This story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of SUP Magazine.
Words: Brittany Parker
Photos: Chantelle Melze
As I stood on my board above the indifferently named Rapid 12 on Africa's infamous Zambezi River, geysers of whitewater shot over the horizon line and pushed fear deep into my gut. The rapid's roar was so powerful that the sheer sound of it seemed to have as much to do with the carving of the canyon walls as the water itself. My heart raced and my voice shook as I asked, "Should we get out and scout this one?"
"Nah, just run it straight down the middle," said Andrew Kellett, a legend amongst watermen/woman in South Africa. Andrew led by example and took off down the tongue but when he hit the first wave his feet left the board and he plunged head-first into the turbulent water. That didn't help.
But still, I felt I had to go.
The Zambezi—famous for whitewater rafting and kayaking—had never seen standup paddleboarders, and we were attempting the first SUP descent on the section below Victoria Falls. First descents are nothing new: in this early stage of exploring the sport, surges of paddlers set out to attempt different first descents every year. To me, it felt like those first descents were losing their meaning. Does it really matter if you're the first to paddle rivers that have been paddled by kayakers and rafters alike? I wasn't sure.
But it wasn't the prospect of a first descent that drew me into this trip: it was the plight of Africa's rhinoceroses.
Every day in 2014 more than three rhinos were poached in Africa for their horns. These horns are shipped to places like Vietnam and China where they are superstitiously believed to have medicinal properties that can heal a wide range of conditions, from cancer to hangovers. Several species of rhinos are critically endangered with population numbers well below 100. Many of those poached rhinos leave calves behind that must fend for themselves.
Two African paddlers wanted to do something about it: Shane Raw, a legend amongst the world kayaking community and Bertrand van de Berg, a long-time kayaker turned South African SUP advocate. They organized a team to draw attention to the plight of the rhinos through a stunt: paddle the Class III-V Zambezi on standups, something that many paddlers thought was impossible. Doing the unthinkable tends to draw in an audience and we hoped to direct that audience to the bigger issue of poaching and those calves left behind.
They assembled a talented cast of paddlers from Africa, recruited myself and Nadia Almuti from the States and went about raising money for the rhino orphanage Care for Wild, which has made it their mission to protect and care for these traumatized calves.
And now that I was standing above a churning cauldron of African whitewater, things were feeling very real.
An intense shot of adrenaline coursed through my body before dropping into the new rapid. I did a few squats and took some deep breaths to slow my heart rate. Then I'd repeat my mantra, "Do it for the rhinos."
Coming over that horizon line was like coming face to face with a monster. My flight response kicked in but I'd purchased a one-way ticket; there was no turning back.
The first wave towered over me. I dug my blade into the water, trying to match the speed of the river, squatted low and braced for impact. The combination of those techniques pushed me up and over the first hit—I couldn't believe I was still standing. Then I met wave number two, a feisty lateral that came at me so quickly I didn't have time to line up. It flipped my board and sent me deep into the center of the current.
As I plunged under the turbulence of each crashing wave, the crippling adrenaline I felt right before the rapid was replaced with a euphoric energy. Although no one cleaned the rapid, we were facing our fears on the Zambezi. And we were doing it with purpose.
When I was a raft guide, I drooled over the big, juicy rapids of the Zambezi. I watched countless YouTube videos and imagined myself running the river, quietly promising myself that I'd go there someday. I never would have guessed I'd be doing it on a SUP.
When Nadia and I stepped off the plane in Livingstone, Zambia the reality of our adventure hit us with a wall of heat. The African sun beat down on the tarmac and made the air so thick it felt like we had to push our way through it. My jet-lagged haze kept me from communicating coherently to immigration officials and our shuttle driver. I pressed my forehead against the window of the cab, half listening to the driver and half focused on what was happening outside. Baboons were running through the streets picking up scraps and warthogs foraged through the front yards of houses and fancy hotels. A smile crept onto my face through the fatigue.
Paul Teasdale, local Zimbabwean and founder of outdoor lifestyle brand Raw Adrenaline, and his two extremely friendly pit bulls greeted us at the gate of his home where we'd be staying for the next week. Paul gave us the run through of the house, introducing us first to his new friend Basil, a leaf nosed bat as big as my forearm that hung sleeping outside of Paul's office. He warned us to always keep doors to the outside latched and locked. "Baboons are often harmless but if you walk in on one in a room it will feel cornered and tear you to shreds," he said. "Also, there's a camel spider that lives here, he's about the size of your palm and looks frightening but don't kill him. He's harmless and keeps away a lot of the pests. Alright, get your swimsuits on. Let's go!"
I said goodbye to any chance of a nap and hopped into his 2002 Mazda Drifter, an old but reliable beater with a decal of a hyena and the word Suntwe stuck to the hood. I asked Paul what the word meant.
"Suntwe is the Tonga word for hyena," he said. "As an African bush survivalist I earned the nickname because hyenas are cunning survivalists themselves. As the saying goes, a hyena doesn't always hunt but a hyena always eats. That, and my high pitched laughs sounds similar to that of a hyena." He chuckled. The nickname was fitting.
We stopped at the local mart and filled up our cooler with a six-pack of Zambezi Lagers and headed to Paul's favorite soaking pool on the beer's namesake river. The sleepiness bounced out of me as Suntwe crawled up and out of the potholes and ruts. The calm and vast Zambezi, the river I'd dreamed of years ago, emerged from the horizon. It flowed slowly, as if in no rush to meet the cliff walls of the Batoka Gorge.
The warm water rushed over my toes as Nadia and I shuffled across the slick basalt to a pool that Paul assured us was safe from crocodiles. The word alone made it hard to relax, and I constantly looked over my shoulder for any sign of movement in the depths around us. But with a landscape straight out of "The Lion King" and the African sunset reflecting off the water, I quickly forgot all about the large reptiles.
We only had seven days to complete our mission: standup paddle Rapids 1–24 below Victoria Falls on the Zambezi. Once our African contingent—Andrew, Bertrand, Shane, Philip Claassens and Leon Pieters—arrived, it was game on. All were highly experienced paddlers, intimate with the Zambezi's big water. Now it was time to test that knowledge on SUPs.
As we figured out how to cram eight paddlers and all their gear into the tiny Mazda the excitement coming from the guys was evident. To them, the Zambezi was a close friend. For Nadia and I it was like meeting a childhood idol for the first time. The combination of fear and excitement was so intense I felt like I was going to vomit.
The Batoka Gorge cuts across the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe in a zig-zag manner like a lightning bolt carved into the earth. Scaling its craggy walls is the only way to access Rapids 1–24. With the steep canyon walls and blistering heat it's common practice to hire local porters to carry gear in and out of the gorge. Many families in Victoria Falls and surrounding villages depend on this as their main source of income and the paddling community is a huge component to the economy here.
It felt against my nature to have someone carry my board for me, but once we began our descent, I couldn't imagine carrying my own board. The temperature was a punishing 110 degrees and my feet often slipped out on the loose rocks blanketing the steep trail. The trip wasn't going to be solely a test of our paddling skills but also of our personal fitness and stamina.
The sight of the river was a welcome oasis. I ran to the water's edge and filled my empty water bottle with the sweet nectar of the Zambezi.
"We're going to run Rapids 18–24," Paul told us to start our safety talk. "Below 19 there's a big crocodile that lives there so come together and make sure you're presenting a large entity. Below 21 there's another big crocodile. Other than that there's nothing to worry about."
He seemed paradoxically upbeat. I always thought crocodiles would be a deal-breaker for me. I remembered pacing back and forth in my living room, talking to Paul via Skype, him reassuring me crocs were not a concern. I'd purchased my ticket on that information. And there I was, being told where the crocs live and how to steer clear of them. The fear was like a solid object lodged in my throat. I clipped my leash to my lifejacket, jumped on my board and swallowed it.
It's usually comforting when rapids finish in a pool of calm water, but I'd just learned that pools were crocodile territory. As we worked our way down the river, the sense of urgency to get back on my board after each fall was acute. Nadia and I adhered to Paul's advice and stayed as close together as possible without knocking each other into the water.
Paul saw our fear and reassured us that crocs never hang out at the base of the rapids. The small bumps on a crocodile's body can detect the tiniest vibrations from the surrounding waters. It would be nearly impossible for them to differentiate between the vibrations produced by the rapids and those of their prey. This little biological fact was surprisingly comforting. The fear of the crocodiles disappeared after an hour or two and was replaced with a healthy and rational awareness.
We completed our day's run and the porters met us at the river's edge, eager to grab our boards, deflate and make their way up the canyon walls to call it a day. It may have been the mellowest section of the river but stoke-filled high-fives were passed around as we celebrated the start of our mission. We had completed seven rapids and had 17 more to go.
We hiked up in the glow of the African sunset. As Nadia climbed up the makeshift tree-limb ladder ahead of me, I stopped to take in my surroundings, breathing in the buzz of the cicadas and give thanks to the Zambezi for welcoming us into its wild water.
The beat and pace of Zimbabwe felt like the steady pulse of Mother Nature herself. Life there is thirsty but full of life, born from resilience and the need to survive. Early in the morning baboons would terrorize the dogs from their perches on our host's roof. Herds of elephants were a regular cause for traffic jams as they roamed wild and free throughout the plains. Sitting on the veranda at night, the crew would often stop mid-conversation to listen to the hyenas howl into the inky blackness. It was hard to believe it was standard living for the Zimbabweans. It felt like a different world but more like the world humans were intended to live in, a world where animals and humans live their lives together, and ours were no more important than the animals around us.
But the natural world of Africa wasn't always friendly. Hiking in and out of the gorge in the oppressive heat eventually took its toll on us. Halfway down one of our hikes, Nadia's face got beet red and her pace began to slow. Any sturdy tree became an opportunity to rest and wait for the dizziness to stop. Then her arms began to cramp. Paul, having dealt with heat stroke on many occasions with past clients, handed Nadia the rest of his water and massaged her arms until she was able to wiggle her fingers again. Then, halfway into our paddle, my feet began to seize and Paul followed the same protocol. After that we always drank electrolytes first thing in the morning and brought extra with us. The people of Africa say "Africa is a tough teacher," and they're right.
Everything built up to our last day. That morning was filled with a nervous energy. What had been a hike filled with laughter and happy chats over the days prior was now quiet and solemn. The group seemed to move slower than before, taking space to process prospect ahead of us. For me, it was an attempt to postpone the moment we would be paddling the biggest section of the Zambezi, Rapids 1-10.
While getting our boards ready I saw Nadia talking to our drone pilot with a concerned look on her face. I asked her what was wrong and immediately regretted it. She told me that, "a couple years ago a girl fell out of a raft at the top of Rapid 5. She went into one of the holes and her body resurfaced five days later."
The information sent me into a downward spiral of fear and anxiety. Nadia walked, head down, to sit alone and process this information. I slunk away, wedged myself between some rocks, and let the fear take over as salty tears burned my cheeks. The rest of the team had put their boards on the water but I felt glued to the shore with indecision. Nadia urged me to join the rest of the team. Andrew, sensing the confidence draining from the crew, had us circle up and said, "Today is about us. Our safety is our priority and our strength as a team will make the difference between success and failure. Today is not about sponsors or social media expectations. It's about our ability to use our knowledge and experience to achieve something that has never been attempted before. We aren't just anybody taking on this challenge; collectively we have decades of experience on rivers around the world. We have to believe in our ability and trust and support each other's decisions. Today is about us."
His words gave our crew the strength we needed to get on the water. The support from my peers turned that fear into fire as I paddled hard and fast into the thundering rapid ahead of me. Soaking wet from swimming at the bottom, I climbed on my board after the rapid feeling like I just conquered Everest. Andrew paddled up to me and gave me a high-five—a tip of the hat in acknowledgment of how challenging he knew it was to push through my fear.
Though I felt confident in that moment, I also realized that some of the rapids ahead had potential consequences that I couldn't justify. I would sit out from running Rapids 4-10. In the end it was a simple decision. I knew I wasn't ready. Nadia, as spirited as she is, made her decision with a bit more reluctance but eventually deflated her board and joined me in the raft.
Seeing the force of the whitewater squeezing between the canyon walls, I knew I'd made the right decision. As the remaining paddlers made their way down the river, each one came out at the bottom unscathed. There were no fist pumps thrown at the finish, no bragging or boasting. This wasn't about conquering the Zambezi. It was about surviving, about testing boundaries both personal and within the sport of whitewater SUP while bringing attention to something much larger than ourselves.
Our descent of the Zambezi raised thousands of dollars for Care for Wild and brought awareness to the challenges that rhinos face across Africa. I'd started the journey to help these magnificent creatures but ended up learning a lot about myself in the process. I learned how to tell the difference between rational and irrational fear, that my experiences are invaluable and that the journey only really begins once you surrender all expectations. Africa grabbed me. It wrapped me in its wild spirit and allowed me no choice but to embrace it fully. I understood then why Africa is referred to as 'The Mother.' For humans, rhinos and all the other animals living there too.
For more information on the Standup 4 Rhinos project or to donate, go to Standup4rhinos.org.