A new dam could spell the end of the Zambezi River’s Batoka Gorge—and with it the rafting enterprise that keeps low-impact tourism alive in the region.
A lanky, easy-going couple from Toronto, Doley and Grant, like the other eighteen participants in our group, have thus far enjoyed every moment of their latest trip-of-a-lifetime. There’s nothing in general to disapprove of. As the fourth largest river in Africa, the Zambezi is world-renowned for its furious, big-water rafting. Due to the gradient, the warm water, and the run’s location below impressive Victoria Falls, many would argue it’s second to none. The marquee Batoka Gorge is flanked by both Zimbabwe and Zambia, slicing a visible-from-space incision through a wondrous, frontier landscape. Zimbabweans on the south bank and their relatively affluent Zambian neighbours to the north eke out a living on the rolling hills above the gorge, yet despite human presence the area remains chockfull of wildlife—some with pointy, nasty teeth. Rafting may be a tourist sport, but on the Zambezi, it’s not for the faint of heart.
Doley and Grant are inseparable. Days earlier, during a Class I and II introductory paddle on the upper river, I saw them sauntering hand-in-hand into the scrubby forest—as much a precaution against predators lying in wait as it was a romantic stroll. On an African adventure your place in the food chain is arguably only a pounce away. At one point, I’d have a black mamba rise up out of a hole only a few metres in front of me, and an elephant’s tusk tear through the tent beside my wife Amy in the middle of the night, its deft trunk-work emptying her bedside water glass without spilling a drop. Nevertheless, we were constantly reminded that hippos were the most dangerous animals on the river.
In the 54-kilometre section housing the spiciest rapids, however, it was “twenty-foot crocs” that occupied Doley’s and Grant’s collective imagination. So, when the raft partially flips on Gulliver’s Travels (each rapid has a name—including Gnashing Jaws of Death and Oblivion), the couple’s relaxed Canadian demeanour takes a backseat to abject fear. I know this because I’m locked in beside them as they’re ejected into the roiling maw, and see their faces before they go under. I reach out in a futile attempt to pull them back in—though not so far as to lose my own grip. At least they went in together.
“The crocs hang out in the pools, not in the rapids,” offers Mandrese Ngoma by way of conciliation. Known as “Hippo,” the Malawi-born sternsman who corralled us into the rafts a few hours earlier outlines in the same breath how each of the Zambezi’s 25 rapids spills into a giant pool, where anybody who went for an unexpected swim can be collected with ease.
Collected? Those who weren’t spewing their lunch from nervousness at the put-in (I counted three) were likely conjuring up visions of wildebeest treading water into the waiting jaws of crocs. Just before Grant went under I’m sure I heard him bray. Aside from “immersing yourself” in the wildlife scene, another reason the Zambezi is so popular among rafters is the unfortunate concept of getting something before it’s gone. That’s because humans like to dam rivers. In North America, for instance, the United States has more than 80,000 dams and Canada over 10,000. Africa can boast a few mega-projects on the Nile, Congo and Niger Rivers, and even the wild Zambezi is broken up by dams with yet another one planned—the Batoka—that will flatten the rafting areas. There are several claimed reasons for the dam, but for the most important one you have to look downstream.
Here you’ll find the river’s most notable houseboating vacation area (a burgeoning African pastime and touristic draw), the Kariba reservoir: 250 kilometres long and the world’s largest man-made lake by volume. But boaters beware: the mammoth 50-year-old Kariba Dam, holding back all this water, has major infrastructure woes. In 2016, Zambia’s energy minister declared it in “dire” condition, the water emanating from its spillways undercutting the foundations to a point of potential collapse. The Zambezi River Authority estimates that in a catastrophic failure, the Kariba’s water could wipe out 3.5 million hapless victims downstream—some as far away as Madagascar—when the resulting tsunami crosses the ocean. Ironically, an ongoing drought has lowered water levels to a paltry 12 per cent of the lake’s capacity, dampening fears of a collapse but exacerbating hydroelectric shortfalls in both Zimbabwe and Zambia. The Batoka Dam would serve as relief for the ailing Kariba system on both fronts.
The Zambezi River Authority estimates that in a catastrophic failure, the Kariba Dam’s water could wipe out 3.5 million hapless victims downstream.
Pre-trip Internet searches yielded the following advice: get in Hippo’s boat. His 2,200-plus descents on the Zambezi as a raft guide ensure that he knows every eddy at all water levels—the lowest levels being the most exciting. This mileage has also earned him an encyclopedic knowledge of the local flora and fauna. He knows by call all three species of the island-nesting, swallow-like shorebirds known as pratincoles, and the exact cliff area where the endangered Taita falcon nests. He’s familiar with the personality of every pool’s dominant croc (many attacks are apparently not food-driven, but territorial in nature). Not only is Hippo privy to these and other facts, but he’s up to speed on the unfortunate and mysterious political machinations surrounding the Batoka.
“Millions of signatures made little difference,” he laments, all too familiar with Zimbabwe’s disreputable record when it comes to rigged elections and corruption thanks to four decades of rule under strongman Robert Mugabe.
“It’s in the hands of Zambia now,” says Hippo, referring with one last sliver of optimism to the hope that the Zambian government, despite its energy shortfalls, might be wary of incurring more international debt (construction costs are currently estimated at over $3 billion USD). While even on a slow day African political drama can outpace anything in our western jurisdictions (imagine 40 years of Trump), it still remains unclear if, or when, construction will begin. In the meantime, our three raft loads on this three-day trip focus on a pair of major rapids forming the horizon below us: upper and lower Moemba, at Class V and VI respectively.
When the guides announce an upcoming rapid, I’ve taken to gazing around in appreciation of everything the trip has offered so far, and my life in general. Amy and I telepathically relay that one of us has to make it home to raise the kids (no going in together like Doley and Grant). I concentrate on the gorge and its lush greenery announcing the onset of spring. Upcoming rains will push the water levels up ten metres or more, washing out the rapids and slowly deepening the gorge. But for now, the polished black rock walls guide us into Moemba.
River rafting is as “flowy” as it gets—though the term hasn’t quite made the lexicon of Zambezi riverspeak. Bobbing down smoothly under gravity’s pull. The Zambezi exudes this potential energy—a wet dream to paddlers and engineers alike. Ironically, the pace of life in the gorge demands little in the way of generated power, either for locals or us foreigners.
There’s something about the Zambezi beyond the rafting experience—an energy you can literally feel when immersed in the roiling waters.
We camp two nights on giant sandbars—a bane for porters who haul ice-laden coolers to and from our two support boats that must be portaged over the worst of the rapids. We have five rafts in total and two kayaks to haul onto the beach. A fire is lit moments after landing, then out comes the sweating cold beer, and somehow, even colder gin and tonics. The latter are known locally as sundowners, colonial-era cocktails infused with the quinine that’s reputed to ward off malaria. The Southern Cross and other foreign constellations do the trick for lighting, as does the campfire, over which our safety kayaker, Artful, deftly cooks up some steaks. It kind of feels like a beer commercial.
The group’s collective mojo is further fuelled by energetic singalongs led by Hippo. Some of the boys, as he calls them, are innate songsters, their voices filling the star-studded sky with tales of the riverine lifestyle. Lyrics variously translated from the languages of Chewa, Ndebele or Shona come out as, “Boy, go and fetch me some water from the river, but be careful of the crocodiles” or “I’ll go across the river to find work, and bring home a better life for my family.” Eventually those strewn about the fire nod off in their respective pairings, among them Doley and Grant, earlier plucked safely from the water by Hippo’s ample hands and since dried off—except for the gin. There are no bugs, no cares nor worries for any of us visitors, only the sound of the seemingly endless, bubbling current.
Not so for Hippo. For him it’s no beer commercial. In as little as five years—the time estimated for the Batoka reservoir to fill and lap the foot of Victoria Falls—he’ll officially be out of a job. It was, however, a good 25-year run. After more than 2,200 successful Zambezi guiding descents, the income flowing back to his family in Malawi will dry up. At best, he might secure a job as a fishing guide or houseboat operator. More than likely he’ll be displaced, but if he’s really lucky, it could be to an area of his choice.
“He’s been turned down twice by Canadian Immigration when we tried to bring him over to work during our season,” says Brian McCutcheon, co-owner of British Columbia-based ROAM adventures and a fellow concertgoer at the Zambezi riverside singalong. Along with partner Ashley Scanlan, McCutcheon’s ROAM is the main operator on B.C.’s Chilko River, but the two have also been running Zambezi trips for several years. All twenty guests on this particular tour would agree that Hippo is a cornerstone to the journey’s success. McCutcheon and Scanlan would sponsor him in a heartbeat.
“It’d be incredible for our Canadian guides to glean his experience,” adds McCutcheon. “And it would help sell trips to Zimbabwe.” Scanlan just finished bandaging a gaping flapper on someone’s toe and McCutcheon is dosing on quinine. He’s figuring out how much to tip the ever-increasing number of porters spilling in from villages above. The river provides for all, and Zimbabweans have been vying for work ever since Mugabe imploded the economy at the turn of the century. By 2015, the catastrophically devalued Zimbabwean dollar was finally demonetized—you can get a $100 trillion note from hawkers at Vic Falls for a few bucks. Along with Hippo, our ROAM hosts are the last to call it a night, sleeping under the stars.
Dawn starts with birdsong and the shuffling of guides and porters. Over breakfast, McCutcheon offers his official take on the dam that could spell the end of the Zambezi as rafters know it. “The loss of the Batoka Gorge will be tragic, given its world-class whitewater and associated tourism infrastructure,” he says, as we sit overlooking a gorgeous emerald-green pool, drinking coffee, then adds, “but it’s difficult for us to be judgemental.” Like the numerous NGOs that lobbied against the dam, McCutcheon also asserts that most rural energy needs can be met with solar power, but, he notes, the Batoka would also generate much needed export revenues for Zimbabwe. If so, McCutcheon is hopeful (but not optimistic) those monies will be spent wisely rather than disappearing, yet again, into Mugabe’s pockets. In addition, renewables are in vogue in a changing climate, contra the impactful coal and diesel power plants that still fuel mines and communities, respectively. “Hydroelectric is the lesser of these evils,” he sums.
Though it seems a no-brainer in a place like sub-Saharan Africa, investment in solar doesn’t jive with the familiar political mandate of shortterm gain. It’s clear that Zimbabwe is no Germany, where a growing number of citizens drive electric cars and have solar panels on their roofs. Investment in a green Zimbabwean economy will arrive externally, and that includes tourists. And of the millions of visitors who flock annually to the Zambezi, most are seeking “The Smoke that Thunders.” This is the traditional name in local Chitonga for Victoria Falls, and it was clear on our arrival that it’s a major revenue stream for struggling Zimbabwe.
The riverside towns of Victoria Falls (Zim) and Livingston (Zam) both flaunt international airports from which mini-buses whisk bucket-listers to the falls, circumventing various shanty settlements en route, but making the obligatory stop at Niagara-esque gift shops. Drop for drop, however, Niagara has nothing on this place. Vic Falls truly is a marvel, more than twice as high but with fewer guard rails. In fact, thrill-seekers can ponder African safety standards whilst bungee jumping over the gorge (where an Aussie girl famously survived a broken bungee, but not before swimming several rapids) or taking a dip in the infamous Devil’s Pool. More than one mom has freaked out at a selfie of her only child in the water less than a metre from the brink of the falls.
On a day trip to the falls on the Zambian side, remembering whether to “eddy out” or “eddy in” is crucial, but at least McCutcheon is on site to ensure Canadian safety protocols. “Just don’t look over the edge,” he reminds us. We take the Jacuzzi-like plunge and nobody vomits. Back on the river we get used to the various boils and spill-overs. Some of us willingly jump out of the boat in a Class III rapid. It’s been three fabulous days of rafting and camping from the very foot of Victoria Falls to the take-out.
We lily-dip down the final stretch while Hippo keeps us entertained with African jokes and some not-so-funny details about the rafting school he was about to start with several other guides—a dream that will sadly go unfulfilled. Ironically, the take-out is at the proposed dam site, though there’s little evidence to suggest anyone is doing anything. Hippo points out some engineer’s offices and storage buildings, then gestures up to the top of the future spillway high above—still just air at this point.
There’s something about this river beyond the rafting experience. The whole gorge is simply alive. It’s not quite tranquil, but it is beautiful. During the open-air bus ride back to Vic Falls, we dry out and discuss the impending loss of something so powerful—an energy you can literally feel when immersed in the roiling waters, a power that will potentially be harnessed and distorted to suit our modern needs. For my part, I no longer feel a part of this natural system—just another outsider with a cell phone to charge. But just when I think this notion tough to handle, I glance at the front of the bus to where Hippo is staring off into space. His is the face of the Zambezi: noble, strong and imperiled.