#Zimbabwe #PeakAdventure #CommercialisationOfAdventure

Cash flow on the Zambezi

by Robbo Bennetts
first published in Outdoor News & Events, the professional journal of the Victorian Outdoor Education Association, February 1995


The Zambezi is a high volume river, Africa's fourth longest, and a major adventure travel destination. Its most famous feature is Victoria Falls — or Mosi oa Tunya (“Smoke that Thunders”). Above the mile-wide Falls the river is wide and lazy, home to hippopotamus and crocodile and host to elephant and lion, and a fantastic array of other storybook birds and animals. Below the Falls the river turns ugly as it tears down a series of vertical gorges up to 200 metres high, but only 12 metres wide in places.

The volume of water, the spectacular river scenery, and the array of wildlife combine to provide opportunities for a great range of both soft and hard adventure, including sightseeing, safari tours, joy flights ('Flight of the Angels'), river cruises and canoeing above the Falls, bunjee-jumping and rafting. Tourists come, in their tens of thousands, from all over the world. Wealthy tourists fly to the nearby airport and stay at the elegantly colonial Victoria Falls Hotel or the elephantine Elephant Hills Hotel. Budget travellers train or hitch in and stay at the Victoria Falls town council campsite where most things don't work and the baboons daily indulge in an early morning ritual of emptying rubbish bins all over the campgrounds.

The economy of Victoria Falls is driven by tourism. The tourist industry cleverly designs and markets adventure experiences for western travellers. With little effort or imagination any slightly overweight or pinkish traveller can snack on hamburgers and coke at Wimpy, stroll past well-dressed young African men who whisper something about changing dollars, duck into a curio shop and pick up a carved hippopotamus or two (hundred), then try on a brightly-coloured T-shirt inscribed with the words 'work sucks — I'm going to the river'. This can be followed by a short tour on hired mountain bikes to an 'African village' to have fortunes told by a real witchdoctor before dining on T-bones at a cowboy restaurant and wining on Zambezi lager in one of the bars. Cash or visa.

The first commercial rafting operation began on the Zambezi in 1981. Now there are so many rafting companies to choose from that the choice is difficult, except that price maintenance agreements mean that there is no point in shopping around for the best price. The company I finally gravitated to won me with the splash and dash of its advertising, the appeal of its office decor, and its general slickness. Besides, 32,000 customers since 1984 could not be wrong. Once US$110.00 was surgically removed from my grasp, I signed on for a day trip of some 25 kilometres of Grade 4 and 5 rapids. Along with 50 or 60 other adventure consumers.

Like most enterprises in Zimbabwe, the rafting trip was very labour-intensive. There were at least as many company employees as there were clients. Most of the gear was carried down, and later up, precipitous pathways by teams of black porters. Lunch was carried in and prepared by a team of black caterers. A group of African singers provided lunchtime entertainment. Others served the complimentary drinks at the end of the day. These 'unskilled' workers earn as little as US$10.00 for a six-day week. Even the highly skilled (mainly white, mainly male) river guides earn only around US$110.00 a week.

Believing I had made a generous donation to the local economy, I was now ready to pay my dues to Nyaminyami, the river god. I was ready to paddle! ... But I wasn't ready for the megahydraulics of the Zambezi. I wasn't ready for the Devil's Toilet Bowl, the Muncher, Gnashing Jaws, Overland Truck-eater, or the Terminator. These rapids threw our 16-foot rafts about like toys. It was a savage initiation to rafting big water.

after... image courtesy of Shearwater Adventuresbefore...  image courtesy of Shearwater AdventuresEach rapid appeared very improbable, each in its own way, each with its special hazards. We found ourselves relieved and surprised to survive the first five or six rapids more or less intact. We felt a kind of suppressed exhilaration. No-one complained about the portage around Commercial Suicide, which was graded as a 6. We watched in admiration as one of the escorting kayakers effortlessly negotiated this dangerous section of twisting seething water.

Rapid 18, Oblivion, was the most awesome rapid we ran. Three waves reared up in succession below a narrow chute. From the safety of a small eddy we watched those rafts in front of us smash into the waves. Nyaminyami was lurking under the third wave. One after another the rafts tipped to the left or the right and their occupants were swept swiftly downstream. Finally, it was our turn. Stop. Easy forward. Easy. Stop. Back right. Stop. Forward. Hard forward. Hard forward! Hard! Get down! Down!

Rafting on the Zambezi. image courtesy of Shearwater AdventuresDowntime is an interesting thing. Hitting the third wave felt like being in a train smash. My boat had bent at right angles and stood upright, before surfing passengerless for some moments and floating away. Having fallen backwards, I was dragged under with such force I literally could not tell if I was travelling feet first or head first. I am not sure how long I was under but I reappeared about 40 metres below the last wave. Everyone was in various stages of rescue or self-rescue. Only a solitary black trainee river guide had managed to beat Nyaminyami and stay in his boat.

All that remained now was to walk out, up to the top of the steep gorge, where the complimentary drinks were on ice. Then bump out in a bus carriage mounted on a prime mover, along dusty tracks, past beautifully kept African mud and thatched huts to the asphalt. Then, in the evening, marvel at The Video (US$45.00). And The Stills (US$3.00 - $8.00 ea.). And The T-shirt: 'I have rafted Africa's wildest river' (US$19.00). Cash or visa.

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Photographs courtesy of Shearwater Adventures.