`` `Only professional kayakers can kayak the Zambezi' was the reply to our enquiry about kayaking the mighty Zambezi. Both Robynne and myself had received money for a beginners course at Freyberg [look where Thursday night pool training can lead to!] pool so we said ``sure we'd been professional in NZ''.
The section of the Zambezi that is rafted starts just below Victoria Falls in a tight steep gorge. The gorge is very reminiscent of the Kawarau. The surrounds have the same dry, almost desert-like barrenness and the water is huge. The Zambezi has the reputation of being the biggest water commercially run.
Having persuaded the raft guide that we were grade 4/5 kayakers [yeah right] they agreed to let us paddle the lower section. The upper section is consistent grade 5 rapids with one grade 6 that only the gun kayakers do (its nickname is commercial suicide). The lower section is considered grade 4/5.
I got to kayak it the first day, and Robynne the second. At lunchtime I was driven to the get-in where I encountered a tradition that needs to be instituted at VUCC. Porters had been arranged to carry my borrowed boat and gear down the 800 foot path to the turbulent waters below.
After lunch we kayaked down to the first rapid. It was called overland truck eater. A good grade 4 with a nasty hole on the Zambian side of the river. I was feeling anxious. This was my first real kayaking in 9 months and first big water in a year and a half.
While I was scouting the rapid, John dropped into the hole and started surfing. John is a fellow kiwi who manages the boogey boarding on the Kawarau river down south. He was attempting the first descent by boogey board (although in the flat sections between rapids he jumped into a raft because of the numerous crocodiles). The wave was good enough for him to be drop kneeing (one leg standing, one leg kneeing) on the wave.
The time was coming for me to paddle it. In my mind I had visualised the line. Follow the green tongue just right of the ripples. Drop down into the hole, punch through angled right, lean forward to avoid looping, then cut right into the surging eddy below the submerged island, At all costs stay away from the centre gaping hole. The first kayak guide went down it upside down and I felt more anxious. The guides were considerably better kayakers than me and yet they were not looking comfortable. Next came Kisa, the guide for the company I was tagging along with. He descended into the hole and got pushed right, did a massive tailstand along the buffer wave of the hole and recovered just as the boils started to hit.
My turn was next, above the rapid I was trying to get as much forward momentum as possible to punch through. I dropped into the hole, crashed through and wobbled in the boils and cut into the eddy. It wasn't elegant but I was still in my boat.
As I was tagging along with a rafting company I had to fit in with them. This meant for the next four rapids I had been told the lines as there weren't eddies between the rapids and no opportunity to scout them.
Paddling in water this big requires less technical skill than smaller grade 4s. It does require composure. When you paddle into the waves it is as if you are being punched in the chest. They smack into you and then submerge you. The bigger waves loop you as you go down. The only danger aside from crocodiles is going into some of the more evil holes as virtually all of the rocks are submerged.
We continued down to rapid 17. Rapid 17 was a large V wave followed by 4 big breaking waves, then the meanest hole I have ever seen. I asked Kisa about it and he said no kayakers ever go in there. The hole was in the middle and required you to break right across the V wave into the safety of the eddy.
We had paddled ahead of the raft to enable me an opportunity of seeing the rapid before paddling it. This was nearly my undoing. I approached it very casually and didn't get across the V into the eddy. I went down into the V over a wave and crashed into another wave. I recovered then I was in the middle of the river with the huge hole looming. I started really grunting with my paddling. I struggled across into the bottom of the eddy. When we skirted the hole Kisa said he was sure the hole was going to ``work me'' - Zambezi talk for being munched by holes.
We went down to rapid 18. 18 has according to the advertising brochure flipped more rafts than any rapid in the world. The previous night we had watched videos of people rafting the section. There were countless flips, surfs and most impressive pop-outs. On a few occasions the 8 person raft would become airborne after surfing a huge hole/wave. From a kayak perspective it was ginormous. The waves were burying rafts. It was a real drop into a wave, climb up its steep side then hold on as the top crashes into you. Fantastic kayaking with massive hydraulics and huge rides.
After picking up a few swimmers from the raft we paddled out to the take out. At the take out there was a 750 foot climb but luckily porters for all your gear. Portage fees were NZD \$1:30. At the top was cold beer and the ride back to the falls.
PS: two days later I got a letter from another VUCCer in Africa, Bernie Warmington, who unbeknownst to those whose footsteps he was following, had paddled the same section with the same guides about three days later. Gosh how weird.
PPS: I think this will do for my trip report. After all I typed it and its far more interesting than anything I've done lately, though you should all watch out for a big range rover, a wanky man in a new Honda with a cell phone at Paremata roundabout.
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