RAFTING THE WILD ZAMBEZI African natural wonder offers an exhilarating experience

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As summer ends in North America, and the recreational river are reduced to a trickle and rafting enthusiasts begin -- reluctantly -- to turn toward winter pursuits, a few river runners get smart. They fly trans-Atlantic, then down the long broad bulk of Africa, to challenge what may be the most spectacular river of all: the great Zambezi.

It is the Zambezi, along the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia in south-central Africa, that forms one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. Many places may lay claim to being one of the Seven Wonders, but few deserve it. Victoria Falls is one of the deserving, and its status has never been questioned since the day in 1855 when David Livingstone looked down the mile-wide, 304-foot drop (twice the size of Niagara) toward the Zambezi River Gorge swerving and snaking toward the distant Indian Ocean. Today's visitor still finds cause to marvel at the "wonder," but they see with new eyes this old tourist destination, for it is here that the world's most impressive river trip begins.

Until 1981, no one was known to have attempted to run the Zambezi. Then California-based Sobek Expeditions,

This is a reset, NOT a correction with a film crew along from ABC's "American Sportsman," embarked on the wild ride down the river. Several flipped boats later, the crew floated into the quiet waters of Lake Kariba about 60 miles downstream. They pronounced the trip a "classic," and the screening of the television documentary film proved to be one of the series' most popular episodes.

Sobek began taking paying customers down the Zambezi in 1982, initially limiting the season to the low-water months between August and December. Now, with nine years of experience, guides will take passengers down the river on an extended season -- June through December -- that covers all but the highest water levels. In the short span of this decade, the rafting of the Zambezi has virtually transformed the tourist industry of Victoria Falls.

The Tonga tribespeople who lived in the area referred to the falls as Musi-o-tunya, or "the Smoke That Thunders," and Livingstone named them for his queen. In the early years of this century, the first major facility for tourists, the Victoria Falls Hotel, opened on the southern edge of the great gorge in what now is Zimbabwe. The hotel, located on the direct railway route from Cairo, was run by Pierre Garuzzi, straight from the five-star Carlton and Savoy hotels in London. It featured a French chef, Arab waiters and an American barman: a classic utilization of national talents.

But today it is neither hotelier nor guidebook that draws many people to Victoria Falls, but the promise of a world-class river trip. As spectacular as the falls are -- and they are indeed magnificent -- what catches the imagination of river enthusiasts are the drops within the canyon below the falls: 10 steep chutes leading into rolling waves and boiling holes, one after another, with calm pools of 72-degree water following each. Sheer walls of black basalt, the exposed faces of seven ancient Victoria Falls stretching back into the dimmest reaches of the river's course, tower over the white water and the calm.

Even getting to the put-in for the one-day river adventure is out of the ordinary. Passengers follow a well-worn footpath from Zambia's Musi-O-Tunya Intercontinental Hotel, down through a mini-rain forest tucked in the wrinkles of the canyon, and emerge at the Boiling Pot. This huge eddy swirls with the energies of a river that just 200 yards upstream was over a mile wide.

"It's as easy as 1, 2, 3," our guide, Michael Speaks, tells us as we don life jackets and climb clumsily into the 16-foot inflatable rafts. We've already had the safety lecture -- a gruesomely descriptive speech designed to winnow the weak-willed from the merely apprehensive -- but now, sitting on the tubes of the surging raft in the Boiling Pot, we get the details: "Rapid No. 1 shows you how big the waves get; No. 2 shows you they get bigger, and No. 3 shows you how small they were in 1 and 2."

Mr. Speaks is working his second season on the Zambezi; in between -- during winter and spring -- he runs a guide service near Denali National Park in Alaska. He seems to thrive on the contrast.

"Without the passengers," he goes on, "we couldn't even run the Zambezi. We put from three to five people in the front of the boat. That's not to load up on paying customers -- that's to prevent flips."

He grins. The thought of flips makes all the boatmen in Zambia alternately nervous and proud. The count runs between 40 and 100 flipped boats each season,

"The reason we want you up there is very simple," he continues. "If there's not enough weight in the front, when we hit these 12- and 15-foot waves, the boat will just ride straight up and flop back over. With you guys up there punching into each and every wave, we surge through the wave, not over it, and we stay upright. I want you to think of yourselves as a rugby scrum. Link arms, hug each other, do whatever you have to to make sure you act as one 400-pound being punching into every wave.

Then we're off, and it's just as he said: 1, 2, 3 are Big, Bigger and Bigger Still. The first day's rapids -- all that one-day passengers get to see between the Boiling Pot and the Songwe Gorge take-out -- have only numbers; the names don't start until late on the second day of the weeklong, expedition-style Zambezi River trip. But, briefly, No. 4 is an even wilder ride than No. 3, a twisting lateral wave shoving every other boat into a wall on the right; then we come to No. 5, perhaps the single most notorious rapid in Africa.

The approach is done on faith: Michael just rows our boat to aim for the rooster-tail wave, and we slide off to the right side. As we pass by, we see the huge rock that throws up the rooster tail, and catch glimpses of an enormous, hidden pour-over bordering the right side of the chute. Then a chasm opens up beneath us: 12 feet down? Twenty? There is very little time to take measurements.

In that moment, between our guide's best efforts and whatever surprises the river has in store for you just a slim second later, time stops. "It's my favorite place in the world," Gary Lemmer, one of Sobek's most experienced Zambezi guides, is fond of saying. "There's no place else like it. I love it." We plunge over the drop into a chaos of huge and seemingly unpredictable waves, and emerge ecstatic, humming with adrenalin and relief.

But the rest is hardly anticlimactic. No. 6 is almost as crazy as No. 4, and No. 7 is the longest and most technical rapid on the first day. While even No. 8 has flipped boats, none has flipped in No. 9 -- for a very simple reason.

"We don't run this one," Mr. Speaks says as we pull in for the portage. "You can't." The river narrows, leaving a wide rocky passage on the right side, but diving nastily down a 15-foot crater into a solid wall of white: about 10,000 cubic feet per second of it. No one questions the decision for more than a moment.

The hike out at Songwe Gorge is cruel -- a steep trail, alternately rocky and dusty, more suitable for goats than river runners, let alone tourists. Repeat customers have been known to sign up for the full seven-day trip at this point, just to avoid the hike out at Songwe. But at the top, where passengers find transport ready to take them back to their hotel, there's a view down to the remote lower canyon, where the Zambezi continues to wind green and timeless through the folded, scarred terrain of southern Africa.

And there's the bone-weary satisfaction of a day gone by that's gone by right, riding the temperamental currents of the Great Zambezi.

If you go . . .

Weather during rafting season -- August-November -- is warm, with daytime temperatures often reaching 100 degrees. When rafting, bring a swimsuit, shorts, tennis shoes and a light windbreaker.

Zambezi River trips can be booked through SOBEK Expeditions, P.O. Box 1089, Angels Camp, Calif. 95222; phone (209) 736-4524 for information or bookings. Cost for the one-day trip is $80 from mid-June through February, depending on river levels. A two-day white-water trip is available between August and November for $190, including one night's camp by the river.

The weeklong Zambezi River Expedition, also available from August to November, costs $1,295 this year and $1,575 in 1991. That price includes hotel stays at the beginning and end of the trip and transfers when necessary, river gear and group camping equipment (not sleeping bags or pads), meals and guides.

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