The Engine Has Failed The Current!

03/07/2012.

Sioma Falls : 19 June 2012, Day 3

Voices stirred me from my sleep at 5:45am. It was still pitch dark. Cosy and snug in my bed I could hear that our boat man had not arrived yet as we had hoped for the previous night. I remember thinking what a shame it was. The chance of ever coming to this part of the world again was remote to say the least, so it seemed I lost out on standing at the edge of  Sioma Falls.

Sunrise at Sioma Camp

I drifted off to sleep, only to be woken agan by the excited voices of our neighbouring tent. It was 6:40. He was here!… I got ready as fast as I could and burst through the tent’s exit to be greeted by the sun peeking over the hills onto a stirring Zambezi. The staff told us that we needn’t worry about transport to the airstrip later as they would take us. What a relief! We boarded the motorboat, duly sat on top of our life jackets and met the river’s strong current head on.

Sioma River Camp dining area

The view was stunning. We were the only people on the water and next to the river the numerous and massive sandbanks had a slight orange tint from the early morning sun. We saw a few fish eagles and the odd hut here and there, but it was mostly untamed. Our hero, the boat man, handled the boat and conversation expertly and showed us the spot where a new bridge will soon be constructed  across the river. His English was the best we’ve encountered at Sioma and he knew how to navigate the river so as to avoid hidden rocks and tree trunks under the water’s surface. Due to the rise and fall of the water level during the year the river may look completely different from one week to the next  (something I also saw while white water rafting further down below at Vic Falls).

The captain

Beautiful sandbanks

What make this stretch of river so spectacular is the fact that the Zambezi is forced into a shallow gorge after Sioma Falls, in some places merely a 100 metres wide. This means that you can clearly see the high water marks against the river’s steep banks. The falls are said to be 14km upstream from Sioma River Camp and with a few kilometres to go we started to encounter rapids. Nothing too extreme apart from our captain telling us to hold on before he stormed each rapid. All went well until we arrived at the last rapid before the falls. This one looked a bit more serious and we could see the waves were a bit higher. The water level also probably rose 3-6 feet from below the rapid to the top tier. The captain gave the order to “HOLD ON” and then he unleashed the 80 horses of our nifty little craft. We went straight for the rapid’s throat and hit the waves hard. Water rushed past us at the rate of knots. This rapid wouldn’t relent. It was protecting Sioma Falls from our preying eyes. Suddenly a few concerned voices were raised about our lack of progress. I looked to the right. Yes, not only were we going nowhere slowly, we were in fact going backwards!!!

Now things were a bit precarious. Everyone advised our captain to NOT turn the boat sideways as in their opinion this would add an extra swim activity we didn’t bargain on, without lifejackets on, in a crocodile infested raging torrent. I was sympathetic to this viewpoint; I wasn’t ready to surrender my camera or wallet to the Zambezi just yet. I didn’t look back but it was apparently at this point that our captain’s eyes were very big and white. But he was the captain for a good reason and managed to steer the boat out of the rapid towards a sandbank. His analysis of the botched rapid attempt : “The engine has failed the current.”

The insurmountable rapid

The adrenaline was pumping. Our captain was not only an excellent skipper, but he was also a top notch guide and led us over house sized boulders and through some shrub to the Sioma Fall’s main falls. We were supposed to see the falls the previous afternoon which would have meant a setting sun behind our backs, but we stared straight into the morning sun and it gave the falls a gnarly look. Definitely not a place I would like to go down at. The main falls’ height is very deceptive. Due to it falling over such a wide area it looks shorter than what it actually is, but it’s between 7 and 12 meters high. The falls roared in my ears and it was thrilling to stand right at the edge of it. It was also surreal to see water rushing by underneath the rocks; water gushed through wherever there was a crack, passage or opening.

Sioma Main Falls

Our eventful previous day and the luck involve by actually making it to the falls that morning made the experience so much sweeter. Before we left for Zambia I tried to find as many photos and videos of the falls as possible. Everyone bar none failed to capture the immensity and space. I attempted two panoramas and hoped they would come out OK against the harsh light. Even so, at that moment we were probably only seeing about 10-15% of the entire falls. I reckon it’s impossible to see the rest of the falls by foot and therefore it was such a wonderful privilege to fly twice over them and take it all in. I expect that a lot more tourists will visit the falls once the road from Livingstone to Sioma is completed and that it will move up as one of Zambia’s best tourist attractions.

Main Falls Panorama

Sioma Falls panorama

Filled with content, we made our way back to the boat and revelled in the majestic 25 minute boat ride back to Sioma Camp. The kitchen staff were able to serve us porridge and crumpets for breakfast and then we were transported back to the landing strip in a beat up old Land Rover.  There was a bit of tension in the air as pre-flight checks were made and we taxied to the end of the runway. We were still heavy with fuel and the runway was only 1km long (700m usable and the surface wasn’t good) with trees and a power line a bit further on. We lumbered into the air and then circled over the falls once more before heading North North-East to Mcbrides’ Camp in the Kafue.

Beat up Land Rover

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