Africa is not particularly well known for its safety standards. With this in mind, any person of reasonably sound mind would do well to stay away from extreme sports, such as white water rafting. I guess that proves I’m not of reasonably sound mind.
Yes, last weekend, I joined a few mates to take off on a full-day white water rafting trip down the mighty Usuthu river. Thanks to some recent summer rains (read: storms), the water levels were high and the torrents were raging. After a safety briefing that worked wonderfully to scare most of the participants, it was time to don the life jacket and helmets, and take to the water. Aussies Myles and Tegan took one raft, while I paired up with Canadian Maureen. A South African couple shared another boat.
Our first rapid for the day was a small 3m waterfall which, we were nonchalantly warned, had the potential to suck you into a hole at the base before “eventually” spitting you out. “Just keep paddling” was the advice. Of course, if the words didn’t quite sink it, then there was also the (unintentional) demonstration from our 2IC that followed promptly after. Watching an experienced rafter capsize, get pulled down repeatedly, be unable to get out after 5 minutes and almost drown (not to mention seeing bits of his kayak breaking off) does wonders for beginner rafting confidence. Yet, we all managed to make it through: easily, unscathed and rather anti-climactically.
Next up was another small waterfall over a man-made wall, which we all tackled easily. The third rapid, however, saw the first of the men to fall (by men, I mean Maureen and I). Knocked by a sideways wave, it was straight into the safety/drifter pose until the water slowed down enough for us to swim to the edge. Now this may sound strange, but I actually really enjoyed the feeling of moving through churning water and over slippery rocks – it reminded me somewhat of water-based theme parks that we used to (and still do) go to for fun.
Back in the boat, our final rapid before lunch was the “Man-maker” – the place where boys become men and girls become women, apparently. We couldn’t be sure if this was true as all our rafts, and their rowers, managed to get thrown by a nice big swell at the bottom of the drop. However, as we were all going down one boat at a time, I had no concept of what had gone on before us, and what had passed after us. Only when we were all sitting safely on the grassy bank munching away on sandwiches, did we come to realise that our compatriot Myles almost died. Oh, and just for the record, I’m not being sarcastic.
I can laugh about it now because Myles didn’t die, but after falling out of his boat it seems he drifted a little too far downstream and almost got sucked down a 15m high, rocky, turbulent waterfall. Seeing the danger, the guide had paddled for both their lives and managed to rescue him “in the nick of time”, which is raft speak to mean that if Myles had drifted 1m further downstream a rescue would have been impossible and the day would have ended very differently. Hmmm…..did someone mention something about safety in Africa?
This little mis-adventure was enough to make Maureen end the day early, so after lunch I was paired up with the new Swazi intern who was on his third ever trip. I can imagine that it would be very hard to find a Swazi intern for this sport, given that Swazis are so incredibly afraid of water, let alone rapidly moving water. Yet my raft-buddy still had two trips up on me, so I entrusted him with the steering position in the back. Bad move.
I wasn’t sure if he was aware that he had to steer or whether he was just really bad at it, but as we zig-zagged down the river, I was starting to get a little concerned by all the trees we were running into. This was not just because of all the scratches that I was enduring, but also because of all the spiders that were falling from the disturbed branches onto the raft. If anyone knows me, they know how much I abhor spiders, so having them jumping (yes, jumping!) around my feet on a raft where I could not run away, ignited a mild dose of hyperventilation in me. On the up side, I didn’t notice the rapids anymore.
This may be the reason why I wasn’t so bothered when we capsized, yet again, on “The Little Zambezi”. Admittedly, though, this was the least enjoyable of all my dunkings due to the long length of the rapids and a few moments where I couldn’t get above the water to breathe. We all managed to enjoy a laugh at the end, however, when we found my raft buddy hiding behind a rock because The Little Zambezi had taken a liking to his dacks and stolen them during the ride. Wearing nothing more than a shirt, life jacket and helmet, he had to complete the journey nude from the waist down.
From this point on, the journey eased up a lot. A few small rapids kept it enjoyable, but tranquil spots in between allowed the muscles to rest. After 5-6 hours on the water, I had more dunkings than anyone, more blisters than anyone, and more tree and spider run-ins than anyone, yet I still survived to tell this tale. I hope you enjoyed it because as interesting an experience as it was, I don’t think there’ll be a Part 2 any time soon.