Back in February 2007, our sister newspaper The Southern Times ran a piece on Victoria Falls titled “Legend of the Great White Water”.
Needless to say, the article was about the thrills of one of the world’s most extreme leisure activities, white water rafting.
While the article said the first rafts were launched on the Zambezi below the Victoria Falls in 1985, other accounts talk of white water rafting being tried out about four years earlier.
Whichever it is, the statistics point to at least 100 000 people having taken part in commercial white water rafting on the Zambezi over the past three decades.
These are people who come from all over the world, paying an average of US$170 each to get their adrenaline pumping, risk bruised ribs and dare death on some of the most savage rapids open to commercial exploitation in the world. White water rafting had very humble origins in Zimbabwe.
The Southern Times article quoted Paul Connolly, the founder of Shearwater, a mainstay of the Victoria Falls tourism scene, talking about how he had to plead with people to try out the activity.
“We used to hunt them in the town up until midnight, virtually begging them to put their lives in our hands and raft with us without payment. We started with two rafts and I shall never forget the 14 guinea pigs who made the first trip without safety helmets and without the rescue kayaks that are such a feature today,” Connolly reportedly said.
“Of course, we got hammered in the rapids afterwards. But for some time we used to say: ‘Please come rafting tomorrow. We will give you lunch, give you a cold beer at the top and we won’t charge you a cent, as we know you will love it and spread the word when you leave the Falls.’…
“But they were the men and women after the dream, with a sense of Rider Haggard and (Rudyard) Kipling. It’s the same today. They want to master the elements of nature and feel the adrenalin under the spray at phenomenal speed. And they will say: ‘This is truly the life.’ “
The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
Today, white water rafting is part and parcel of the Victoria Falls agenda for many foreign tourists as well as for some locals. Never mind how it harks back to Kipling’s White-Man’s-Burden-Nonsense or Haggard’s King-Solomon’s-Mines-Racial Mythicism.
White water rafting is here to stay. Or is it?
Last week, a local business weekly newspaper published a story about how companies facilitating white water rafting are uneasy about the development of the US$4 billion Batoka Gorge Hydro-Electric Plant on the Zambezi.
The four companies that offer white water rafting downstream of Victoria Falls fear that the power station will reduce the number of months in which white water rafting can be done from nine months to three months in a year.
Rafting Association of Zimbabwe chair Mr Skinner Ndlovu was quoted saying “one thing for sure is that the rafting season will be shortened and confined to low season months when water is low, and that is loss of business”.
A fellow tour operator, Mr Philani Moyo, reportedly added, “This Batoka will seriously affect us. We have done petitions calling for the project to be stopped and we are still engaging. This is an iconic activity … Besides affecting business, this will have environmental implications as our children will no longer view the gorges which will be submerged in water.”
Kipling and Haggard must be smiling in their graves! The sole readers’ comment at the end of that story was from “Toaw”, who put it perfectly: “Collateral damage. I will probably never white water raft but will probably use Batoka electricity.”
Batoka is a US$4 billion project that will generate 2 400MW of electricity. This is a project that can change the lives of millions of people in Zimbabwe and Zambia, transforming the two countries’ economies in the process.
But that should not matter because a handful of companies want to make money while the rest of Zimbabwe battles an energy deficit.
It is the kind of thinking that drives some among us to hoard cash even as they see fellow citizens sleep in bank queues so that they can get 50 bucks the next day.
It is the kind of thinking that allows some among us to brag about a fight over hundreds of hectares of urban land and US$5 million bribes even as more than a million Zimbabwean families remain without a roof of their own over their heads. It is the kind of thinking that engenders greed in public officers who demand bribes to do jobs that they are expected to provide.
It is this kind of arrogance that makes political leaders angry when ordinary people question their selfish behaviour that runs contrary to the national interest.It is the kind of stuff that lends credence to Kipling and Haggard’s parochial take of an African who cannot take care of himself.
And most sadly, it gives rise to the thought that perhaps Zimbabwe is more of a State than it is a nation in the truest sense of the word.