Zambezi white water rafting
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The Zambezi River is acclaimed as the “wildest one-day whitewater run in the World” highly regarded by white water rafting enthusiasts as one of the top ten paddling rivers on the planet!
Some background on the rafting
The one-day low water trip is considered to be the best one-day white water experience available in the world.
Commercial rafting started in 1981 on the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls. By 1996, some 50 000 people had been white water rafting at the Falls, furthermore numbers are increasing every year!
It’s taken 300 million years to cut the basalt gorge below the Falls. Today it’s around 120m (400ft) on entry. Our one day trip is approximately 230m (750ft) deep and has a gradient of 1 in 2 so it takes approximately 20 minutes to walk out of the gorge. Therefore you need a reasonably level of fitness. 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.
You don’t need any experience to go white water rafting and you don’t need to be brilliant at swimming but you will need a certain level of fitness to be able to walk the steep path out of the gorge – a 750 foot climb which generally takes about 20 minutes.
The Zambezi is a high volume, pool drop river. The river floods between mid February and the end of June as a result huge volumes of water, more than four times the volume of the Colorado River floods over the Falls at its peak.
When to go White water rating
Zambezi white water rafting has been classified by the British Canoe Union as Grade 5 – which is “extremely difficult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas”. This is a high volume, pool-drop river with little exposed rock either in the rapids or in the pools below the rapids.
- “low water” run takes place when the Zambezi River is at its low level between July and mid-February. This is the most exciting time to go rafting. Day trips run between rapids 1 and 18 (see map below).
- “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. Usually bvetween February to July with a short “closed” season around April/May depending on the season’s rains.
The steep walls of the gorge are good for bird spotting. There are small crocodiles in the river but they’re not a serious threat. Bilharzia is not a risk.
White water rafting – 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.)
- Rafting Expeditions
One day and overnight
- Two and a half days
- Five days
- Eight days
White water rafting – a one day account of the Zambezi rapids
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).
is renowned for its extremely high volume and steep gradient so treat it with respect….
Rapids #1 to #5
- “The 3 “Minus rapids”: before the official #1. Minus #1 and #2 are the only rapids that have been run, minus #3 is impossible to access because it’s close 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
Rapids #6 to #10
- “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…..
Rapids #11 to #15
- “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
Rapids #16 to #25
- “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 not workable 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. Finally, rapid #23 is the last rapid on the “high water” one-day run.
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