The Smoke That Thunders

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The majestic “Smoke that Thunders” Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe is an awe inspiring destination. Thorny African bushes dot the landscape surrounding the falls. This is Simba the Lion-king’s home. Approaching, I see a fine spray of water clouding the air. It looks like a large smoke plume appearing out of the blue, it thunders and roars as it sprays up into the air. I watch, mesmerised as the water crashes into the vast chasm and collides with the Zambezi river down below. On the edge of the drop the boulders glisten in the sunlight, highly polished form thousands of years of friction. (Here I am I think, the largest body of falling water in the world! Twice as high as Niagara falls.) I am spellbound by its beautiful, astonishing power. Clothes drenched I breathe in the dusty scent of water meeting earth. There is nowhere else I’d rather be at this very point in time.

My companions and I drive down to the rendezvous to meet our guides. It’s time for us to take the plunge. It’s white water rafting time – something I have always wanted to do.
Our guide explains:
“The Zambezi is classified as a high volume, pool drop river. Huge volumes, in excess of four times that of the Colorado River flood over the Falls at peak. Nearly half of the rapids are classified as Grade 5 – Grade 6 is unrunnable”.

We are going on a day long excursion, 18 Rapids in all, with names like: Gnashing Jaws of Death, The Mother, Stairway To Heaven, The Devil’s Toilet Bowel, The Terminator and Oblivion. I am understandably nervous. However my excitement far exceeds any fear I feel. Our guides are pumped up, professional and safety conscious. Helmets and lifejackets on, we trek to the river’s edge and embark on our journey down the Zambezi on inflatable rafts. Our guide is a muscle bound Zimbabwean who has lived near the Zambezi his entire life. He has a lot of experience and tells us that guides from all over the world come to train on the Zambezi rapids.

Towering on either side of us are sheer caramel coloured cliffs. The river is wide and placid. The sun is hot and it’s a sublime day. We drift peacefully down stream taking in the scenery when suddenly the river disappears. I can’t see what’s waiting for us. Butterflies are dancing in my stomach and I tighten my grip on the rope. My foot clenches firmly into the foot grip. Our guide shouts “Get ready!” We reach the precipice of water and the boat nose dives into the rapid. My stomach flip flops as a gargantuan white rapid hits the boat. Then another. And another. I am tossed and turned, my whole body is magically thrown up in the the air – anti gravity style. I don’t have time to think, I just hold on for dear life, my face most likely a mask of white terror. It’s so exhilarating. No one falls out and just like that the river is smooth and serene again.

And so we drift on. By the time the second rapid approaches I am terrified. The river disappears and I close my eyes in fear. Everyone on the boat chants “Look, look, look.” So I look. Once again tossed and turned in one of nature’s most extreme roller coasters. I scream and I love it.
By the third rapid I am looking forward to it. I shout “Whooo hoooo here we go….” My confidence is definitely improving. I am defiant, ready, I’m conquering my fears. ” This is what we live this life for.”

At Lunch time we stop off on the banks and have a picnic. We are on Zambia’s side of the river now. There is no one around, only us. Truly alone in the wilderness. We are still flanked on either side by the unique and beautiful caramel cliffs. Rugged and hard and real in a way that speaks to my inner being. The way only Africa can – once you know this continent, I think it will speak to you in this way forever. The guides have coolers filled with delicious cold meats, bread, salads and freezing beer. Everyone is in high spirits and laughter is audible as everyone talks about their favourite rapid. “Did you feel your stomach on The Mother?” Then.. “That one was awesome.” The guides tell us that the ‘Real Rapids’ are after lunch. Knowingly they smile and say “You’ll see.”

It’s time to leave our piece of paradise and head further into the unknown.
The guides were right! The Rapids after lunch are so much bigger, wilder and stronger. Some feel like falling off a three storey building. Some are technical and there are spots to avoid if the boat is not to be tipped, better hope your Captain is up to the task. A few people fall off, tossed wildly in the air like featherlight mannequins. Luckily the trusty old Kayakers are there in a hearbeat. They return our fallen soldiers to the inflatables in no time. When we get to a rapid called Commercial Suicide we have to walk past it. We climb off the boats and all help to carry the inflatables over the rocky ground past the waves. This one is way to violent for us to traverse in rubber ducks. I watch with fascination as the Kayakers ride the long and violent rapid. They vanish into the thick white waves at times. I keep worrying that they won’t make it out. But they all do. Those guys are so brave.
We have a few more exhilarating rapids to ride for the rest of the afternoon. Later we find a cool, dark deep pool. We swim in its clean water, the temperature is just perfect. A few moments later one of the guides shouts “Get in the boats now, Crocodile!” We frantically swim to our boats and jump on in a mingle mangle of bodies. I just catch a glimpse of a two metre croc as it slips stealthily into the water. And here I thought I’d had enough adrenalin rushes for one day!

As the sun starts to head West we are all disappointed that this wonderful time is over. On the banks are porters. They lift the heavy boats up onto their heads and carry them all the way up the steep mountain like it’s nothing. They obviously do this often. The rest of us heave and struggle up it’s a tough hike as the day is still hot and humid. Once we reach the top we get three cheers from guides and porters. The obligatory icy beer is is placed in hand. Perfect after such a long walk.

While we wait for all the gear to be loaded, I find a rock with a view and watch as the sun sets over beautiful Zambia. The river I was on just moments ago glistens like diamonds far down below. The sky is pink and orange, the plains in the distance look far, far away. I savour every second.

It is, once again unfortunately time to go. Our party climbs onto the back of the open army truck and beers in hand we salute The Mighty Victoria falls. We travel back to the border through Zambia. We wave at kids, who run behind the truck and scream in delight when we throw sweets for them to catch.

Back in Zimbabwe we all get together at the local hang out and watch the days adventures on a big screen. We reminisce and laugh at the way we felt and how awesome it was. I have never heard so much laughter and seen so many smiles at one time in my life.
In my own thoughts I know that this has been one of the best days of my life. If you ever get to Zimbabwe or Zambia, all I can say is. ” You have to do it man, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had!”

Thanks for reading!

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