Zambezi Oct/ Nov 2002
Stop whining Chas, it's not that big really.
Boat, split paddles, spray deck, shoes, shorty cag, trunks, shorts, dry bags.
Long sleeve t-shirts, long trousers, shorts, t-shirts, sandals
BA to Joburg (11 hours) overnight then International to Livingstone (1 hours). Left UK at 19:30 arrived Joburg at 08:00, left Joburg at 11:30 arrived Livingstone at 13:00.
Paying paddlers: Chas Couchman (me), Graham Bland (Ringwood CC), Brian McKenzie an American called Hunter who joined us for 2 days.
The crew from Zambezi.com - Muzza, Donna, Sven, Ben.
Locals are very nice and friendly; all speak English (ex-colony).
Faulty Towers slept in double room at $10 per night (cost us $2 each extra). Had pool, bar, sky TV, Internet access.
Tents on riverbank or on top of gorge.
Inoculations (jabs), Mosi spray (loads), mosi net (left behind), roll mat, sleeping bag (left behind), numerous pills potions, waterproof plasters, Malaria tabs (50)
Flight cost 700 return with BA, did not incur excess baggage charges (Virgin wanted 150 to fly each Kayak).
Holiday cost 800 for 10 days, all in.
Spent about 250 on top.
Any paddler should know what the Zambezi is like. It features in many of the mags and on many of the videos. Often billed as the best white water run on the planet - big warm water, huge bus swallowing holes, evil whirlpools, 250M deep, 300 cumics, classic surf waves and crocodiles! how the hell did we end up there?
Well, thanks to my family, I was up for a trip in 2002 somewhere and all I had to do was identify the location. Mmm Graham wants to go to Nepal? .. advertised for interest on Mark Rainsleys web site message board. I indicated that I might be interested for a Zambezi in the Fall trip.
Of course, I also received much sound advice from certain members of Southbourne Canoe Club generally on the insanity theme. (These same members were heard planning the divvying-up of my kit should I not return!)
Graham started to collect some information. There was an outfit called TheZambezi.com, set up last year by Muzza (NZ) and Andrew (Sven) Bolton (UK) who had already run 5 or 6 kayak trips down the Zambezi. . October is the end of the dry season out there; the river will be at its lowest (oh, great, nice and easy).
So we went, Graham and I, flying out to Livingstone (via Joburg) at the end of October. Those kind people at British Airways taking our Kayaks for nothing (although we were severely limited with our weight allowance of 23Kg) and well over weight.
Sitting in the departure lounge Graham started to read the lonely planets guide to Zambia. This included a special section on Adrenaline Sports
"Down stream from Victoria Falls, the rapids of Batoka Gorge can be run by kayaks if you know what youre doing (like really know)" did we really know what we were doing? of course, the author wasnt a paddler, what did he know! besides, Chris Wheeler had told me its big but easy (but then, he would!). I read on . "August to October: the main rafting period. Water continues dropping. The later the season, the bigger the rapids, and the braver the rafters" That cant be right can it? the rapids get bigger when the river level drops? Oh no! Im already through passport control theres no turning back and we obviously dont know what were doing .
Having flown overnight and made the connection in Joburg for our onward flight we arrived at Livingstone, Zambia, early afternoon. No sleep and ended up watching Men in Black II twice.
In Joburg I never had any Rand (cost R33) so paid for some coffees in 10 sterling, nice young girl brought me a R50 note and said she needed to get more change, I said she could keep the change. Later found out it was R15 to the pound so coffees were 2, change was 3 and tip was 5 I was devastated.
In 35C we watched the unloading of the plane we were relieved to see the boats had also made it. The customs official was busy on her radio as I breezed through, but she finished her call and raised her eyes just as Graham was approaching the door carrying his kayak. She wanted a payment of around 350 deposit to bring the boat in to Zambia this would be returned to him when he left the country but as 2.3 million Kwathca! Fortunately Sven had arrived to pick us up and, after some debate, managed to sort things out. Whilst I stood behind the glass doors making suggestions at what a criminal Graham was and how lucky he was not to have a bag and body search.
Frazzled and travel weary we finally made it to Fawlty Towers backpackers lodge for a few hours rest. Here Graham and I (later to be known as the old crocs) met Bryan McKenzie from Canada, the third and final paying member of the trip. Also met Hunter, an American, who joined us for the first two days.
Preparation and Training
Of course, before tackling a river like the mighty Zambezi its important to prepare and train adequately to become a perfectly honed and fit paddling machine. Consequently, Graham and I had grabbed a few hours at Woodmill weir during the summer eventually developing skills sufficient to stay upright, and even throw a few ends.
This training regime was supplemented by extended bath times - following what later proved to be sound advise from fellow paddlers "for the Zambezi practice holding your breath" I ditched the shower in favour of deep baths with plenty of bubbles (to simulate the Zambezis aerated water) and a stop watch. At least I smelt good.
Final preparation was to be undertaken on the evening of our arrival. This preparation comprised a Booze Cruise on the Upper Zambezi (countless 5% Mosi beers while watching elephants (crossing the river), Hippo, Impala and Zebra, etc. from the deck of the African Queen) followed by a drinking session at Hippos Bar where Bryan, Graham and I got to know our two guides Sven (none of those blonde kids are mine) and (Osama) Ben (Ladin) Brown.
The first Run of Batoka Gorge
The after effects of the long flight and of the boozy booze cruise the evening before was, perhaps, not the best preparation for our first run of the 24km Batoka Gorge (Rapids #1 to 18). We signed the indemnity forms over a hearty breakfast at Muzzas place, and then took the long climb down the gorge to the Boiling Pot at the foot of Victoria Falls this has to be the most awesome river put-in on the planet.
The Falls are called "Mosi a Tunya" by the locals, meaning "The smoke that thunders".
My knees and hands were trembling when we reached the bottom of the gorge from stress and excess alcohol, heres where the porters had left our boats. We made mistake on first day of carrying our own kit never made same mistake on later days for 1000 Kwathca each (about 20p) they carried our kit.
Rapid #1 "back against the wall" was directly ahead of us here the 100m deep gorge pulls a sharp 90-degree turn, causing water to pile into the wall. Had to have a swim first to cool down before getting into my kayak. We all made the ferry, avoided the wall pasting and I began to relax. The next two rapids "Between Two Worlds" and "Bits and Pieces" were relatively straight forward, and there were long pools between each of the rapids hey .. this is going to be OK. But
Within a few more minutes we reached #4 "Morning Glory" and the first of the major rapids. We got out and looked at this one a long rapid with a couple of prominent holes. The line was discussed eddy out at top right, skirt the first hole, power to the left of the wave train, line up for the bottom hole and, hopefully, get spat out into the pool below. I got it all OK. Graham got the first bit right but, needless to say, the rest of the rapid he tackled in an inverted position rolling up spluttering at the bottom, conscious that a big croc lived in the pool below, not quite sure what had happened but knowing that he had seriously misjudged the power of the water.
No harm, lets try the next - #5 "Stairway to heaven", billed as the largest commercially rafted rapid in the world. Here a steep ramp runs between a 15 pour-over on the right and the infamous Catchers Mitt. Disappearing over the horizon line, heart in mouth, I was confronted with more of the white stuff than I could previously have imagined a huge, seemingly impenetrable mountain of water. "Look for the window"someone must have pulled the curtainsno, there it is, power through, wow.. still upright awesome.
Between #5 and #6 the river reaches 250M deep, dont want to get sucked down a whirlpool here staying in the boat was a good idea.
#6 "The Devils Toilet Bowl" was next (who makes up these names?) a steep drop skirting a mean hole, and then
#7 "Gullivers Travels" the longest (650M) and most technical of all the Zambezi rapids. We stood on the bank for a long time here trying to fix the line in my mind .. eddy out right, ferry center, skirt the Diagonal, miss the crease, catch the tongue flowing river right, just bypassing a crashing hole, and then into the Land of The Giants a huge crashing wave train and some fairly inevitable quiet time here. This proved to be the toughest rapid I have ever run its length, the string of moves you have to pull together and the punishing (but exhilarating) giants was amazing. Got flipped on the last hole before the Land of the Giants and spent some considerable time underwater eventually after 8 roll attempts in aerated water I came up about 100 metres below the rapid rather blue in the face and needing a few minutes in a quiet eddy to calm down.
Chas left or right ??????????
I've always had this problem and it drove everyone nuts, but Sven solved it by using the raft guide instructions of Zam or Zim (instead of left/right) with one bank being Zambia (left) and the other Zimbabwe (right). This worked a treat and I never had any more problems - wonder how well this will work back in the UK !!!!!
#8 gives you the options of the mighty Muncher in the center, or the "Star Trek" run (going boldly where no man has gone before) or a sneak route between, if you get it right!
#9 "Commercial Suicide" no way not for paddlers of our ability anyway, although we watched (Osama) Ben breeze it while we walked.
#10 a comparatively easy wave train but with the intimidating name of "Gnashing Jaws of Death"!
#11 "Overland Truck Eater" is, at higher levels, a unique barreling and surfable wave but, sadly, at these levels it proved to be a big hole followed by some huge and angry boils (over 12 inches in height) that toyed with me for ages, tail spinning, rolling and eventually releasing me unscathed.
#11B, 11C, 12A and, finally, we had reached the infamous 12B (the middle of the Ugly Sisters), said by many to be the finest play wave in the world. At the low levels of our trip, however, it was not at its best very steep, crashing and unforgiving. I didnt manage to get on the wave at all on this first occasion (Later in the week I did manage to catch some really exhilarating, but short, rides here)
#13 "The Mother" was a comparatively simple yet huge wave train (Graham got some big air here when his boat left the water).
But 14 through to 18 passed in a blur punch drunk and battle weary I was, at this stage, running on empty and autopilot crashing through The Narrows, Washing Machine, The Terminators, Judgment Day and, even, Oblivion without major mishap (although plenty of rolling practice).
We arrived at the get out knackered but elated, to start the half-hour near vertical climb out of the gorge to camp at the top. A lifetime of paddling experiences and adrenaline in just one day! It was hot and muggy as we pitched our tents.
Thunderstorms accompanied our steaks and beer. Despite the hard basalt ground I drifted off to sleep re-running Gullivers Travels but, in my dreams, I had a perfect line!
Day 3 4
The following two days were spent re-running sections of the gorge (rapids 1-13, then rapids 11-21), returning to Fawlty Towers each night. We were beginning to get used to the power of the Zambezi, its whirlpools and boils, the rapids and their lines. #4, #7 #11 continued to give me pastings, and the Catchers Mitt caught me one day and boils on #11 pushed me into the cliff face which I braced on with my paddles (and knuckles) for about 10 metres, also got caught in the hole on Oblivion and got pulled out of my seat but was OK, but we were beginning to relax and enjoy the other aspects of the gorge, its scale, beauty and wildlife. Baboons, Vervet Monkeys and Rock Dassies scampered along the banks, Black Eagles and Kites soured above us. We were even getting used to the climbs out of the gorge each day.
A day of rest and recovery catching up on sleep and chilling at Fawlty Towers, shopping, Safari held up by an angry elephant at the park gate for 20 mins. All this all got us prepared we were now ready for the Multi-Day. Met up with Steve Fischer and coached his girlfriend to roll in the pool, also met up with Francesco Salvatore who had brought 3 Italians to paddle (they were going on the multi day after us).
Day 6, 7, 8 9
Us 5 paddlers were now joined by Davis, rowing a gear raft, and we took three days to paddle from #1 the Boiling Pot, down through the gorge and to Moemba Falls, some 25kms beyond the last of the numbered rapids (#25). The awesome river running was now complimented by beautiful river beach camping, excellent camp cuisine, classic African dawns and dusk's, the Zambian trots! causing lots of down time for us both on first evening they thought I had malaria and were discussing calling out the chopper to pick me up. And paddling through Croc. Country.
Great not to be walking out at end of each day.
While crocodiles were around in some of the pools within the Batoka Gorge and, indeed, we had seen one or two, these are generally small and few in numbers. However, for the final 25km push from #25 to Moemba Falls Crocs become more numerous. On this day the four remaining kayakers (with me, suffering a dodgy stomach, lounging around in the raft sipping Dioralyte and iodine cocktails) adopted a different approach to the previous days. They paddled fast, as a tight group, through the long slack water sections, trying to give the impression that they were a healthy herd, continually scanning the banks for signs of crocs, ready to "paddle like f . . . ." if we saw one slip into the water. They took breathers at each of the fourteen rapids along the way. In reality, they only saw three crocs all day but they confessed to a slight (and, Im sure irrational), raising of the heartbeat all day!
We pulled in to the final take out above Moemba Falls, cleared baboon shit from the rocks to sit and stare at the awesome gnarly water of Lower Moemba. To me it didnt look feasible to run the falls at this level and survive. While Ben, the only one with any inclination to have a go, scouted the lines and rehearsed his strokes, I again returned to the did I really know what I was doing? question. Yes, I think I did. I took some beatings, I took a one swim, but I had enjoyed everything. Nyami Nyami (the Zambezi River god) had, perhaps, played with me a little but, in the end, had granted me a safe passage and an awesome adventure.
But, watching Ben line up for the boof at the lip of Moemba Falls I had to admire the skill and courage of the true river pros who really play the mighty Zambezi I never quite managed that!!
If you're comfortable on grade 4 and have a really dependable roll then the Zambezi has to be an ultimate trip. TheZambezi.com did us proud. Sven and Ben (and Muzza and Donna) looked after us well, both on and off the water, they organised all the logistics so that all we had to do was enjoy the paddling and the gorge.
By Chas Couchman (based on Graham Bland's article from the same trip)
Chas in action.