White Water Rafting

White Water Rafting

What is white water rafting you ask?  Well that is when a group of people climb into an inflatable raft and try to navigate a raging river and live to tell the tale. This raging river will have varying degrees of rapids that will challenge the occupants of the raft to greater or lesser degrees of risk and skill. The only way to get to the end of this challenge is to work as a team. White water rafting is considered to be an extreme sport and can have fatal consequences. If you are travelling you should always remember to check your insurance covers this kind of activity, if it doesn’t get extra cover.

The first time I went white water rafting was in Cairns Queensland on the Barron River in 2003, this was a half day adventure with a company called ‘Raging Thunder Adventures” http://www.cairnsrafting.com.au/barron-river-rafting/  The Barron River Gorge rapids are classed as grade 2-3 (see list below for grading) this is relatively easy learning curve and probably a good place to start. We got there mid-morning and they gave us the usual safety instructions. You are asked to fill in a liability and medical waiver and you and seven other excited inexperienced people get into the raft. Your equipment consists of an 80kg, 3 metre rubber raft, a double bladed paddle, a safety helmet and vest, you also have one experienced guide with a single bladed steering paddle at the stern of the raft. Once in the raft you are taught a few basic paddling techniques (about 5 minutes practice) and you are also told what to do in the event of a boat capsizing or if you are thrown out.



What is that you ask, well that’s simple lay on your back, point your feet down river, cross your arms over your chest, and Pray. Oh and if you get sucked under the surface, start counting if your down for more than 20 seconds you may be in trouble.

The second time I rafted was in 2005 and the third time in 2007. I went rafting on the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls in Africa with a company called ‘Shearwater’, http://www.shearwatervictoriafalls.com.  This time we were serious, the Zambezi is graded a 5 extremely difficult  with violent long rapids that have big drops and pressure areas with steep gradients, there is no higher grading for the novice rafter.

This was the most scary and most amazing thing I have ever done in my life and I will do it again whenever the opportunity arises even at 52 years of age. I have done both the ‘low water’ run rapids 1-18 and the ‘high water’ run 11-23 of the Zambezi. I have never been in a boat that capsized, I have however been thrown out, but it was in a relatively safe area and had no problems getting back into the raft. My travel companion was not so lucky he did fall out, kicking another rafter in the face on his way out. We started counting as soon as he hit the water, and by the time he came up we were starting to get very worried. He was down for a long time, way more than 20 seconds. So what can you do? The answer is nothing all we could do was wait and watch to see if he surfaced, which he did eventually. The whole day was thrilling and scary and stunningly beautiful, it made you feel alive and free.  Anything that brings you close to death or scares you seems to makes you appreciate your life that much more.

Okay,  so you have rafted the most amazing river in the world, you have survived. Now time to relax, have some lunch and a drink and recharge. Wait, you are at the bottom of a gorge, that’s right- think about that for a moment. You’re tired and battered and bruised and now you have to climb out of this gorge. This is a very steep climb of about 250 metres almost straight up (or feels like it) do not be fooled this is the hardest part of the day. You will need a reasonable level of fitness to achieve this climb. When you finally make it to the top your guides who ran up the 350 metres, are there waiting with lunch and plenty of cold drinks and beers.


Interesting facts about the Zambezi rafting trip:

  • The climb down into the gorge is on a ladder that is missing not only rungs but most if not all of the rails it is straight down in most places.
  • The river has crocodiles in it just to spice up the day, and if you want you can take a boogie board down the rapids.
  • Two young boys who help with the gear carry the 80kg rafts down to the bottom and back up again in record time and don’t even break a sweat.
  • The trip home in the back of the truck goes past a cemetery that is exclusively for victims of AIDS, it is a very large cemetery.
  • When I was there a group behind us ran rapid # 9 ‘Commercial Suicide’ class 6, it capsized of course and one man was down way too long and eventually came out way down river. It pays to go with a reputable company.
  • A Class six is commonly known in the industry as a ‘commercial suicide’, because people will die and your business will be shut down if you take clients down them.
  • The canyon has steep walls and there is no game within the gorge.
  • Due to the fast flowing water there is no risk of Bilharzia a disease you can get swimming in Africa.

The rapid names and grades:

  1. …against the wall” # 1: Class 4/5: The Boiling Pot. From here the river hits a wall forming a wild cushion wave and eddy.
  2. …the bridge” # 2: Class 3: A wild mixture of waves clearly visible to bungee jumpers and spectators on the Victoria Falls bridge.
  3. Rapid # 3: Class 4: A steep and radically fast wave with an easily avoidable hole.
  4. Morning Glory” # 4: Class 4/5: The first major rapid with an almost river wide hole at the top and a big hole at the bottom.
  5. Stairway to Heaven” # 5: Class 5: with an 8m drop over 10m, very steep and powerful. Avoid the waterfalls and a hole on the left called the “catcher’s mitt” plus a large pour-over on the right.
  6. Devil’s Toilet Bowl” # 6: Class 4: A Short rapid with a deceptively steep and powerful hole.
  7. Gulliver’s Travels” # 7: Class 5: A very respectful 700m of class 5 with high volume of white water. The run consists of a 4 channels called the “Temple of Doom”, “The Crease”, “Patella Gap” and “Land of the Giants”.
  8. Midnight Diner” # 8: Class 3/5: This rapid has 3 runs. The left is “Star Trek” with a hole about 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” this is self-explanatory.
  9. 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!
  10. Gnashing Jaws of Death” #10: Class 4: An easy run the name is deceptive
  11. Overland Truck Eater” # 11: Class 5: Watch out for the hole, eddy line and whirlpool.
  12. Three Sisters” #12A, B, C: Class 3/4: Rafters prefer the term “three little pigs”.
  13. The Mother” # 13: Class 4/5: A massive wave train at its best, first 3 waves are super-fast.
  14. Rapid # 14: Class 3: Big S-bend in the river. Center chute to be avoided at lower water levels.
  15. Washing Machine” # 15: Class 5: Simple wave train but un-runnable in the middle because of a huge crashing hole
  16. The Terminators I and II” # 16: Class 4: A massive wave train and trough at higher levels.
  17. Double Trouble” # 17: Class 5: A simple wave train but un-runnable because of 2 large holes – also known as “The Bitch”.
  18. 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
  19. Rapids #19 to #25: Class 2/3: Easy runs.

Rapids are graded according to the degree of difficulty of the rapids.

Class 1: Very small rough areas, might require slight maneuvering.

Class 2: Some rough water, maybe some rocks, might require some maneuvering.

Class 3: Whitewater, small waves, maybe a small drop, but no considerable danger. May require significant maneuvering.

Class 4: Whitewater, medium waves, maybe rocks, maybe a considerable drop, and sharp maneuvers may be needed.

Class 5: Whitewater, large waves, large volume, possibility of large rocks and hazards, possibility of a large drop, requires precise maneuvering.

Class 6: Class 6 rapids are considered to be so dangerous that they are effectively unnavigable on a reliably safe basis. Traversing a Class 6 rapid has a dramatically increased likelihood of ending in serious injury or death compared to lesser classes.


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