Exposure

A Last-Chance Journey Through Africa’s Wildest River

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Photo: Steve Ogle

Big change may be coming to Africa’s fourth-largest river. While commercial outfitters have been running trips on the Zambezi since 1982, the river may soon be impassable, as the governments of Zambia and Zimbabwe continue to discuss a proposed dam construction below Victoria Falls. To get ahead of the $3 billion project, British Columbia–based outfitter ROAM (Rivers, Oceans, and Mountains) is offering rafting adventures through the Batoka Gorge, the area due to be dammed, allowing visitors to enjoy the Zambezi while it’s still wild.

Last October, I joined Brian McCutcheon and raft guide “Hippo” Moses Ngoma to see the river firsthand. Our expedition warmed up with a two-day “ducky” canoe float down some easier rapids above Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the natural world. This was followed by three days of real-deal rafting over 34 miles and through 30 large rapids, including Class V passages with names like the Gnashing Jaws of Death, Oblivion, and Open Season.

Photo: Steve Ogle
The first day on the gorge consists of 25 rapids, ranging from Class III to Class V.
Photo: Steve Ogle
A portage on Batoka Gorge, showing Rapid 9, also known as Commercial Suicide.
Photo: Steve Ogle
Nile Crocodile, Zambezi River.
Photo: Steve Ogle
Elephants on the Chobe River, near the confluence with the Zambezi.
Photo: Steve Ogle
Sylvester, an orphaned cheetah, is used for educational talks with school groups. Travelers can walk with him on his morning hike through Elephant Camp, near Victoria Falls.
Photo: Steve Ogle
The Zambezi’s natural flow fluctuates a great deal. During the dry season (North America’s summer), Victoria Falls appears as a long escarpment of veil-like cascades, while in the rainy season, the entire canyon is a tumultuous and thundering chaos. The proposed Batoka Dam, 34 miles downstream, would create a reservoir that would lap at the bottom of Victoria Falls, possibly reducing its height. Our raft trip began just below the falls, after a 20-minute descent on foot.
Photo: Steve Ogle
Massive fluctuations in river levels often push white sands high above the riverbank, as seen at the first camp, near Rapid 21. There, the group recounted a big day on the river—for some, it was their first whitewater experience.
Photo: Steve Ogle
On the second night, an 11-man local crew helped our group of 20 with gear and supplies to set up one of the best campsites of the trip. It featured a croc-free riffle, which served as a natural hot tub for us tired paddlers. In the evening, we enjoyed a sing-along, led by our main guide, Hippo. The songs were basically local nursery rhymes, but they were easy to learn, and the group loved it.
Photo: Steve Ogle
Second camp, Zambezi River, Zimbabwe. Although ROAM’s trips run as self-supported, leave-no-trace adventures, the camping is extremely comfortable—and include as many gin and tonics as you need to work off the pain of that day’s rafting.
Photo: Steve Ogle
Artful, our safety kayaker, hitting a wall in the last large rapid at Upper Moembe.
Photo: Steve Ogle
Brian McCutcheon of ROAM Adventures (front) prepares to get slammed on Upper Moembe, a Class V passage on the Zambezi River.
Photo: Steve Ogle
The hazards of portaging the Lower Moembe rapid at low water include the risk of a gear boat landing on your head. Better to jump and risk the Class V rapids.
Photo: Steve Ogle
Moses Mandrise Ngoma, better known as Hippo, at the take-out spot in the Batoka Gorge. During his 24 years as a guide, Ngoma has run the river more than 2,200 times.
Photo: Steve Ogle
At the end of the trip, our group saw this lioness in nearby Hwange National Park. She is a member of the Cecil pride, the adult male that was lured outside national park boundaries and shot by an American hunter in July 2015. The pride has no adult males but is surviving at 11 members strong.