Travel Fiasco: Overboard on the Zambezi River

What happens when you spontaneously sign up for whitewater rafting on high-risk rapids without knowing their danger level? Fathom intern Jordan Siskind-Weiss learns the hard way. 

VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe – Spring break is notorious for thrilling exploits, worthwhile exhaustion, and unforgettable memories. Spring break in the great African outdoors is no exception.

I studied abroad at the University of Cape Town during the Fall 2013 semester (springtime in the southern hemisphere), and decided to rough it for mid-semester break. So I went with some friends on a rugged, adventure safari through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. Cape Town didn’t compare; it was on this trip that I truly experienced the great outdoors.

Wildlife Walk

Walking with wildlife.

We took game walks on the banks of the Okavango Delta, went on a river safari along the Chobe River, and tip-toed near rhinos at Rhodes Matopos National Park. But these adrenaline-pumping experiences did nothing to prepare me for the rapids of the Zambezi River, an aggressive body of water that runs between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Halfway through our trip, we arrived at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, home to the world’s largest waterfall. While it’s neither the tallest nor the widest, the falls pour out the largest — sheets of falling water in the world. When we learned that whitewater rafting was offered on river at the base of the falls, we jumped at the opportunity. In my mind’s eye, we would hop on an inflatable raft and bob along the Zambezi. It would be fun. Almost like a lazy river ride at a water park. My imagination couldn’t have been farther off.

We were given a very brief crash course in whitewater rafting on the morning of our excursion. “This is how you paddle, and if you’re sucked under, don’t panic, just wait until you float to the surface.” That was it. I had little experience in the sport, but I could sense something was off. The guides were unusually calm and casual before embarking on Class Five rapids, the highest-grade rapids that humans can foreseeably raft! I asked one of the guides if this was a safe activity; did people frequently get hurt while whitewater rafting?

He responded, without cracking a hint of a smile: “Shit happens, this is Africa.”

Why, after his uncomfortably ambiguous response, I still got into that raft, I do not know.

Whitewater Rafting

The Zambezi can get rough. Photo: Flickr / David Holt

With our helmets tightly buckled and our paddles in hand, we hiked down into the gorge and began our voyage on the Zambezi. Our guide would yell, “get down!” before every rapid, and we would hit the deck and hang on to the raft for dear life. We were told never to fight the current if we were ejected from the raft — just wait to come to the surface. I was beginning to get a sense of how dangerous the river really was.

The first few rapids were jostling, but manageable. At this point, we were undoubtedly water-logged, but our raft remained afloat. However, as we approached the ninth drop, our guide gave us ten seconds’ notice that we were entering a Class Five rapid. There was a 99.9 percent chance we were going to flip. And indeed we did.

Without time to think, our raft (and all the people in it) plummeted into the rapid, our equipment scattering upon impact. I was forced underwater, and my body went into survival mode. I recalled the pre-rafting crash course and fought the urge to retaliate against the water. I reminded myself I would soon find the surface.

Seven exhausting seconds later and my head was above water. I scanned my surroundings for the raft and my peers. With a great deal of yelling and swimming, we were re-united with our floating vessel. We had made it, shaken, but physically unscathed.

What followed was a period of calm. We paddled fluidly and drifted down the river. I took a sigh of relief. The worst was behind me. Or so I thought.

As we mindlessly glided along, I noticed we were getting close to the rocks lining the riverbank. I loudly alerted my group that we should paddle left, and pointed out the rocks that were nearly touching the right side of the raft (and my body.) But before anyone could register this problem, we made contact with the rocks. In one swift motion, I was ejected from the raft, screaming as I flew and plunged into the water.

“Hello! Guys!” I shouted as the raft drifted away. What a sight I must have been. A helpless floater propelled by the current, shins dragging along the rocks.

After a long fit of laughter, my group got a hold of me and pulled me back into the raft. Half laughing, half crying, I wiped the blood streaming from my legs. “Well, that’ll leave a mark,” I thought to myself.

Now, I wear the remaining scars on my legs with pride — a vestige of my fight with the mighty Zambezi River.

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