White Water, Black Heart – Part II

13 08 2008

The Adventure Blogger: ‘Can I go home now?’           (Photo by Shearwater)

There are many times in life when you know you’ve made a mistake but it’s too late to rectify. Boarding a near-empty subway train late at night instead of taking a taxi and finding yourself surrounded by the poster boys for the Drunken Skinhead of the Year competition; choosing the all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant for your annual review with the company president on Liver Tuesday; and giving your next door neighbour your old mega-watt powerful stereo system when you knew that their CD collection included the complete works of Kenny G and Michael Bolton, spring to mind.

 

When I completed the treacherous slippery trek down into the Zambezi gorge and found myself in a dead-end surrounded by an unconquerable climb back up and 18 brutal rapids ahead, I remembered why I had never been interested in whitewater rafting: a completely rational fear of drowning.

 

I was at least eight before I had my first shower. Prior to that it was always a bath in which I would sit bolt upright and rinse my hair from a plastic cup. Showers were too much like being underwater. The fear lessened over time, but being trapped in a whirlpool at the bottom of a rapid was still something that didn’t exactly thrill me.

 

After clambering into our raft, our river-guide insisted on us jumping overboard. In theory this was to prove how buoyant our lifejackets were and to practice pulling each other back into the raft before the crocodiles visited the buffet table. However, I suspected the river-guide was a sadist who drew perverse pleasure from seeing his wide-eyed clients shake their heads like hyper-active metronomes before being pushed overboard.

 

The initiation complete, we began our voyage down the switchback river and within seconds were upon our first test. Squatting at the front of the raft, I held on with a vice-like death grip, sucked in a lung-exploding gulp of air and banged into the rapid. The bow plunged into the boiling trough and charged forward into thin air. We slapped back down onto the horizontal and I was completely exhilarated, even if utterly soaked. I’d beaten my first rapid and it had been awesome. I punched my fist in the air.

 

“Right”, the river-guide shouted, looking at me with bewilderment. “That was a grade 3. The easiest rapid you’ll see today”. My stomach sank. “The rest are much bigger and far more difficult”.

 

Within minutes we were plowing through grade 4s and 5s with colourful nicknames like “The Devil’s Toilet Bowl” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Our raft would disappear beneath the surging water before shooting out in a near-vertical climb. Each rapid was no less terrifying than the last as we approached, but with each victory, my confidence grew.

 

Until “Commercial Suicide”.

 

It was a river-wide conflagration of mist and water, waves smashing into each other with violent hatred. My life flashed before my eyes.

 

“We walk around this one.” The river-guide announced, to a massive sigh of relief.

 

We hoisted the raft ashore, dragged it around the heaving mass of water and launched it back in on the far side. The calm stretches of water were idyllically blissful. The steep sides of the gorge soared up in their sun-bleached yellows and ochres. Grass fires crackled across the scrub singeing our exposed arms and legs with their intense heat. The unrelenting sun burned from above and bounced off the water and the cliffs. We saw crocodiles lounging on the rocks and birds of prey circling overhead. All too soon our pleasure cruise was over and we faced “The Gnashing Jaws of Death”, “The Overland Truck Eater” and “The Mother”.

 

It was in “The Washing Machine” that I became a solo yachtsman. We charged forward then arced down 45 degrees against a sheer wall of green water which soon exploded over our heads. The raft shot through and was propelled skyward like a rocket, perfectly vertical. Hanging on for dear life, I glanced over my shoulder to discover that I was…alone. Everyone else was gone. It was the Marie Celeste of rafts. We swayed like a telegraph pole in the breeze for what seemed like hours. The raft seemed undecided as to whether to fall forward, or to topple backwards and cast me into the mix. With all my strength I slammed my weight forward and we slid over the hump and crashed down onto the river again. My colleagues quickly scrambled aboard and we continued down towards the final rapid, the legendary “Oblivion”.

 

Drifting quietly, we watched the other rafts venture into number 18 and almost all were chewed-up like a feather-pillow in the jaws of a boisterous pit bull. The kayakers ripped into the surf to pull person after person to safety. There was no turning back. We were sucked forward, the raft tipping violently to the left, then the right, plunging forward and then shooting out like a champagne cork. We high-fived each other, our sun-burned faces glowing with adrenaline and headed for the bank and the 300-foot climb out.

 

That evening we gathered to watch the video highlights of the day’s rafting. It was better than the one I’d seen the day before. Silently sitting beside me at the bar were a couple of people booked for the next day. Their faces were pale.

 

“I’m not a very strong swimmer.” one of them stammered at me, their eyes glued at the giant screen.

 

“Swimming isn’t going to help you in that.” I replied knowingly, and patted him on the back.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

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