#Zimbabwe #ExtremeSport #PhotoFail

Surfing the Zambezi

by Robbo Bennetts
first published in Australian Whitewater, Spring 2001


The first time I rafted the Zambezi I was pretty calm. I mean I was pretty naive. I didn't really appreciate the power of the river. The second time I rafted it - four years later - I was fully aware of its power. I had reflected on my first experience. I had surfed the net, and chatted to others about their experiences. I had read Death of a river guide. I had spoken to real river guides about their most frightening moments. They all had horror stories. There had been fatalities on every rapid between 4 and 19. A teenage girl had just drowned as a result of foot entrapment on a down river trip. She was a family friend of the trip leader. I had met him four years earlier.

Illustrator: Vass KomanI was packing polenta even before I began the descent by foot into the gorge. I was still packing polenta when I struggled up out of it six hours later. So I can't explain why the next day I signed on to surf the river on a boogie board. Perhaps it had something to do with the mystical significance of the boogie board in the Australian national psyche. Perhaps it was just the mad dog coming out in me (yet again).

In any case, the terror rushed back as we suited up. Four downbeat punters and three upbeat river guides. We were about to plunge into one of the world's gnarliest rivers strapped to glorified eskie lids. The concept involved descending the river face down and head first, reaching out like Superman. The other three punters had just flown out from England. They had skin like the white cliffs of Dover. They hadn't been in Africa long enough to go pink. Tommy was a soldier decorated with tattoos. She deployed herself comforting her sister, Dulcie who was hunched up with fear. Their friend, Brian, was pensive in a frail kind of way, as if he was contemplating his own watery crucifixion.

The number of international guides had dwindled over the years as the river's workforce had become Africanised. The two black guides had grown up in dusty villages not far from Vic Falls. The white guide had grown up on a farm outside Harare. I noticed how easily and naturally these three related to each other. It was as though they were still boys living out their childhood fantasies. There we were. The guides taking turns boogying and rowing the safety raft. Us punters boogying till we puked.

River boarding is very different to going down the river in a boat. In a boat, you sit up out of the water. On a boogie board, you eyeball the water. The view is different. You see the surface of the water bend and flex. You see - and feel - currents collude and collide. You see how the water slopes away on either side from the main current like the camber of a highway. You have to work hard not to be pushed off. You travel fast. Wave after wave rushes to meet you. It feels like you are trapped inside a giant pinball machine.

We watched the guides boogie with attitude. They executed donuts and eskimo rolls like grommets at a surf beach. We watched them slip feet-first into the smooth "V" above larger rapids where they surfed motionless the way kayakers do. When we tried to imitate them, we were spat out into the current. It was really bumming me out. At the bottom of each set of rapids, the guide on the raft would pull us out of the water because of the crocodiles. Then we would row to the next rapids.

Strangely, my fear was now under control. Maybe it was because the experience was so surreal. Or because I needed all of my concentration to stay on the "split line." Even Dulcie seemed to be coping; though she always kept within arms' reach of Tommy. Together, with nothing in common but our suppressed fear, we travelled downstream. We bagged the Three Sisters, the Mother, the Terminator and the Washing Machine. Now, from the safety of an eddy above, we contemplated rapid number 18 - better known as Oblivion.

Twice before I had met Oblivion. Twice I had witnessed the carnage. Three fearsome standing waves barred the way of down river travellers. As I drew inexorably towards these waves I wondered what would happen. I expected to be torn at and tossed about and held under like before. Following instructions, I aimed right at the first wave. In a flash, I punched through an explosion of broken water. I came out below all three waves, unscathed. I could hardly believe that I had conquered Oblivion with little more than my bare hands.

Rapid number 19 was my last chance to surf. Brian went first. I watched him drift down, and then lay motionless for about twenty seconds on the cusp of green and white water. When it was my turn, I slipped down the V feet first and was immediately ejected. Below the rapid, Brian enthused, "Let's do it again!" I was in no mood to do it again. But Australia's reputation as a nation of surf champions was at stake. So I hobbled off after Brian over cracked rocks along the riverbank, and we made our way up above the rapid.

Brian went first again. He jumped out from a boulder into the current and disappeared into the V. This time he was ejected. Now it was my turn. I searched my mind for a meaningful tune or mantra. The words - "I come from a land down under; then she gave me a vegemite sandwich" - formed in my mind. I jumped and drifted downstream as before. I tried to relax. I reached the bottom of the V - and this time I stuck! I was facing upstream. I looked up and saw a sheer four metre wall of smooth water above me. My top half was in the smooth water. My bottom half was in the swash. I was in the Green Room. I gaped in awe as millions of gallons of water all the way from the jungles of Angola swept under me. A short distance away, a guide took photos with a camera that had no film.

After a while, it occurred to me that I couldn't stay there forever. With a subtle transfer of weight, I broke out into the current and continued down the river.