Before I went to sign up for white water rafting in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe I had never heard of riverboarding (or hydrospeed as it is known as in Europe), but once we learned we could combine it with rafting, we were sold. Riverboarding is similar to white water rafting except with one key difference: you get out of the raft and give it a go on a tiny boogie board.
Sounds like a perfect thing to try out in Africa, right?
Jumping in on the Zambezi
The Zambezi river is composed of nineteen total rapids, eighteen of which are navigable for tourism purposes. One is classified as a level six and you get out and walk for that one rather than die, which would be bad for tourism purposes. The idea of getting out to try our skill on some of the level three and level four rapids got the adrenaline pumping.
After a quick safety briefing and signing a waiver against litigation for what could surely be my death, we set off. I was surprised that out of a group of forty or so rafters, my friend and I were the only two who had signed up to try riverboarding. We were kitted out with a safety vest, wetsuit to protect against abrasions, flippers for propulsion and an oar for the rafting part. It is nearly impossible to riverboard all of the rapids due to the sheer exhaustion factor. Rafting alone is exhausting and straining on muscles; getting out for a long exhilarating swim even more so.
After walking for about forty minutes down into the canyon below Victoria Falls we got into our raft to practice following instructions and paddling. Our team was comprised of my friend and I, two others from our Absolute Africa group and three other people. We also had a rafting guide and our own personal riverboarding instructor. We set off and navigated the first two rapids with relative ease; nobody in our group was a newbie to the sport. As we approached our first level five, the instructor turned to my friend and I and told us to put on our fins and tie up to our riverboards.
Didn’t Sign Up for Fives
During our safety briefing, the company had said we would be trying ourselves on level threes and fours, not fives. Fives are dangerous. Fives are scary. I pointed this out and the instructor said we looked adventurous and we should give it a try, but if we didn’t want to he would find us a cozy little three. I was about to agree when I saw the look in my friend’s eye. Adrenaline junkie doesn’t even begin to describe her. How bad can it really be? I wondered as we jumped off the raft and began paddling toward the rapid.
The instructions are pretty simple: Stay toward the center of the rapid, follow each other single file and try not to hit any rocks. To stay on the board, you put your upper body on it and when you hit a rapid, turn your face against the board in a better attempt to breathe. All easy enough in theory. A bit harder in practice.
Going into a rapid face first is a bit different than the rush from hitting it in a raft. First of all, there’s the insane drop as you come over the quieter water and drop headfirst into the churning rapid. The first drop was probably about 8m and sucks the breath right out of you; then you get a face full of water. Water has weight; it was likely crashing into a wet concrete wall. My head snapped back and then I was under. After my kayaking incident, I knew what to expect and it thankfully wasn’t panic inducing. The water thrashes you around like loose socks in the washing machine before finally spitting you out a minute or two later. Surprisingly both of us had managed to stay on our boards without incident.
We climbed back into the raft to help paddle through some of the smaller rapids after and try to regain our energy before he pushed us back out to try our hand at a level four. While I had expected a certain level of panic at getting sucked under again, it is more of a world weary resignation: oh, this again. Again, we made it through without losing our boards and without drowning. The adrenaline was flowing and exhaustion was kicking in when he had us go through another level five immediately after.
Forgetting About the Rocks
As soon as we came over the water break at the start of the rapid, I started swearing. The drop was intense, probably 12m or more. As soon as you overcome the drop, you get sucked in an upward surge of water before being hit face first by the wave and sucked underwater. I held my breath as I was pulled under and thrown about. And then I hit the rock.
I always forget about the rocks. Rapids tend to form in response to rocks, so you’re always running the risk of hitting one. As I came up to the surface dazed with the wind knocked out of me I was hit with a wall of pain. I let my board and body limply float out of the end of the rapid where my instructor called over to me, making the ok symbol with his fingers. I shook my head no, and he yelled to paddle over to him. As soon as I tried to kick, I knew what was wrong. My right knee wouldn’t kick at all. A burning pain shot out every time I tried.
I floated over to the ledge where the instructor pulled me out of the water by my life vest. As soon as my feet hit solid ground, my knee refused to support my weight. It was absolutely bizarre watching the top half of my leg go the opposite direction of my bottom half. I sat down shakily as one of the guides offered me an aspirin for the pain. My instructor shook his head and asked me if I needed to go to the hospital. I tried to stand one more time and failed.
Off to the hospital we go.