The first thing I notice when I walk into the shop is the large banner hanging down from the ceiling. It looms above the guide’s head like a campaign banner behind a politician, and to say it was distracting would be an understatement. All the guide has to do to kick off his safety briefing is point his finger up towards it. Everyone’s chin lifts immediately and their eyes turn to saucers as they see the wall of whitewater punching the raft in the face.
“You see those people up there, the ones flying out of the raft?” We all look at the guide. It is impossible not to see them, their arms outstretched and their feet above their heads, the paddles launching up and out. “This is what you’ve come for, right?” Reactions around the room are split. Some smile and nod in excited approval. Others look at their spouses, the wheels turning.
I was not surprised, for I had heard the stories and seen the photos and now I had proof: Here on the Zambezi below Victoria Falls, outfitters hold an unprecedented notion that flipping the raft is more fun that keeping it upright. And here I am in the office about to take part myself, sitting under a banner and listening to a safety briefing that glorified — and guaranteed — whitewater rafting’s worst case scenario. Apparently, this ride was indeed going to be as advertised.
I take the fitting of the lifejacket seriously and climb into the boat. I grab the front seat, knowing my place as a thrill seeker is on the front line. The first few rapids are pretty mellow, and I settle into the melodic scenery, hearing the sounds of the water, looking up at the rocky canyon walls and the birds flying overhead. That mood changes when the guide tells us the next rapid is called The Terminator, and that we should all dig into our positions. I wedge my feet into the creases of the raft and point the paddle downstream, my fist squeezing tight on the hot dog grip. I see the walls of water reeling backwards, the tops frothy, like a cobra with its face fanned out and ready to strike. We hit it head on, and down into the depression we go, the raft dropping nose-first ten, fifteen feet down. The next wave immediately lifts the nose right out of the water, as if the raft was a person standing up suddenly. I drop both hands over the front side of the boat. We crash back down, and I rise to meet the water with my paddle. But the next one’s just as big. We are again nearly vertical, all of us scrambling to lean forward. Paddles are starting to fly, and I tuck my chin to my chest as we drop into the next gully. There is no time to get a paddle to the water before the raft is ripped like a rug from under us and we crash backwards into the rapid.