White Water Rafting the Zambezi River
Commercial rafting commenced in 1981 on the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls. By 1996, approximately 50 000 people did white water rafting at the Falls - this increases steadily every year.
The one-day low water trip is considered to be the best one-day white water experience available in the world.
The basalt gorge below the Falls has been cut over the last 300 million years. The gorge is approximately 120m (400ft) on entry. On the one day trip, the take out point is approximately 230m (750ft) deep, with a gradient of 1 in 2 - it takes approximately 20 minutes to walk out if you're reasonably fit. The river drops by about 120m (400ft) in the first 24km (15 miles). The river is up to 60m (200ft) deep. The rapids are between 100m (330ft) and 2km (1,2 miles) apart.
The Zambezi is classified as a high volume, pool drop river. The river floods between mid February and the end of June. Huge volumes, in excess of four times that of the Colorado River flood over the Falls at peak. Nearly half of the rapids are classified as Grade 5 - Grade 6 is "unrunnable".
White Water Rafting on the Zambezi River below the Victoria Falls has been classified by the British Canoe Union as Grade 5 - "extremely difficult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas". This is a high volume, pool-drop river - little exposed rock either in the rapids or in the pools below the rapids.
The "low water" run occurs when the Zambezi River is at its low level generally between July and mid-February. This is the most exciting time to do rafting. Day trips are conducted between rapids 1 and 18. The "high water" run follows after fresh inflow from the catchment areas in Angola and Zambia. The water rises and flows more rapidly and the day trips move downstream from rapids 11 to 23. We're in high water from about February to July with a short "closed" season around April/May depending on the season's rains.
The steep walls of the gorge are not suited for game. Birdlife is usually very good. There are small crocodiles in the river - they are not a serious threat. Bilharzia is not a risk.
What are the options?
One and half day rafting trips
- Full day - low water (July to mid-February - the wildest one-day white water in the World.)
- Half day - low water, morning and afternoon
- Full day - high water (mid-February to June - the Zambezi in flood.)
- One day and overnight
- Two and a half days
- Five days
- Eight days
During "low water" season, rapids #1 to #18 present a run of approximately 24km.
During "high water" season, only rapids #11 to #23 are run (approximately 18km).
The Zambezi is renowned for its extremely high volume and steep gradient - treat it with respect....
- "The 3 "Minus rapids": Occur before the official #1. Minus #1 and #2 are the only rapids that have been run, minus #3 is impossible to access because of its proximity to the falls. Rapid #2 is the biggest and most impressive rapid on the river.
- "...against the wall" # 1: Class 4/5: The Boiling Pot, accessible only from the Zambian bank, is the start of the low water trip. From here the river hits a wall forming a wild cushion wave and eddy.
- "...the bridge" # 2: Class 3: A wild mixture of waves best in the early part of the low water season. Clearly visible to bungee jumpers and spectators on the Victoria Falls bridge.
- Rapid # 3: Class 4: A steep and radically fast wave with an easily avoidable hole. The second part of this rapid is best in the early part of the season - a small wave train with an excellent pocket on the Zambian side.
- "Morning Glory" # 4: Class 4/5: The first major rapid offering varying lines with an almost river wide hole at the top, followed by a few diagonals off the right hand wall and finally a big hole at the bottom.
- "Stairway to Heaven" # 5: Class 5: Best in the early part of the season, with an 8m drop over 10m, very steep and powerful with a heap of massive waves and holes. Although it isn't too technical, it's size and volume make for an amazing spectacle and an even more amazing ride. Avoid the waterfalls and a hole on the left called the "catcher's mitt" plus a large pourover on the right.
- "Devil's Toilet Bowl" # 6: Class 4: A Short rapid with a deceptively steep and powerful hole on entry followed by some nasty boils and whirlpools.
- "Gullivers Travels" # 7: Class 5: A very respectful 700m of class 5 high volume white water at certain levels. This is the longest and most technical rapid on the one day whitewater trip. The run consists of a main channel with smaller channels feeding into it - includes the "Temple of Doom", "The Crease", "Patella Gap" and "Land of the Giants".
- "Midnight Diner" # 8: Class 3/5: This rapid has 3 runs. On the left is "Star Trek" with a hole of up to 5m reserved for the brave. The "Muncher Run" in the centre takes you through a window of "Star Trek". On the right is the "Chicken Run".
- "Commercial Suicide" # 9: Class 5/6: The Zambezi's most infamous. This is a river-wide pour-over with a very narrow slot of less than a metre on the right - commercial portage! Read Ben Webster's kayaking account of Rapid #9.
- "Gnashing Jaws of Death" #10: Class 4: An easy run before lunch…..
- "Overland Truck Eater" # 11: Class 5: A big barrel for about two weeks in the year during the transition between high and low water in mid January and early July. Watch out for the hole, eddy line and whirlpool. This is the first rapid on the "high water" run.
- "Three Sisters" #12A,B,C: Class 3/4: 12B is the famous Zambezi surfing wave for kayakers - surfs best between August and December with two windows and a massive green shoulder and a big eddy. Rafters prefer the term "three little pigs".
- "The Mother" # 13: Class 4/5: A massive wave train at its best, first 3 waves super fast.
- Rapid # 14: Class 3: Big S-bend in the river. Center chute to be avoided at lower water levels.
- "Washing Machine" # 15: Class 5: Simple wave train but un-runnable in the middle because of a huge crashing hole - go left or right into the eddy.
- "The Terminators I and II" # 16: Class 4: A massive wave train and trough at higher levels, not much when low.
- "Double Trouble" # 17: Class 5: A simple wave train but un-runnable because of 2 large holes - also known as "The Bitch".
- "Oblivion" # 18: Class 5: Three waves make up THE rapid on the Zambezi.. The 3rd crashing wave is responsible for more raft flips than any other in the world - only about 1 in 4 attempts succeed! This rapid marks the end of the "low water" one-day run.
- Rapids #19 to #25: Class 2/3: Easy runs at the end of the day. Rapid #23 is the last rapid on the "high water" one-day run.