Let’s end the year not about hemophilia… sort of. While in Zambia, just three weeks ago, I rafted the mighty Zambezi River, a dream I have always had. Here’s my recollection of the day!
Saturday, December 8, 2012
Writing from the David Livingstone Lodge, with the sun setting outside my door, facing the river once explored by David Livingstone in 1855, tired, spent and at peace. I spent the entire day rafting the Zambezi, and just couldn’t be happier! I am sun-burnt, a toe nail is ripped, my right thumb is not working, as I jammed it when I was ejected. But it was worth it. What
We started out at 8:20 am, when I was picked up. The accommodations here are fabulous–peaceful and the food is excellent. Choongo was to be our guide and he brought me to the hut where everyone congregated. Joining me would be a young guy named Mark from England, and a couple named Lisa and Collin, also from England. We got on the bus, and before we knew it were at the descent towards the
Down into the jungle, then balancing on some very slippery and sharp basalt rocks, into the gorge formed by the river and ending in magnificent Victoria Falls. We were to raft 27 kilometers this day! Over 25 rapids. And a few that “didn’t count,” as Choongo said. Choongo is about my age, with a body hardened from ten years guiding the rafts. With us was Gordon, a soft-spoken, 25-year-old Zambian with deep eyes.
When we reached the water, the view was spectacular! Above us towered the famous Zambezi bridge with the bungee-jump cords neatly tucked up. We watched one raft crash into the rocks on the left; crazy. One couple descended in separate, single-person kayaks; we learned later that after only one or two rapids, the girl left, crying. She had had enough.
I did read this on line before I went: White Water Rafting on the Zambezi River in Victoria Falls has been classified by the British Canoe Union as Grade 5 – “extremely difficult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas.” Oh yeah, bring it on!
The first rapid “Morning Glory: was an eye opener. This was going to be awesome. Huge waves, roaring water, foaming and warm. We were blasted, soaked and wanted more! By the fourth rapid, “Gulliver’s Travels,” the waves were crushing and flipped the boat straight up and then to the right, where Lisa and I were seated. We both were ejected quickly. It was quite frightening. The water was churning and sucking me down. I felt as though someone had their hand on my head and wouldn’t let me up. I came up once, but was pulled right into another rapid, underwater. Somehow I grasped the whole time onto my paddle. I couldn’t breathe, and couldn’t seem to get to the surface. It must have only been seconds, but enough
time to try to strategize about how to get loose, and also, is this the end, really? I could see how people could drown in a circumstance like that. It felt like you were put into a washing machine without a way to get out. When I finally came up—and stayed up—I had a hard time breathing because I had ingested so much water. It had gone up my nose, into my sinuses. My airway was contracted and burning, leaving me gasping. Steve, the team member in the kayak, an athletic, older and solemn man, came to me as fast as possible and I held on tightly, bobbing in the churning waves. He brought me back to the raft. I gasped, “Steve, I’m going to name my first child after you Wait, my first grandchild! Even if it’s a girl!” He sort of smiled. Lisa was quite shaken and didn’t seem to enjoy the rest of her half-day trip after that. I recovered fast and thought, that was so awesome!
More rapids followed. But in between briefly, I was able to take in the stunning scenery. David Livingstone said of Victoria Falls, “Scenes so lovely like these must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” It is a primordial, enchanting place. Black as charcoal basalt rock is piled up like some giant infant’s building blocks. I am mesmerized by the sight of them because I am so rock-crazy. Plucky trees grow straight out of the sheer
cliffs, their yellowish roots cascading down in tangles, like Rapunzel’s hair. It is a scene of wonder, and every chance I get I find my eyes drifting at the
rocks and cliffs in awe. Gordon pointed up to the sky and overhead, it seemed there was a brilliant halo around the sun. “Those are called… those are called…what do you call that?” he asked. “Sun dogs,” I replied, squinting at the phenomenon, though I had never seen them before, only in pictures. Sun dogs, chasing their tails around the sun, cavorting while we plunge ahead.
Half way through the day, we stopped for lunch, allowed Lisa and Collin to disembark, and picked up Victoria and Rodrigo, an adorable young Brazilian couple on their honeymoon. Gordon also left, and we acquired Leonard, a lanky youth with a flashing white grin, and a cheeky sense of humor! Young boys who had been bathing and playing on the rocks in a little natural basin stopped to come and ogle us. They lined up on the basalt ledges, their skin as charcoal-black as the rocks behind and beneath them. They seem to blend right in.
Off we went, back into the river. Mark and I were just seared by the sun, like two fish in a frying pan. No amount of sunscreen seemed to work, and we were doused so many times, it didn’t matter.
At Class IV rapid 13, “The Mother,” we hit a massive rebound wave and the entire raft capsized. Again I was choking with water but this time it wasn’t so bad. I grabbed immediately onto the raft, but the big metal frame in back threatened to hit me. The current is incredibly strong and swift. First it pulls one way, then another, then sucks you from underneath.
The guides are amazing; within seconds Leonard hopped onto the upside-down raft, pulling Choongo on with him. I was already hanging on. But we were scattered everywhere. Little by little we gathered, then both guides used a red rope attached to one side of the raft, leaned back, and flipped the raft over and themselves back into the racing river. They scrambled in, nimble as river otters, and helped each of us climb back in. We gasped and sputtered but loved it all!
Then at rapid 17, the “Washing Machine,” I believe, we crashed again, capsized and everyone went in again. The waves were massive and they kept coming. This time I drifted a bit and while everyone else got in. I drifted into an eddy; these are very tricky. As hard as you kick and swim, the current pulls you back into the eddy, which flows opposite the river! I had to really kick to get back to the raft, and was tired! Then later on, the rapids got more spread out, and were only class 2, still fun. We all jumped into the warm Zambezi several times, just to flow with the river. You can’t help but beam; it’s exhilarating!
When it was finally over, we pulled to the shore, walked a short way and hopped a rickety cable car to the top of the steep gorge. We drove quite a while to get back to the hotel. We had ice cold Cokes, and waved to the children in the rural villages we passed. These villages were so meticulously made, it looked almost like a Disney production for Epcot. The red soil was clean, the thatched roofs and mud walls, all coordinated the same.
It just doesn’t get better than this. For me, the essence of life is personal development, direct and adventurous experiences, and contributing back to the world as much as possible to improve the quality of life for those with hemophilia. I felt I hit all that on this amazing trip to Africa! And I can’t wait to continue in 2013.