White-Water Rafting on the Zambezi River

White-water rafting, Zambezi River, Victoria Falls
••• Heading into a grade five rapid ... © Anouk Zijlma

White-water rafting on the Zambezi River is the best single-day rafting experience in the world. I've enjoyed the wild ride down the grade five rapids, four times in the past three decades. If you're planning to visit the Victoria Falls, this is one activity that you really must do. But you have to be prepared to get soaked and you'll certainly be swallowing some Zambezi River water. Don't worry, it's perfectly safe and the crocodiles are small! Did I mention the fact that this will be the most exhilarating and exciting day of your vacation?

The Zambezi River
The Zambezi River is the fourth largest river in Africa, carving its way through six countries for 1,670 miles (2,700 km). The Zambezi begins life in the center of the continent in northwest Zambia close to the Angolan border, and ends its journey by spilling out into the Indian Ocean, on Mozambique's coast. The River is marked by several beautiful waterfalls, but none as impressive as the Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world. And it's just below the Victoria Falls, in the Batoka Gorge, where the full day white-water rafting begins.

The Zambezi river at this stage marks the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The Batoka Gorge has towering walls of black basalt that are as dramatic as the white sand beaches dotted around the banks of the river. The Zimbabwe side of the river is a designated National Park and there are plenty of animals to see. The steep gorge however makes it unlikely that you'll encounter anything while rafting, beyond a few smaller crocodiles. And of course, it's the rapids that makes the whole experience exciting.

The Rapids
Almost half the rapids on the Zambezi rafting route are classed at a Grade Five. Grade six rapids are considered impossible to raft, so that leaves grade five's as the highest level of difficulty that a sane person would/should/could attempt. According to the British Canoe Union, a Grade 5 rapid is - "extremely difficult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas". Full day rafters will hit around twenty rapids, half-day rafters will attempt ten. This number fluctuates a little depending on the water levels and time of year.

From February to June the river is "high". The amount of water coming over the Victoria Falls at this time of year is so great that you can barely see them for the spray.

Each rapid has a name, and your guide will tell you exactly how it will be run, what to expect, and rate your chances of flipping. Your starting point is called "the Boiling Pot". You know it's going to be dramatic when the guide mentions the camera man will be standing on a rock as you go through the next rapid. Rapids with names like "Stairway to Heaven", "Devil's Toilet Boil", "Washing Machine", "Oblivion", will also give you an idea of what's coming up. "The Muncher" took my raft out on my last trip in spectacular fashion.

If the guide asks you whether to go through the wildest part of this particular rapid, I'd suggest you politely decline the offer. Three weeks later I swear I still have some Zambezi water on my brain.

To find out what rapids will be run when you plan to go, check out this invaluable resource, and click on the tab "All the Facts".

How Far Do You Go?
Full-day rafters can expect to run 24 km's of river. Most of the time you'll be in the raft, (unless you flip of course), but on some stretches you can swim. I highly recommend you hop overboard whenever it's suggested, the gentler rapids just zoom you down river and it feels fantastic. In between each rapid there's a quiet stretch of up to a mile or so, perfect to get your breath back, dry out and chat with your fellow rafters. For a full day you'll spend about six hours on the river, an hour getting in and out of the gorge, and an hour or so getting to and from your hotel to the gorge.

Can Anyone Raft the Zambezi?
Children under 15 cannot white-water raft on the Zambezi, it's too wild. Plus, you have to be quite fit to climb in and out of the gorge, it's steep and it can be very hot. Most people find climbing in and/or out of the gorge to be the most strenuous part of the day! You should be prepared for the fact that you can flip over while rafting. You don't need to be a strong swimmer, but you need to feel comfortable in the water.

Who Do You Raft With?
Every boat has a highly experienced and professional white-water rafting guide leading you through each rapid. Safety briefings are thorough and you and your fellow rafters will practice paddling and rescuing one another in case you flip over the side. A designated kayaker will be alongside your raft for extra safety and will help you get back to your raft should you fall into the water. Another kayaker will follow you through the day with a digital camera and a video camera (optional purchase at the end of the trip).

Most rafts will carry 4-8 people each with a paddle in hand. (If you don't want to paddle, that's an option, but ask prior to booking your trip). One of the highlights of a rafting trip is certainly the people you tackle the rapids with. Lifelong bonds can be formed when battling through this type of white-water!

Best Time to Raft the Zambezi
You can white-water raft year-round on the Middle Zambezi, the water is always warm and the rapids fast. The lower the water, the more dramatic the white-water gets. So the best time to raft for those who like extra excitement is from August - February. The drops going into some of the rapids are absolutely massive and your chances of flipping are high. But flipping is all part of the fun. And there are few exposed rocks in the rapids, so while the flip is dramatic, and your nasal passages will get a thorough cleanse, there's no imminent danger of knocking yourself out on a rock.

If the water gets too high, sometimes in March/April, the rapids will not be run, so check with a rafting company before you go (see below).

What To Bring on a Rafting Trip?
A dash of bravery and a sense of humor are crucial. You will also need a decent pair of shoes, sunscreen, and clothes you don't mind getting wet or a swimsuit. Bring a snack you can munch on if you miss breakfast. Don't bring a camera, you'll be too busy to take photos and you may lose your waterproof camera anyway, so just purchase photos at the end. A professional photographer is part of every rafting package and rides alongside your raft in a kayak. A life-jacket, helmet and paddle are provided and you will be carrying them both into and out of the gorge.

Cost of Rafting the Zambezi
A half-day rafting will usually cost between $115 - $135; a full-day rafting from $125 - $150. You can reduce the cost by getting a "package" of activities, most companies offer a menu of adrenalin activities for you to enjoy, including bungee jumping. Multi-day trips differ in cost depending on the number of nights and how many in your group. Out of all the activities on offer in the Victoria Falls area, the white-water rafting is the best value for money in my opinion.

Rafting from Zambia or Zimbabwe?
It's the same river, the same rapids but there are some small differences between booking your trip from Zimbabwe or Zambia. I have a soft spot for the Zimbabwean rafting companies since my first raft in 1989 was with Shearwater and it was just fantastic. Also, Zimbabweans have had a rough ride lately and could use the tourist dollars even more than Zambia. But read the pros and cons below and make up your own mind.

The Zimbabwean half day/full day rafting trips start earlier in the morning, pick up will usually be before 7am. It's nice to get the river to yourself and also pleasant to get back to your hotel at the end of the day with time to spare, to rest or head into a sundowner cruise. But you want to make sure to eat before you get picked up, so ask your hotel to pack you some breakfast, or stock up on some cereal bars the night before. The entry into and exit out of the gorge on the Zimbabwe side is a strenuous hike.

If you have weak knees, or are not very fit, then try booking on the Zambian side. Personally I enjoy the hike, especially since there's a cold Zambezi lager waiting at the top of the gorge, and the views are tremendous!

Rafting on the Zambian side is a little more comfortable before and after the activity. Pick up is around 8am, so there's time for breakfast, and if you opt for the full-day raft, then there's even a cable car ride out of the gorge at the end. The full day on the Zambian side means you get back to your hotel around 5-6pm, so there's not time to do another activity (although you're pretty tired anyway at that point). Half-day rafters have to hike out of the gorge, so for some it's worth doing the full day just to avoid it!

Recommended Rafting Companies, Zambia/Zimbabwe
Zimbabwean companies I have rafted with and highly recommend include Shearwater and Shockwave. Most recently I spend a full day raft with Shockwave and they have outstanding guides. In Zambia I rafted with Safari par Excellence (SafPar) and also highly recommend Bundu Adventures and Batoka Expeditions for multi-day rafting trips.

Multi-Day Rafting Trips
If you have never rafted before, take a half or a full day trip before you embark on a multi-day rafting trip. It's quite wild and exciting, so you want to make sure that you can handle it for a few days in a row. But if you're anything like me and absolutely love every second of rafting the Zambezi, then absolutely book a multi-day tour. The gorge is so stunningly beautiful, just imagine camping in it under the stars and getting to raft all over again every day. There are several options (some only running during "low water" from July to December, ranging from an overnight, to a 7 day trip.

River Boarding
I was dying to try this on my last visit to Victoria Falls, but after hearing some tough Afrikaners say they were terrified and exhausted after just a few rapids, I opted for another full day rafting instead. Basically you river board the same rapids as the white-water rafters, which is quite extreme. The board is the same size as a boogie board, so you have to have some pretty strong arms to hold onto it as you get tumbled about. The good thing is, you can ride in the raft for some of grade five rapids, and then board the smaller rapids along the way.

I regret not doing it now, and will check it out next time, maybe when the water is higher in March - July.