For a few seconds it’s just you and the quiet rush of the water, the pressure trickling past your ear, and a gloomy light flooding your vision. Time seems to stop when you think you’re trapped underwater. Despite what’s going on above the surface — whether there are shrieks or cries for help, and aggressive white horses foaming at the mouth — there’s a weird sense of calm below. But then panic sets in.
There’s a thin line between terror and exhilaration, and I’d just stepped over it into the realm of alarm and anxiety on the final day of my Zambezi adventure. But then that’s the idea behind Charity Challenge’s new Hell and High Water trip to Zambia.
Roll out a map of Africa and point directly to the centre of southern Africa — there it is, Zambia; carpeted in vast floodplains, evergreen forests and high plateaus decked with baobabs. And there’s the mighty Zambezi, a sprawling patchwork of wetness and wildlife strewn with hippos and man-eating crocs. A place that’s so far removed from your Monday morning routine you feel anything could be possible: where staring into the eyes of a crocodile as you go to the loo behind a bush is perfectly feasible; fireflies bounce across the night sky, scattered with constellations you pretend to know the name of; and young villagers splash on the banks of crocodile-infested waters. Have I mentioned the crocs and hippos?
I’ll hold my hands up — I was a little nervous about my impending trip. At first I was OK with the wildlife, until our guide, Sven, warned on day one in his soft Yorkshire accent: “If a hippo wants t’attack, jump out the boat — he just wants to throw his weight around.
“If there’s a croc around, you seriously need t’stay in the boat. And if there’s both, well, we’ll see when we come to that,” he smirked.
No, initially I was dreading the whitewater rafting on day five, having been capsized and dragged downriver on Peru’s Urubamba a few years ago. Type ‘whitewater rafting Zambezi’ into YouTube and you’ll understand my fear. But a good scare won’t do me any harm, I tell myself on day one.
I’m standing on a beach, staring at the calm, muddy waters of the Zambezi. In five day’s time I’ll be standing on another beach, beneath the fierce wall of water that is Mosi-oa-Tunya — the ‘Smoke that Thunders’ — christened Victoria Falls by the great Scottish explorer David Livingstone. There are over 62 miles separating the two — each one smothered with the force of this legendary waterway. And I’m here to canoe, raft and combat its rapids — just as a clutch of celebrities, including former Spice Girl Mel C and comedian Jack Dee, did for this year’s Comic Relief’s BT Red Nose Challenge. And just as handfuls of travellers will be doing from October, raising money for their chosen charity in the process with tour operator Charity Challenge.
Yes, the days of bathing in baked beans are numbered — things have moved on and extreme challenges are now de rigueur, whether you’re keen to scale the heights of Kili’, trek to Everest Base Camp, or simply do something extraordinary, while getting into shape on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
“People — especially those aged between 25 and 45 — are looking for more adventure from a holiday, rather than just lying on a beach,” says Mark Roberts, co-founder of Elise for Life, who’s joined me on the trip. “People are becoming more aware and supportive of charities, and causes close to them.”
Mark set up this appeal to raise £1m for Christie Hospital after his wife died of cancer several years ago, and is convinced these charity challenges are a way of combining the two: taking travellers to places they might never normally visit, and benefiting charities, as well as the more remote countries, towns, and villages where they take place.
I hope he’s right. During one afternoon, I venture to local village Mandia where wide-eyed kids shyly glance at me, mothers hold babies to their bosoms, and mud-walled rondavels crack beneath the beating sun. Fields of yam and corn, and the odd clucking hen hint starvation isn’t an issue. “They want a good education,” says our guide, Dom. “Women don’t want to just get married and have kids, they want to go places.”
The poverty is evident though, from the tattered hand-me-down clothes and scarcity of toys to the fascination with our cameras. Mobile phones have trickled in, despite the apparent faithfulness to timeless routines and practices. Paddle down the Zambezi for just a morning and you’ll no doubt spot a mokoro — traditional, dugout canoes that lay on the banks of the river, piled high with a fisherman’s catch or firewood.
I spend my first couple of hours cutting through the smooth surface of the muddy waterway in one of these seemingly cumbersome crafts, with local Alec steering at the back and fellow traveller Matt punting at the front. I, meanwhile, sit between the two, grimacing at the weight of the paddle, beads of sweat trickling off the point of my nose, eyes squinting in the morning sun.
It’s hot — a sun-scorched 30C — and after a lunch stop on a grassy bank, we swap mokoros for two-man inflatable canoes. I wasn’t expecting it to be so tough — the river may be high and the current strong, but thrashing against a headwind is hungry work. I pause to nibble on some chocolate and take a picture of Zimbabwe on the far bank, its thick vegetation and gnarled trees concealing all manner of birds and beasties. Curiously-shaped clouds provide momentary shade from the sun, and grey pockets creep into view. I’m half expecting a torrential thunderstorm — but that comes on day four.
Just as my stomach starts rumbling, Sven signals we’ve arrived at our night stop. “Jump as quickly as you can onto the bank, pulling your boat from the water — a croc could be lurking among the grasses.” Inelegantly, I leap forward but trip, landing ankle-deep in the murky water — I quickly make it to shore though, thinking of the potential crocs.
Pulling off my soaked trousers in my tent, I smile to myself, chuffed at my paddling efforts, and hang my sodden clothes on a nearby branch. To my surprise I’d relished day one and, as we chop up chunks of chicken for our curry, I quiz Sven about his animal encounters. “All in good time, Helen.” But I do learn that both Dom and Titus, our statuesque guides, have had brushes with hippos and crocs, having spent nearly two decades on the upper river.
“A hippo came close to my left thigh, bit the canoe, and I fell in the water,” Dom piped up. “It was like a metre from my feet, but I managed to swim to safety and the hippo went in the other direction.”
It’s all pretty serious, and secretly I’m half wishing a horrendous storm will dash our chances of continuing. But tipping my head backwards, all that blinks back at me is a serene spectacle of stars, with not a whisper of wind in the air, just the electric cacophony of frogs, nightbirds and the call of the hippo, like an old man’s chuckle — seemingly metres away from our fireside.
As I bid goodnight, Sven issues his last warning of the day: “If you hear a beast next to your tent, whatever you do, don’t get out. Stay where you are.” I choke on my last swig of water — there’s no chance I’m unzipping my tent until daybreak.
Rising to the challenge
I wake up with murderous aching shoulder blades and the posture of an old lady — and it’s only the crack of dawn on day two. Over the next four days, I’ll paddle rapidly from a female hippo as she charges at us from the bank; glare in to the eyes of a goliath croc, sliding in to the shallows; sweep across the rusty brown waters as rain thrashes their surface like a thousand pin pricks; and take my first wash in four days in the pools above Victoria Falls on Livingstone Island — the spot where the explorer first glimpsed Mosi-oa-Tunya. And I won’t capsize… until day five — but I’ll come to that shortly.
This isn’t a trip where you can chill out over cold beers though — you’re being sponsored to head out on an adventure, and you’re expected to be out of your comfort zone. “These are not holidays… some of these challenges are tough,” explains Mark over chicken stew and a crackling fire. “It’s not about paying for someone to lie on a beach. Most participants make a contribution to their own costs (some pay them in full) and most are able take advantage of their companies’ match-funding scheme, which can cover part of the price of the trip.
“People can obviously choose not to contribute/sponsor/donate to someone’s ‘challenge’. All I know is that in three years, we’ve raised £1m for cancer treatment, giving travellers a life-changing experience, and helping to fund the therapy of a number of people who are dying. To those who don’t want to support someone’s ‘holiday’ or have some kind of moral objection then I say, ‘That’s fine, but please go and do something yourself to raise a similar amount of money.’ It’s OK to take the moral high ground, but that won’t save people’s lives.”
I find myself nodding in agreement. If they have to terrify themselves in the process, that’s the point, as I discover on my final day in the gorge.
Paddle in hand, I’m wobbling down a steep cliff face, my knees threatening to buckle beneath me. We’re descending to rapid 14 — and a very different landscape — where we’ll launch our raft and hurtle over foamy waves towards rapid 25, the rocky red bluffs reaching for the brilliant blue sky, and the rusty water churning a burbling white. It’s wet season and the falls are at their most destructive; come dry season, you can raft the full 25 rapids. Thankfully, we’ll be giving the ‘gnashing jaws of death’ and ‘devil’s toilet bowl’ rapids a wide berth.
A local in a Liverpool shirt hops past me, his smile as white as the frothy waterway itself, while Dom and Titus leap on ahead, carrying our deflated raft and a seemingly boundless bundle of energy.
After a safety briefing from Sven, which does nothing to quash the nerves, we’re off and within minutes Sven booms out, “GET DOWN,” — to balance the raft — as a daunting wave rocks the vessel from side to side. But that’s nothing — a mere tease. It’s the ‘terminator’ that ravages us. I never liked that film.
As we plough head first into a formidable wave, stroking to Sven’s rhythmic, “Forward, forward,” the goliath wall of water decides it wants us to stand up and pay attention. A split second later we’re flying vertically downstream as the raft is flipped like a flimsy milk bottle top in a kitchen sink, us paddlers mere pawns in the battle with Mother Nature. I grab the raft’s rope, as Sven had instructed, and after several seconds beneath the water’s surface, I pop up, coughing and spluttering, disorientated and gasping for breath. “Grab your oars,” shouts Sven. But mine’s a gonner. And in all honesty, it’s the last thing on my mind, as without warning I’m sucked underwater, letting go of the rope, and watching as silence descends and that weird sense of calm pervades. It could’ve been two seconds, it could’ve been 20, but the buoyancy of my lifejacket eventually thrusts me from the depths, and I push out through the waves, spotting Matt, his arm outstretched in my direction.
It was all slightly terrifying yet unforgettably exhilarating, and I couldn’t be prouder of my Zambezi adventure.
But there’s still one final thing do to before I head home — a microlight flight above the Victoria Falls themselves.
Dressed in a thick, all-in-one suit, I take a seat behind my pilot before we rumble down the runway, gracefully ascending in the misty morning air. Bobbing closer, I huddle away from the wind chill into my suit and gaze as the falls’ vast vapours slowly claw themselves towards us. It’s a mesmerisingly beautiful sight, luring us into what feels like a parallel universe. The roar fiercely extinguishes all other sounds, and I stare in awe, as though hypnotised, at one of the world’s greatest wonders, recalling Sven’s words: “Sometimes we have to be reminded we’re not the boss.”
Charity Challenge is launching its Hell & High water challenge in October. There are a number of ways to fund the challenge including self-funding (£2,208) or paying a deposit of £475 and raising a minimum sponsorship of £3,850 for the charity of your choice. All flights, accommodation, rafts, kayaks, mokoros, safety equipment, guiding, food and drink and back-up support are included. To find out more about this or other challenges, check out Charity Challenge’s global range of treks, bike rides and mountain climbs at www.charitychallenge.com
To donate to Comic Relief visit www.rednoseday.com/Zambezi
Published in the May/June 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).