In shock, shivering in my wet skin, after a life-frightening battle with the river, I hear the calming tones of our African guide’s voice saying, “You have been blessed by the mighty waters of the Zambezi River. You will journey forward with great fortune in your life.”
We chose the canoeing safari over the pontoon boat ride as our afternoon game viewing activity and sundowner. Two-person inflatable with oars that resemble those for a kayak.
Steve took the rear as captain and I took the front as engineer. Blessed, our guide (yes that’s his name, pronounced bles-sed), gave us all the usual safety instructions including those additional ones for flipping over in rapids. “Don’t panic, hold onto the boat, relax and lay on your back, let your life vest support you and hold your oar up.” Not much was said about a croc or hippo encounter, even though these waters are an abundant source for both, except to keep our arms and legs within the raft. His holstered 44 caliber kind of spoke for itself.
There was not much mention of the rapids either, other than they were so small they didn’t warrant a rating, but then again, we are in Zimbabwe. I think we all assumed this would be more of a leisure paddle downstream from our up river drop — with cocktails waiting at the sundowner endpoint, our traditional day’s ending on safari in Africa.
We paddled through the first of several rapids with ease and short-lived thrills — me riding them with a few smiling shrieks. Blessed said we would be coming up to a series of rapids or did he say a serious rapid? His proper Zimbabwean English at times was indecipherable, and as It turned out, it was both. Three rapids with the second needing some kind of rating. I’ll give it the “serious” rating. Or maybe upgrade that to a “no shit” rating.
We hit this set of rapids hard, taking on waves of water. Quickly, and out of nowhere, we were hit by a wall of white on the left side, immediately flipping the boat and hurling me and Steve out into the Zambezi River. Time, space and memory were erased from my mind bank the moment the wild wave hit and swept me into the river. I must have closed my eyes, just like I do on dreaded roller coaster rides.
Steve managed to hang on to the raft for the duration of the rescue, while I couldn’t seem to for very long. I was quickly sucked under the current. Churned about by the whirlpool of rapids like a solo sock in load of laundry. I struggled to stay above the waterline. I found myself in a panic, disoriented, searching for air and in between gasps, swallowing the river water. I couldn’t find my back to get into that “relaxed” position Blessed had reviewed with us. I thought, “I’m drowning!” I managed to get that thought from my head into my mouth and out to some nearby ears. I had managed to hang on to the oar during the battle, but lost it when I couldn’t lay on my back (relaxed and without panic) and hold that damn oar up above my head.
I could finally hear Blessed over my thoughts of drowning or being thrown against the rocky river banks (thankfully undistracted by thoughts of the river’s resident crocs and hippos). He was coaching me to float on my back. Now, finally through the worst of the rapids, the calmness of his voice pierced all of my thoughts.
“Swim to me and grab my hand.”
Our boat by now had been righted, I didn’t have a clue where anyone else was besides Blessed, including Steve. I didn’t see him. All I could see, as I was being hoisted up and in by Blessed, was the welcomed inside bottom of the boat.
I came out of the water choking and coughing up the mighty waters of the Zambezi.
I can emphatically say, up to this point in my life, I have never had an experience where I actually had the thought that I could die, no less from drowning.
Taking some inventory after the treacherous toss, I managed to still be wearing my Clarke flip flops. My lip gloss was tucked safely in my jungle short’s pocket, with my safari hat floating downriver nearby in the calm waters, soaked, but retrievable, however, my newly purchased prescription sunglasses were goners!
I’ve always had a deep respect for the water, whether oceans, rivers or lakes. Water…It is not our natural habitat on earth as humans. That level of respect has been deepened here in Africa.
And as dramatic as this may sound, I’m left feeling fortunate to be alive, after this wild experience, to live another adventurous day in Africa.
Humbled, and Blessed, by the mighty Zambezi!