A Wild Ride Down the Zambezi

  |  Gorp.com

In 1855, Dr. David Livingstone hired natives to paddle his canoe to the brink of mile-wide, 364-foot-high Victoria Falls, billed as the greatest curtain of falling water in the world. Follow in his footsteps and run the river yourself. Above the falls are miles and miles of tranquil canoeing waters inhabited by everything from elephants to hippopotami. But below lies the infamous Batoka Gorge, creating the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, and offering some of the best Class IV-V, big-water whitewater in the world. Although getting to the put-in can still be like joining a game drive—you're likely to see everything from elephants to herds of impala and zebra—the stretch is primarily known for its rapids. The stretch has so many rapids they aren't even named...just numbered.

The side of river you put in on—river left is Zambia, river right is Zimbabwe—determines your initial experience. On the Zambian side, you're rewarded with perhaps that great waterfall view; as soon as you peel out of the eddy above Rapid #1, Victoria Falls comes into view in all its cascading splendor. Put in on the Zimbabwean side above Rapid #4 and you're faced with a 900-vertical-foot hike down a bamboo-laddered trail that will make you feel like Livingstone when he explored the area. No matter where you put in, be prepared for non-stop action. Funneling the whole of Victoria Falls, the Gorge packs an entire Grand Canyon's worth of rapids into a single day. Also popular are longer, multi-day trips, which contain even more big-water rapids; and since the river pools up more downstream, it also offers prime habitat for crocodile and hippo viewing.

You'll be awfully busy staying afloat in these monsters, so you'll need to be aware of the other natural brutes along the way. The excitement of close encounters with crocodiles and hippos in their native element thrills some, terrifies others. The crocodile already carries a ferocious reputation, with its jaws exerting about 3,000 pounds of force, but many mistake the hippo's benign roly-poly appearance for a placid nature. Do not be fooled: the hippo is the most dreaded and aggressive beast on the continent. Any river journey down the Zambezi will be on the lookout for both, and elephants are regular visitors to campsites, along with the occasional lion and leopard lurking in the area.

This trip, either attacking the great rapids or the scary wildlife encounters, is clearly not for the faint of heart, but can be coupled with more traditional safaris in the region. There's also the more timid trip to Victoria Falls. The spectacular mile-wide falls, the largest in Africa, are a must see; know that they have spawned a small town catering solely to tourists, with the world famous Vic Falls Hotel, carrying the charms, and flaws, of its colonial heritage. It is here where most rafting/kayaking trips begin.

Practically Speaking

Don't count on staying dry on the river; most boats flip at one point or another along the Zambezi, but the danger is minimal due to warm water, a paucity of rocks near the surface, and the short rapids, which dump into calm pools where swimmers can be quickly recovered. But as noted above, watching out for crocs and hippos is not an idle concern. Whatever trip you opt for, when you finish, head to one of many thatched-roof hotels in the area offering happy hours on verandas overlooking watering holes. Time it right and your cocktail will arrive just in time to see elephants making their nightly rounds.

Plan to go in the summer: June through September are the strongest for animal sightings, May and October are less so, but still doable.

As for what it's going to cost you: vehicle-supported trips have the traditional comfort of mobile tented safaris and similiar price tags, $200-$250 per day. Most include an official guide licensed to carry a rifle and take you out on walking safaris while ashore. For whitewater runs, day trips are offered on the first 23 rapids, or you can go for an extended stay in the bush—a la Livingstone—for up to seven days.

Published: 8 Jul 2005 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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