The Zambezi II
Rob plays rapid 12b...best playspot on earth??
Zambezi Fact File
The main attraction is the 27km of gorge below the falls, a one day run. Multi day trips continue but the rapids get less frequent. This is a big volume pool - drop run, 22 rapids in one day, reckoned to be grade V because of the big holes you have to dodge, with rapid no 9 a possible portage. (Well, it used to be a portage; nowadays, the locals chuck the latest playboats down it.) In practice, the rapids aren't really that technical and are quite forgiving; simply pick the right line at the top of each rapid. If you hit a hole, you'll flush through to the pool below (eventually). Mind you, when all you can see is the horizon line and spray from below and the safety kayak disappears on the horizon line, saying 'Follow me,'
... For the freestylers amongst you, what was once an expedition paddle is now a play river with local boys lobbing Vertigos, Storms and Riot 007s down for fun.
Believe it or not, there is more to life than kayaking, canoeing or boating, call it what you will. River cruises, safaris, flights over the falls, bungee jumping, all easily booked through numerous agencies in town at short notice. Shop around when you arrive. For canoe widows or less experienced paddlers, consider rafting, riverboarding (that's boogie boarding down the rapids), canoe safaris, Topo Duo paddling or a kayak school, the latter operating on easy bits of the gorge.
The days of big 100,000+ 150 porter expeditions seem to be pretty much over. Kayaking's gone democratic. These days, anyone can buy the latest playboat, chuck it on a plane and fly anywhere. The Zambezi's an easy destination, if not the cheapest. If you shop around you can expect to pay about 550 for return and connecting flights including kayak through Bongo Bongo Airways. Well, I bumped into another Hurley regular by chance on the river, James, who'd paid Ethiopian Airways 550. (I was gutted when he told me Hurley was on 3 gates back home.) Once in town, the economy option is the town council's campsite and chalets in the town centre. Alternatively, if you get to know the local paddlers, maybe you can bag space on a floor somewhere.
Like most paddlers, I've more experience of campsites than posh hotels and I've got a package holiday phobia. However, packages can be used to gain access to cheap flight/hotel deals and as soon as you arrive you can go independent. We went with Voyages Jules Verne who advertise regularly in the Sunday papers. The price, including flights and 7 nights in a 5 star hotel, was 645, effectively 95 for the hotel. The deal is BB. However, the buffet breakfast is banquet standard; a big stomach and doggy bag should keep you going all day. The deal on offer this year isn't quite as competitive but still pretty good. The downside is that you can't shop around for airlines who like kayaks. One solution is to hire when you get there. I was supposed to be on a romantic holiday with the Mrs so I only paddled the gorge a couple of times. I, therefore, didn't mind paying 36 a day, $US50 for hiring a kayak, paddles, buoyancy aid and helmet and $Zim300 to the rafting company for transport and lunch. However, be warned; this isn't Kathmandu. There aren't stacks of boats for hire.
Worth trying, there are three river jobs, raft guide, safety kayaker and video kayaker. There are 2 ways of going about getting work. You can apply in advance for a full 8 month season, essential for videography where they will want to train you. For safety kayaking and raft guiding you'll need experience. Alternatively, turning up on spec, you should be able to land a few days' safety kayaking if you can paddle. Typically, safety kayakers earn $US50 per day. Videographers can earn more; however, they earn it working a 12 hour day, filming on the river, editing and then presenting and selling the film in the bar in the evening. By contrast, safety kayaking's a cushy number, perfecting freestyle moves within range of swimming customers, on standby in case, very occasionally, someone looks like drowning, nice work if you can get it.
Who are the employers?
Well, things have changed. For a start, Sobek aren't operating at the moment in response to price cutting; prices for a day's rafting have fallen from $US130 to $70. Shearwater are the big operator, maybe too big. We used Safari Par Excellence, who are one of the few operators operating from the Zambian side, which means getting on further upstream, within sight of the falls. I could only find one independent video kayak company, Wildside Productions. Alan Roberts' Zambezi Video Productions is now part of Shearwater and Zambezi Memories is part of Safari Par Excellence. Work visas can be tricky which is why the foreign paddlers were all based over the border in Zambia.
When to go
The best time is mid August to the end of December when the river is low enough to allow all the gorge to be run. However, the full season usually runs from June to February, basically running from the end of the wet season as the river gradually drops. Between June and August is the high water season when the easier lower half, rapids 11 - 22 only, is run.
What it all costs
It depends. We were pushed for time, had an intensive week and, as a result, all in, spent 1,100. Youch. Look at it another way; you can blow 1,000 - 1,100 easily on a 2 - 3 week expedition. This way you blow the same amount but quicker. However, travel independently with your boat and you could get, say, 3 weeks for 800 or so. Who knows? If you apply well in advance maybe you can wangle safety kayaking on a multi day trip. Here are some costs -
Rafting $US 70
Topo Duo $130
Kayak hire $50
Canoe safari $80
River cruise $25
Camping Not much
Meals in town Not much
Insurance (Snowcard) 55 (10 days)
Visas Not needed
Malaria tablets 15
Lonely Planet guide 10
Who to contact
These are the people we used after shopping around; they're all good. I get no commission!
Insurance: Snowcard Freepost 4135 Lower Boddington Daventry Northants NN11 6BR
Rafting/Topo Duo kayaking, etc: Safari Par Excellence Victoria Falls Adventure Centre Pomona Centre Parkway Victoria Falls Zimbabwe Tel 26313 2051/3/4 4424 Fax 26313 4510
Video kayaking: Wildside Productions PO Box 295 Victoria Falls Zimbabwe Tel/fax 26313 3300/3299
Kayak school: Johnny Snyder Zambezi International Whitewater School (Address unsure; he's moved to near by Livingstone, Zambia. Try via the above companies.)
Photos from Simon Wiles...
Rob Soames walks into the gorge.
Rob plays in rapid 2.
Rob on rapid 5. It's big!
Simon Wiles plays rapid 5b.
Simon runs rapid 9 - the portage!
Lower part of rapid 9.
All photos taken with a Canon Sureshot A1, utilising it's unique 'Shrinkavision' (tm) feature.