The Pioneers of White Water Rafting
by The Southern Times
Graded five, the highest manageable by rafting experts, the white water still attracts the adventurers from around the world. It's an historic moment when those who are ready to sail in the rafts of Shearwater through the towering gorges of the Falls wait for the word of the master mariner.
The rapids have not changed in the 20 years since the company pioneered rafting from the Zimbabwe side of the river ' and nor has the safety talk being presented on the frontier of an epic voyage.
The eager aspirants learn how to avoid the whirlpools, the holes that suck you down and shoot you out. They learn of the stopper wave which can be 10 - 16ft high, and of the highsider passenger who can stop the boat from flipping by merely shifting his weight.
They will ride the "wave trains", the roller-coaster brought about by currents from all angles. And they are advised that when they are in the seething water they should keep their legs downstream so that if they hit a rock it will not be with the back of their head.
The orientation that goes with tea prior to the great white water odyssey is laced with such arsenic.
I remember the founder of Shearwater, Paul Connolly, telling me that he often went for the overkill in his talks, taking the "shock out of the situation in advance." For the danger was more justified in 1985 when the first Zimbabwe rafts were launched at Victoria Falls.
In fact, Connolly had to launch a manhunt for the tourists who would become pioneers in what was to become an extraordinary adventure. "We used to hunt them in the town up until midnight, virtually begging them to put their lives in our hands and raft with us without payment", recalled Paul. "We started with two rafts and I shall never forget the 14 guinea pigs who made the first trip without safety helmets and without the rescue kayaks that are such a feature today."
Connolly and his motley crew sailed the river for the first time on an oar and a prayer and amazingly came through unscathed ' a rarity even in the current hi-tech world when flipping the boat has become a badge of honour for some guides.
"Of course, we got hammered in the rapids afterwards. But for some time we used to say: 'Please come rafting tomorrow. We will give you lunch, give you a cold beer at the top and we won't charge you a cent, as we know you will love it and spread the word when you leave the Falls.'
"It was all unknown territory ' a no-man's land for us and in those early years we were struggling and hunting for clients. But we had the vision and when Jeremy Brooke ' 'an express train in marketing' ' joined us we gradually began to ride the rapids as a commercial enterprise."
Then drawn by the romance of the river, the adventurers from the ends of the earth began to arrive ' Paul likes to think because of the word being spread by those intrepid non-paying passengers who stepped originally into the abyss of white water. Then began Paul's infamous safety talks on the terrace of the Victoria Falls Hotel.
"I used to put the fear of God in them," admits Connolly."I might have been a bit over the top, but by that time we knew the river and its hazards ' the whirlpools and boils, the wave trains and stoppers ' and it was a way to weed out the faint-hearted, bearing in mind we did not have the safety precautions that Shearwater has today.
"In fact, at one time when we had only nine oars I used to ask the oarsmen not to dip the blades in the water when close to rocks as they might break and we had the fear that we might not be able to raft the next day.
"But they were the men and women after the dream, with a sense of Rider Haggard and Kipling. It's the same today. They want to master the elements of nature and feel the adrenalin under the spray at phenomenal speed. And they will say: 'This is truly the life.' "
For Connolly, these were the days of immense freedom. "No-one told you what to do and where to go on the river because no-one else knew anything about it. But we were concerned with the flips ' which are highly commonplace today ' and if an oarsman had hit double figures in upended rafts we began to think he was sub-standard.
"We were a hell of a lot more nervous than the guides are these days. A flip was something you avoided. You did not want it for yourself and you certainly did not want it for your clients. We genuinely thought all sorts of things could go wrong.
"We thought our rafters could get hit and knocked out, collide with each other or smash into the rocks or a lifejacket could get caught on a rowing stanchion. But then we had some magnificent oarsmen who had done some of the great rivers of the world ' Americans, Australians, Britons and Kiwis mainly ' and they gave the foundation for the rafting of future years, training many of the indigenous oarsmen who became the heroes of Shearwater over the years."
Connolly's caution was well-founded. The rapids are formed in the gorges below the Victoria Falls as the Zambezi plunges at 200 gallons a minute over a mile-wide chasm ' twice the size of Niagara ' exploding and hurling swathes of mist high into the air. This ferocity is then compressed into areas sometimes no more than 30 ft wide, creating the white water that offers those who ride the rafts a voyage beyond expectations.
My American friend Mike Kiljan, who has tested most of the big rivers in the world, is full of praise for the Zambezi rapids.
He was impressed that people with no experience of rafting could step straight into a grade no. 5. "There's nowhere else in the world I know of where a total newcomer to the science of rafting can make a voyage at this level which is generally regarded as the ultimate," he declared.
Once on the river, the craft can immediately run into fairly high waves and even stand still for a while. "Some of the whirlpools are downright scary," says Kiljan, "and certainly it is no place for a canoe or even a swimmer.
"There's always a chance of going over, but you are wearing a top-quality life-jacket ' the best that money can buy ' and even if you are a non-swimmer you will come to the surface. My raft, in fact, went over on a fairly small rapid, no.4. We didn't expect it ' the raft simply got up on its side and we were in the water.
"As for the much-vaunted crocodiles, if there are any, they are just plain disinterested in these mad human creatures floating by."
The Zimbabweans run rapids 6-19 at the Victoria falls ' with one exception. This is the notorious no. 9 ' which has a drop-off something like a waterfall, which virtually no-one has been able to tackle. The trip, however, has its own powerful challenge in the form of the rapid known as Oblivion ' professionally considered to be one of the greatest in the world.
This rapid, no. 18, with its breaking waves from three angles, challenges you to go through the eye of the storm ' unless you are blocked by the stopper, in which case the raft can shoot vertically into the air (an action known as the tube stand) and throw out all the occupants. This moment is often captured by video technicians who record for the rafters to take home their memories.
The beauty of it is that a long calm section follows this rapid, enabling safety kayakers ' unknown in Connolly's early rafting days ' not only to behold the sheer beauty of the gorges, but to take care of what are known as the long swimmers who have not been able to hold on to the raft.
Paul Connolly now leads canoeing safaris and expeditions through his company Zambezi Odyssey, based in Victoria Falls. Shearwater, which obtained its name from the Atlantic migratory sea bird, still maintains its rafting tradition.
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