The smoke that thunders

Trip Start Aug 17, 2003
Trip End Jun 04, 2004

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Flag of Zimbabwe  ,
Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Breath-taking, awesome, phenomenal..... And I was there at low water!! I can only imagine what it's like in high water!

Arrived in Vic Falls for the last day of the overland tour. But there was still so much to do. Almost straight away, we were bundled into an activities office to book up what we wanted to do! And all ideas of just doing the rafting went straight out of the window as I got tempted by one of their packages and ended up booking 3 different things!!

The first evening, we decided to go for a sunset dinner cruise on the Zambezi as a final dinner for all of us who had been on the truck. It was really nice to have a proper ending. We cruised up river for a couple of kilometers (above the falls), weaving backwards and forwards across from the Zimbabwean to the Zambian side. A real highlight was seeing elephants swimming across the river from an island to the mainland. They use their trunks like snorkels to be able to continue breathing, while everything else is under the water.

The meal was really nice - although our first taste of the realities of life in Zimbabwe, where there is a shortage of basic foodstuffs. So our meal of mushroom soup, chicken and fruit salad didn't seem very adventurous to western tastes, but was quite a feast by Zimbabwean standards. This was reinforced the next morning when I went to the supermarket to buy some bits and pieces for lunch - and couldn't find bread. It was really quite an eye-opener into how serious the situation there has got. I felt very guilty a couple of times talking to people, and saying that I'd quit my job to go travelling - they daren't quit, because they know they'll really struggle to find anything else again.

The next morning, I went on a helicopter ride over the falls. Obviously after the plane ride in Swakopmund I was slightly nervous about managing to retain the contents of my stomach, but in fact it was fine - the flight only lasted 13 minutes, which was hardly enough time to start feeling unwell!! And in fact, it was really smooth anyway! I am SO glad that I did it - it's the only way to really see the size of the falls, and to see the way they just drop away into the gorge.

The falls are pretty weird for a river - they drop off into a gorge which turns the river at right angles to the direction it had been going in, and much much narrower than previously - which is what makes the Zambezi the mecca it is for canoeing!! So from above, you see the spray, which looks like smoke, pouring up from the gorge.

Seeing it from above also gave an idea of the size of the Zambezi above the falls (again, as it was low water, it wasn't even at full strength) and the power of the water which has carved out such a deep gorge, which runs at sharp angles away from the falls.

That afternoon, I went on foot to see the Falls, to see it from another perspective. The road down to the national park which surrounds them was running the usual gauntlet of money changers, icecream sellers and people trying to sell you anything at all. They seemed to have a pretty odd idea of trade as well, trying to persuade people to swap their shoes for a carved hippo (it didn't seem to cross their minds that walking back might then be quite tricky). I was offered a giraffe for my Oakley sunglasses - didn't seem the best deal ever....!

From a long way away, you could hear the thunder of the falls, and understand the reason behind the local name - which means the smoke that thunders. The spray looks like smoke, and you can hear the roar of the water from a long way away (in fact, that morning, before the town had properly woken up, I could hear them from my tent).

I walked along the park, on the opposite side of the gorge to the falls - and with every corner, the view seemed to become more and more breathtaking. I had to keep reminding myself that this is at low water, and it must be even more staggering when every single piece of rock is covered with cascading water.

Along the way, there were also lots of animals again in the park - particularly vervet monkeys, which are very odd. As a sign of virility, the males have very bright blue scrotums! The bluer, the more virile they are. Very very odd to see!!! I also saw a reedbuck, another very shy antelope, hiding behind the trees in the park.

The following morning was the bit I'd been waiting for for 5 long weeks - the rafting on the Zambezi. Having heard nonstop about them from canoeist friends, I couldn't wait - and was looking forward to being able to gloat that I'd been down it, and they still hadn't!!!

It was absolutely unbelievable!!! Because of the low water levels, we were able to do the longest stretch of the river - from right up under the falls to rapid number 21. This meant yet another amazing view of the Falls - this time from right underneath - looking down the gorge and just seeing the spray coming up was incredible. We then set off down the river, hoping we would manage to not come out too many times. The Zambezi is the highest graded river commercially rafted in the world, with lots of Grade 5 (big!!)rapids.

I managed to get the record of the day for falling out of the raft, with a total of 6 swims (I think - it might have been 7!!), often when no-one else fell out, and a spectacular one when I managed to take the guide with me. Needless to say, he wasn't overly impressed! But it was very odd - we managed to get down most of the Grade 5 rapids with no problem at all, and then flipped the boat twice on a Grade 3. Not quite according to plan!!

Fortunately though, most of the times I came out, or we flipped, it wasn't too scary - we just floated down river slightly and were picked up by one of the other rafts. In fact, one of the rafts got pretty fed up of seeing me, after they dragged me out of the water for the 3rd time!! One flip was a bit scary though - I got dragged under the raft a couple of times by the current, and then when I gave up holding on, I had a pretty long swim before I made it to a rescue kayak! Luckily we then made it down the next 3 or 4 rapids with no problems, so I got my confidence back and wasn't bothered when I came out one more time towards the end.

At the end of the river, we then had a horrific 220m very very steep climb up little more than ladders to get to the top of the gorge. I was SO ready for the beer they handed me at the top!! We also started to then hear from some of the others that they'd seen crocs from their rafts! Given the number of times I'd been in the water, I was pretty glad no-one had mentioned that before, and that we hadn't seen any. The guides had told us beforehand that there wer crocodiles, and had joked that they were semi-vegetarian - they only like white meat, so the guides were all safe!!!

All in all, the rafting was absolutely amazing, and I was on such a high for ages afterwards. I'm so glad I did it - and boys, if you're reading this... "Na Na Na Ner Ner!!!"

A map of the rapids should be at
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phb on

na na na ner ner
just been there and done that this september and it was awe-some.........

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