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

Advertisements




White Water, Black Heart – Part I

11 08 2008

The Adventure Blogger: ‘Are we there yet?’               (Photo by Shearwater)

I have never found whitewater rafting particularly enticing. I had always wanted to skydive (The Adventure Zone – May 20, 2008) and was coerced into rap-jumping entirely against my will (The Adventure Zone – June 16, 2008), but whitewater rafting held no allure whatsoever. Which is why I was so confused when I found myself voluntarily electing to do something that had all the appeal of root canal performed by an intoxicated demolition worker.

 

I have long believed that any extreme sport worth doing should be the biggest, best or most dangerous. The Zambezi offers the greatest one-day commercial whitewater rafting in the world so my participation was a no-brainer even if I really didn’t want to do it! Not only was the river a boiling maelstrom of grade 5 rapids, but they threw in a few crocodiles free of charge as a bonus.

 

With more than a little trepidation I walked into the booking office in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. I sat down and watched footage of rafts entering murderously large rapids and the little yellow-helmeted rafters being flung through the air like kernels of corn in a campfire.

 

“Is that a ‘Best of…’ video?” I asked, as a massive raft was flung skyward like a tiddly-wink, tiny star-shaped rafters twirling spectacularly into the foaming water.

 

“No, that was yesterday.” The agent replied disinterestedly as she filled in my paperwork.

 

I swallowed hard.

 

“I, err, I can’t swim.” I decided to inform her as she processed my credit card. “Is that a problem?”

 

She stopped writing, raised her head and looked me in the eye disappointedly while motioning at the television screen with her pen.

 

“Swimming isn’t going to help you in that.” she replied, gesturing at the aquatic carnage before me.

 

I didn’t sleep particularly well that night. I contemplated feigning malaria to avoid the torture to come, but as I’d bought new Velcro-fastened sandals before leaving home solely with the intent of such self-torment, I decided to go through with it any way. At the first glimmer of dawn I was up and striding somewhat reluctantly to the launching point on the edge of the Zambezi gorge. Perhaps I’d be lucky and an elephant would charge from the bush and trample me before I got there.

 

Unfortunately, I arrived unscathed and was outfitted with a life jacket and helmet and then subjected to the most terrifying safety briefing of my life.

 

“Good morning everyone” the nauseatingly buff, tanned, fit and confident river-guide greeted us. “Welcome to the Zambezi. It is very important that you pay absolute attention to everything I say and remember it. Nyaminyami, the God of the Zambezi, is unforgiving and likes nothing better than to punish those who trespass without proper respect.”

 

“We’ll raft 18 rapids today.” he continued, while my sense of foreboding grew. “There are a few Grade 3s and 4s, but most are Grade 5. That’s the highest navigable rapid in commercial rafting. There is also one Grade 6, but we carry the raft around that one. If we tried to go through it and failed, it would suck the raft and all its occupants down and hold them deep below the surface…forever. So we’ll give that one a miss.”

 

He smiled.

 

“When you end up in the river” the taunting continued, “you’ll either be a long-swimmer or a short-swimmer. Short-swimmers make their own way back. Long-swimmers pop-up further away and require help. If you get sucked under just remain calm: you’ll only be held for five minutes at most. If you fall in just before the rapids, tuck yourself into a ball with your knees to your chest and your feet extended forward. These will help you to survive the rocks. If you fall in after the rapids or in calm water, get back to the raft as quickly as possible: that’s where the crocodiles live.”

 

The group of rafters silently hung on his every word. Some seemed to relish the warnings while others seemed to share my intense hatred of him and his obscene enthusiasm.

 

“Right then,” he finished, “let’s head down to the river.”

 

But for the scarlet letter of my yellow helmet and life-jacket, I would have run away but knew the pressgang would have quickly caught up and dragged me back to the gorge. Instead, I tried to summon some saliva to my parched throat and followed everyone down the rock equivalent of walking the plank.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan