I was always fascinated by the movement of water, even as a small boy. By the time of my graduation and start of my career as a water engineer, water had taken on an almost sacred importance. As I travelled I found myself drawn to coastlines, lakes, rivers and, more often than not, waterfalls. Niagara Falls, Gulfoss, Skógafoss and the Mealt Fall all dazzled me, all high on the rankings of spectacular waterfalls around the world. One gem so far had alluded me in particular: Victoria Falls on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Finally, I was presented with the opportunity to see what is widely regarded as the world’s greatest waterfall during my overland trip of Southern Africa. The Zambezi was in full flood during my crossing from Botswana into Zambia on a rickety ferry that I doubted would stay afloat over the foaming hundred metre stretch. From there it churned downstream, out of my sight, until the city of Livingstone, where on the brown of a hill I saw the billowing plume of spray that rose from the mile long gorge the Zambezi plunged into.
My first day in Livingston naturally involved a visit to the Victoria Falls National Park. The guide books suggested a rain jacket would suffice. Oh how it was wrong. After arriving at the falls and fighting off some overzealous baboons, I found myself confronting the incessant din of a bazillion gallons of water – Vic Falls in full flood – cascading into the jagged scar in the African terrain. Initially it was just noise, a little bit of spray. And then full on inundation. I was soaked within minutes. My ridiculously tight denim shorts clung to my butt, blue dye running down and staining my thighs and calves. I was like a kid at Christmas. My friends cringed in the torrential downpour cast by the falls. I giggled and skipped and splashed my way from viewpoint to viewpoint.
That night I made a poor attempt at sleep, the distant thundering of water caressing my eardrums in the small hours of the morning. I was restless. My stomach churned with excitement. Or nerves. The next morning I woke early for the activity of the day: white water rafting. With the Zambezi at high water level, it was only possible to do a half-day session – the torrents at the section of the river with Class 5 rapids was deemed too dangerous at this time. How delightful.
I found myself rattling down a dirt track on the back of a lumbering safari truck. Zambian villagers stood outside their rondels, somewhat bemused by the foolhardy white people who might possibly meet their doom on the river. A group photo and tumble down the steep path into the gorge later, and I was perched on the edge of the raft (in a fashion that seemed somewhat precarious) while the river churned angrily around the bend.
The safety briefing had said flipping the raft was unlikely; an individual being knocked into the water was more likely. I reminded myself of this fact has I paddled in time with the others towards the racing waves and eddies and foam. The raft caught the current, and we were off – right as a frighteningly large wave appeared from nowhere, directly in front of the raft. It dipped into a vortex and slammed into the wall of water.
I was powerless. As I fell backwards into the river, I filled my lungs with one last desperate gasp of air and jammed my eyes shut. The last thing I saw was the shadow of the large yellow raft coming down on top of me. Water gurgled in my ears. I disappeared under whatever for what felt like an age. My arms paddled at the darkness, useless to orientate me in any comprehensible direction. There was white light against my eyelids for a moment but then I was swallowed by the water again. I was definitely panicking.
“I’m going to die,” I thought to myself. “I’m going to die in this river – drowning or decapitation or a hungry crocodile – right in the middle of Africa. And no one is every going to see me again.” I recalled being hit by an unexpected 3 metre barrel wave on the beach in Liberia a year before, the inevitability of being rolled, dragged along the coarse sand, unsure of whether I would catch another breath or break my next or be lost to sea, and repeated what I had told myself then: “Don’t struggle – this is beyond your control right now.”
My head squeaked against the heavy duty rubber of the raft. I kicked and burst out of the foam, inhaling a mouthful of green river water. Darkness again. There! That was the rope that ran alongside the raft. Hold on, pull, breathe… I emerged into wet daylight again. Water continued to crash over my head, and once we had all gathered around the raft the guide flipped it back over – on top of me. But the panic was gone, despite being swallowed by the river once again, and I soon found myself tossed into the floundering puddle of sodden tourists in the middle of the raft.
Surviving the flip on the first rapid killed any remaining anxiety about white water rafting, to the point that when we flipped on a second, larger rapid there was a collective rush of fearless excitement (although nothing was going to break my hold on the raft as everyone else plunged into the water below me). As the cliffs of Zambia and Zimbabwe passed by, I realised that I couldn’t control the river. Moreover, the river wasn’t against me per se; it was simply flowing in accordance with the laws of fluid dynamics. It wasn’t for me to change its flow or make the ride smoother, but I could read the channel ahead and draw on the water’s strength. The same is true of life – you can’t dictate what it’s going to throw at you, but you can surrender yourself to it instead of struggling against the current, mindfully ride the waves, draw on your environment and seize opportunities to take you closer to where you want to go.
I continued to try new experiences in Livingstone – later that day enjoying some Zambian food which included two different kinds of fried caterpillar. The opportunity to take a day trip to Zimbabwe – a country notoriously low on travellers’ lists for a multitude of reasons – also presented itself, which I jumped at. A simple $55 visa fee for Brits (and the Irish; $30 for most other nationalities) later and I was quickly and painlessly across the border. The Zimbabwean tourist town of Victoria Falls was quieter than its Zambian counterpart, but markedly prettier. It is said the view of the falls is more scenic (and wetter) on the Zim side, which after resigning myself to being drenched I can testify is true.
Later, after a costume change I sat admiring the distant plume of spray while I enjoyed high tea in the colonial ambiance of the Victoria Falls Hotel. Finally catching sight of the iconic rainbow, I was glad I had taken the opportunity to try new things. The audible flow of water also reminded me that I am ever washing onwards into the future – sometimes paddling frantically, or clinging on for dear life, and even occasionally sitting back, enjoying the view while being carried with the current. There are good things ahead – but I have to take risks and lose my fear of getting wet.