Rafting the Zambezi has been on my To-Do List for a long, long time. It did not disappoint - class V rapids, a put-in under Victoria Falls, and the most spectacular scenery you can imagine. I went with Safari Par Excellence, which I would recommend with reservations. The group of 53 was entirely too large, and they were a bit disorganized (and the whole breakfast thing meant that we stood around for well over an hour waiting to go), but we got through safely, which at the end of the day is the only thing that really matters.
It was an interesting mix of people - young and old, those just rafting a half-day and those of us rafting for the full day. I met a British guy who's taking a gap year to do Cape-to-Cairo, and a Canadian woman who's doing Cairo-to-Cape. We all hit it off pretty well, and as we were the only independent travelers there, we ended up in the same boat. After the STEEP climb to the most incredible put-in I've ever seen (think rocks, lots of rocks, and a spinning pool called the Boiling Pot just below Victoria Falls), we got in our boat and started practicing. I was the only one who'd rafted before, along with the Canadian, who had canoed in rapids.
Our guide was great, but the quality of those paddling in your boat is what really saves you. We had three Italian guys who were nice as could be but who 1) didn't understand much English and 2) had been on a booze cruise last night and thus were very hung over. Their pauses in following commands and inability to understand the commands in the first place, and the inability of the two guys at the front to paddle together gave us some problems. (I yelled everything I could think of in Italian and French (mom, piano finally came in handy :) that they might understand, and Sarah (the Canadian) resorted to smacking the guy in front of her on the back to encourage him to move more quickly. It was all he understood.) Luckily, miraculously, our boat didn't flip, and we said good-bye to them (and the British guy, all half-dayers) without sadness.
Sarah the Canadian, and I, meanwhile, got to be friends. There's something about being a woman alone in Africa that is a completely unique experience, and we had lots of common experiences to talk about. It's always nice to make a friend on the road. We ended up splitting the cost of the photo cd (pics to come, someday) at the end of the day.
The rapids themselves were pretty good, although it definitely wasn't as scary as the Nile. This could be due to the fact that my guides on this trip were 1) mature and 2) not obsessed with flipping the boat on every single rapid, unlike a certain Kiwi guide who was working the Nile last year. I really enjoyed rapid #5, Stairway to Heaven (aka, Highway to Hell), and 12/13, the Three Sisters and the Mother.
We couldn't run rapid #9, a class-VI known as Commercial Suicide, because, as the guides put it, "it's bad for business." It was fun while walking around to watch our guide, as well as a whitewater kayaker who's about to sell his soul to an investment bank, go ahead and run it. Totally amazing.
Since 2/3 of our boat left the trip at lunch, we were put into another boat with a guide we weren't too sure about, and with four women from the large group from Belfast Habitat for Humanity. (Really. They're 10 Catholics and 10 Protestants who've built 2 houses in rural Zambia in the last two weeks. How cool is that?) They were lots of fun, but had had a bad morning with three flips on the river. Our guide seemed to understand that we needed to avoid flipping at all costs; the only casualty of the afternoon was me, when we hit a funny spot on rapid #16b, The Terminator II. The water knocked some of those on the right side of the raft into the boat, and flipped me right out in a somersault. It was hilarious - I managed to hold on to what the guides refer to as the "O.S. Line" (you can probably guess what that stands for - first word is "oh"!) and my paddle, and was back in the boat in no time.
We made it to the end of Rapid 23 and took out at SafPar's stretch of rocky shore. SafPar is widely regarded as having the best take-out on the river because they have a lift to the top of the gorge. What they don't tell you about at the beginning is the fact that the "150-meter climb" to that is partly up a terrifying, rickety tree-branch ladder. Thankfully, there's a funicular at the end of that to take you the other 400 meters up the steep gorge wall. We could see the rest of the rickety ladder from the pre-lift days. (All I have to say about that is thank-you, Lord.) Then it was a quick change, onto the overland truck for the bumpy 45-minute ride back to the base, a bbq dinner, watching the film of the trip, and heading back to our various hotels and hostels. What a great day!