A sampler of Africa's thrills

Email|Print| Text size + By Erik Heinrich
Globe Correspondent / April 24, 2005

LIVINGSTONE, Zambia -- ''Check one!" calls out Frank Ngwenya, a sturdy dude in a blue T-shirt and with closely cropped hair whose last name means crocodile. He and Ben, both of the Vic Falls Bungi crew, attach an elastic bungee cord to my body harness. ''Check two!" They close the carabiners fixed to a strap that will pull me from the jaws of death if anything goes wrong with the main connection. ''Check three!" The end of the bungee cord is wrapped in padded Velcro, and now the rest is up to me.

I'm standing on the lip of a 365-foot drop in the middle of Victoria Falls Bridge, balancing on a knife's edge. On this side is safety and order. On the other awaits danger, chaos, maybe worse.

From upstream, I can hear the muted roar of Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Makololo name for Victoria Falls, meaning the smoke that thunders. This local tribe, once part of the Zulu nation, could not have picked a more suitable name. I glimpse a portion of the world's biggest waterfall through steel girders of the old railway bridge: Six cataracts stretch slightly more than a mile across the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

White water explodes over a ragged-toothed ledge, and drops nearly 340 feet into the fury of the Boiling Pot, a rocky fissure of churning water with high cliffs pressing in on all sides. During the height of the wet season, February to June, as much as 2½ million gallons of water tumble over the falls every second, enough to supply New York City's daily ration in less than 10 minutes.

My hands grip a curved, metal rail. Heels dangle over the coffee-bean-colored Zambezi River and the empty chasm of the ancient Batoka Gorge, home of egrets and hornbills. I lock onto Frank's wraparound shades, and he looks deep into my soul.

''How do you feel?" says Frank.

''Slightly freaked out."

''That's not good. You need to relax."

''I'm fine. Let me catch my breath." Jumbled thoughts swimming around my head make a fast exit as I find my focus. I am determined to go through with this no matter what.

''OK," I signal, exhaling my last breath from the relative safety of the bungee platform.

''Five, four . . . three, two " I leap backward into the unknown, and just as quickly, I'm overcome by rapid, downward acceleration. I can feel heavy G-forces pressing down on me like a giant fist, pushing me to fall ever faster. I'm dropping like a stone, stomach in throat, racing toward terminal velocity, the top speed at which a human can drop to earth. This is sheer terror. I'm having trouble catching my breath, it feels as if my heart has stopped. Then things get really exciting.

I start to flip. My view suddenly changes from blue sky and bridge above, to serpentine river of hippos and crocs below; black basalt shore and neon-green vegetation hold fast to steep cliffs. I'm screaming, laughing, going out of my mind.

Why is this happening? At takeoff, I threw myself back with too much force, and at too steep an angle. As a result, I have turned the ''star elevator" (so called because the jumper makes a star shape when falling backward with arms and legs outstretched, as if disappearing down a bottomless mine shaft) into a combination reverse swan dive and back flip.

Little is known about Zambia, but this landlocked country of 10 million people in southern Africa is nirvana on earth for adventure seekers and adrenaline junkies.

In addition to the world's most spectacular bungee jump, the colonial town of Livingstone serves up a turbocharged menu of aerial and white-water thrills, including abseiling (racing across a gorge at top speed on a cable and pulley), and extreme rafting on the Batoka Gorge, widely considered to be the best in the world.

Finally, Zambia's 19 wilderness reserves -- foremost among them North and South Luangwa national parks and Kafue National Park -- bring visitors face to face with lions, leopards, spotted hyenas, hippos, elephants, and more.

While all these activities involve a particle of risk, Zambian tourism operators always have safety uppermost in mind. Also, Zambia is a politically stable country with a friendly population and a developed tourism infrastructure (including ATMs in the big centers) that can accommodate both budget and luxury travelers.

As I continue to hurtle toward the Zambezi from the Victoria Falls Bridge, I catch a blurred glimpse of the main cataract. I flash back to earlier that morning, when just after sunrise I came face to face with the awesome fury of the smoke that thunders from a wooden walkway at Victoria Falls National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site across the watery border in Zimbabwe.

The spray shooting up from the Boiling Pot near the Eastern Cataract flew skyward more than 325 feet with the force of a hurricane. I was soaked to the bone in seconds, battered by rain -- falling up, down, sideways -- that made photography impossible.

My free fall from the bridge comes to an abrupt halt seconds before I reach terminal velocity, and I am pulled away from the Zambezi by a sudden yank that carries me skyward halfway to the bridge. I feel like a yo-yo on a string, but soon the crew begins to winch in the bungee cord and I am met by an escort dangling from a harness.

''How was it?" says Shepherd, helping me up to a catwalk that runs along under the bridge.

There is no way to describe this exorcism, this baptism and rebirth in the smoke that thunders. The only word that comes close is ''biblical!"

. . .

A few hours later, I am hanging over the edge of Double Trouble, a rubber raft operated by Bundu Adventures, bombing down the Zambezi in the direction of Mozambique and the Indian Ocean. (Only the Nile and Congo rivers in Africa are longer than the Zambezi.)

I share the front with Peter, an Aussie from Brisbane visiting grandparents in Zimbabwe. His brother Raymond is behind us, along with Christie and Niki, a pair of twentysomething Londoners, and Captain Temba, keeper of the rudder and guardian of our safety.

The plan is to shoot the bottom 14 of 24 rapids on this legendary stretch of the Batoka Gorge in four hours; traveling a distance of some 12 miles between high basalt cliffs that reduce us to insect proportions and lend our rafting expedition an epic quality.

''Forward!" Temba yells as the Zambezi pulls us toward a meeting with Overland Truck Eater, a heavy-duty rapid that chews up rafts as if they were Chiclets. As we paddle hard, the water starts to get choppy, then rough; finally, it's like a raging white sea that throws the nose of our raft up and slams it down hard. That see-saw continues until we shoot over a patch of water moguls, and the rapid releases us from its jaws.

We touch paddles in the middle of the boat, and let out a hoot whose echo bounces off the canyon walls. So far so good, but just ahead lies the most challenging section of the Zambezi, a series of four rapids named Three Ugly Sisters and The Mother.

''We may tip," Temba warns us.

The comment is made so casually I'm not sure he is serious, but I check that my helmet is securely fastened before powering into the first ugly sister. We explode through a white-water wall in solid form, nose pointing downstream. I begin to prepare for the next hazard when a plume of white water suddenly shoots up from below, gives the rear a hard smack, and tips the raft's port side.

I can hardly believe what's happening, in part because it feels as if I'm watching a slow-motion replay on TV as I lurch toward Peter. Then I am dumped into the roaring, churning Zambezi with a raft on top of me; and everything speeds up, really fast.

I swim out from under the raft and grab onto the rope that runs along the outside. Temba is already on top. ''Quickly!" he shouts. ''Climb up and hold on!" We scramble to the relative safety of the overturned raft as it rips through the remaining sisters in rapid succession.

. . .

I have come here during the green season, and spend the first days at another end of Zambia, in the village of Mfuwe near South Luangwa National Park. Rains from the Indian Ocean douse the valley floor and the Luangwa River jumps its banks, creating lagoons and ox-bow lakes populated by hippos, Nile crocodiles, and sacred ibises. Mfuwe Lodge is on one of these lagoons, and at 4 a.m. I am awakened by the snorting of hippos just outside my chalet. I venture onto my veranda, and spot a straggler making his way across the muddy lagoon and into the trees. Overhead, vervet monkeys shake the branches of a pink jacaranda, while tree frogs chirp up a storm.

At this time of year, walking safaris, which offer a bush experience unrivaled anywhere on the continent, normally are not organized because the tall grass of the savanna and the dense vegetation of the woodlands can conceal a hungry lion or rogue elephant until it is too late. Instead, visitors explore the park in open Land Rovers.

One morning in a Land Rover with ranger Mishek Milanzi, we scour the banks of the Mushilashi River, a tributary of the Luangwa, for three lionesses. The dirt road is deeply rutted and overgrown, making progress slow. Then Milanzi spots his quarry.

The lionesses are dozing on a sandbar, baking top and bottom in the hot, midmorning sun. It's a kind of spa day for these queens of the bush, who have hidden their cubs nearby to get some peace and quiet.

The dominant female is an impressive 8-year-old, whose scarred, dark hide is stretched taut over bulging muscles. The other two, younger and lighter in tone, are like a pair of tightly wound coils.

When I stand up to get a better look through the thicket that separates us, the older female takes notice. I have broken the line of the Land Rover, and she now sees me as a potential threat. Or prey? For a few seconds she locks onto me with a killer gaze, then lazily drops back onto the sand.

This is wild Africa at its wildest, I tell myself. I have to come back.

Erik Heinrich is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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