out there as they work hard to learn the river and give you the best experience for your money, you won’t regret it.
The cheapest and best accommodation was camping out in the gorge under the stars with no tent just a sleeping mat and sleeping bag next to the river with a view of the Milky Way each night. You would think you would be attacked by mosquitoes but thankfully it was mosquito free down in the gorge. Another place I recommend staying is Jolly Boys Backpackers. They do camping, dorms and private rooms at great prices with safes to sort valuable belongings, full time security and great home cooked food in the evening along with a cheap bar where you get the chance to meet new people in the middle of other amazing adventures.
To start your day on the Zambezi it will consist of a bit of a walk in and depending on which section you run will depend on what type of walk in you have, whether it’s steep gravel track or locally made ladders out of tree branches. Once you are in to the gorge you are now in the land of huge rapids, massive waves, warm water and great times. After a short paddle up river from Rapid 1 you can get exclusive access to the bottom of one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, Victoria Falls. Looking up at the 100 meter high waterfall which is 2km in width you know it’s going to be a great river to run. Directly below Victoria Falls is the minus rapids which show of what raw power these waters have.
Depending on what time of year you go will depend on the water level, I went out in September which is the dry season this meant the rapids were low but made them more steep and technical. If I was to go out again I would like to go later in the year around November/December time when it is the rainy season, so the river is higher and I would have the opportunity to see what the difference on the rapids are like, and what a challenge they could be. If it’s your first time I would recommend going around September/October time, as the rapids are less challenging but still huge and technical but consequences are lower.
My one goal was to paddle rapid number 5 (Stairway to Heaven or Highway to Hell – Grade 5) there are a few different lines on this rapid which go at different water levels. I took the middle line but when your paddling towards it and finally get to the point you drop in all you can see is this steep v line down the middle as you brush past the pour over on river right and charge your way through the surrounding whitewater.
Other personal favourite rapids on this trip were:
- Rapid 7 (Grade 5)
- 12A, 12B, 12C and 13 (Grade 4/5)
- Rapid 18 Oblivion (Grade 5)
- Upper Moamba (Grade 5)
- Ghost Rider (Grade 5)
Different rapids have different ways of running them; this is high volume river, running with lots of big holes to eat you if you take the wrong line. Some people think that it is all point and run rapids and on some rapids this is the case but other rapids like number 7 are a bit more technical as you have to use the laterals and waves to move your way down this longer rapid, which also makes it more challenging as you don’t have a break in an eddy or on a flat bit of water in between. It also depends how much you want to push yourself as if you get a guide they might show you some alternative/more challenging lines.
Your day will end with a walk out and I highly recommend getting a porter to carry your boat out of the gorge or you are going to need to get seriously fit as the walk outs are long and very steep.
What type of Boat should I use?
I had no idea what boat to use while I was out paddling the Zambezi but now that I have done it I would recommend taking a river running boat something like an a Liquid Logic Braaap or Dagger RPM (a low volume river running boat) as these boats are fast and fun through the rapids but also make the flat bits easy to paddle. The Playboat was good fun when surfing waves like Rapid number two and 12B but using a river runner towards the end I was able to stick my lines better and come out of the rapids the right way up.
Yes there are but my guide Lovemore told us at the beginning “don’t worry about the crocodiles in the gorge they are all vegetarians”. When I was paddling I only saw one on the bank, in the gorge they are a lot smaller and scared of humans it’s only after Ghost rider where the river gets flatter and less rapids that there are more.
Here’s a little break down of cost of things:
- Flights – around £500 to £800 depending on you fly with and when you fly
- Visa – multi entry $80
- Anti Malaria Tablets (cheapest Asda Pharmacy in UK)
- Vaccinations (see your local doctor)
- Kayak Hire – $100 deposit returned if boat undamaged
- Jolly Boys 2 bed Private Room – $35 a night
- Putting on at Rapid One (Boiling Pot) is in national park so there is launch fee which is $20
- Dinner at Jolly Boys with a drink cost around $8 – $10 depending on what you had
The best currency to use in Zambia is US Dollars as most people take this currency as it’s easy to exchange.
Off River Days:
As this was my first time in Africa I wanted to get the full experience and went full tourist! I did two safaris the first one I did was a Rhino walk the second one was a boat and jeep safari through Chobe National Park in Botswana.
Rhino Walk – I preferred this type of safari out of the two safaris as we walked around with a local guide who was able to tell us about all the different plants, animal tracks and go into great detail about our surroundings and it also allowed us to get close to the wildlife. We started the walk at 7:00 in the morning as this is the coolest point in the day and walked to around mid day. On the way we saw a variety of wildlife from warthogs, Zebra, Giraffe, Elephants, hippos, antelope and of course rhinos. The rhinos were the last animals we saw in this reserve there are only 9 and I was fortunate enough to see all 9 Rhinos, after watching them for about 20 minutes we had to leave due to it getting to the hottest point in the day and Rhinos started fighting with each other over the shade.
Chobe National Park Safari – this day out started with me getting up early and being driven to the 4 corners border point between Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia this is where all the borders meet each other on the Zambezi river and I needed to get from Zambia into Botswana to do this, I had to catch a boat across the river to then be picked up by my Safari guide. Once picked up we headed to a hotel where we got on another boat which drove us up and down the river looking at the different wildlife. Chobe National Park is known for its large herds of elephants and I have never seen so many elephants in one place, everywhere you looked elephants were grazing on land, rolling around in the mud or swimming across the river using their trunks as snorkels to get to the uneaten grass.
After lunch we got into a jeep to do the land safari driving through the bush in hope to see some big cats. Unfortunately it was still to hot for the big cats so I didn’t get to see any lions or leopards, but I did get to see lots of giraffe, elephants, hippos, antelope, zebra, warthogs, Cape buffalo, kudu and impalas.
Zambia is an incredible country to visit and at the heart of this is the Zambezi River which will not disappoint you! Sadly the Zambian government and Zimbabwe government have to come to an agreement to build a damn lower down on the Zambezi river close to Ghostrider which once complete will flood the gorge all the way up to rapid number 10 maybe higher. While I was there I spoke to some locals who don’t think the dam will be completed very quickly but construction is slowly starting to happen, they already have the water towers in and were building the main road to access the site while I was there.
If this damn does get completed it’s going to be a huge lost the whitewater kayaking world but also to the tourist industry, locals, farmers and whitewater community who has worked hard to create a living from this river and also call it a home. If you do get a chance to go you won’t be disappointed and you can do it now or never.
Joshua Telling Zambezi Video – https://vimeo.com/201109995