Africa, Travel, Zambia

Die another day: One day in Zambia

It was a day that started quite unlike any other. I woke stuck to the tent in sweat, opened my eyes and remembered: I’m in Africa. It was the first day of a three week  camping adventure overlanding through Southern Africa starting in Zambia. We only had one day here so I had to make the most of it. I had no idea what that would really mean.

Victoria Falls through the trees.

Whitewater rafting in the Zambezi

The Zambezi is one of the best places on earth to go whitewater rafting. That’s what I was told. I didn’t realise that ‘the best’ meant one of the roughest and most dangerous.

After a brief safety demo we took an open truck to the river, close to the famous Victoria Falls. A local gathered us round to tell us the story of Nyami Nyami, the Zambezi River God of Tonga folklore that is said to live in the Zambezi.  Inevitably we are tricked into buying a Nyami Nyami pendant to protect us that day, a piece of jewellery that has a significance similar to the St Christopher of Christianity. I didn’t know how much I’d need it.

We clambered down the steep banks to the boats. Even before we left I was nearly hurled off my perch by the force of the tide. Under orders we paddled hard to reach the first rapid, only to be buffeted back. We tried again. And again. Our inexperience showed.

The scale of Victoria falls is hard to describe.

Finally we reached it- and the boat flipped, hurling us deep under water. I was disorientated, it was dark, I couldn’t work out which way was up,  I couldn’t breathe- and then I bobbed to the surface, my lifejacket pulling me back to the world above water when I couldn’t work out where that was.

It scared me more than I expected- I knew I’d fall in but I didn’t anticipate the water being so violent, or how deep you’d get thrown down in the force. As we approached the next rapid I gripped on for dear life and just about made it, only to be thrown headlong again at the third.

This time as I bobbed up I hit a rubber wall. I’d become trapped under the boat and couldn’t feel my way out. My lungs screamed as I panicked, groping my way along it to try to find the way out. The water changed direction again and I was finally free. Now I understood that Nyami Nyami wasn’t to be messed with.

Made another. Fell in another. This time the following rapid was too close- I couldn’t make it to the boat in time and had to go over freestyle before being dragged back to safety by a rescue kayak. My heart thudded out of my chest. Extreme sports? Never again.

When we finally made it to the end we were told we could float for awhile to rest before clambering up the sheer face to land again. With Zambia on one side and Zimbabwe on the other, I blinked, shellshocked at the sun, and thanked God we had got through.

‘I’m going to do the bungee jump over Victoria falls’, my tent-mate told us. ‘Will anyone come with me?’

Well if I didn’t die this morning, I thought…

Celebratory survival pose

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls itself is hard to describe in words. I don’t think I’ve ever been so struck by the sheer power of nature. The noise of such a volume of water thudding with such power over the rock face, that stretches for nearly two kilometres. I stared, stunned for a long time before getting my camera out, trying to take it all in.

Then we saw the bridge over the river where people bungee. And the drop.

I had intended to just go along with my tent-mate for moral support. And yet.

I’m terrified of heights. I get the heebie jeebies just looking down from escalators or steep theatre steps. But I would never be here again. I didn’t want to be the person who went to the bungee at Victoria Falls and just watched. As I was trying to decide whether to fork out the £90 to do the jump, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought. If I can do this, nothing will ever seem scary again.

The bridge over the Zambezi

The jump

Standing on the metal grill at the edge of the bridge an hour later, I regretted the decision. My feet were bound in towels- towels?! Is that really enough?! And I’d been alarmed at the lack of safety videos or instruction. A video camera zoomed in on my face, ready to catch the jump.

Even seeing the water so far below through the grills of the platform made my stomach flip. Locals were standing on the bridge as spectators, were chanting my name. The man pulled out my arms to be wide and made me shuffle to the edge. Stop, I might fall off! I started, before remembering that was the point. The chanting continued. I’m going to have to die because of peer pressure.

They counted down, they counted down, oh god help what am I going to do?! And then I was falling, falling, falling, how didn’t it stop?! I stupidly clung to the harness as though that would stop me down or slow the impact, until the rope reached the end and I bounced back up- the rushing river pulling away again. And then the falling was happening again- and again- until I finally slowed to a stop, swaying upside down looking at the river.


I realised no one had told me what to do at this bit. I stayed hanging there stupidly until a man appeared, lowering himself on a rope and swinging towards me. He grabbed me and clipped me too him and then pulled us back up to the bridge, where I grabbed onto the metal and decided never to leave land again.

‘How was it?’ our guide asked when we got back to the campsite bar, desperate for a strong drink to celebrate surviving the day. ‘There was this time’, he said ‘when we took a girl and her rope snapped, and she fell into the water and broke both legs and her collarbone’.

I put down my gin and tonic and looked at him. ‘She survived though’ he said quickly, ‘She managed to swim with one arm to the side. Thankfully the crocodiles weren’t out.’

We were disbelieving, but the story was true. Apparently the Zimbabwean president had a go once the bungee was reopened just to prove it was safe.

‘Why didn’t you tell us before?!’ I asked.

‘Because you wouldn’t have done it. But it does make a funny story.’

I downed my drink. One day in Zambia. At least twice I had thought it might be my last, but I’ve never again had a day quite like it.