In 2006, The Jacksons embarked on a trip to the Zambezi and Nile along with some friends, Marty and Peter, my third trip there. It is one of the world’s most impressive places, with Victoria Falls’ 350 vertical feet of drop that lowers the river from the top of the plateau, to the bottom of the Botoka Gorge in style. One of the seven Natural Wonders of the World, Victoria Falls is special in many ways. A rainbow bridges the two sides of the gorge every morning at 8am and by 8:30 it reaches the bottom of the gorge and then disappears. Mist from the falls can be seen for many miles around as the falls drops into a narrow crack and the updraft from it shoots spray 30’ above the rim. Hippos and Crocodiles can be seen above the falls, dangerously close to the lips on any given day. Even Elephants cross the river in site of the lip from time to time, making this place special in ways that are hard to imagine unless you have experienced it yourself.
Below Victoria Falls the river begins its decent from over 3,000’ above sea level down, squeezed into a narrow gorge, with a drop pool style run that includes massive waves, holes, and a variety of difficulties of rapids. The shear size of the water takes some getting used to, as you find yourself above the water, under the water (often even right side up) and swirled around in every way in between.
Getting from the top of the rim, to the put-in is a 15 minute hike down a well laid path and stone stairs to what is called the “boiling pot” eddy. A troop of baboons live at the top of this trail, and you will interact with them whether you want to, or not. Typically, they are on both sides of the path, kids playing around, moms carrying young ones, big males looking suspiciously calm, watching you walk past, only feet from the little ones. Apparently they are not like bears, you can get in between the child and parent and not be attacked. In 2006, Emily dropped her water bottle, a young male (of course) baboon swooped down and took it, and she passed out due to heat and dehydration at the end of the day. This time, we all were careful to watch our water bottles.
The local economy includes the “porter” position, which is where locals carry gear into the river for the put-in, and carry it out at the take out. It pays about $2 down, and $2 out per boat. While this sounds like a very small amount, it is a prestigious position to hold down for those from the local village. Macuuma and Torro were our porters in 2006 and we were able to hire them again this year, 9 years later. Moses was Emily’s porter and she managed to get him back for a visit, but he didn’t fare as well as the others, unfortunately and was looking for a handout, versus a job. Macuuma is thriving with his family, built a new house ($500 in materials and labor), also makes carved animals to sell to tourists, and was a joy to work with. Macuuma carries two kayaks down and out of the gorge, something that earns him double pay, and requires a strong will and muscles. I personally prefer to carry my own stuff as a workout, but that isn’t good for the porters, who rely on a limited amount of work to survive in this position.
This trip was a combination of a return to my favorite river in the world (Dane and Nick agree), as well as filming a TV show pilot that is still not really public information, so I can not elaborate. No trip to the Zambezi is complete without a trip to Botswanna to Chobe National Park, where the largest population of elephants in Africa are found, along with all of the “big five” and everything in between. Kristine’s primary reason for going is this part of the trip. We also did a game drive at Mosi- oa- Tunya park near Livingston, Zambia (Dr. Livingston, I presume?) (Smoke that thunders- referring to Victoria Falls) The highlight of that drive, for me, was seeing a 15’ long, massive Python laying on the ground and then slivering into a hole in the ground. I managed to jump out of the truck and pet its back when it was 1/2 way into the hole. The driver said “Anyone want to touch it?” and I was out of the truck in 3 seconds and already petting it, when he said “What? I was just kidding”. I know a few things about snakes, including that he was too far in the hole to swing around and get me before I could be back in the truck.
The paddling: Dane, Nick, and I were quite fired up to paddle, and we got on the water everyday possible. I missed one day, due to being sick and injured arm, but otherwise it was a daily paddling mission.
Just below the put-in, is a wonderfully smooth, retentive, mid-size (by Africa Standards) wave (#2 rapid) and it is amazing freestyle training and fun.
You have to walk back up for the wave, so we tend to only do a few rides on it before heading to the much larger, more exciting “#3- Up against the Wall” wave just downstream. This wave is just as it says, up against the wall. In order to catch it, you have to drive your boat towards the wall hard and catch the reactionary off of the wall, which looks like a massive hole. If you shy away from the wall, the wave’s “catcher’s mitt” it angled and you will it the wave, and ride straight off the shoulder, not getting a surf. After surfing the wave, there is a walk up a narrow flake and a full-on seal launch entry that is worth trying if you are good at seal launches. You perch up on a 2” wide flake about 20’ above the water and carefully get into the boat, while managing to keep the boat flat so you don’t slide off the edge into the river forwards, or backwards down the rocks. Once in the boat, there are a few hand holds/paddle holds to stage up the seal launch where you need to push out to clear your stern and rotate to the right in the air to land on the backwash of the reactionary and stroke into the wave. It is a hard hit as you have to boof flat or you’ll just wash straight downstream and miss the way.
Rapid #4 has a line called “Dragon’s back” which is a big curler that feeds into a big hole, and there is a messy eddy line on the right if you don’t use the curler enough and then a big wave-hole at the bottom that goes super fast past the rocks. The first few days were spent just running the line, but the last two Steve Fisher pointed out a sweet Macho Move wave right before the Dragon’s back curler and I went for that, making the run quite a bit more exciting. Emily’s first run down the river was a high stress run for her. She spent some quality time upside down and swirling around in Rapid #4, 5, and 7, but warmed up to it for her second run where she ran the entire river without flipping.
Rapid #5- this is one of the most memorable rapids on the river with some huge features and visuals that are impressive each time you see them. On the left side is a waterfall that comes in and creates a big hole at this level and just to the right of that are a series of massive waves in this very steep drop that are not surfable, but are hard to get through right side up. Just right of that is one of the most visually impressive boofs in the world where a massive amount of water hits a big black rock and creates a ramp that goes up about 45 degrees to the water and has a beautiful green perimeter of water around it. Behind that boof is a massive hole that typically allows you to flush through, but often after a short pummeling. There isn’t much to the right of that. On day 1 and 2 I did the line just left of the boof, which is like staring down the pipe of a massive mountain range of waves and holes with chaotic water everywhere. I rolled two times on my first run and managed an upright run on my second run. Nick and Dane did the boof on their first runs. On the third run I did the boof, launching my boat upwards at 45 degrees and getting some good high speed air time before landing in the big hole, getting flipped backwards on my head, dropping my paddle with my right hand and swirling around in the messy water below for a few seconds before rolling up, and running the bottom part of the rapid. I am not sure which view is more fun, the left line or the boof. They are both so impressive that mixing it up is best.
Rapid #6 is not a big one, unless you end up in the whirlpool eddy line and get downtime. It is a dry head, followed by underwater run rapid. I never got the downtime that ended up in darkness like in years before on this trip.
Rapid #7, the longest one: This rapid is harder at high water, but is still quite a fun, long rapid with the looming “Gap” on the right side that is deadly, but easy to miss at this level. A ferry at the top around a diagonal hole and lining up just right of the “Crease” which is a gnarly hole that is parallel to the current on your left, to go over a big breaking wave and then bust left after it to avoid the crease is the main move. While there is typically margin for error to avoid the “gap” in big water like this a single boil moving right and push you to the right eddy line where things get messy and a missed roll or two and you are now in need of moving back right to miss the gap. The Gap is an undercut rock that leans on another rock and isn’t a good place for a kayak to venture. Kayakers have made it through before, at certain levels, by accident, but it is just ugly at this level. Emily’s first run was a little right at the top and she got slammed right by a boil and flipped, had to roll up and drive back left to the main flow and down the final part of the drop into the big waves. She cried at the end, and it freaked her out a little bit. She managed to get back on the horse, however, and her next run was down right side up and perfectly on line.
Rapid #8- Star Trek- This rapid is memorable as we committed to punching the big hole at the bottom each time and it is quite the view. My first time down the river was with Steve Fisher in 1999 and I asked him, “What are we doing here?” He said, “See that wave on the horizon line? Freewheel that one.” I asked- “what is on the other side?” His response, “The biggest hole you will ever surf”… Hmm… OK, here we go! I still have the video, from the “Full Circle” vhs of my first run of that rapid and the freewheel into the hole.. Dane, Nick, and I went for the meat of the hole each time, except when we took turns paddling with Emily around it on different lines (all still big water lines). My last day I was rejected and ended up surfing in front of the hole, blasting it, and bouncing all over the place until I carved out to the middle of the river. Nick also got a good surf. One of the days, Steve was filming overhead with a helicopter as I paddled into the hole. The wind and spray from the helicopter barely overhead blinded me making it especially interesting. I was being slowed down by the wind and was surprised that I made it through the hole that day.
Rapid #9- commercial suicide- We walked this rapid for most of the trip, but Dane finally ran it after a few days, and nick after that. It was a good level for the right line on the lead in, and punching the main hole at the bottom. At lower water the bottom hole is closed out too much and at slightly higher water also. Not making it through the bottom hole means getting typewritered over to “Elbow” rocks on the right, a dangerous spot right side up and a very dangerous spot upside down. I was struggling with a hurt right arm that was not at full power and this particular rapid was one I would walk on this trip. Dane and Nick made it look good when they ran it, and I have never walked it at these levels before, but I was happy to walk it on this trip. I guess that is one of the wonderful things about kayaking, and traveling, is that you can leave a rapid for another trip, and it is another reason to come back.
Rapid #10- a fun rapid with big waves for kick flipping and a sick surfing wave to catch on the fly… Emily got a great surf on that wave on the last day.
Rapid #11- another sick kick flip wave, followed by swirly water and crazy eddylines. Dane, Nick, and I went blue angel style on the first day and we ended up on top of each other swirling around in the crazy water to the bottom. We left more space after that.
Rapid #12- cool boof- big bad hole in the middle…
Rapid #13- WOW fun waves— straight on wave train that is along the right wall. The first wave is massive and has a huge reactionary hole off of the right wall. Smiles and laughs all of the way through
Rapid #14- smaller rapid
Rapid #15- massive hole dead center after a big wave train.. You can see the pourover at the lead in, but it takes some maneuvering from the top to make it around it.
Rapid #16- another one with some big features at the bottom to avoid, or go in.
Rapid #17..??? Don’t remember that one..hmm..
Rapid #18 -oblivion- this is a wave hole, dead center, that i have surfed in year’s past, but it is abusive and not good for a hurt arm. Dane lapped it from the eddy about 5 times on the last day trying to throw tricks but never getting enough control to do so. Emily ran left of it perfectly…
Rapids 19-25- the river peters out at the bottom, but is still big by most river’s standards. We saw a couple of crocodiles in the gorge- one at rapid 14 and one at 25.
On one of our trips we camped out at rapid #25. Kristine, KC, James, Megan, their kids, Emily/Tucker, etc.. all took a gondola down into the gorge and we camped on an amazing sand beach. Sweet fires, fishing, good food, beer, sunset, and sleeping under the stars was a memory for a long time.
I had three Tiger Fish on the line, but all three through the hook when they jumped. I managed to land a yellow fish, while Dane, Nick, and Emily all landed big “Vundu” which are a type of big catfish. Emily was fun to watch land hers as she was fighting hard, using some good body english to land it and complained of a sore arm from it. Ethan, James’ son, caught two Tiger fish which where fun to watch, like a fresh water tarpon. We gave two Vundu, and one Yellow Fish to Macuuma for his family and village. That was enough meat for 2 weeks for quite a few people. The rest we through back.
Another exciting part of the trip was the “Gorge Swing”. a cable stretched across the gorge below rapid #6 is part of a high adrenaline pendulum swing where you free-fall 150 feet before the rope catches and you swing way out into the gorge. KC thought he wanted to do it, and I was going first, in tandem with KC and we got all of the way up to the edge, turned backwards (they require a backwards jump for tandem) before KC called it off. We regrouped and Dane, Nick, and I went. I held my GoPro in my left hand and held onto the strap with only my right hand (a big mistake) The impact at the bottom is quite big and you are supposed to use two hands on the strap to keep you from getting whiplash. I didn’t account for my already hurt arm, and managed to hurt my right arm bad enough that I can’t pick up anything with it yet without it really hurting.
Back to the drop… You are in a harness and you have a rope attached to the middle of the cable. They pull in the slack for you so you have lots of slack and you drop straight down along the wall. After 150 feet of falling the rope catches with a strong impact and you swing out over the gorge up the other side and eventually settle at the bottom where they lower you down and you unclip. The final jump is quite exciting as you are clearly going to land on rocks unless the rope swings you away from the edge. I was calm and not nervous until he said, “3,2, 1… Go” and my legs got a good shot of adrenaline on “3” and tightened up. I didn’t hesitate on the jump and managed to take a selfie with my GoPro on the way down, something Dane claimed I would not be able to do. “Dad, you are never going to be able to control the camera when you are falling, just put it on your helmet”… that turned into a personal challenge, of course, and I got this video of the jump… 🙂
We also did a zip line over the gorge and both Emily and Mary did that, as well as I got KC to do it tandem with me.
We stayed at the Zambezi Sun, which is the place to stay as you can walk out of the back door straight to the put-in. No car needed for seeing Victoria Falls, or going kayaking. There is a big swimming pool at the hotel, and KC lived in it. Kristine’s mom, Lorraine, had going to Africa on her bucket list, and this trip was a big check mark on that list. She enjoyed the hotel, game drives, and even went to “Livingston Island”.
Livingstone Island- Here is where Dr. Livingstone (Scottish explorer) first saw Victoria Falls in 1855. A motorboat ride out to the island, something we always did by kayak in the past, made it possible for Lorraine, Kristine, and the kids to join us. You run some class 3 rapids downstream, something Lorraine didn’t expect, and pull up to a small island at the lip of the falls. We got some help getting Lorraine out to the edge, as it is not an easy walk for a 75 year old with poor vision. From there, you can see one of of the most amazing views on planet earth. We got there early, so the rainbow was in full effect and we were the only people there, other than the locals that “Work” the island. Since my last time there, the island has turned into a tourist destination, where “guides” lead you out to the the edge, etc… There may still be ways to get out there without paying guides, and going on private properly at the edge, but I am not sure. Since we were the only ones out there, it was still awesome and felt like our own trip. Had they not created this trip, Lorraine, Kristine, and the kids (KC and Tucker) would not have been able to go. We also swam at the “Devil’s Armchair” which is literally at the lip of the falls. You are at a pool with rocks at the backside and only a few inches of water going over the lip and you can sit, lay, stand right on the edge. Just to your right by 5’ it a semi-high water line over the falls with nothing in between you and it other than an eddyline. You could literally swim two strokes to your right and go right off the falls, drop 350 feet onto rocks. None of us entertained that idea, of course. While sitting on the edge, feet dangling in the water, some kind of fish started biting our heels and toes!! Kristine practically jumped off of the falls the first time! It was an interesting feeling to be sitting there with these fish, about 6” long, nibbling on your feet. I put my GoPro underwater and captured one.
Our last big hurrah was to go to Chobe National Park. We got a ride by taxi to the border of Zambia and Botswana where there is a ferry to go across the river. The ferry we organized broke down so we had to get on a commercial truck ferry standing next to semi-trucks as they took us across the river. On the other side, the “Elephant Valley Lodge” sent a safari truck to pick us up and bring us to their lodge. We got there in the late afternoon and were able to watch animals at the almost dry water hole in front of the lodge. Baboons, impala, warthogs, birds, etc.. first. Once the sun went down, and the full moon came up, we saw hyenas and herds of water buffalo.
The next morning we did a 7am game drive into Chobe and saw an elephant, giraffes, hippos, etc.. and then came back for breakfast. After breakfast we went back out and saw 1,000’s of elephants close up as well as a pride of lions. This was an amazing treat, as we had been hoping to see elephants and we got more than we bargained for.
We left the lodge that afternoon to begin our trek back and made it back to the Zambezi Sun in time for dinner. The next morning we woke up and began our trek back to Tennessee, a 37 hour voyage. Flying home consisted of a flight from Livinstone, Zambia, to Johannesburg, South Africa. A short layover, then a flight to Dakar, Senegal (8hours) and then from Dakar to Washington, DC direct (8 hours). Then from Washington, DC to Atlanta, and then a 4 hour drive home from Atlanta. Whew!!
KC was old enough to truly enjoy the trip. Tucker was along for the ride, but it was great for Emily and Nick to travel with Tucker like this, as he did great. Lorraine did great on the trip as well. Dane and Mary got to add another big trip to their list after they did Austria together in October. Kristine and I shared many wonderful experiences on this trip that we won’t forget.
We are happy to be home, however, and just waking up after our big trip back. Jet lag, travel weariness, happy.