In the heart of southern Africa lies the world’s largest series of waterfalls, a sight so wondrous the explorer David Livingstone wrote: “They must have been gazed upon by angels”. Spanning over 2km, the Zambezi river plunges 108m across a series of cataracts into a chasm of roiling mist to form Victoria Falls.
From there it charges through twisting gorges, a mass of furious whitewater. For adventure seekers, it’s the thrill of a lifetime, but a whitewater rafting tour isn’t the only way down. My fixer, Mavros Safaris, has tapped a guide who offers a unique full-day tour, beginning with a daunting climb down an almost unknown gorge, followed by a navigation of the lower rapids – in a two-man kayak.
The journey took Livingstone four years when he visited in the 1850s. Apparently, it can be done in a long weekend for a Londoner prepared to dig deep – and forgo some sleep.
Southern Africa is perfectly doable from the UK in a weekend; it’s in roughly the same time zone and most flights are overnight. From the lounge I hit “send” on the last few emails of the week, then board flight SA235 to Johannesburg.
Touchdown, finally, in Victoria Falls after a longish Joburg connection. Peace greets me – he’s my driver. It’s just under an hour’s ride to Matetsi Victoria Falls, a retreat set in a 55,000-hectare private game reserve on the shores of the Zambezi; it’s under new ownership and, post a complete rebuild, stunning. Mokoros, the traditional dugout canoes, hang outside the entrance to the main lodge; the local fishermen manoeuvre them like stand-up paddleboards.
There’s no getting around the fact that a lunchtime arrival limits options, so the plan is to use the afternoon exploring the reserve and the flatwater upper Zambezi, and make up for it with the all‑day challenge tomorrow. “Don’t worry. You won’t be disappointed,” my guide, Paul Teasdale, had reassured me before my arrival. He tells me that since opening the gorge to clients, he’s taken just 12 people down, “and no one has done it and the rapids on the same day.”
After lunch I don my de rigueur khakis for a brief walkabout with Matetsi’s resident tracker, Orpheus. First thing is a quick weapons check of the .375. “We’re not going to shoot anything,” he says. “But you have to respect where we are.”
On-foot game viewing is different to the vehicular variety. It’s like being on military patrol: I move quietly and cover his blind spots when he’s looking at me; we walk in file and communicate with hand gestures, stopping now and again to check the wind direction. At one point we come upon an elephant lurking behind a baobab. It’s a bit surreal so soon after coming off the plane.
We reach the river, where an open canoe awaits for a pre-supper paddle. I admire the high jinks of a troop of baboons and try not to think about crocodiles every time I place my paddle in the water.
Time to ship out. At Victoria Falls I join Teasdale, better known by his nom de guerre Suntwe (meaning hyena). The 33-year-old’s varied life has seen him compete in ballroom dancing, teach snowboarding and rescue errant crocs. But it’s on the Zambezi rapids where he’s made his mark; he’s descended them by raft, kayak, SUP, boogie board and a car inner tube. “The Zambezi is not an unkind mistress,” he tells me. “It takes a lot for things to go horribly wrong.”
This is good news, as things tend to go wrong when I’m put in a kayak. The commercial operators run the rapids in big inflatable rafts packed with human ballast that can punch their way through all but the most furious maelstroms of whitewater. We have a different plan: to descend the largely unexplored Dibu Dibu gorge, joining the river much further down, at the point where the commercial trips finish. From there we’ll run half-a-dozen of the bigger rapids of the lower section in an inflatable kayak. These get tossed about more, but require no expertise – at least not from me. Also with us is Zhuzha (big man), the safety backup kayaker.
We turn into a rutted track and are dropped off at the top of the gorge, about 25km downstream from Victoria Falls. The route is only a kilometre-and-a-half, but it will take about four hours to descend. We sort kit, put on buoyancy jackets, sling bags over shoulders and head down into the chasm.
Via a mostly dry riverbed, we come to the first abseil where the trickle of water has erupted into a waterfall. It’s only about 10m. “We’d probably be OK to climb down and then jump,” says Paul. “But I’m cautious. If you needed a rescue out here, it would probably take a day for them to get you out.” I decide I like caution. He slings a rope around a tree and lowers Zhuzha and then me down and into the pool at the bottom. The chill momentarily takes my breath away.
Like all guides, Paul notices things I’d never clock: storks’ nests high up on the rock, the distant growling of baboons, the remains of a huge dead rock monitor. And he can’t resist a wind-up. “Don’t worry about the crocodiles,” he says before a swim across a second dark pool. “They normally go for the guy in the middle. Oh – that’s you!” Then he adds, more seriously: “We don’t have to worry about crocs this high up. Only when we approach the river.”
We clamber down, hopping gingerly from rock to rock, following the river until we reach a yawning 30m abseil. It’s the point of no return. I lean back into the abyss as Paul lowers me into the flow. The crashing water drowns out all other sounds.
At this point the angle of descent begins to ease, but we can’t relax – easier for us, but also more accessible for the wildlife. We eye a dead baboon on a rock, the remains of a leopard kill. “Have you noticed that everything we spot seems to be dead?” Paul cheerily observes.
After four trying hours, wet and aching, I’m relieved to make the banks of the mighty Zambezi.
It’s a hub of activity: wobbly-legged rafters are shepherded onto terra firma as boats are deflated and carried out. We warm up in the sun, eating lunch and admiring the view of the Zambezi sluicing through this great cleft in the African continent.
“There’s nothing quite like big water,” Paul says. “And the Zambezi is one of the greatest rivers in the world to kayak.” Our plan is to run rapids 20 to 25, which includes one class III-IV beast. “It’s a big-water rapid,” he warns. “The entry is a series of small waves flowing from every angle, and there’s a big crashing wave on the left you need to avoid. One piece of advice,” he adds. “Lean into them.”
The first wave looks monstrous, but Paul assures me it’s really quite benign. My heartbeat races in direct correlation to our speed – and then all at once we’re on a freight train of whitewater, undulating wildly through the waves. The next couple of rapids take it up a gear; they’re a pure adrenaline ride, nature’s own rollercoaster.
We pull into a beach to have a break and psych ourselves up a bit, because the next rapid is the Big Guy. But by now I feel ready and paddle hard into the churning mass. At first everything is under control. “Keep paddling,” Paul shouts. Then the water rises, suddenly, on all sides. From behind I hear a cry: “Carnage!”
A huge wall of water lifts towards me, picks up the kayak like a giant hand and flips us on our side. Unable to hold on, Paul and I spill out of the boat into the chaos and I go under, churned and pitched by whitewater. But seconds later I pop up like a cork; as I do there’s only one thought on my mind – hell, this is fun!
Alas, the exhilarating ride cannot last forever. At a bend in the river we turn into a cove to meet the support team. I’m exhausted and my whole body sings with pain, but I’m grinning on the inside. We share high-fives and the last of our snacks, then begin the final, weary 200m climb to the top of the gorge.
At Matetsi I have only one wish – to go to my lodge and collapse. “Unfortunately, you can’t,” says my butler Rashime, who’s come to greet me. “There’s an elephant outside it.” So I settle for the next best thing: a long G&T. It hits the spot, as does everything else that follows.
I’ve logged a day off work; it’s an unfortunate necessity, but to make the Joburg red-eye means a lunchtime connection. Not that this is an excuse for idleness: I’m up before dawn, casting a line for tigerfish; then, after a hearty breakfast shared with a cheeky yellow-breasted boubou, there’s time for a quick tour of the Falls before check-in.
As soon as we’re airborne I hit the horizontal button and put on the noise-cancelling headphones. Eleven hours later, I arrive at Heathrow, primed to face the churning ride of city life again.