The Zambezi below the Falls is one of the world's most renowned stretches of white water. It was the venue for the 1995 World Rafting Championships, and rafting is now very big business here with keen competition for tourist dollars. (About 50,000 people now go down the river every year, paying about US$80–100 each. You can do the sums.)
Experienced rafters grade rivers from I to VI, according to difficulty. Elsewhere in the world, a normal view of this scale would be:Class I
No rapids, flat water.Class II
Easy rapids, a float trip. No rafting experience required.Class III
Intermediate to advanced rapids. No rafting experience required.Class IV
Very difficult rapids. Prior rafting experience highly recommended. No children.Class V
For experts only. High chance of flips or swims.
No children or beginners.Class VI
Impossible to run.
The rapids below the Falls are mostly graded IV and V. This isn't surprising when you realise that all the water coming slowly up the Zambezi's 1.7km width is being squeezed through a number of rocky gorges that are often just 50–60m wide.
Fortunately for the rafting companies, most of the rapids here may be very large, but the vast majority of them are not 'technical' to run. This means that they don't need skill to manoeuvre the boat whilst it is within the rapids, they just require the rafts to be positioned properly before entering each rapid. Hence, despite the grading of these rapids, they allow absolute beginners into virtually all of the rafts.High or low water, and which side of the river?
Rafting is offered from both sides of the river by a wide range of companies. Some operate on both sides, like Safari Par Excellence. The Zambian side offers a far more spectacular entry, just at the base of the Falls; whereas on the Zimbabwean side you miss this entirely and start off at Rapid Number Four.
During high water this might be partially obscured by spray, but you should try to go from the Zambian side during low-water months (roughly from August to January) so as not to miss such a stunning place to start below the Falls. These low-water months are probably the best time to experience the Zambezi's full glory, as then its waves and troughs (or 'drops') are more pronounced.
In high-water months (February to July), only half-day trips are offered. These start below Rapid 9 on both sides. Note that when the river is highest its rapids may seem less dramatic, but it is probably more dangerous – due to the strong whirlpools and undercurrents. At that time, the water is sometimes too high and rafting should then be stopped until it recedes to a safer level.The trips
A typical rafting trip will start with a briefing, covering safety/health issues, giving the plan for the day and answering any questions. Once you reach the 'put-in' at the river, you will be given a short safety/practice session to familiarise yourself with the raft and techniques that will be used to run the rapids. Half-day trips will run about half of the rapids, but a full day is needed to get through all the rapids from one to twenty- three. Lunch and cool drinks are included
Note that the climb up and out of the gorge at the end can be steep and tiring, especially in hot weather, Most companies offer a heli-raft combo, whereby you can opt to fly out instead at additional cost. Beyond the obvious advantage of 'taking the easy way out', the heli flight is an exhilarating end to an exciting day, zipping you out of the gorge with a bird's eye view of the rapids you've just run and the Falls as well. On the Zambian side, though, the hike out will soon become a thing of the past once one of the new lift systems is in operation.
A trained river guide pilots every raft, but you need to decide whether you want to go in an oar boat or in a paddle boat. In an oar boat expect to cling on for dear life, and throw your weight around the raft on demand – but nothing more. Oar boats are generally easier and safer because you rely on the skills of the oarsmen to negotiate the rapids, and you can hang on to the raft at all times. Only occasionally will you have to 'highside' (throw your weight forward) when punching through a big wave.
In a paddle boat the participants provide the power by paddling, while a trained rafting guide positions the boat and yells out commands instructing you what to do. You'll have to listen, and also paddle like crazy through the rapids, remembering when and if you are supposed to be paddling. You can't just hang on! In paddle boats you are an active participant and thus are largely responsible for how successfully you run the rapids. The rafting guide calls commands and positions the boat, but then it's up to you. If your fellow paddlers are not up to it, then expect a difficult ride. Paddle boats have a higher tendency to flip and/or have 'swimmers' (someone thrown out of the boat).
Originally, only oar boats were run on the Zambezi. However nowadays paddleboats have become more popular as rafting companies compete to outdo each other in offering the most exciting rides. There is, of course, a very fine line between striving to be more exciting, and actually becoming more dangerous.
With either option, remember that people often fall out and rafts do capsize. Despite this, safety records are usually cited as excellent. Serious injuries are said to be uncommon and fatalities rare. (Curiously for an industry that claims such a good safety record, none of the larger companies seems to keep transparent records of injuries or fatalities.)Rafting operators
All rafting companies offer broadly similar experiences at prices that are invariably identical. To gain a competitive edge, some now offer freebies like dinner and sundowners in their prices, so it's well worth asking around and comparing what's included as this changes from time to time. For example, Zambia's Raft Extreme and Safari Par Excellence currently include breakfast, lunch, sundowners and barbecue dinner in their rates, All offer videos and photos of your trip at additional cost. Zambian operators include Bundu, Raft Extreme, Safari Par Excellence, and Touch Adventure. The rapids are numbered from one to 23, starting from the Boiling Pot, so it's easy to make a rough comparison of the trips on offer.
In addition to day trips, there are four-day expeditions that go as far as the proposed Batoka Gorge dam site, while seven-day expeditions reach the mouth of the Matetsi River. These offer more than the adrenaline of white water, and are the best way of seeing the remote Batoka Gorge though trips are few and far between. Adrift and Shearwater offer these longer trips out of the Zimbabwean side.
Rates: half-day trips are around US$85, full day trips around US$95 per person. Both include transfers and a Zambian visa as well as breakfast and snacks or lunch and cool drinks