I’m going to convince you not to go whitewater rafting in Zambia. The Zambezi River, a destination known for extreme sports, is often on whitewater Top 10 lists, the water being described as a fluffy white pillow. Sounds nice right? So why not go whitewater rafting? Because inflatable kayaking on the Zambezi is better.
Zambezi inflatable kayaks, specially built for the Zambezi whitewater, can handle its Class 5 rapids, and learning the basics only takes only a few minutes. This makes Zambezi inflatable whitewater kayaks perfect for beginners like me wanting an intimate experience with the Zambezi River.
Which is better? Zambezi Kayaking or Rafting?
In a kayak you are in control – Your river guide may tell you what side of the rapids are best, but where you enter, how you react, and whether you flip is up to you. When rafting the Zambezi a river guide makes the decisions, you provide the muscle power. If your raft mates are lazy the raft will flip; one person alone cannot steer the raft.
Kayaking in the Zambezi has a future – Rafting is not a skill you are likely to take home and develop, but there are plenty of opportunities to learn more about kayaking. Kayaks are affordable and a single person can easily join a group and run rivers in their hometown. Hard shelled kayaks require training, but are significantly more nimble than the inflatable kayaks (also called ‘duckies’).
Zambezi Kayaking is like Playing Guitar Hero – Sitting two feet above the river your view of what’s next is limited. You plan your line in advance, but the details in between require you to trust your instincts and react.
What to Expect When Whitewater Kayaking the Zambezi
You will be kayaking the warm water of the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia (that’s a lot of Z’s). The winding Batoka gorge between the two countries is 100 meters deep. The river rock is dark basalt and the gorge has plenty of life. Expect birds, lizards, and if you are lucky (?) the occasional crocodile. There is also human life: other water enthusiasts and helicopters whip through the gorge.
Entering the gorge – Descending to the river is the most dangerous part of the day. The slope is steep with loose scree. A rough “ladder” of nailed and gnarled branches helps, but tests your balance every step of the way.
The rapids – From Victoria Falls there are 25 rapids typically done on day runs. A full day inflatable tour from Livingstone with Kayak the Zambezi does rapids 10 to 25, as this stretch has flats (rest areas) between most rapids. This allows the guides to collect any lost kayaks, paddles, or kayakers.
White and fluffy - During dry season the Zambezi River is steepest and flows through a deep channel cut in the basalt. The rapids are big but not technical. This means even if you flip and swim the rapid, you will get flushed out.
When you flip – Count to 10; this is the advice given by the guides. You will see the surface, but the large rapids keep you underwater. Eventually the rapid will spit you out, count to 10 and don’t panic. If possible grab the side of the kayak as you flip and use it for flotation. You will be in, but on top of, the rapid. In other words, you will be able to breathe without waiting to count to 10.
Exiting the gorge – There is good reason to visit Zambia. The exit on the Zambian side of the gorge has a gondola, so you can avoid the steep climb out. After paddling all day and drinking liters of the Zambezi, you will be glad to forgo the extra exercise.
Kayaking on the Zambezi is only one whitewater activity. Rafting is by far the most popular choice, and paddle boarding is also available. If you are looking for some excitement pick the sport best suited to you, then go. The world class whitewater of the Zambezi will disappear if the Batoka Gorge Dam project is approved by Zambia and Zimbabwe.