The overhead standing wave that breaks in the mighty Zambezi is no secret. Discovered by kayakers over 20 years ago, more than a few surfers have made the journey through the Kalahari to explore its timeless curves. But now thanks to a large, ill-considered hydro-electric power scheme Africa’s weirdest wave may soon be no more.
Follow Koby Oberholzer & Royden Bryson on a journey to Zambia where they shrug off crocs to get their hair wet on a rare and special wave.
Filmed by Luke Patterson
Last Wave of the Zambezi as it appeared in print, 43.1 – The Africa Issue
Words by Andy Davis
My phone pings near the dregs of my second beer at Dropkick Murphy. New message from my connection Sean Edington, a river guide on the Zambezi. “It’s just started. You coming?” And there was a picture, bad angle, but you could see the lip and the curl of the wave and that was enough. The wave normally only lasts a week. Time starts now.
Things to organise: budgets, surfers, vehicle, passports, cameras, video, reflective jackets, fire extinguisher, cash, food, shelter. Things to worry about: crocodiles, hippos, elephants, cattle, goats, trucks, potholes, roadblocks, bad drivers, the mighty river itself and the spirits that dwell within… At 3am on a Tuesday, boards strapped to the roof, we hit the road.
Koby Oberholzer can sleep anywhere. The prodigious progeny of Frankie O, is crammed in the middle of the Toyota Fortuner, head thrown back, snoring between the old salts: Royden Bryson and videographer Luke Patterson. Greg, “The Sheriff” Ewing is riding shotgun upfront with me. We’ve climbed the escarpment by breakfast and hit Johannesburg in time to get snagged in the rush hour traffic at Gillooly’s. From there, it’s north to Bela-Bela towards Martin’s Drift border post and the Limpopo River. Cattle farms morph into game reserves and soon become mopani forest punctuated by baobabs.
Royden is present. But quiet. The ex-World Championship Tour surfer has had a bumpy few years, followed by a sustained period of regrouping on the South Coast of KZN. The mercurial talents of Sir Royden have been lighting up the points of the deep South Coast for a while now and this is his first mag trip in many years. “I had substance and alcohol-related issues that plagued my whole surfing career, so after my leg break in 2012, I didn’t necessarily behave in the best manner,” he says candidly. “In July 2016 I moved down to the South Coast and have just spent the last two years catching up on lost time, surfing.” He looks out the window into the golden light. “I’m just grateful to be in a position where I have the freedom to hop in a car and travel 1800km to a place I’ve never been before.”
The conversation turns to the wave we’re humping across several African countries to meet.
“Any concerns about wildlife?” I float.
“I suppose there are some nerves about the crocs,” admits Royden.
“Ay, I’m not too worried about the crocodiles I just want to go catch tiger fish,” laughs Koby. “I heard they full-up tiger fish in there.”
“Crocodiles or sharks, what are you more afraid of?” I push. “Sharks,” says Koby.
Royden is turning it around in his head for a second. “Hmmm… probably crocodiles.”
“Because of the way a crocodile plays with its food… It’s chowing you because it wants to eat you. It’s not mistaken identity… But whatever,” he shrugs.
The conversation dries up, I ping Sean. “What’s the situation with crocs?”
“The crocodiles are not an issue.” He replies. “If you want something to worry about, worry about drowning.”
Finally, we run out of road. The mighty black-green river blocks us. After all this land, the Zambezi twinkles back at us; a huge wet scythe. We drive onto the flat industrial ferry and make the crossing under the new Kazungula Bridge. The final stretch. Sean is waiting on the other side, to help navigate the orchestrated chaos of Zambian immigration. It’s an old one. Officiousness and bureaucracy create the perfect environment for corruption. It’s a purely symbiotic relationship, hard to figure out which came first, or if one ever existed without the other. Sean pays 700 bucks to avoid the prolonged bureaucratic bungle of having to declare all our camera equipment. Clutching the correct slip of paper, the guy with the AK47 unlocks the gate and suddenly we’re free.
The sun is dipping on our second day, casting long shadows as we roll through the hills and forests, skirting the town of Livingstone and hugging the river, to our home base at Safari Par Excellence lodge, perched on the quiet waters above Victoria Falls.
Royden is up at dawn, and I’m programmed that way too. Watching the dawn break over the river from the deck, with a hot cup of coffee, from local beans, brewed in a French press… I’ve had worse surfacings. Sean arrives looking haggard. “Was up all night chasing elephants out of my garden.” He sighs as he sloshes the remaining coffee in a cup. “Bloody vermin!” He chuckles. “Zambian problems,” I laugh.
The rafting truck bumps and grinds through the local villages above the gorge. We turn right at a huge graffiti’d baobab, where a resident albino mongoose is often spotted, then down a rutted track, towards the precipice. The area around Livingstone is a mash-up of game reserve, village, tourist operations, lodges, hotels; a jumble of wild and urban spaces. The truck stops in a clearing at the edge of the gorge and we offload to prep and schlep. The nerves are beginning to jangle. Gear into dry-bags, apply sunscreen, lifejackets, helmets.
Melvin Ndlelwa, our Zambian river guide, son of a local chief and our self-designated chaperone meets us and presents us with hand-carved Nyami-Nyamis: the snake-like river spirit of the Zambezi. “For protection in the gorge and on the river,” he says, as he holds them out for each to choose before tying them around our necks.
Then we start the long line down into the gorge. So steep that they’ve constructed staircases out of hard mopani stakes. It’s not sheer enough to climb like a ladder, but enough to give you the wobbles and a dash of vertigo, especially in flip flops, under the plaintive wail of the trumpeter hornbills, endemic to the Batoka Gorge. A fall here would be a very bad thing. 580 Mopani stairs later we’re at the water’s edge, legs “shaking like Elvis Presley!” Laughs Scotty, our cherry-faced Welsh rafting captain.
The gargantuan, igneous rock walls on either side pull focus to the water bubbling and coursing through the middle. The power is tangible. Scotty works the raft expertly, navigating us through whirlpools and rapids with a kind of wild calmness. Royden and Koby are in the water on their boards, “to get a feel for the flow.” Their eyes are wide, as they meet Nyami for the first time. Round an S-bend the river slows and runs ominously still. Around the next corner, it opens up into a big calm pool; a horseshoe, that empties down a long tumultuous rapid, with the perfect wave breaking at the top, like a mouth waiting to swallow, gargle and spit you into the torrent below.
“Rapid 11 is bedrock, so it’s not a boulder garden,” Sean explains. “What makes the wave is the angle of a shallow island of rock underneath. So as the water is funneled out of the big calm pool and down this bottleneck, it pours over the ledge, accelerating and then hits the island and curls back on itself, making your wave.”
The Zambezi is the largest river system on Africa’s East Coast. Shaped like a Fibonacci sequence, spiraling from Northern Zambia along the Congolese border and round through Angola before swooping back into Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe before flaring out across Mozambique and into the Indian Ocean. By the time it reaches the 108 metre precipice known as the Mosi oa Tunya (The Smoke That Thunders), it is heavy with the waters of a rain-drenched region. Above The Falls, the river stretches over a mile across; in the Batoka Gorge below it condenses to just 20 meters at its narrowest. That’s on average 1088 cubic meters of water per second or 625 million litres per minute, forced down a steep and extremely narrow channel. The Zambezi you meet in the gorge, simply put, is an angry river.
The boys struggle to stay in the wave at first and get chaperoned by Sean on the kayak, towards Scotty in the raft, to scramble up the bank and pick their way over the boulder field for a few hundred meters, to the jump-off, for another go. There’s a spot just behind where the wave breaks, known as “the pit of shit,” a brutal maelstrom of moving water. Bail on takeoff, go over the falls or get pinned under the lip, you’re going in the pit. But you’ve got to get really close to catch the wave. A consequence that makes every takeoff a mind-game.
Finally, Koby lands on his feet and we get our first surf of the trip. No fireworks. Just feeling the wave and figuring out the weirdness of the river’s pulses. Then he sticks another one and now that genetic Frankie O style starts to come through – the casual waiter’s arm on the turns, looking snazzy in the life vest, helmet pulled low over his eyes. Koby carves and cuts back, looking for new ways to dice up the small canvas. Then he goes down hard, catches a rail at the bottom of the wave and gets sucked into the pit. His board pops up first and does a terrible tombstone-jig on the surface for about 30 meters, a marker for the beating being endured below. He eventually pops up but he’s a bit rattled. Royden can empathise; he’s been copping similar beatings all day.
We gather on the beach to regroup, sitting on the cooler boxes. Sean dances gingerly, with a hoot, around a bush snake on the bank. Greg and Luke discuss camera angles. Koby relives his underwater nightmare. “Reckon I only had a couple seconds of breath left,” he smiles. No one is offering to give up their helmets and life jackets to make the footage look more “natural.”
A few more runs and it’s time to pack up the raft, shoot the two monster rapids known as The Ugly Sisters and The Mother, Scotty dominating on the sticks and all of us whooping in the raft. Sean kayaks ahead, while Melvin kicks alongside, eyes wide, on a boogie board. We meander through a section called “The Narrows,” and spill out in a small rocky harbour for the long zigzag slog up the gorge wall to the pick up.
Back at the Waterfront, the scene is, again, festive. After dinner, the river veterans, local eccentrics and some enquiring tourists gather around Greg’s computer to review the day’s footage. The excitement is tangible as people whoop every turn and moan every fall.
The next morning, as we round the bend into the big saucer above the wave, we spot the legend; at least two meters of green greasy Nile crocodile, sunning itself on the flat rocks of the Zimbabwean bank. It spots us and slides casually into the water and disappears.
“Royden, you first!” He doesn’t argue but takes a more direct line into the wave than the previous day. He sticks it first time and now he’s surfing. The relief is palpable. After a good few grinds, he kicks out. Koby picks up where he left off and milks the wave until he pushes a turn too far and fades over the back. Now we’re in the rhythm. The long rides give insight into how much surfing taxes the legs, hips and ass. Roy’s back, zipping through the channel and in. Croc’s got everyone moving briskly today. Best not to think about consequences. Roy smashes a series of backhand hacks, each one going more vertical. He’s also sliding into the barrel, with a crazy layback style. He whacks three more runs for the cameras. Finally, with the gorge in shadow and everyone exhausted, we call it quits.
Time for a spot of tourism and “lifestyle.” A boozy riverboat cruise, some fun at the bar, an early morning microlight flip over the Falls for Greg and the opportunity to take in the natural splendour of Mosi oa Tunya, and then being manhandled by a pack of feral baboons on the way out. Then it’s time to pack the Fortuner and gird our loins for the long journey home. We say melancholic goodbyes to new friends and promise to return as soon as possible, and then, like spent shotgun shells, we toss ourselves listlessly across the Kazungula ferry into Botswana and onto the long uninterrupted road South.
In the late dusk, on the highway that cuts through the wild Kasane Forest Reserve, a huge bull elephant waits patiently on the side of the road for our fast moving metal capsule to pass, before continuing his long, slow walk under the stars to the next watering hole.
All images: Greg Ewing