The journey to Victoria Falls was a good start to the expedition as the members began to come together as a coherent group. As one travels from Beit Bridge to Mbalabala to Bulawayo to Hwange the trees get larger and the bush denser. Occasionally the road detours around giant Baobabs. It was a great sight to come over a hill and see the spray from the falls in the distance. At Vic Falls we met the Slaters and others who had driven up before hand. All reunited it was a festive evening with numerous ales and lots of talk. Mike introduced us to Rachel, who had a fair amount of rafting experience in the USA so we invited her to join us as a companion to Janine in the overpowering presence of 18 males.
The next morning it rained solidly which kept the civil engineers busy diverting water from the shelter to Bill's tent! Once the rain eased off Mike Slater organised the food into day bags and the Victoria Falls campsite was converted into a chaotic mess as we "organised" our equipment. The rafts were taken down to the "raft parking lot" on the Zambezi just below the Victoria Falls Hotel, where the first gorge ends and the second gorge starts. By the end of the day all the vehicles had disappeared and the mess had been packed into twenty internal frame rucksacks.
DAY ONE "alea jacta est" - there is no turning back!
Rucksacks on our backs, lifejackets and helmets strapped on, paddle in hand we made our way in a strange procession through the Vic Falls village to our put in point. Once down the treacherous steep path we packed the rafts , taking our time, getting used to what would become routine. The time came to leave. The lifejackets, especially imported from America, felt huge and clumsy. The helmets made our heads heavy, and the paddles felt like dangerous appendages. A small dead animal, bloated and stinking, floated in our eddie. Downstream, between the imposing walls of the second george , the water disappeared into Rapid No.3, the first rapid we would encounter. We could hear it, but all we could see was an occasional spurt of spray, clawing up over the lip.
We were all nervous. We went to recce. It was mean rapid with which to start on - on a bend with the main current climbing high up against the bank. A route was chosen. Chris opted to take his boat through first. The rest of us would watch.....Chris boat looked tiny in the river. The sudden addition of scale was startling. The current took them and suddenly they were over, flipped by a wave. Heads bobbed alongside the upturned raft - the whole lot careening downstream in the aerated water. But in no time , they had the raft back up again (thanks to the flip lines we had installed on the boats), only to flip it again on an unexpected hole! finally the righted it and pulled into an eddy. What a way to start. Pete's boat, well balanced, made it well and Paul's boat did it on it's side, almost flipping! But we all made it!
What a feeling! The butterflies began to flutter less and we began to appreciate the gorge and the river. The rapids were excellent and we had fun. Short, steep, powerful and yet forgiving, the flushed us through. Deep pools followed each rapid giving us time to recover . It was an excellent day's rafting. The biggest surprise was the sighting of a crocodile -between rapids five and six!
Seven kilometres downstream we stopped to camp, tired and hungry, but elated. It was a rocky site, alongside rapid No 9, the first rapid that we would have to portage . After lunch there was the opportunity to explore and we discovered a fascinating gorge - indescribable, unphotographable - you had to be there!
Waking up early, we were soon packed and ready for whatever the day would bring. Already we were becoming an efficient team. A dead decaying hippo, washed up in an eddy was a reminder that we were on a wild and dangerous river.
The rapids came thick and fast , but we were delayed by the recces. Yet the recces, apart from being very necessary, were also always interesting. The dark basaltic rocks revealed a gallery of sculptured shapes finishing in various textures and colours. The gotges began to widen out and the cliff became more like steep slopes, but the river had little influence on the dry woodlands of Boababs, Brachestegia and other hardy types. Birds were plentiful - rock pratincoles, green backed herons, wagtails, dikkops and plovers. From the cliffs Black Eagles and other raptors soared- perhaps one of them could have been the elusive Taita falcon. The many birdwatchers on the trip wished!
We had a great bunch of people and the rapids were excellent. It's useless to try describe the feelings of being on a raft heading towards the edge-where the tongue dips down and the fast ride begins. The feeling of hitting a hole and the raft being swamped in spray, only to emerge and then hurtle down into the trough of a wave and be carried over the crest into a series of smaller waves. It is something to be done .....
The day ended at three o'clock beside a huge deep pool with an awesome cliff looming over it. A super spot on a high bank with a panoramic view of a magical river. Camp bread and twists supplemented lunch and at supper time, a graduation ceremony for Alastair and Steve provided entertainment!
We now left the territory of the commercial "day trippers" - so from now on no other traffic was expected - we had the river to ourselves. It was the hottest day so far - the morning clouds quickly cleared and a hot sun beat down from a clear blue sky. The greeny blue river was a pleasure to be on. The rapids were rewarding, not to huge and nasty, but big enough to give a good ride and were still a challenge. Chris & Mike once again proved themselves to be flipping experts and I happened to be on the boat as well. In fact it was a worthwhile and educating experience , although when it happened a second time it was a bit scary!
Once again we saw crocodiles, though only one big one , which disappeared quickly as all crocodiles seem to do. (it makes one wonder how many are actually down there!) The rest were little babies - miniatures - cute, ugly and fascinating, with damn sharp teeth!
With time in hand we decided to stop at noon, and discovered the best campsite of the trip. The gorge was starting to widen out and we found an excellent bank of sand set in an amphitheatre of rock with a superb view downstream. We set up shelter for shade and had a good many cups of tea with our lunch. Nearby, a cliff, almost sheer, yet with many smoothly eroded grooves, ledges and hollows provided numerous levels, from which to jump and a pavilion to sit on and soak up the sunshine.
It was a hot afternoon and clothing was only a hinderance so many of us discarded them to walk around "in puris naturalibus" What a pleasure. To be so relaxed without certain of civilizations cumbersome rules, no silent sniggering, silly embarrassment, or sexual connotations. The lack of clothing is soon forgotten and becomes natural.
The afternoon was busy, despite the heat. Paul organised a work party to patch the grey raft and others purified the drinking water. Despite the clarity of the Zambezi water, effluent from Livingstone and Vic Falls town has polluted the water and if drunk untreated diarrhoea will certainly follow. There was also time to climb out of the gorge and view the scene "at a distance". Back at camp we played numerous games of volley ball and it was a very happy campite. Only Piers has bad memories- he lost his watch and he stood on a poor tiny scorpion, which naturally stung him
Packing the rafts showed us to be an almost perfect team - most people now trusted each other to pack without giving expert advice as not too innocent bystanders. This however, broke down when it came to recceing rapids, where there was a possibility of portaging! Many hours were spent on deliberations as to the routes for the portage, etc etc and unfortunately the stretch of river we were now approaching had plain nasty rapids. Corners with waves smashing into the rock, nasty recycling eddies, and narrow gaps with deep dark currents. Today we had two portages - an exhausting business. `our campsite above the Miombo Falls was a welcome relief. As for the falls - there was no doubt about the portage. They were awesome. Only about fifteen metres high and about forty metres wide, but powerful. The Victoria falls compressed into a tiny space.
That night it rained, naturally we hadn't set up a shelter, not that it took us long once the rain started. However Brian Tucker managed to keep us awake long enough as he shuffled from one wet spot to another. He had the bad lack of choosing first and choosing a bad deal!
DAY FIVE - an epic
The day started with a portage and ended late with another portage. The rest of the day consisted of - two portages! The first one was the Miombo Falls of course, pretty straight forward. Then the river entered the Batoko Gorge proper, site of a proposed dam for hydro electric power and to supplement Bulawayo's municipal water supply. The rivers route was quite remarkable as it followed weaknesses in the rock, often turning almost back on itself. On approaching corners, it was often difficult to tell which way the river would turn! Here another waterfall blocked our route and we had a long portage, made easier by the temporary road used for the preliminary work at the dam site.
Not much further on we came to "Ghost Rider", a fantastic rapid except for it's messy termination against a reef of rock. The rocks cause a huge whirlpool and sends the current off in a confusion of directions. It seemed a pity not to run the rapid, why travel all this way only to carry the rafts around the really challenging rapids. But it would be even more tragic if something went wrong. So we "ghost rode" the rapid and let the rafts run it manless. Unfortunately it didn't work out to well, the rafts were caught in the whirlpool and then deposited in an eddy, almost inaccessible, on the opposite bank of the river. A group swam over below the rapid and retrieved the boats. Brian Tucker persuaded those to attempt the remainder of the rapid and after much debating it was given a go. Both Paul & Steve were plucked off the raft and disappeared for a few minutes (it seemed). Paul's hand eventually appeared and he was pulled into the raft an told us that he had held onto the flip line to avoid being pulled down. Steve also reappeared close enough to grab him and was completely out of breath. A very very lucky escape. In the end the rafts were carried round, and the whole exercise was long and exhausting.
The last rapid of the day, in fact the last one we recced as after this only small ones remained was "Deep Throat", just downstream of Ghost Rider. The rapid was named by a SOBEK member who fell out while running the river for the first time. Apparently he was taken down so deep that it burst his eardrums. It is a nasty rapid. The river is throttled through an incredibly narrow gap and the current plunges down deeply afterwards, coming up in a mass of aerated water for many hundred of metres.
Totally exhausted, with the sun already setting, we struck camp immediately downstream. It had been a hard day but rewarding. The sense of accomplishment and camaraderieship was at it's highest that day! Although some may not admit it, I think we were all relieved. It happened to be Friday the 13th of December, and the day could easily hav turned sour- more so than any other day, just in terms of the complexity of the rapids!
Waking up was not easy. The "Phantom Lead Piper" had had a field day. Thankfully the portages were over. Today we would just paddle. A few small rapids, a fast current, and lots of distance. In fact more distance than we had covered in the first five days. For the bird watchers, lots to do and see. The river became more populated with fishermen, and crocodiles too became more numerous. I must admit, I'm not to sure what the rush was about, but Decca seemed to be calling those with a thirst. It seemed a pity not to get to know the river better and to be able to explore the valley. The end of the day rewarded us with hippos and from our campsite a memorable Zambezi Sunset.
A completely different river, it seemed awaited us. The gorge disappeared and the river widened into numerous channels between rocky and reed covered islands. Fisherman, local and "european" were out and about. Despite the flatness of the valley, and the width of the river it still had a steady flow and we made good time to Decca. One startling discovery was a hot spring on the Zambian bank, very hot, untouchably hot in fact, as I discovered when I stepped onto sand saturated with the water! My dance was apparently very amusing.
All too soon we arrived at the Decca Drum fishing resort, for some of us the trip was over, for all of us, a fantastic stage had ended.
It took me days to accept the finality of it all....