Zambezi River: visiting an African paradise
Story by Mat Dumoulin with fellow paddlers David Pierron and Gaël Kernin
The Zambezi River is on the list of legendary rivers and represents big volume runs: a large quantity of water going into a deep gradient. Streams are heavy, waves are huge, and whirlpools suck you in deep! After I visited Quebec at high water, the White Nile, Uganda and big waves in France, I couldn’t have satisfied my big water experience before having paddled the Zambezi River. The ‘Zam’ is special because the river is perfect, big, and has a glorious history. Many big names in kayaking have been pushing the sport on the Zambezi, creating new moves, kayak shapes or paddling techniques. Putting in there gives you a spontaneous feeling of happiness – you are totally connected with your wishes. Paddling utopia is there: beautiful rapids, huge waves to surf, warm weather and water, joyful local life and a spectacular natural setting…
After hearing about the announcement of a dam project, the future of this African paradise is in doubt, and I hope our trip there was not the visit of the ‘museum of big water before big energy business took over the planet.’
How the inspiration comes
The Zambezi is a big river – it’s the fourth longest river in Africa. Its basin is huge, and the rainy season hits the area from December to March. The Victoria Falls gives an end to a mile long flat water section and drops the waters of the Zambezi 300+ feet into a basaltic canyon. That’s what it is: the perfect river configuration for kayaking and there are many reasons for this:
- The rainy season gives a constant and predictable flow rise.
- The flat water is a natural filter for trees so the river below it is only made of water and rocks.
- The canyon and the falls offer a natural protection against hippos and crocs.
- The rapids are carved in the basaltic bedrock and therefore very stable.
In December, the water starts rising and you can paddle this section from very low flows up to big ones, trying out all the configurations in between. The river takes four to eight inches of water each day.
The good old days
If we have an idea of where we are going when we book a flight to Zambia, that’s because a solid group of kayakers forged the way 20 years ago. A revolution in our sport started there in the nineties. If you are lucky enough to have seen the ‘Wicked liquid’ videos, you know what I’m talking about. It’s the golden age of kayak bums who developed commitment in freestyle and big water kayaking. After taking a one way flight to get there, they charged every day for years on this amazing white water playground, setting the standards of paddling on this run and pushing the limits of what can be done in high volume rapids. Steve Fisher, Nico Chassing, Hervé Amalbert, Alex Nicks and more inspired us enough to get on the plane with no doubts about where we were going. Huge thanks to them for this gift!
#5 ‘Stairway to Heaven’
Every day you put your kayak in right below the Victoria Falls – it’s an unreal place. Renowned as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, it has been known amongst Europeans after Doctor Livingstone discovered it during his exploration of southern Africa in the late 19th century.
The place just fills your mind with happiness every day. The Zambezi River swells up to a mile wide and plunges into a 300+ foot high crack. Then the river bed narrows again across the crack and takes the water down a huge canyon, which is the height of the falls, as the plateau above keeps going flat. On the Zambian side, you can stay in Livingstone where the Jollyboys Backpackers offers a great place to stay with the kind of traveling atmosphere that keeps you up late and allows you to meet many awesome people.
The Zambezi River offers a huge amount of fun every day for the lucky kayakers who make their way to Zambia. The section of white water you get to paddle is taking you step by step to a higher level of stoke, from easier rapids in the morning to bigger ones later in the day. You can also find many types of surf on your way down, and as the water level gets higher different big freestyle waves come in. The river draws crazy turns in the canyon and gradually takes you to the right mind set, a mix between fun and adrenaline, to go for the big stuff.
Rapid number five is the first highlight of the day. There is a huge rock in the middle right of the river that creates a big jump ramp. The ramp throws you from eight feet high into a continuous series of crashing waves and holes until you get to the reception pool. ‘Stairway to Heaven’ has seen many freewheels and failed boofs over the years and managed to take everybody on to their A game for the rest of the day.
After going through ‘Devils Toilet’, a huge whirlpool that randomly kicks egos, you get to rapid number 7, ‘Gulliver’s Travel’. This is another big piece of your daily adrenaline meal. It’s a long rapid with a burly entrance that tires you before you even start the big moves. After two minutes of fighting against this unpredictable stream that tries hard to flip you, you get to the crux section. It’s a weird piece of white water, big crushing inconsistent waves that slow you down before you have to thug a big hole. If you get surfed, you end up in a crack on the right bank. Once you’ve gotten through this, the river rewards you with a long section of big waves that kindly smash you around until you manage to stop in the eddy to look above and see how your mates are doing.
After a short breath you go down to number eight, ‘Star Trek’, a typical ‘Zambezian’ move as you make speed to throw yourself into a huge hole and try to get through. If it doesn’t work, the best you should do is just give happy signs to your friends who watch you. It’s a big thing on the Zam to show how much you enjoy getting smashed. The river is as big as it is forgiving so it feels good to just show some excitement when you should be scared, as you know that you will come out fine from pretty much any situation on those rapids. Once this is done, you start being ready for rapid number 9.
#9 ‘Commercial Suicide’
This is the name given to the biggest rapid of the descent, the one that will keep you smiling for the rest of the day. The rafters portage it on the right bank and seat all the clients on the rocks to let them appreciate the show. This is the famous ‘diagonal’ line. A long line that takes you from boofing a diagonal wave to escaping infamous holes into a huge green ramp. If you push your boof too hard over the diagonal, you end up in the left hole where you really don’t want to end up. If you don’t push enough on that stroke, you get surfed in the diagonal and end up on the centre hole that is a violent place where you will probably get ejected from your kayak.
Once you’re out of the green ramp, you paddle hard for about ten strokes to the right of the river in a very pushy section, and you get ready to thug a big hole. If you get surfed in that one, you’ll probably feel the fastest surf of your life before seeing the right bank rocks quickly becoming way too close to you! That’s where people can get hurt, but it doesn’t usually happen. You are travelling so fast into that hole that you normally get through it easily, taking just a big hit on your way down.
Once you’re there, rapid number 10 is way back to a lower level of emotion, before the lunch break. You can either stop at rapid number 10, which is the ‘half-day’ section, or keep on paddling until rapid number 25 for a ‘full-day’ of fun. From rapid number 10 to 25, moves are easier and you can spend more time on the river to chill in this amazing canyon, and appreciate the scenario of this perfect day on the river. It’s also the opportunity to see the wildlife this place has to offer: monkeys, eagles and crocodiles.
A tight community of people around the river and white water activities
The way to become a raft guide is long and hard. Local people usually don’t know how to swim, so learning starts from there. There is no easy section or flat water that doesn’t have hippos and crocs so you can’t really practice anywhere before trying it in the hard section. So learning how to navigate on a river is a long process that takes people to a high level of skill that’s worth the work.
After a couple of years rafting down the rapids with clients and a graduated guide, the lucky ones that present good potential for becoming a guide can finally take people in a raft themselves. The learning process is so long that guides get very attached to the company they are working for, and it creates a warm family atmosphere around the river where people care for each other, earn their living and have a lot of fun.
Big volume rivers: a specific way of paddling
Kayaking on these kinds of rapids involves different techniques than creek boating. On our Alpine style rivers we have ‘clean lines’ where paddlers don’t get wet going down a rapid. This is different in big volume rivers, as it’s quite impossible to stay dry. You learn to shut down your ego and be satisfied with going through rapids under water, as long as you get through. You learn to thug a hole (plunge into it in a specific position that goes through it), you learn to take speed where the waves go down, or to throw your boat on the right stream over a drop to make sure it catches the right tongue that will keep you on the way down.
A dam project: the Batoka Dam
The Zambian and Zimbabwean governments are negotiating an agreement on the Batoka Dam project that would flood the whole section up to the bottom of the falls. It feels like there is no real development project behind it, and that short term financial interests that are involved in the dam construction are trying to win again against the respect of nature and the environment.
The Nyami Nyami legend
The Nyami Nyami is the god of the Zambezi River. It used to show up in the river in periods of famine to let the people eat meat from his own body. It’s highly recommended to wear one if you paddle on the ‘Zam’.
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