An aerial view of the Victoria Falls which divides Zimbabwe and Zambia, with Livingston Bridge perched above the river.
An aerial view of the Victoria Falls which divides Zimbabwe and Zambia, with Livingston Bridge perched above the river. iStock / mbrand85

The Smoke that Thunders

When I looked upon Victoria Falls for the first time, I was not quite prepared for the experience.

Despite a friendly suggestion from the lady at the ticketing booth that I purchase a raincoat, I bravely declined and walked along the path that would bring me to the falls.

Known locally as 'the smoke that thunders', Victoria Falls forms part of the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia and attempts to squeeze the raging, insane might of the whole Zambezi River over a 1708 metre cliff and through an exit only 110 metres wide, known as the First Gorge.

The result is an earth-shattering rumble, as 1088 cubic litres of water is hurled over the precipice per second and hits the surface of the river 108 metres below, forming a never-ending column of spray 400 metres above the gorge (and sometimes double that height).

Hence the need for a raincoat.

Hence, also, the main reason for my visit: the rapids.

I found myself staring at the falls, soaking wet from the spray, with every fibre of my being telling me I was going to die, come morning.

This was July, just after the end of the rainy season, and I was booked to raft the Zambezi, swollen and angry as it was after months of rain.

Despite the premonition of my demise, however, I took my place on the bus the next day, just as the African sun lifted a lazy eye above the horizon.

Leaving from the town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, I was struck by the absurdity of paying $120 for the privilege of getting soaking wet, while starving children ran alongside the bus.

The evidence of this abject poverty soon disappeared as we arrived at the start of our adventure: an incredibly steep hike down the face of the gorge, to the eight-man rafts waiting for us on the water.

The mighty Zambezi River as it makes its way through a series of gorges below the Victoria Falls, creating the perfect white water rafting conditions.
The mighty Zambezi River as it makes its way through a series of gorges below the Victoria Falls, creating the perfect white water rafting conditions. iStock / joreasonable

Before we could leave, however, a barefoot boy of about 11 years old walked up to me and asked for my shoes; he suggested a race, with my shoes as the prize.

We were at the bottom of a deep gorge; I was about to speed over 15 kilometres of rapids and hike to the top of the gorge thereafter, while he had to run to the top of the gorge and along the rough ground - barefoot - to catch me.

He seemed so confident.

So, I agreed, and - before I was even on the raft - the boy was gone.

What followed, was seven hours of arm-tearing rowing, a capsized raft in ice-cold water, an indescribable adrenaline rush, a sweltering hike up the cliff face, a dry sandwich, a stale, lukewarm beer, and the loss of my new shoes.

The boy beat me, fair and square, so I gave him my Nikes (as agreed) and he gave me the wooden pendant from around his neck - the river god, Nyami Nyami.

The pendant is a fond reminder of the time I conquered the mighty Zambezi, but it also reminds me that nothing will ever conquer an unconquerable soul (like the one possessed by that boy and so many others like him all over Africa).



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