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Never Trust a Man with a Soft Face- White Water Rafting at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

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By Rita Mavunda

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I rarely shy away from a challenge or a dare; it’s especially harder to turn the other cheek, if it involves water. So needless to say, when the opportunity arose to go white water rafting…I took it. The Zambezi River is considered one of the top ten places in the world to go rafting. The quality of the rafting here is dependent on the time of year and the levels of water. It seemed that I picked the perfect time as the water level were low and we would be able to experience grade 5 Rapids. So…here we go.

We arrived at the start point and were given a de-briefing. We were told what to expect and the safety rules. I need to know not only how to save myself but if the shit goes down, how will the guide make sure I come back alive. After the safety instructions, being outfitted with life jackets, helmets, and oars, we proceeded down the cliff to the Zambezi River.

I was thinking the walk down was going to be easy because I imagined large steps easing down the side. Nope, it was straight down. The ‘stairs’ might as well have been a metal ladder. Once we got closer to the bottom of the cliff we walked along the uneven volcanic rocks, which bordered the river. We arrived at the destination point and watched the local boys manually blow up the rafts as we waited for our fate. Once done, we all climbed aboard the raft. There were eight of us and with the guide, Titanic, there were nine in total. The two front persons, on either sides of the raft, are considered the leaders. They are meant to keep pace. They are meant to be in unison with one another while we dip and dive trough the currents. Now being that I have never done this, I sat my happy behind right next to Titanic. Wherever he was going, I was going. Titanic had us paddle out to some calm waters so we could practice his commands and get a feel for the raft and it’s movements. Boom, got it, let’s ride Titanic.

We made our way down the river and we approached the first of nineteen rapids we were going to do. The first few were fun! We sloshed around in the raft and paddled furiously to keep moving forward. Being the way that I am and considering that I was wild river rafting, in a third world country, I had to make an assessment of those who would be on my team for the day. Naturally, I would always have me on any team. After looking around the boat of eight, I quickly determined that the ‘leader’ on the right side was not gonna cut it. That right side leader, Carlos, was nothing but a punk; he was not a leader. I could see it in his soft, chinless face and doe-y brown eyes. This was not a man one listened to in the face of danger and adversity. And sadly, I was proven right a few Rapids in. My right rate is between 82-89%.

To give you an a sense of environment. We were floating down the Zambezi river which separates Zimbabwe and Zambia. We entered in the area where one comes to see Victoria Falls. The whole River area where we were, looked like a giant slit on the earths’ surface, 700 plus feet deep within a gorge. We were going to travel 28 km along the Zambezi river and tackle 19 of the 24 Rapids. The Rapids do not come continuously, one after the other, but rather come along after random succession of ‘calm’ water time. The calm water still has a significant current to it. The Rapids degree of difficulty range from one to six. The ninth rapid was a grade six which we were going to skip because it was just tooo rough; the strongest Rapids we would do were grade 5. The Rapids were named to instill fear, or excitement in you, depending on how you looked at it. Some names included…Oblivion, Terminator, and Devil’s Whirlpool.

So back to Carlos and why I always bet on Rita. Here we are cruising along the river. Titanic is yelling out commands as we paddled along. I am paying keen attention to them because well I’m not trying to die. Titanic screamed, ‘forward’, ‘back’ or ‘paddle hard’. And as good lemurs, we listened…except for Carlos. Titanic shouts ‘forward’ and here’s Carlos goofing off. Titanic screams ‘leaders together’ and here’s Carlos paddling when he feels like it. Titanic says, ‘stop’ and here’s Carlos paddling furiously. Now I understand that English is not Carlos’s first language…but after a while, these few commands are pretty easy to understand, especially when you are hurdling down a speeding river with giant volcanic rocks strewn here and there. If Titanic had been speaking in Japanese, I am gonna learn the commands. But then again, that’s just me. When I see Carlos trying to kiss his girlfriend, who is seated behind him, I lean over to Titanic and said….so we are going to have to switch leaders, soon. He laughed but…he did not disagree.

Then we hit, the first part of, the first grade 5 rapid. The boat plunged deep into the mountainous wave. We were trying to paddle hard as the water whipped us left and right. We were taking on gallons of water as we hit wave after wave. Sprays of water hit our faces and blinded us. There is an ‘oh shit’ line, which is the safety line orbiting the raft, that we were blindly reaching for as ducked into the raft. Our heads were getting whiplashed as the raft dipped deep in between the waves. And then…a massive wave hit the front of the boat and it lifted us clear up off the surface of the river. The raft literally flipped over its self, front over end and landed upside down on the water. We all went flying out. Oars soared through the air as we plunged into the fast moving water. We were swirling and spinning under water, like you might be in a giant washing machine. The raft was somewhere on top, blocking out the sun. I was stuck underneath the raft sucking in, what felt like cups of river water as if I were a fish capable of breathing underwater. Legit, I panicked. Like what the fuck did I go and get myself into?!? Why the hell did I agree to come and do this!!! Who told me that this made any kind of sense??!? I try to calm myself said be easy Rita and remember what Titanic taught you. I start counting to 10, as Titanic had said to do. I ‘patiently’ wait for the life vest to do what it’s meant to do. The water was dark and unclear but I could see the tiny bubbles, I was furiously blowing out of my nose and mouth, rising to the top. If they go up, then I go up. I shoot to the top and finally break the surface. My lungs were on fire. I attempted to take in some life saving air while coughing out the water I had swallowed. I couldn’t. I was fighting the waves crashing in my face. I tried pushing my safety helmet further back on my head and pulling my life vest down far enough so I could stretch my neck slightly in the hopes of getting just a few guppy like breaths of air. I was also trying to get my bearings straight; that’s when I realized that I still have more Rapids to move through before getting back to the raft.

‘So this is what it feels like to die by drowning’, was the feeling that washed over me. And what’s worse, I am a strong swimmer so the feeling was even more disturbing. Then I had a real Rita to Rita moment. Girl, we ain’t dying out here. Uh uh, no way. In the words of the late Whitney Houston, ‘not on today’. And you damn sure ain’t dying at the hands of some soft faced dude who isn’t fit to be a leader. I dug deep and went into survival mode.

I conjured up Titanic’s face and starting replaying his directions, word for word. Rita, point your legs in the direction of water, flow down, and just relax. At the time, it made no sense. How does one swim feet first? In the water, at that moment, it made perfect sense. Umm, feet first so you don’t crack your head and neck on these big ass volcanic boulders. All right Titanic, I hear you. However, it’s not like you are freely floating down on your back. Nah, it’s more like blindly torpedoing through the Rapids as you pretend to know what you’re doing. Your legs are easily pried open like a paid lady of the night. You choke on the water spraying off the soles of your shoes as your body slithers back and forth like a cut lizard tail. It ain’t smooth and relaxing. The shit was terrifying.

Then like a small bobbing beacon of hope, shooting across the Rapids, in a small one person canoe, came BlackCoffee (that was not his given name but his Shoni name loosely translated. I didn’t like it so I called him StrongCoffee instead). He was one of the two safety guides with us during the ride. Thank you sweet baby Ganesh/Jesus/Allah/(insert any of the world’s Gods)!! Again, Titanic had said if the canoes came by you, hang on like a baby baboon, if you are saved at the front end. And if you are behind it, grab the back and kick with your legs. Again, made no sense at the time, but made complete sense in the moment. StrongCoffee traversed a few of the smaller Rapids expertly and released me, into the calmer water, once we passed out of the Rapid, in its entirety. I unclasped my death grip and swam back to the raft. And guess who was already safely back in the raft…Carlos.

Titanic heaved me out of the water where I plopped down on the raft floor like a wet bag of potatoes. But not before, Carlos was given a look that could kill. A look that was translatable in any language. You don’t need to speak what I am speaking to know what it is that I am thinking. I took my position next to Titanic. And right before I could say, ‘switch’, Titanic firmly suggested the ‘leaders’ switch.Thank you my African brother because you read my mind. I commanded, ‘Carlos, switch’ and coupled it with the ‘get the hell outta here’ hand signal. You know the signal…where you point your finger at the ejectee and then point in the direction the ejectee WILL be going. Needless to say, he did not put up a fight. Bye Felicia! When I got up to the front, I looked at the left over ‘leader’ and gave him the ‘get going’ head nod. You know the nod…when you make eye contact with the ejectee and nod your head in the direction the ejectee WILL be going. I asked Raymond, the young man whom I was rowing behind, to come join me in the front. The man had a solid stroke and seemed like he was in it to win it.

At this point, we had only passed rapid number 4 of 19. We still had a long way to go before we hit dry land. Raymond proved to be a great co-leader. We matched our strokes together and listened to directions precisely. Titanic said ‘stop’, We stopped. Titanic said ‘forward, We went forward. Pretty simple. We want a good ride but like I said, I ain’t dying out here!!!

We ploughed through the rest of the Rapids. It was exciting and terrifying at the same time. Raymond and I figured out how we needed to position ourselves in the front depending on the severity of the grade. We switched sides in order to give our rowing shoulder and paddle holding hand a break from rubbing vigorously against the water and plastic. You could tell the other rafters were following our lead and we were finally in sync. I believe the others felt our determination and, secretly, appreciated it.

We reached a bluff where we could jump off it, into the river and then climb back into the raft. It went without saying that Raymond and I would go right back to our ‘leader’ positions. In fact, Titanic was waiting, at the front, to heave me back into the raft; he told me to stay in front. Aye Aye captain. You can go on ahead and keep Carlos right there in the back where he belongs.

I failed to mention that the river also has goddamn crocodiles in it. Hmm, yeah, big old, ancient ass crocodiles. Like its not enough to have death traps disguised as running water but I also have to deal with crocodiles!! We passed a small one sunning itself on the rocks after we had switched positions in the raft. I have no desire to swim with crocodiles. The only solace I had was that those crocodiles would be fighting for their lives just as much as me if we were both swirling in the middle of a rapid. But it was still a dance I was okay not being asked too.

We had been rafting down the river for almost 3 hours when we reached the last grade 5 rapid we would be going down, Oblivion. Before each rapid, Titanic would give us a quick de-briefing of what grade of rapid to expect and which way we would be tackling the rapid. When we reached Oblivion, Titanic said, we have a 50/50 percent chance of remaining in the raft or flipping over. I turned to Raymond, Raymond turned to me, and a silent message passed between us, through our eyes; we will not go down. We will not flip over. We will not plunge back into this murky water.

We crossed that rapid like a Boss. What. Like a Boss. Like a BOSS. We got to the other side of Oblivion, fist pumped one another, and continued down river. Only two more Rapids left and then I am about to crush some beers.

We finally reached the end. And Lawd it never looked so good. Until…Titanic said, grab your gear, we must climb to the top. There is lunch and cold beer waiting for you. Huh what? What do you mean we gotta walk up to the top. You mean we have to CLIMB back UP this gorge!?!?!! That’s over 700 feet!! No seriously, Titanic, there must be some hidden African pass cut into the cliff wall, half way up, where the driver is going to pick us up. No, Rita, just follow the path.

Now remember when I said the stairs going down were so steep it might as well be a ladder. They gave zero shits what the end would look like cause at this point, you were already done. The ‘path’ was climbing over volcanic rocks and the ‘stairs’ were the roots of trees!!!! In a few places, the roots had merely been nailed down to keep the steps ‘stable’ enough to use. GTFOH. Half way up, my heart was in the back of my throat and I again had a thought, so this is what it would be like to be a mountain goat. It’s ain’t for me.

I learned a few things about myself on this trip…I have the capability to dig deep and have faith in my abilities as a leader. For a leader to be effective, she must be surrounded by a good team where trust can be built, even in the face of fear. Further, I will not be going white rafting in Zimbabwe ever again as I was still leaking water from my nose and ears six hours later. Finally, I will never hike to the bottom of the gorge, to the Zambezi River, until the Chinese come and build an elevator to the top.

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