It was my second to last day on the trip, and 14 of us signed up for a half day of paddling down rapids in the Zambezi River in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. We woke early. Well, those of us who could sleep did. After hearing horror stories from our guide, much of the night was spent tossing and turning, wondering what lead us to decide that going down class 5 rapids in an unknown land was a good move. After a 45 minute, teeth chattering, early morning open air truck ride, we lined up in front of our gear. A short supply of small/medium life jackets was met with looks of worry and doubt, and my face froze when my request for a bigger helmet was answered with a suggestion to use a helmet without any padding.
As we hiked down the steep canyon side, an excited murmur hovered around the group. Hopping over trees, down rickety tree branch ladders and across warm streams, we soon found ourselves riverside. We had broken up into two groups. The first, “Team Extreme”, was made up of the eager thrill seekers of the group. They were determined to hit the biggest rapids at each stage. The second group, “Team Let’s Just Take Our Time And Not Do Anything Hasty. Oh And Don’t Forget To Put On Your Sunblock, Guys”, was a little more reserved. You bet your ass I was in that second group.
The 8 of us boarded the raft and listened as our guide broke down the paddling instructions. It was simple enough. Both forward. Right forward, Left back. Right back, left forward. Everybody Down. As we practiced our confidence grew, and we soon decided that we too would be taking on those Class 5 rapids.
We didn’t have to wait too long to utilize our skills. Not even 10 minutes into the trip we were faced with a class 5 rapid. Our newly found courage was tested as we watched Team Extreme go first and promptly be flipped by the first set of rapids. We watched as our friends tumbled into the water and realized we were about to meet the same fate. Our guide yelled out instructions but to no avail as the rough waters flipped our boat and spilled out 8 overwhelmed tourists. I grabbed onto the rope line and held on tightly. As the water raged and swept us down the river, I looked into the wide eyed faces of my friends. A few were excited, but most were covered in fear. My concern immediately went out to Em, who doesn’t know how to swim. I called out for her and looked back to see a her gripping the boat, a bit bewildered but holding on with all her strength. Two of our members were underneath the overturned boat, calculating when to make the plunge to go back under the water and out of the darkness. Soon, I felt two hands grab my life jacket and lift me up onto the overturned boat. Our guide moved effortlessly as he went from person to person, pulling them out of danger. There just wasn’t enough time to get everyone out before we hit the second set of rapids, and he again yelled at us all to get down and hold on as our upside down raft was thrown about. The whole experience was likely just one or two minutes in length, but felt more like an eternity.
The rapids eventually died down, everyone was brought back into the raft, and our only casualties were some cuts, bruises and a lost oar. The adrenaline rushed through our bodies as we raised our oars and cheered our “success”. We gathered ourselves and began paddling down the river once again, ready for the next challenge.