JULY ’05 – ZAMBEZI RIVER : LOOKING DOWN THE BARREL

posted by / Magazine / May 24, 2005

“Sorry we’re late. We found a dead body in the river today. And we had to go down there and fish him out.”

Not exactly the kind of welcoming news the surfers had hoped to hear from their river guides. We’d just traveled halfway around the world — more than 25 hours of flying time — to land on this small dusty airstrip in Zambia, a country smack in the middle of Central Southern Africa, more than 700 miles from the nearest ocean.

On a tip from Scott Lindgren, a well-respected river explorer and filmmaker from Central California, we were headed for a spot on the Zambezi River, one of the most powerful whitewater rivers on the planet. A spot where, for only a couple weeks each year, a perfect draining barrel forms in the middle of the river. A standing wave with an endless tube.

Sounds too good to be true. But when Lindgren produced video footage of the infamous Rapid Number 11 in all its glory, we were convinced. The trick would be catching the river flow at the right level, so as soon as the Zambezi began to rise we were on an airplane bound for Africa.

Since we didn’t quite know what to expect from this wave, we recruited a crew of three pros who can surf anything that moves. On board was Gavin Sutherland, all-around waterman and aerial fiend from Oahu, Bill “Beaker” Bryan, Laguna Beach’s madcap master of all boards (he’s a 10-time world champion skimboarder and the undisputed King of the FlowRider) and David Weare, a hard-charging WQS ripper from Durban, South Africa. If Number 11 was surfable, these guys would be able to surf it.

Lindgren escorted us to the little tourist town of Livingstone, Zambia, near the famous Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the world. That’s where we met up with our guides, Steve Fisher and Dale Jardin, a pair of pro kayakers from South Africa. Steve and Dale are like kayaking’s equivalent to, say, Laird Hamilton and Mick Fanning. These guys are heavy hitters who’ve been kayaking the Zambezi for more than a decade.

“Dale was like, ‘That’s a dead guy! That’s a dead guy over there.’ And we just started laughing because he was floating with his butt up in the air,” howled Steve about the drowning victim they found earlier that day.

“Who was he?” I ask.

Not sure. Probably a smuggler trying to swim contraband across the river to the Zimbabwe side, said Steve, “He was giving us the old brown eye, so we just called him Brown-Eyed Bob.”

We began loading our surfboards atop Steve’s truck. Watching from the sidelines, the local taxi drivers and airport workers eyed us with skepticism. Not too many surfers flying through this town.

* * *

Instead of taking us straight to Number 11 the next morning, the kayakers had other plans. Plans that involved faded old boogie boards and helmets.

Lindgren thought it’d be good to get the surfers accustomed to the immense power of the Zambezi, so they took us riverboarding. A couple whitewater outfitters guide tourists down this section of the Zambezi on riverboards but never at water levels this high. Too dangerous.

“Where are your fins?” asks Steve.

“No one gave us any.”

“Hmmm. Oh well, no worries. You’ll probably be fine.”With that questionable bit of assurance from Steve, we strapped on our lifejackets, grabbed our waterlogged lunch trays and slipped into the bathtub warm water. On either side of the river, the Batoka Gorge soars skyward for 330 feet. The water is the color of chocolate milk, frothing with white rapids and large swirling whirlpools. It’s hot and humid, but the spray at the base of the massive 1.2-mile wide Victoria Falls gives the steamy African air the slightest chill.

As we float headfirst into the first series of 8-foot standing waves, Steve yells, “Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut!” Easier said than done. We’re basically swimming one of the wildest whitewater rivers in the world. It’s the roughest victory-at-sea storm surf I’ve ever been in. After a few rapids I looked over just in time to see Dave being toilet-bowled down, down, down into a big whirlpool, until — slurp! — he’s gone. Then, five, maybe six seconds later he popped up again, eyes as big as saucers.

“Over this way! Over this way!” commands Dale from his kayak. “Follow me. You guys don’t want to be over there.”We stroke wildly in the direction of Dale’s wake, barely making it into the smooth tongue of water pulling us downstream and safely away from a gaping mass of re-circulating water the size of a {{{Hummer}}}.

Over the next nine miles, we slowly tapped into the river’s rhythm. Huge waves. Massive re-circulating currents. A couple whirlpools. Some more waves. Total whiteout. Then a calm pool of water. It was pretty much the same for every rapid and once we started to understand how the river worked, it was good fun.

Before the most critical rapids, we’d stop and scout. The kayakers pointed out the danger zones and then the safest lines through the rapid. Problem is, no matter how much you kick or stroke, the river still pretty much takes you where it likes.

* * *

By mid-afternoon we reached Rapid Number 11. The river is as wide as a football field here. Following a big slow pool, the water accelerates and then drops about 4 feet down into an abrupt shelf on the river bottom. The flow then hits a series of rocks, no doubt hand-placed by God, that force the water back upstream over itself. At the proper water level, the rapid becomes an honest-to-goodness barreling right — a perfect standing wave that never ends.

For more on the Zambezi River, pick up the July 2005 issue of SURFING – On newsstands May 24th. Or, you can subsrcibe!

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