A Whitewater Kayaker’s Journey to Zambia

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Zambia is home to a staple experience of every whitewater kayaker’s dream list, the Zambezi River. As a natural border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Zambezi is one of the largest drainages in Africa and flows at an average of 125,000 cubic feet per second. To put that volume in perspective, envision a basketball as one cubic foot. Now envision 125,000 basketballs going through a given point on the river, every second. It is said that the Zambezi River is one of the best big-water kayak rivers on the planet. Not only because of its massive volume, but also because of its warm water, beautiful setting, plethora of accommodation options, organized shuttle services, and an abundance of extracurricular activities.

Waiting in the airport

Travel

Coming from the eastern Cascades of Washington State, getting to Zambia is no simple task. This is especially true when you’re flying with a kayak and two weeks of paddling gear. Luckily most airlines in today’s world have plenty of information on their abilities to carry large sporting equipment on their websites, so spend a couple hours on the internet and you can feel pretty comfortable that your gear will get to where you’re going.

In our case, my friends Jacob Peterson, Steve Bailey, and I flew with Emirates out of Seattle, WA. We chose Emirates because they not only allowed kayaks, but if your kayak was smaller than 300 cm in volume (length+width+height), then it counted as one of your two allotted checked bags.

The flight experience was a breeze, even though it took 45 hours to get from Seattle to Livingstone, Zambia. Our flight path took us directly over the North Pole, and then south over Iceland, with us eventually landing in Dubai. After a relatively short layover we boarded another Emirates Boeing 777 and continued to Johannesburg, South Africa. We enjoyed our first meal in Africa and killed a couple hours before eventually boarding our final flight to Livingstone with South African Air.

Upon landing in Livingstone, we offloaded the plane directly onto the tarmac, walked into the tiny airport, and were through customs with our temporary visas in ten minutes. As we rounded the corner to baggage claim, we were ecstatic to see three whitewater boats sitting in the oversized baggage area. We had made it. After exchanging some USD to Kwacha, the Zambian currency, we exited the airport to find a flatbed truck with the name of our hostel hand-painted on the side. We loaded our boats and enjoyed a ten-minute ride to our new home for the next twelve days.

The River

Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is about 100 meters upstream from where you put into the Zambezi River in your kayak. We could see the mist and hear the roar of the falls as we made our way down to the water. The river sits about 200 meters down in the canyon, so there is some serious walking to and from the water. The place we entered the river is called the Boiling Pot, the popular put-in for rafts and kayaks on the Zambian side of the river. It’s a large, circular pool, with the first rapid of the canyon, or “Rapid #1,” directly upstream. The rapids of the commercial section of the Zambezi River do have proper names, but are more popularly known by numbers. From the base of Victoria Falls there are 26 significant rapids spread out over roughly 25 miles of river. Rapids are referred to as “Rapid #7” or “Rapid #10.” It takes some getting used to, but as long as you’re paying attention you eventually get the hang of remembering where you are in the Canyon.

Our first experience of the river was the morning after we arrived. The night of our arrival, we had met a crew of paddlers from New Zealand who had already been down the Zambezi a couple times and had a pretty good idea of the lines. They invited us to hop on their trip the following morning and we accepted the invitation without hesitation. After all, we were here to paddle and we were ready to go! As we arrived at the Victoria Falls Park, we were greeted by a crew of Africans who approached us and introduced themselves. They were porters; their job was to carry our kayaks down to the river for us. This was a new service in my kayaking experience, but if someone insists on carrying my boat to the river I’m not going to say no. My porter’s name was Manyando, and he worked as my porter the whole trip. He was a great guy. As we walked down the seemingly endless trail to the river, my gratitude for my porter grew immensely, as did the butterflies in my stomach; I knew this was actually happening. Anytime I paddle a new river of significant difficulty, especially big-water rivers, there are always some nerves flying around inside me. Eventually we got to the river, soaked up the scenery for a minute, climbed into our kayaks, and started down stream with our eager Kiwi friends. It was pretty surreal that we were here, in the water, kayaking the Zambezi River.

The whitewater of the Zambezi is big and dynamic; there’s a ton of water doing a ton of things. Powerful eddies and whirlpool eddy lines are consistent throughout the whole river. All of the rapids are large and have unique characteristics and features. Our newly found Kiwi friends definitely had some useful beta for us on where to be when going into these rapids, but more importantly, where not to be. Most of the rapids have so much going on that you just have to paddle hard into them, react accordingly, and if you find yourself upside down, roll up when you get a chance. Especially on our first lap, I would say that I “Hail Mary-ed” a lot of rapids. It’s just the way to do it down there. Some of the rapids that really stood out for their difficulty or grandeur were #5, #7, #9, #11, and #18. I never ran #9 during our trip as the water levels we were experiencing made it a fairly terminal recirculating ledge hole. Everything else dished out good lines, rowdy lines, and scary lines at one point or another. After our first lap down the Zambezi, I knew that I had my work cut out for me to really learn this river.

The Lifestyle

We quickly realized that we were immersed in a fun-loving community when we walked into Jolly Boy’s Backpackers Hostel upon our arrival in Livingstone. This place had kayak racks in the parking lot, a swimming pool, a full bar, and plenty of interesting people. Within the first hour of being there, we had settled into our bunk room, changed out of our travel wear, and were poolside with a bucket of Mosis, Zambia’s staple light beer.

A couple hours after our arrival, the paddlers started filing in after their day on the river. Turns out if you’re a kayaker, Jolly Boy’s is the place to stay. At one point during our trip there were 26 whitewater kayakers, representing 12 countries, all staying at Jolly Boy’s. If you’ve ever met a kayaker, you may have noticed that most of them like to party. Given that all these people were on a kayaking vacation, there were no excuses to not enjoy a beer or 12 after a day on the river. It was definitely routine for everyone to get back to the hostel after a trip down the Zambezi and spend the rest of the evening telling stories of the day’s endeavors over several buckets of Mosi. A bucket consisted of six beers and cost $5, so we all felt pretty good about our bucket budgets for the trip.

There are many hostels in Livingstone and they all have their own characteristics. They also all have their own events throughout the week. It is very beneficial to get to know the weekly calendars if you want to socialize with anyone besides kayakers. For example, Victoria Falls Backpackers Hostel had karaoke on Thursday nights. College-age travelers who were simply checking off some bucket list travel usually occupied this place. Always a fun crowd though. Jolly Boy’s hosted a BBQ night every Tuesday that usually turned into a big pool party. Fawlty Towers Hostel was usually occupied by young professionals who may or may not paddle. While I never attended any events here, it was a great place to stop and seek out people to paddle with who don’t have a massive hangover from the night before. Then there was Limpos Barber Shop. Limpos was the Wednesday night spot. If we wanted to get a feel for true Zambian nightlife, Limpos is where it would happen. It was basically a hip-hop dance club with a sports bar in one corner and an outside BBQ pit. Across the parking lot was an African-owned Mexican restaurant that featured live Mexican music performed by very talented African musicians. The whole scene was unreal, although extremely entertaining.

Safari

While our main goal of this trip was to kayak the Zambezi River, it didn’t take long to realize that there was a ton to do in this region that didn’t involve paddling. Given that I had no idea when I would travel to Africa again, we stayed busy checking off as many activities as possible. One of the most interesting, of course, was the African wild game safari.

Throughout my life, I had never put a whole lot of thought into what a safari actually consisted of. Of course I’ve heard of hunting safaris, photography safaris, and safari hats, but it was still unclear to me what the actual definition of a safari was. Well, we sure figured it out. Safari is simply an overland journey, typically done in a 4x4 vehicle, with the goal of seeing local wildlife. Between the two safaris we participated in, we spent over 15 hours in open-sided Toyota Landcruisers, crossed national boarders into Botswana, slept in tents in the middle of Chobe National Park, and saw almost every exotic African animal you can imagine. All around it was a pretty incredible experience being so close to creatures that I’ve only seen on the Discovery Channel and Planet Earth. We witnessed lionesses feasting on baby elephant carcasses, giraffes nibbling away at acacia trees, dazzles and dazzles of zebras, elephants crossing bodies of water using their trunks as snorkels, and of course, more impalas than you could ever count. There is actually and acronym that is thrown around in the safari world: JAFI, or “Just Another F*%#ing Impala.”

During my time in Zambia, I spent a total of six days kayaking the Zambezi, three days on safari, and a couple days resting and soaking up the Zambian culture. As a paddler, my skills and comfort level in high-volume whitewater increased immensely. Being able to paddle the same 20-mile section of river each day allowed me to become familiar with the rapids and explore my creativity with different line selections. Even though I was feeling confident with my abilities to paddle every rapid with a clean line, I never had a day of paddling where I had a perfect lap (a lap without flipping upside down). In fact, on our third day of paddling, I was having an off day and flipped over at least 30 times between rapids #1 and #13. After the trip, I sat in the eddy at the take out waiting for my turn to climb out of the river. Completely exhausted from a day of beatering, I mumbled to myself, “Damn, I paddled like shit today.” An Austrian paddler named Simon that I had paddled with that day quickly responded with, “T-Pot! Even though you paddled like shit today, you still kayaked the Zambezi River!” I guess I really had nothing to be upset about. The Zambezi is the most fun river I have ever kayaked. The warm water, nerve-wracking but friendly rapids, and amazing culture make this place well worth every cent spent and every hour traveling.

Overall, my African travel experiences were nothing less than 10/10. The people were incredible, the weather was amazing, and getting around was not a problem whatsoever. If you ever get a chance to explore this marvelous section of the world, do not hesitate to jump on it. I would be more than happy to field any questions you may have about this trip. Feel free to reach out!

Cheers,

Tom Potter


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