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Zambezi river

I always thought that a good starting point for an extreme kayaker was the majestic Zambezi River. Unfortunately for one reason or another I never managed to make an expedition to be "initiated" to the "big volume".

Map of the rapids of the Zambezi River

The Zambezi River, 2574 km long, marks the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe (in the kayaking interesting section ), and its average flow is about 3400 m³/s.

Vittoria Falls

Lateral view of Victoria Falls

The Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders) are among the most famous and spectacular waterfalls in the world, declared by UNESCO World Heritage Site, has a front of more than a mile and an average height of 128 meters. Mark the boundary between the upper and middle Zambezi (kayaking section), so what better place to make base camp? Livingstone is the city that will host my traveling companion Christiano Ferrazzi and me during this adventure.

The departure

Malpensa Airport

Today, December 7, 2011, we are finally leaving for Africa, destination Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. From there we will reach Livingstone in about 7 hours by bus through 500 km of African roads.

Lusaka airport
Adventure starts!

This is the first time I cross the Equator to the Austral EMISFER and I should say that it's a funny sensation to walk upside-down...
However without saying bull shit, our surf (like this you have to call the kayaks to load them on the plane without an expensive recharge) arrived without a hitch to destination.

Lusaka Airport, taxists trying to load the kayaks in the car

The problems started as soon as we went out of the airport, mobbed by an horde of taxists that wanted to gain from us as much money they could. Easy life for them because of our absolutely unwieldy baggage! With 2 different taxi we reached the bus station of Lusaka.. true Africa!
2 hours waiting in a full of person place, where the only one color was not present was the white and go, with a bus in witch we estimated about 90 persons, shot on seasickness roads, driving at breakneck speed!

African landscape from the bus

Regretfully we underestimated a bit the trip duration or the driver decided to pass through the Japan, because the trip was eternal.
1 It seemed there were a unusual traffic on that bus, adults that board with children and get of after few stops without, children that stay calm with different adults they boarded with.
2 Can somebody tell me why in every part of the world, the driver has to annoy everybody for all the trip, even if by night, with his shity music?
3 Life in Africa has no value!
The last time of the day we have been screwed, 20$ to make 150 meters by taxi till the hostell. We knew we were been screwed, but it was very late and we travelled to long to make it different.
32 hours travelling and finally I'm in my room at Jollyboys Backpackers!

Jollyboys Backpackers, Giraffe bungalow

Day one

About the first day, there is not much to say, except that we got in contact with "Mosi", the local ice cold served beer at the bar of the hostel. We lost the rest of the day trying not to get fooled by kayak companies to pay $ 100 to take us on the river. This is very difficult when you arrive in a unknown place, perfectly arranged for ripping off tourists!
The solution has come at the evening, just before dinner, he was called Corne, a South African guy, who knows very well how to get around here.


Great! We have organized the first day on the river very quickly - the whole river, down from # 1 to # 25.
That night, for the first time of our holidays, we slept very relaxed, because the day after we would have been kayaking, and because of the sound of rain on the roof of our straw hut, not so bad, in Africa, the mornings are always sunny!

Day two
Finally: Zambezi

The sound of awakening was not quite what I expected, it seemed to be mostly like in Norway: a fine drizzle and no end.
After a breakfast for champions, based on pancakes, peppers, onions, tomatoes and bacon, we set off by taxi towards the park of the Victoria Falls.
It is an indescribable feeling, to go down the path for the first time that leads us to The Boiling Pot #1. All the stories and experiences I heard from the friends have been here before me returned to crowd the mind. The railway bridge, the enormous eddy that turns for tens of meters, the huge waves; all like I expected, my legs trembled with excitement!

Railway bridge on the rapid #1 (The Boiling Pot)

After the first paddle strokes of the ferry I realized what a monster the Zambezi really is. Waves of more than two meters that I have abused like a leaf. Well, now it begins!
At the first descent I launched a personal challenge to the river: I wanted to see how far I could get without tipping.
In the rapid #5 (stairway to heaven) I was immediately punished: such a mass of water, indescribable, I had no time to even figure out which way I was turned.

#5 (Stairway to Heaven)

PBut it is true what they say: the river takes you, slamming you here and there, it mistreat you, but eventually let you go, just have the patience to wait and finally you can breathe again...
Rapid #8 (Midnight Dinner Featuring, the Muncher) should have a very big green wave, but instead we found a massive two floors building of water falling on us, indescribable feeling!

#8 (Midnight Dinner Featuring, the Muncher)

When we reached #9 (Commercial Suicide) Corne, our trip mate, said it has to be looked from the left but walked on the right ... "Are you mad?" I thought, "I don't want to walk a rapid!"
When you first see rapid number nine, you feel like you have never seen a real rapid before! Your ass squeezes, while you are searching for your line between holes that I should better call "mountains". The first pull-over falls for more than three meters in the heart of a hole by shivering. The pressure in the middle is so strong, that water is sprayed for about twenty meters, making visible the rapid from very far away. To make matters worse at the end there is another monstrous hole that takes the whole river, I really do not know if I want to pass on the right or left. Tano told me, that when he was here nine years ago, the water was much less making the rapid easier.

#9 (Commercial Suicide), Tano

I looked the rapid for a really long time before I decided my line: Chicken line on the right and then right again, exactly between a the final big hole and the nasty stones on the right side.
Luckily I made it, but I rarely had the adrenaline so high while kayaking.
After #9, the other rapids seem to be very quiet but still fast enough, miles and miles of flat water in between, crocodiles were lying on the rocks and of course #15 (The Washing Machine) and this name tells everything.

Crocodile on a rock

At #21 (Narrows 1), they told us, to put our heads under water, and then we could hear the stones rolling on the bottom, a real impression!
When we finally finished all the 25 rapids, at the take out in a beautiful white sand beach, we discovered the meaning of the way to say "T.I.A.", This is Africa…. Our ride back to the hostel was not there! Anyway we climbed the steep path for coming out of the canyon in the hope to find a ride back. After more than one hour and half our patience was rewarded, we have gained a real trip in business class: On the roof of the jeep through the typical African landscapes, the red ground, green grass with rain, villages of mud and straw and smiling people waving, next to each hut!

Travel on the roof of the jeep

Arrived at the hostel at dusk we realized it was Saturday night due to the movement of people that we didn't see till that moment. Unfortunately, as you know, I am not speaking of the evenings in my reports, you can just make suppositions and conjectures…

Day three

Since we didn't wake up much early we decided to try the tour that Corne suggested us: From rapid #1 to #10 and then walking back. The carriers, coordinated by our guide Pio, would carry the kayaks up from the steep trail that goes out of the gorge.
On the path to the put in, part of our lunch was stolen by monkeys. Do not keep food in plastic bags because they know it!

Baboons bastards

We arrived at "The Boiling Pot" at 12.20, so only an hour and a half to get to the take out. We spent a lot of our time to film the rapid #5, but it was worth it: boof the giant pull-over with relative rinsed right in the hole that is formed below, quite an experience, to do!

Boof at #5, Filippo

After the rapid #5 we only had 30 minutes to get to the take out, to not risk being caught by darkness in the middle of the savanna.
The rapid #7 (The Gulliver Travels) is the longest and most technique of all rapids on this river, 700 meters of waves, coming from all directions and three or four holes to be avoided. We have been both beaten, on the other hand, when I finished, I didn't have the thirst I had when I started the rapid...
At # 9, this time, there was no time to have a look, so let's do it at breakneck through the line that we chose yesterday. Assessing so quickly, has not proved to be a very appropriate idea, and perhaps for over-cautious, I was too far right. The result was I hit the stones with the toe and did an eskimo roll in an bad place, with all the water that leads to the final monster; at the end, an almost broken ankle and another nice drink of water of the Zambezi, very healthy!
At the take out we arrived with just 10 minutes late and after a little snack with the rest of food what was left from the baboon attack, we began to climb up the path that leads out of the canyon.

Exit from the River trail at the rapid #10

As we climbed up, the Zambezi valley was opening below us, there are no words to describe this beauty.

Zambezi Valley

In a two hours walk through the African savanna we felt the real life of rural Africa. Villages of mud and straw endless plains that are beginning to revive after the rain. Half way we stopped at the home of Pio, to leave our kayaks there. Incredible as he showed us the place where he lives, although in absolute simplicity.

Pio's place, Triangle Junction

Day four
Day off

It rains... Our program of biking to the Vic falls is skipped for the moment. Updating the report!

Great downpour in the pool

In the afternoon, taking advantage of the time it always changes very quickly, we decided to go to see the falls.
The bikes were a Chinese torture with wooden saddles and nailed wheels, we decided to take a taxi, cheaper and more comfortable.

The Edge of the World

If I had been told, I would have never believed that we could visit the falls that way... Just pay the park entrance and then you can go wherever you want. Of course, as good paddlers we thought the best point of view was that one from the water!
When I read about the waterfalls that are the largest edge in the world I never imagined I would find a show like this: The bed of the Zambezi, which stretches for miles between channels, aquatic plants, little islands of black rocks and dark green water.

Riverbed of the upper Zambezi

With ease we began to wading to get near the main stream, close to Zimbabwe, we were told that in that place there is the Devil's pool, where you can swim very close to the edge of the waterfalls.
After half a kilometer of difficult crossing, we started to head towards the edge to take a look down.
The stomach closes walking in the paths carved out of the water just before it falls into the empty. Pools carved in black basalt, siphon traps and debris left by the river in times of floods. "We're lucky that now the river is not at full capacity!" We thought.

A walk along the Edge of Victoria Falls

Down there rapid #1 marks the beginning of the kayaking route. It's amazing to see how the huge waves seem small from that height!

Rapid #1 (The Boiling Pot) from the top

Looking out from the edge, with water flowing and falling in the infinite air, gives you feeling to be on the edge of the world. The split, of geological origin, is sharp and deep, adrenaline rises because of the absolute void a few centimeters away. The water spray, rising for meters above the board, add mysticism to a feeling that will be printed on fire forever in my mind!

The Edge of the World

While we were there, we also had a look at the Minus rapid, just below us: considering how small seemed the enormous the waves at Boiling Pot, those holes down there, must have been huge, cause they seemed enormous even when looking them from 130 m above. We'll do the Minus rapids the next time...

Rapide Minus from the top

In the meantime is 5.30 pm, soon it will get dark, and considering that in Africa this is dinner's time and the crocodiles upstream of the falls are not as "friendly" as those below (so says Pio, our guide), we began quickly with the crossing toward the mainland.
Alas, I'll make the bath in the Devil's pool next time.
At the end it was a very heavy day, nothing but rest!

Unusual food

Between rapid #3 and #4, the river makes a net change of direction giving a stunning view over the landscape, two perfect vertical rock walls that enclose an high and narrow tower of dark rock, all textured by bushes that, in this season, are starting to revive for the heavy rainfalls.
To take the photo below and make you realize what I try to say, I risked my life eaten by a crocodile. After a quick scouting, I stopped on a small peninsula of rock: taking the Pin Up out of the water, I almost put it on the tail of the two meters long crocodile that was resting on the rocks. The crocodile jumped into the water, leaving me absolutely petrified for the fear... luckily he opted for that solution instead of turning around to bite me!

Photo for which I have risked my life!

The same evening, we found the Zambezi Café, an ethnic African restaurant.
What better way to celebrate the fact of not being eaten by a crocodile to EAT CROCODILE?!
Available in two different ways of preparations, the tail of the crocodile, has the consistency of beef meat; lean and muscular, although easy to chew, but its flesh is white, even more than the chicken. Even if it was very spiced, the taste is still strong and sharp, also thanks the perfect cooking on the grill.
The next day, in a wave of enthusiasm we decided to try this appetizer called Mopani Caterpillar!

A plate of worms

To our surprise, they brought us a plate piled high with grubs as big as a finger.
Contrary what you might think right now, fried caterpillars, are really good, very juicy and tasty. Eating them, they seem to be high in calories and nutrients, with a plate divided into two, we were almost full. The big river fish and the baked goat stew were still missing!
We had some princely dinners that repaid us for the enormous efforts of the days and for the lunches based on tuna in plastic bags and candy bars.
I attribute the malaise of the whole day after to the hated anti-malaria drug (Lariam) and to the evening a little bit exaggerated, because I don't want to think that the worms ruined me that way. Thankfully we had planned a day off, because that afternoon, when I turned on my camera and saw the photo here above, I threw up instantly!
A dish what we were told to be very good but we couldn't find was the hippo. Local fishermen take advantage of the beasts falling down from the Falls to eat their flesh, but we were not lucky enough and no hippo has fallen down from the Falls during our stay.
It may seems strange, but we improvised another notable African ethnic dinner at the airport in Addis Ababa.
In a bar overflowing with passengers, sharing the table with two other groups of travelers, we ordered two dishes of typical Ethiopian food with unpronounceable names (we only know because they were under that chapter in the menu).

Ethiopian ethnic food

This is what we've got: two huge dishes full of very spices and greasy meat, ideal to deal with a 6 hours journey by plane!
Note: Ethiopian food is eaten with the hands, helping themselves with waffles that look like towels at the first sight, but they are soft the palate.

The worst ideas come while eating!

During our kingly dinners, it was the only time of day when we had not to run here and there in hurry, we were used to plan the following days. Here, with a full belly and safe from storms and superhuman efforts, we had our worst ideas!
It was during one of the dinners, we were thinking of the name of the rapid #8 (Midnight Dinner Featuring, the Muncher), we thought it would be nice to try to be munched by the enormous wave that closes like a hole!

Surf at #8 The Muncher, Tano

Unfortunately in this case the results were not exciting.
Apparently at that time the Zambezi had already eaten!
The boof at rapid #5 was instead one of the first ideas I put into successfully practice. Too bad, then somebody said the word "Freewheel"... However, in this case, nobody had the courage to go first, so we were limited to "simple" boof.

Boof at #5, Filippo

But the worst idea of all of them, was to surf the giant waves of #13 (The Mother). In those waves I had the worst wipeout of all the holidays! After four or five involuntary jumps of more or less one meter, I landed on the side edge, that is very sharp in the Pin Up exactly in the hollow of the wave. The impact was so violent that I'll just leave you imagine, instantly I found myself without the paddle, with one knee out of the thigh supports and the kayak nearly full of water, entered into a fraction of a second, off the sleeves and neck.
I was very close to swimming!


I think I can consider my experience in traveling enough to hazard a few comments: I think that traveling the world in order to go kayaking allows us to go deep into places that we explore and into the people we meet.
"Being forced" to communicate with the locals to discover new rivers or simply to organize the descents, we see things and we live experiences that most of the normal tourists do not even know that they exist.

Child playing in Pio's village

For example, the last day we found out that Pio's mother is the chief of the village and that, even if it is not a very usual thing, for a woman it is possible covering that position that simply means that she has to take care of the rest of the village.

With Pio's parents

With our choice of returning from the river by foot, 3 hours walking through a savanna revived by the rains, on routes not usually taken by safaris or other trips, villages of mud and straw, animals and people in their daily life completely different to ours!
And for all of this flow of emotions and discoveries that I'll continue using all my resources to travel and see the world from the point of view I prefer, the river!

Ciao Africa, see you soon!

See you again for the next adventure!

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Translation: Sabine and Filippo
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