I am sitting here in the shade of a banana tree thinking back on the past three weeks of my time in Africa. It’s hard to really quantify my few weeks in Africa because it truly feels as if time moves at a different pace here. The days feel as if they pass by instantaneously, but at the same time, each day is so long and fulfilling it is almost as if the sun will never set.

Photo: Emery Kate Tillman

On October 18th the adventure began when I reunited with my World Class Kayak Academy family and boarded the plane to Johannesburg, South Africa.  We arrived at night with boats, paddles, and gear bags.  After corralling the entirety of our luggage we walked out of the airport into the evening’s lingering heat. We loaded up into a few cabs and spent the night at a hostel.  We had a layover day in Johannesburg and spent the day at the Apartheid Museum learning about Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s history.

Apartheid Museum, photo by Emery Kate Tillman

The next morning we boarded the plane to our first destination; Livingstone, Zambia. As the plane taxied down the runway I felt pretty excited. The Zambezi River was the first that inspired me to want to travel internationally to go kayaking. When I was about ten years old I watched Eric Jackson’s play boating instructional movies at least twice a day, which were filmed on the Zambezi and Nile Rivers. It was the first time I had ever seen kayakers surf river waves and run big water rapids. Ever since then it has been my dream to paddle the Zambezi and Nile Rivers. On that plane it felt really good to be on the final leg to reaching my dream of paddling the Zambezi.

On the flight’s decent I got a good view of Victoria Falls, the gorge, and some of the rapids.  We arrived and stepped out of the plane into the scorching Zambian heat. Thankfully everyone’s gear arrived and we departed to our campsite and arrived at Jollyboys Campsite, our home for the next month. Everyone threw their tents under the little shade in the grass and quickly jumped into the pool.  Later that day I headed into the town of Livingstone with my buddy Weaver Frolicher. It was really strange to be the minority race for the first time in my life. I walked to the market and immediately had people approaching, haggling, and begging from me. Culture shock.

Photo: Orion Chapman

The next day we loaded up in some awesome safari vehicles and headed to the river. We arrived at the Victoria Falls Park and walked to see the natural wonder and then walked back and met the local porters for the first time. The porters carry rafts, gear, and kayaks in and out of the gorge. They are some of the strongest and kindest people I have ever met. They sold us some Nyami Nyami necklaces. Nyami Nyami is the river god of the Zambezi and it is said that if you wear a Nyami Nyami, the river god will trade your life for the necklace.

Makuma wearing a Nyami Nyami

Photo by Orion Chapman, my mentor and Spanish teacher

As we walked down into the gorge we passed some curious baboons that tried to steal my water bottle. After descending deep into the gorge we arrived at the river. The gorge is truly an impressive place with towering raw lava rock cliffs rising straight out of the massive river.  It was clear to see why the locals believed that a river god lives here.

Photo by Ben Kinsella (my physics teacher and coach)

That day we paddled rapids 1-10 and the river was amazing.  It has such powerful and dynamic rapids.  I soon figured out why people call it the “Slambezi” after I was thrown from the top of a breaking wave all the way back to the bottom and landed on my face. Everyone was “all smiles” after every rapid and we reached the take out in a state of bliss. Soon we were a little less blissful carrying our boats for the 45-minute hike out, but as soon as we reached the top we had an amazing African sunset to cap off the first day of paddling.

Photos Orion Chapman

That night we had dinner at the “Fez Bar” which is the Mexican Restaurant in Livingstone. Then we headed back to the campsite and I passed out.

We had a good first day of classes around the campsite and then headed back to the gorge to paddle the #10-25 section. We surfed the 12-b wave for the first time and paddled more amazing big rapids. We passed a village, baboons, and a beautiful arroyo called “Mugabes Crack.” That day was Zambia’s Independence Day as we drove back through a few villages, there where hundreds of people were out dancing on the road and playing music. It was really cool when they all yelled and cheered as we passed.

Jollyboys Campsite by Orion Chapman

Day after day we did classes, paddled the Zambezi, and then went back to sleep once our homework was done. Orion, Brendan, Ben, and I ran #9, which is the biggest rapid on the Zambezi, other than the minus rapids right under the falls. Then a few days later Weaver and I got chased out of an eddy by a huge crocodile below #9. I don’t think either of us had ever paddled so hard in our lives before then. That same day on the drive back we passed a group of elephants on the road. We drove right next to one within hands reach from the vehicle.

Rapid #9 by Orion Chapman – notice my friends across the river for scale

In the second week we visited Machenje Village and had dinner at Mukuma’s house. Mukuma is the main porter on the Zambezi and master wood carver. He invited us to come eat a traditional Zambian dinner with him and see how he lives. Lots of people came over and it felt like I met the entire village. Makuma showed us how he makes his carvings. The dinner was delicious and we ate with our hands a maize and vegetable dish, along with a chicken that was caught and prepared for the meal. It was pretty humbling how simply the village lived and how truly kind everyone was. We all thanked everyone profusely before leaving.

Makuma and his wife, village photos by Orion Chapman

Cody Wasuda and Makuma preparing the chicken for dinner

Happy kids

Beautiful girl

The African days went on. The rainy season officially started here in Zambia with big rains and thunderstorms pouring down on the land. The dry, raw gorge turned into a seemingly tropical forest in a few days with beautiful red flowers and trees bursting to life. One of the days a big thunderstorm poured down while we were on the 10-25 section and countless waterfalls poured in off the gorge rim. It was a beautiful sight and felt like we were viewing hundreds of little Victoria Falls. That week about half of the group got sick with some flu they nicknamed “Mandela’s madness.” Also as the water levels dropped and I fell in love with the 12-b wave as it got world class.

Jason on 12B Wave. Photo Orion Chapman

Now we have only one more day left of kayaking the Zambezi before leaving to the White Nile in Uganda. Today in my English 12 class I had one of the most memorable experiences in Zambia.  Ivan (teacher) sent the class off in opposite directions alone and told us we were having a writing exam for the 1-hour period. I took off and almost immediately started talking with a man walking on the road next to me. He spoke a little English and we chatted for about a block and a half until we said goodbye. He went his direction and I went mine. I sat down to write about our conversation when a man named Godfrey, who I had met a few days earlier, recognized me and I began walking and chatting with him. He said he would take me to his village outside of Livingstone. On the way we talked about his life in Zambia, and he asked me about some of the States. We talked about education, poverty, religion, art, and music. On the walk we passed a big military march, then walked into the ghetto and passed kids playing on barbwire fences. We reached the market in his village and we said goodbye. Talking with Godfrey on that walk was one of the most interesting conversations I have ever had. I found a tree to sit on and began writing all that I had seen and talked about. While I was writing, old men, children, and high school-aged kids in uniforms would pass by and say hello or stop to talk with me. A bunch of kids sat down next to me and very quietly watched me write. After a while I said hello and they all jumped up and ran around yelling and giggling. When I had about ten minutes left in class I began walking back to camp, I saw Jason Cohen sitting on bridge writing, so I walked over and sat with him. We had a group of school kids walk up to us who were interested in what we were writing. I asked one of them if they wanted to write in my book and he wrote his name – with better handwriting than mine I might add. Then they left and a guy with a Bob Marley shirt stopped to talk with us and asked to see what we were writing. Around that time we had to leave and go back to the campsite. That was my English 12 exam. By far the coolest exam I have ever had.

Now reflecting back on when I first arrived in Africa I was pretty uncomfortable at first being the minority, but now I have started to really enjoy the culture and I think I even enjoy being a munzugu (white man). While it does get very annoying being viewed as a “human ATM,” people are interested in who I am and I meet so many interesting and kind people all the time who want to talk and have interesting conversations. I love it and I have definitely fallen in love with Zambia. I am going to miss this place!