Adrenalin junkies who plan on visiting Zambia and Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls should make sure to add at least one day's white water rafting to their itinerary. The Zambezi River's Grade Five rapids are some of the most exhilarating in the world, and come with the added thrill of breathtaking scenery, circling crocodiles and the ever-present roar of the largest waterfall on Earth.
The Rafting Route
The Zambezi River is the fourth-longest river in Africa, carving its way through six countries on its journey from northwest Zambia to the Mozambican coast. At the Four Corners of Africa, the river marks the border between Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana; and a little further east, it tumbles 355 feet/ 108 meters over the edge of Victoria Falls and into the Bakota Gorge. With its white sand beaches and towering cliffs of black basalt, the gorge serves as the dramatic backdrop for your Zambezi River white water rafting experience.
Nearly half of the rapids on the Zambezi River rafting route are classified as Grade Five - the highest level of difficulty considered safe for recreational rafters. The route starts at the section of the river known locally as the Boiling Pot, located within sight of the historic Victoria Falls Bridge. Two relatively tame rapids give you time to practice your skills before the first big rapid, Morning Glory. The first Grade Five rapid comes immediately afterwards. Rafters who opt for a full-day excursion will navigate around 20 rapids depending on water levels, all with encouraging names like Oblivion, the Devil's Toilet Bowl and Commercial Suicide.
What to Expect
No matter which operator you choose to go with, all rafts are accompanied by a qualified and highly experienced white water rafting guide. A safety briefing before you start will teach you the skills you need to navigate the rapids safely, as well as how to react in the very likely event that your raft flips over. Before each rapid, your guide will tell you exactly how to run it and what to expect depending on that day's unique conditions. A safety kayak accompanies all rafts, and provides assistance if you need it after a flip.
For full-day rafters, the route covers around 15 miles/ 24 kilometers of river. You'll spend most of the time in the raft (unless you flip, of course), but on the calm stretches in between rapids it is possible to hop overboard for a swim. These relaxed moments are also ideal for getting your breath back, admiring the scenery and chatting with your fellow rafters. You'll spend approximately six hours on the water, with another hour spent climbing in and out of the gorge at either end of the route.
Each raft carries four to eight people, depending on its size. Most companies restrict rafting to those aged 15 and over, and you should be both relatively fit and a competent swimmer. For many people, the most strenuous part of the day is the climb in and out of the gorge, especially in summer when temperatures can be scorching.
Recommended Rafting Companies
Because the Zambezi River route is accessible from Zambia and Zimbabwe, you can choose an operator based in either country. Recommended Zimbabwean companies include Shearwater Victoria Falls and Shockwave Adventures. Both offer a full range of adventurous activities in the Victoria Falls region, including white water rafting, bungee jumping and safaris. Rafting trips range from river boarding and rafting combos to multi-day camping and rafting adventures. Book several different activities to receive a discounted total price.
On the Zambian side of the river, recommended operators include Zambezi Rafting and Bundu Adventures. If you're planning on booking your white water rafting experience from Zambia, make sure to leave enough time for a trip to Devil's Pool, the natural swimming hole located on the very edge of Victoria Falls.
When to Go
It is possible to go white water rafting on the the Zambezi River all year round. The water is always warm, and even in winter the topside conditions are generally balmy. The lower the water level, the more dramatic the rapids become. Consequently, those in search of the ultimate adrenalin rush should try to time their trip for when the levels are at their lowest (from September to December). At this time, the drops going into some of the rapids are huge and your chances of flipping are high. From March to May, water levels are at their highest and the route is considerably tamer.
What to Pack
A dash of bravery and a sense of humor are crucial. You will also need a decent pair of shoes, a swimsuit or board shorts and a long-sleeved shirt that you don't mind getting wet. Waterproof sunscreen is a must, and although your guide will provide drinking water, you may want to bring your own bottle and a carabiner for attaching it to the raft. Unless you have a GoPro or similar camera in a waterproof housing, don't bring a camera - it's likely to get lost or damaged. Most operators have a professional photographer and offer photos and video of your trip as an optional extra.
Life-jackets, helmets and paddles are all provided.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on June 26th 2018.