D-day for adrenalin in Victoria Falls
The ravine location
Our truck headed towards Victoria Falls (the waterfall) then turned onto a dirt road that went over the railway line and curved back through the bush. We got to an open-air wooden hut on the edge of the gorge, facing the famous bridge, and we all piled out of the truck. We were near the start of the white water rafting route, above rapid #4, apparently called Morning Glory. The rapids were too strong for rafting at this time of year (May), and we could hear the menacing water churning beneath us.
I don’t have the words to say how overwhelmed I felt as I stood on that platform at the edge of that gorge. Sheer rocky cliffs went down, down to the rushing Zambezi River as it made its way East. I knew how fast that water was moving – I’d seen it tumbling over the Victoria Falls with ferocity just the day before. The gorge was at least double the width that I’d thought it was when I’d seen the bridge from Victoria Falls, because we were now at a U-bend in the river: the bottom, wide part of the ‘U’ to be precise. I realised that my hopes of merely ziplining to the other side and being picked up by a truck over there wasn’t how this worked – the other side of the chasm was too far away.
Here’s a map of where we were. The zig-zags in the river are deep gorges – previous sites of where Victoria Falls has stood in years previously.
Standing there, looking at the sheer size of the gorge and the comparative smallness of, well, everything else, I had a minorfreak-out. The instructor started briefing us, explaining that the cable across the gorge could take a weight of something like 5 tonnes and that we would be using safe 3-point harnesses, and telling us things that should have reassured me, but didn’t really sink in. He explained what would happen: The zipline would drop us into the gorge, then immediately propel us forward at speeds of up to 105 km/h (+60 miles/h). When we’d swung across, we’d pendulum backwards and forwards a few times before coming to a stop. Then the instructor would put himself on the cable and slide to us, hooking his cable to ours. A pulley would haul us back to the start point.
I had to ask him how long the whole thing would take. The man replied, “8 minutes”. Gulp. I’d thought it would be a quick 2-minute blast before safely getting back to solid ground.
My face (and my generally panicked babbling) gave away my anxiety. “Do you want me to do a tandem with you?” Ben asked, seeing that I was ready to back out. I couldn’t have been more relieved. I felt that if I had someone to hold on to, I would be OK (ridiculous, I know).
The instructor helped us into our harnesses and asked what our combined weight was. When we told him, he solemnly shook his head and said, “There’s no power today, so a generator will be running the pulley that brings you back, and it won’t be as powerful as usual. The pulley might ‘give’ a little, so you may get another free ride if so.” Gulp. We found out later that this was, thankfully, a joke.
My zipline experience in Victoria Falls
We walked away from the viewing point, along the cliff edge for a few minutes until we reached the jump platform. We were the first of the group to go on the zipline. The scariest thing was walking out along the ‘plank’, bringing us even closer to the enormous cliffs below. We inched towards the edge, and I half-jokingly said, ‘Is it too late to back out?’ We sat in the harness so that we were dangling on the precipice of this enormous ravine, with the rushing of the Zambezi River beneath us.
‘Are you ready?’ ‘Y-es.’ ‘Five, four, three –’
We were off. The drop of the zipline was deeper than I expected and before I knew it, we were speeding forwards over the river. My scream changed by two frequencies: the really scared and the terrified. We reached the other side quickly, and then found ourselves sliding backwards for quite a long way, and then forwards again. The high-speed part of the swing was over, giving us a chance to take in everything around us. Ben said, ‘look at the man fishing down there’, and sure enough, way below us, was a person sitting on the banks of the Zambian side of the river. It was funny – from the start point it looked like we would almost be touching the water, but we were still way above it. If I were less of a scaredy-cat, it would have felt quite peaceful, on our own in this beautiful ravine.
We were off. The drop of the zipline was greater than I expected and before I knew it, we were speeding across the river. My constant screaming changed frequencies: the really scared and the hysterically terrified. We reached the other side quickly, and then found ourselves sliding backwards for quite a long way, and then forwards again. The high-speed part of the swing was over, giving us a chance to take in everything around us. Way down below us was a person sitting on the banks of the Zambian side of the river. It was funny – from the start point it looked like we would almost be touching the water, but we were still way above it. If I were someone who is better with heights, it would have felt quite peaceful, on our own in this beautiful river-hewn gorge.
The instructor slid down to us and greeted us in a casually friendly way, as if we were at the grocery store, not hanging on cables hundreds of metres above one of Africa’s largest rivers. He hooked himself to us and we were slowly pulled backwards up to the top. I was still holding on to the rope of my harness like I was solely responsible for keeping myself alive. When we reached the platform, we had to walk up the last section of rocks like a weird 3-legged climbing race, then we were finally back on safe ground. I could have kissed it.
A few more people went on the zipline after us – among them was a man who looked as anxious as I’d been, and a young guy who, after his ride, said that it was ‘OK’, but that he needed to do the gorge swing too, to get a real rush.
The gorge swing
Ben was looking forward to losing his stomach on the gorge swing, which was a few notches up from the zipline (in terms of adrenalin). There was no way I would be tempted to do this one, but I know I’m in the minority. Gorge swingers get an extra safety line because the force of the fall is much stronger than the zipline. The first part is a legs-kicking, arm-flailing 70-metre freefall, and then the cable catches you at the bottom and swings you a few times. You can either jump off the platform forwards, backwards, or from handstand position. When Ben said that he would do it from handstand, I thought he was joking – but he wasn’t.
Here’s Ben’s gorge swing video. On the way back up, the generator did have a minor shudder, which added to the ride:
Conclusion about the zipline and gorge swing
I think people can feel an extra level of apprehension doing this sort of thing in Zimbabwe. There’s a perception that it’s more risky doing it here than in a so called ‘First-World’ country (there was for me, anyway). Let’s face it, it’s not like we were in a theme park.
That being said, doing the zipline in this natural gorge rather than a theme park made it feel more raw, more real. There are excellent medical facilities within short airlift range if required, and the lack of other tourists makes the experience feel tailor-made. We all like to ‘own’ our experiences – if we’d had to stand in line with hundreds of other people, the ownership would have been taken away.
We went past the flying fox area and I’m glad I did the zipline rather than that. The flying fox is much slower and shorter, propelling you high above the gorge and then back again. If I was going to jump off a cliff I at least wanted to do it with some speed! That being said, I was glad it was over. The truck took us back to the lodge, my shoulders feeling as if an elephant had been taken off them.
I’ll leave you with more photos of the gorge swing:
At the time of writing (2012), costs & prices for high-wire activities were as follows. See Things to Do in Victoria Falls for more up-to-date details.
- Flying fox US $38.50
- Zip line US $66.00
- Tandem zip line US $104.50
- Gorge swing US $88.00
- Tandem gorge swing US $126.50
- Half day high wire (3 product combo) US $132.00
Experiences can be filmed and put on DVD at an additional price.