River rafting the Zambezi is a lot like falling in love. You’re intrigued to do it. Everyone else claims its life’s greatest experience. You agree to do it, letting your heart overrule your brain. You stumble and fall constantly in the process. You bond with others as you never thought possible. And miraculously you live through it to tell of the choicest adventure of your life.
[quote]Just then my left foot caught on a loose rock. I fell on my helmet, my face, my shoulder, my arm, and my leg. After the longest twenty feet I’ve ever known, a glorious, majestic scrawny tree caught my outstretched butt. Yep, love is bound to hurt, but there will be a rescuer.[/quote]
The Zambezi is the longest river in Southern Africa. It begins its journey in Angola, winds through five countries, and empties itself into the Indian Ocean. In Zimbabwe and Zambia, the Victoria Falls shapes the river’s course. The river’s massive volume is forced through a deep, narrow gorge. Here, one hears the angry waves of an upset lover. And here I began my love-hate relationship with the river.
One needs a little preparation for river rafting, just as one needs for love. Titus, Manager of Wild Horizons at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, played the role of Cupid for me. He boldly exclaimed, “Anyone coming to Victoria Falls MUST raft the Zambezi!” His enthusiasm was contagious, and I viewed it as delightful instead of as some disease. So, I signed up, without reading about it, without asking others about it, without doing a Google search about it back at my hotel. In hindsight, it was rather like my first experience at love at the age of 16—ready to plow ahead with no real thought given to the matter.
The Wild Horizons shuttle picked me and other romantics up bright and early at the lodge. We smiled at one another, nervously joked a bit, and soon found ourselves at the look-out cabana to receive a morning snack, directions, and equipment. Our guide-to-be was adamant: “Don’t take anything with you that you want to keep.” It was a mutual exchange: We handed over to them our watches, sunglasses, and wallets. Wild Horizons handed over to us liability waivers. “Wait,” I thought for a second. “This is like a pre-nuptial and I don’t have an attorney.”
What the heck! I signed away my life and possessions and had Colgate, my guide, fit me in a life jacket that would deflate any boob job I ever thought of having and a helmet that he kept hitting to make sure it was hardy enough. “Now,” Colgate told us, “It’s time to go to the raft.”
I looked to the left – no raft. I looked to the right – no raft. I looked 400 feet below me – the raft! Down wooden steps, make-shift ladders, and narrow trails we descended. “You gotta be kidding” we griped ever so often, flinging me back to this all too familiar description of past experiences with love. “Oh, well, it can’t hurt,” I convinced myself. Just then my left foot caught on a loose rock. I fell on my helmet (yes, it was hardy), my face, my shoulder, my arm, and my leg. After the longest twenty feet I’ve ever known, a glorious, majestic scrawny tree caught my outstretched butt. Yep, love is bound to hurt, but there will be a rescuer.
Colgate rushed to me and asked me if I would like to evacuate. I shouted back at him, “Quit?! You have to be kidding. I’m just getting ready.” And so, like the teenager I was fifty years ago, I stood up, dusted myself off, and plunged ahead, bruises and all. At the departure point, we were put into our groups. I would raft with two women accountants in their late 20’s who had never rafted before, one phenomenal student-explorer-adventurer from the UK, and Yuki from Japan who told us that she didn’t like water. The other raft was made up of a group of Italians, fun-loving and rather exuberant in their accolades about their athletic abilities. We climbed aboard, pushed off, and practiced paddling and maneuvering: “Forward! Left turn! Backwards! Get down! Hard forward!” Then, I knew rafting is like love, yes – like my first year of marriage, looking back on it, quite a ride.
We maneuvered through the first few rapids, feeling rather cocky about our accomplishments. Then we came to rapid number four, our first class five, Morning Glory. Wait, what’s this big hole in the bottom? We turned every which way. No stability. Just hung on and tried to survive. There’s that love-hate thing again.
Surviving one class five led us straight to our next class five, Stairway to Heaven. Now, that sounded celestial-like. Maybe a choir of angels will sing us a lullaby. I thought back to the harpist at my wedding, but only for a second. Soon we descended into the rapid’s waves and holes. A waterfall caught us and flipped our raft, tossing everyone skyward and riverward. I plunged toward the bottom, miraculously churned upward, and used the good ol’ crawl stroke to reach the rescue boat. I grabbed hold of the extended rope and pulled myself aboard to be transferred back to the raft, proving myself to be a glutton for punishment, but somehow loving its rush.
Devil’s Toilet Bowl, rapid number six, soon came upon us. A nasty whirlpool spun violently. It seemed as if everything was out to destroy me, to destroy my rafting partners, to destroy love. We wouldn’t give in to despair. We survived the twisting and turning and came to appreciate love (and life) all the more.
[quote]Now, that sounds like love. You go into it with all your heart and very little of your mind. If you make it through, and even if you flip and have to be rescued, you should congratulate yourself. You’ve experienced the agony and the ecstasy of love.[/quote]
Gulliver’s Travels, another class five, was the next rapid. Seemed like it should be a piece of cake to me since I like literature and traveling. Nonetheless, the rapid is long and technical. Smaller channels feed into it: Temple of Doom, The Crease, Patella Gap, and Land of the Giants. What began as a teenager’s love turned to marriage and now to a houseful of kids. I handled love, marriage, and motherhood, epitomized in Gulliver’s Travels, only to come to another class five rapid, number nine, Commercial Suicide. Colgate told us that this is the infamous rapid, with a very narrow slot for coming through it without a flip. Sounds like an extension of motherhood to me. We paddled forward, braced ourselves, and lived through raising the kids.
Lunch break was soon to be ours. That was, if we survived Gnashing Jaws of Death. Somehow or other, we survived, rather similar to living through natural childbirth, a definite sign of love but also marked with “Why in the world am I doing this?”
Lunch came – and chicken never tasted so good. Soon it was time to get back in the raft for the second half of the trip. What’s this? All of the Italians kissed the tierra firma and shouted in unison, “No Way!” Yuki, from our raft, joined the defectors. Now, we were down to injured me, the greatest accountants who ever completed a spread sheet, and Sara from the UK, who has a Zambian boyfriend and seems to know a whole lot about love.
We mastered The Three Sisters, knowing that we are four with an unforgettable bond. The next rapid is The Mother, of course a class five. Colgate shouted, “Did you thank your mother?” We nodded and survived the first of its waves. Then he yelled, “Would you like to call and thank your mother?’ as we entered its second wave. No time to look for a cell phone so we hollered to the sky a mighty “thank you.” We survived the wave. Colgate’s not done. He yelled, “Would you like to thank all mothers?” “Yes, yes, yes,” we screamed back, and perhaps our gratitude and love of mothers brought us through it safely.
We ventured forth to rapid number 18, Oblivion, naturally a class five. Our minds went blank. We gave it our all, miraculously surviving. Once completed, Colgate congratulated us and told us, “More rafts flip on Oblivion than on any other rapid in the world. Only one out of four makes it.” Now, that sounds like love. You go into it with all your heart and very little of your mind. If you make it through, and even if you flip and have to be rescued, you should congratulate yourself. You’ve experienced the agony and the ecstasy of love.
We completed rapid number 23, the end of our day’s adventure. Or so I would have liked it to be. I stumbled out of the raft, shed my gear, and looked for the shuttle to take us back to Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. All I saw was a cliff, an extension of the same 400 foot cliff that I fell down earlier that day. I asked for an elevator, an escalator, a cable car, a gondola, a porter, a burro. Colgate smiled his wide beautiful grin and pointed at my two feet. “You can do it,” he said. “You survived the Mighty Zambezi.” I grinned back at him and shouted for all to hear, “And, I loved it!”
Photo: Charlie Brewer