Devil's Toilet Bowl

Livingstone Travel Blog

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I won’t lie.  I was scared, terrified even.  I thought I was going to die. 


I went rafting on the Zambezi yesterday.  I was so nervous the night before I barely slept and was up really early.  We got picked up and gathered for a briefing at a lodge nearby and I was feeling better about dong this after going over some of the details.  We headed to the river and made our way down to the “boiling point” which is the place we set off from.  Once I reached the river I wasn’t scared anymore.  I thought, I can do this.

During high water season, this entire area has water flowing.
  Emily, Erin and I partnered with four Brits who were extremely hung over from a booze cruise the night before, but they were pretty fun.  Our guide was from Wales and had only been guiding on Zambezi for two months, but was cute and seemed to have it together.


Speaking of cute…oh, the men, the men in kayaks…ahh.  There were about five rafts with up to 8 paddlers each and then six safety kayaks along.  Did I mention the fine men in these kayaks?  Concentrate on the task at hand, Chris.


Ok, so we set off and the first few rapids we got through with relative ease, so I felt hey, I can do this.

Rainbow in the falls.
  My first thought, though, as we started paddling was “you’re a weak girl!” - something my sister Jen yelled at me when we were canoeing together once.  We laugh about it now, but the thought of it made me work harder.  I did my best and we got through OK, at that point at least. 


When we reached rapid #6 called the Devil’s Toilet Bowl, a grade 4, our guide said we could dump here if we wanted, and I protested but I had only one voice.  He didn’t say he would dump us, but as we went in, all of a sudden the entire raft went over.  I was on the side it turned over on, so I got trapped under the raft for what seemed like forever, but was maybe 30 seconds, if that.  But I have never been so scared in my entire life.  I was grasping onto the “oh sh**t line” like they told us if we went over, but I could not get to the surface.

Crossing above the falls - during high water you can't walk across here.
  Every time I tried I’d hit the raft above me.  I think it must've been something like being trapped under ice.  Once I got underneath the upturned raft and thought I could get a breath, but I got sucked under back into the water.  I just kept holding my best to the raft, getting tossed and turned and smacking up against others.  I did think to myself at one point, this is it Chris, you are going to die here.  Still I kept struggling for life-giving air.  We finally got through the rapid and the waters calmed.  I felt someone grab my lifejacket and pull me up.  I took a huge breath.  I was overwhelmed at that point. I’ve never been in a situation where I thought to myself, you’re gonna die.  Erin started yelling where’s Emily, but she got tossed clear of the raft and was clinging to a safety kayak. We all made it.  I was kind of upset our guide purposely turned us because it was not a fun experience for me.  Some of the guys looked like they were going to puke any minute.


Looking back on that whole experience, I was not in any danger.  I had a life jacket, and once we cleared the rapids, I would've popped up.  But after hearing of deaths and being trapped under the raft like that, I was frightened beyond belief.  Even so, we had to press on.


At the next rapid, a grade 5, and our guide said we didn’t want to dump here because it was a long swim if you did.  Well, me and two others fell overboard half way through.  This time wasn’t so bad as I was freed from the raft and popped up pretty quickly, but there were some seconds of getting jostled around and when I came up I saw a safety kayak right away and swam to it.  I got pulled into another raft until mine made it through.  I was shaking like a leaf at that point, scared and tired.  We had 23 rapids to get through that day!  I thought I can’t do this every time. 


At the next rapid I saw a girl in the raft next to us sobbing uncontrollably saying she was never so scared in her life.  I just tried to breathe and have faith in my life jacket, which had worked for me so far.  At this one we had a choice of for sure getting turned up, 50-50 or easy.  I begged for 50-50 knowing no one else would go for easy.  We headed in and almost turned.  At one point our front end was literally straight up in the air. I held on for dear life and at some point I got kicked in the face or smacked heads with someone.  We all got through OK.  Our guide was cheering as he thought we rocked that one.  Erin thought it a good idea to bring up the Aussie girl's death at this point as she was lost in the rapid we just cleared.  Apparently she was with the company guiding us, and although it is still under investigation, the main problem was when they tried to pull her into the boat, she slipped from her life jacket.  I tell you what, my life jacket was so tight the whole time I could barely breathe.  Anyway, that conversation didn't lift the spirits any, so we changed the subject for sure.


From there we had to get out and walk around a grade 6.  Another rapid later and we had lunch.  Our British friends only were doing a half day and got off, and since there were others leaving us, we ended up moving to another raft with a different guide for the afternoon.  The rest of the day was a breeze.  Only a few grade fours and then after #18, only 1, 2, and 3s, so I knew I’d live to tell the tale! 


In between rapids I tried to enjoy the scenery, stare at a few small crocs and be thankful I was there and got to enjoy this incredible river.  During the afternoon some of the rapids were real small, so we got out and floated through those.  It was a beautiful day indeed.


By 3 p.m. (we had left the hostel at 7:30 that morning), we were done and boy were we sore, covered in bruises and just tired.  We paddled a lot.  We covered ourselves in sunblock but couldn’t keep it on so we were burned.  We climbed up some rickety wooden ladder to catch a trolley to the top where cold beers were waiting.  The ride back we went through a small village which was cool to see.


I wish I had pictures of this.  They videotaped it and took pictures, but they wanted about 30 bucks for the pictures alone.  They also said we couldn’t copy them, so that made it so we couldn’t split the cost three ways.  I wish I had photos, but it was already four day’s budget to go rafting.  However, pretty much in ever photo all you see is me clinging to the “oh sh**t rope” and looking scared out of my mind.  Anyway, I’ll never forget that feeling when we got turned over, though. 


The day before rafting I made it to the falls.  Now is not the best time to be here as there isn’t as much water, but it is beautiful.  Now that I’m done rafting, I think I’ll just chill by the hostel pool.  This traveler is exhausted and after mountain-climbing and rafting, I don’t need any adrenaline-pumping activities, at least not until S. Africa and the longest bungee jump in the world :)


For now it is Thanksgiving today and the three of us are going to put together a proper feast at the hostel and enjoy this holiday abroad.

cmgervais says:
ooooooo, this reminds me of my little adventure on the Zambezi. And it's a bad memory.

I had been down grade 5 rapids many times before, and I wasn't worried about the trip at all because it has always been a positive (albeit challenging) experience. My mistake! Our guide was very inexperienced (I swear, it may have been his first time on the river :^), and we dumped on a measly grade 4 ...I got sucked down, and down, and down... I was carried a long way before I finally popped up, gasping for air. I really, truly, honestly thought I was going to die that day! Then on the next rapid, I got trapped below the raft like you did. It really wasn't a good time at all. (My hands are perspiring just thinking about it 2 years later!).

I am glad you made it through - it's just awful that some have lost their lives there. This shouldn't happen with trained, experienced guides (who, for example, would make sure everyone's jackets are fitting correctly).

Posted on: Mar 23, 2008
darielle says:
Oh my god Chris. Thank goodness you didn't drown!
Posted on: Nov 27, 2007
bretaye says:
You are not a weak girl :)
Posted on: Nov 23, 2007
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During high water season, this ent…
During high water season, this en…
Rainbow in the falls.
Rainbow in the falls.
Crossing above the falls - during …
Crossing above the falls - during…
photo by: sarahsan