With one rapid dubbed "commercial suicide", nerves of steel are vital when white-water rafting on the Zambezi.
Said Dan, our Kiwi raft guide: 'You're about to undertake the white-water equivalent of Everest, except on Everest the guides get paid an awful lot more.' Dan was short, but broad; he had the kind of heft to height ratio that can likely only be attained by navigating rapids for a living. The six of us gathered in a ranch-style hotel in Livingstone hung on Dan's every word. He was, after all, the man who was going to help us survive the mighty Zambezi. The briefing over, Dan handed out lucky wrist charms to protect us from drowning. Had he handed out a batch of lucky spandex thongs, we would probably have donned those too.
Our jitters were easily justified: we were about to set off on a descent of the Zambezi river, via some of world's most extreme white-water rapids. Over half of the rapids below Victoria Falls are classified by the British Canoe Association as Grade 5: 'extremely difficult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas'. To put this into perspective, Grade 6 rapids are considered 'unrunnable'. The Zambezi has several Grade 6 rapids - one of which is nicknamed 'Commercial Suicide' - and these must be 'portaged' (walked around).
Supposedly, like Everest, the Zambezi has an 'easy' line to take; and the rapids, though huge and noisy, are not made lethal by underwater rocks lying in wait to snag a swimming body. But I couldn't help wondering how much comfort this offers when faced with a wall of falling water reminiscent of a collapsing skyscraper.
We started just below Victoria Falls, by most criteria the world's largest waterfall. The current was whip-fast and our paddling felt as effective as the flapping wings of a baby sparrow trying to extricate itself from a storm drain in full flood.
Almost instantly, it seemed, we were at the first rapid. I failed to follow Dan's bellowed instructions and we hit a wall: a huge rock wall - precisely the kind of wall you don't want to smash into in a raft. Luckily, we merely got bounced about a little - and very wet.
Earlier, Dan had told us: 'My first season here I lost my bag, so all I had was shorts and a T-shirt and that was enough.' 'Well, yes,' I thought, 'perhaps it would have been enough if you'd been sitting at the back.' Up front, as I was, you are a sponge for every errant wave. The canyon of the Zambezi just below Vic Falls is sunless and deep, and soon I was shivering in my shorts and short-sleeved shirt - wimps like me are better off in a thin paddling jacket or even a cagoule with rolled-up sleeves.
The rapids kept on coming, and we kept on shooting them. Then, just as my pulse rate was threatening to drop back into double figures, a giant wave crashed over us for what felt like several minutes. (It was actually more like eight seconds, but if you've ever wiped out in a big wave while surfing, you'll appreciate that eight seconds can be a very long time under a tsunami of white water.)
When the spray cleared I saw that we were a couple of oars short: two of my fellow paddlers had been sucked into the foaming torrent. Nice to have known you, I thought. A second later, I spotted them, bobbing along with the current like seals, and we soon dragged them aboard.
Play misty for me
At night, the camp routine revolved around food and drink: curry with popadoms, beef and Yorkshire pudding - not an instant-noodle hash in sight. Then there was the beer and the beatbox, turning the camp into an unexpected beach party.
It summed up the strangeness of rafting in foreign climes, stripping the location of its uniqueness and turning it into a Platonically ideal rafting trip; one endless river where only the rapids change, and the thrills are interspersed with barbies and booze round the campfire.
Back on the river we portaged Upper Moemba rapid: a stark, wide waterfall that drowned out our voices and (even though it was hundreds of feet below us) buffeted our faces with fine mist.
Eagles had been our overhead companions since the beginning, but as we descended we began to see more wildlife. There were crocodiles, black and lazy, sunbathing on the rocks and slithering into the water as we advanced. As I leaped out of the boat to tie up, a tiny croc slid off not three feet away. I would have felt brave were it not for the fact that, had I seen it, I never would have stepped out of the boat. On the bank, great packs of baboons kept pace with us and, at night, monkeys jumped from tree to tree around the camp.
Tackling the Ghost Rider
Most of the rapids have vivid, often darkly suggestive, nicknames such as Devil's Toilet Hole, Oblivion and Stairway to Heaven. Round about the fifth day, we approached Ghost Rider. This is the longest, most sustained dragon's back of a wave train on the river. It is a long sequence of high waves that you aim to ride up before plunging down into the watery tumult. And then up again... and down again.
With ordinary rapids there may be one or two points of interest - massive waves or scary holes - but on Ghost Rider you mount the aquatic equivalent of a Disneyland rollercoaster. It was almost too much fun, too easily; we didn't even have to queue up. I had begun to keep my eyes open and read the way the stream went, digging my paddle in so it made a difference instead of just biting air. I was also learning to predict lifts and dips and bracing myself against them, which gave me extra confidence that I wouldn't be thrown out.
The river widened and slowed, and our adrenaline levels plunged accordingly. A pod of hippos (the Zambezi resident most feared by the local population) regaled us with toothy yawns, as if to confirm that the fun was over. At journey's end there was a chopper waiting for us: more luxury of the kind that's too delicious to wriggle away from. Our pilot had once flown the Queen, he told us. Twenty minutes later we were back where we started, hovering over the spectacular width of Victoria Falls and its arc of crashing water.
Next time, I mused, there'll be no softness, no luxury. I'll do it in a Michelin man suit; just hurl myself in and take everything the river can throw at me. Dan, the raft guide, heard me out and said, 'Might work,' before turning back to the list in front of him. The next group of people he'd been charged with keeping alive were due the next day.
When to go
Trips run in the dry season, October to May.
Fly via Johannesburg to Livingstone, Zambia. Try Ebookers (www.ebookers.com) for cheap flights.
The cost with Water by Nature is £1,295 including hotels and an exciting helicopter ride.
Am I up to it?
Water by Nature accommodates clients at all levels of fitness, but the stronger you are the more fun you'll have. You also need to be mentally tough: rapids this extreme can be terrifying - and potentially dangerous.
More like this
Go to the Water by Nature site for similar trips in Nepal, Turkey and the USA.
For a rafting film with whitewater sequences, try The River Wild; for an IMAX spectacular, watch Mystery of the Nile, about a descent of the dangerous Blue Nile. The book of the same is by Richard Bangs.