The Zambezi I

A canoe widow starts by taking a kayak on one of the world's classic white water runs and doesn't want to stop...

My partner is a kayaker. I am not. We met at my tennis club, actually. We talked about tennis and jobs, etc. All seemed pretty normal to me. He said he went canoeing sometimes. OK... whatever...

Three years later I now understand what a kayaker actually is. Kayakers have jobs and they look and talk normally in everyday life but life for them is somewhere else. Kayakers live to kayak. For large chunks of our lives I lose my partner to this other life. He disappears into a hazy world of which I only get snatches when he's on the phone to his kayaking mates. Levels, numbers of gates, this is a mystery world. Still, each to his own. We go our separate ways at weekends. He comes back from canoe trips, tired and smelly, and normal life resumes but he's strangely elated and I must admit I've wondered quite what goes on...

One day Chris suggests a holiday in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. He produces a glossy brochure showing the beautiful falls. It's going to be sunny, it's exotic, it's Africa and it's a five star hotel, heaven! Until now, holidays with Chris have involved tents and English mud (a new experience for me, I can assure you but that's another story). You see, rufty-tufty I am not. Now, a five star hotel in glamorous Victoria Falls is more like it. We're going to lie on a sundrenched patio sipping cocktails by the pool.

Then begins this talk about white water. Froth in the Jacuzzi? Bubbles in the champers? Not quite. Apparently, there's this gorge thing below the falls and it seems people throw themselves down it, well, people in (you guessed it) kayaks. Mmm, light dawns. I, singular, lie in the sun while my partner plays in kayaks. It'd better take some books. Still, this is an improvement on camping in Cornwall so we sign up with a year to wait. Meanwhile, on sunny Saturdays, Chris gets me pottering in canoes on pretty backwaters in Oxford. Kayaking is a bit like punting, I figure, and insist on taking a picnic. It's quite pleasant but I can't quite work out why they get so excited. The magic of Hurley, what is this lure that pulls Chris there on a cold wet January evening when normal people curl up on sofas?

Autumn 1998, the long awaited holiday in Victoria Falls arrives. I pack my beachwear. Chris uses his entire weight allowance on canoe kit. When Livingstone arrived in this area in 1855 the falls stopped him in his tracks. They are, of course, one of the great wonders of the world. 'On sights as beautiful as this angels in their flight must have gazed,' I quote. It will be no surprise to readers of Canoeist that we do not head for the falls.

Day 1, 'I need a boat.'

We spend Day 1 in dusty hot Victoria Falls town checking out the local kayak operators. 'Who has a 270 I can borrow?' is all Chris says all day. (Chris opted not to bring a boat, thinking this would be easy to sort, not quite so; see the Fact File). Thankfully, he eventually finds one.

Day 2, Chris hits the gorge.

Actually we both hit the gorge. I pluck up all the nerve I possess to go down in a raft. Well, it'll be something to talk about back at the office. After a terrifying safety talk (we're all going to drown) and a gruelling descent of the deep gorge side, we finally emerge at the bottom of this chasm inside the mighty Zambezi gorge. The world stops. This is breathtaking. This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. The gorge is huge, steep rugged walls of rock that go up for ever. A mass of tumbling, dazzling white water cascades its way down at a speed and volume that are quite awesome, all lit up by brilliant sunshine.

Rafting actually turns out to be serious fun, the Zambezi adrenalin rush! The raft gets hurled, sucked and catapulted down the 21 rapids, at times going vertical down a huge wall of water and then flipping right over in the crease below. We all yell a lot and fall out a lot. For someone new to white water, this is quite an introduction. Once in the water the full force of the rapid engulfs us. Completely at it's mercy, we just tumble along inside this torrent. Water crashing over our heads when we surface, we gasp for air when it lets us and then we finally emerge back in the calm, still alive!

We crash our way on through the Gnashing Jaws of Death, Oblivion and the Devil's Toilet Bowl... Meanwhile, my partner is lost to me, lost in a paradise world of critical lines, wicked stoppers, dream surf waves and giant holes, gone to the great white heaven that draws kayakers here from around the world.

'Let's talk white water.'

Back at the hotel bar, exhausted but bright eyed, we swap stories. 'Isn't the Zambezi amazing? How was it for you?' Rafting was good but I'm no idiot. It is pretty clear that kayaking is better and not just a bit better. As Chris tactfully puts it, it's like comparing being in a lorry with riding a motorbike, that much better... hmmmm... Anyway, forget the falls and the safari trips; we start planning Gorge Take 2. Cruising the raft operators next day I spot a small paragraph in a leaflet about this thing called tandem kayaking, two people in a Topo. You know what that means. I got the general idea. Someone who knows what he's doing can take someone else (who doesn't) down in his boat with him. 'That's crazy,' says Chris. 'I wouldn't *** do that on grade V rapids. Have a complete novice in my boat with me! Anyway, surely you don't want to do that? Do you?'

I do. I really do. Don't get me wrong; it sounds terrifying to me. This is seriously big water out here and I have never got the hang of rolling and don't really want to; boats should remain upright as far as I'm concerned but, basically, I want in on the act. Here's my chance to find out what it's all about. I can find out what is so *** brilliant about it. Chris is touchingly concerned. 'The thing is going to capsize. You may hate it. How will you feel about being underwater? You may have to swim, a lot,' but if I want to do it he'll be my personal safety kayaker for the day. We find the man with the tandem and book them. Several days of waiting and sleepless nights go by. I keep having dreams about drowning.

Why am I doing this?

The day arrives and, all of a sudden, there I am in the front of this tandem kayak about to go down 21 grade V rapids. My brain and body are on supercharge, fear and excitement overdose. My guide, James, is talking a lot and trying to be reassuring. He insists on doing capsize drills, then, finally, we're off. 'Just do it.' Coming up to the first rapid there's an eerie sense of sublime. The boat tucks in with the flow, a smooth shiny platform of water that gets faster and noisier and faster and noisier, then there's this sudden realization that there's no turning back. The edge is coming up and we're about to go over it and what an edge!

The front of the boat plummets down a near vertical drop of thrashing foaming water, in front, a huge curl of water sucking us down and walls of white spray below and then we're right in it. A rip of exhilaration shoots right through me. I yell out in pure joy (or terror). The boat hits the first crease and the force of the water in my face literally takes my breath away, water everywhere, above me, below me, in my eyes, and the roar! 'Hoo Har Saf Par!' as they say round here. I really don't think I've ever got such a buzz from anything. Being in the front of the tandem kayak, it feels just like the real thing. I take all the hits and get right in there. We zip through the water. We weave and duck and skim. It is a dream. We even do some flat water spins, apparently. Of course, it's all a complete cheat because all I'm doing in the front is exactly what I'm told.

James clearly knows the river and kayaks backwards and picks our course, telling me how to lean and when to basically duck. We do capsize, quite a lot, but we also roll miraculously (I think James is quite good at this) and James explains everything that is going on and is very reassuring and encouraging. After a few rapids I relax and just lose myself in it. So, this is what they call learning by immersion. When we get to the bottom, 21 rapids of grade 5 river later, I don't want to get out.


So, there you have it, my baptism by fire and kayaking awakening. I think I get it now. It is the most amazing sensation. There is speed and violence but coupled with such elegance, to cut through water so gracefully, to be in such harmony with the water. This is powerful stuff. I just wish I could cut out a few years of pain so that I, too, could go solo. In the meantime, I really will persevere with those pool sessions and Chris has promised/ threatened to take me to the Tryweryn to have a go on something slightly smaller. Maybe, just maybe, in years to come I'll return to the Zambezi and go down solo but, if not, I certainly hope to return and find James again.

Any of you other canoe widows out there, I'd really recommend having a go at tandem kayaking if you ever get the chance. It really is a terrific way of getting an insight into this mysterious world. At least, then, you'll understand why you have difficulty competing with the magic of Hurley.

Julia Hopkinson

Chris WheelerThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Zambezi II - How was it for you?