The eerie spray rising from the base of the waterfall rose higher than I’d seen it before, and I could smell it from our lunch spot above. Already a week into the wake of the floods caused by cyclone Dando in Mozambique, and Swaziland’s rivers were still pumping at near-flood level.
In that week, we’d had some pretty fun and exciting trips, albeit they were never short of nerve-wracking/ ‘near death’ moments. Using the term ‘near death’ was a fun way of metaphorically recounting the day’s trip with the guests: “Haha, we all fell out. It was a ‘near death’ experience. Haha.” I wouldn’t be using it in such a fun way after today.
I sat at the viewpoint above the waterfall and stared into the gigantic flow, mesmerized by its pulsating rhythm and the deafening crash of the water hitting the pool below – I couldn’t imagine where all this water was coming from!
My boss and fellow-paddler, Darron Raw, sat next to me and had a childish glint of excitement in his eyes. “You know, I haven’t done this in years,” he said “but the waterfall is pretty perfect for running right now.”
“Running!” I blurted. “You want to run this thing in a boat! You must be out of your mind!”
“No, not really,” he said, casually. “I’ve done it plenty of times, just not in a while. C’mon, I’ll do it with you”.
I found this to be slightly different than being offered the prospect of candy at the fair. There were some pretty high risks involved, including serious injury (my fellow guide Bheki, now with a pin holding his shoulder together after his attempt, was evidence enough for me) and/or death-by-drowning. I immediately said “NO! I am NOT paddling over this waterfall with you. I’ll just watch, thanks.”
There were two things that helped change my mind. One: The group of 40 pumped-up, raving-mad Aussies that we had taken down the rapids that day, sat behind us. Having gotten word of the prospect of their guides doing something extreme, they all cheered simultaneously, “Waterfall! Waterfall..!”
Two: I sat for a while longer, staring into the waterfall and, as happened often on the river, I began to think philosophically about the situation. Why did I immediately say no? Why did I believe that I couldn’t do it? Why couldn’t I feel comfortable with taking the risk? In a flash I made a decision. I would let go of all these feelings and surrender myself to the brute force of nature. The epiphany that I would paddle over this waterfall and survive became clear. I turned to Darron and said, “okay, I’ll do it,” in as calm a voice as I could manage. The Aussies went mad…
Some guests managed to achieve a similar fate some years ago. They missed the lunch spot and paddled into the rapids that lead straight over the waterfall. They were found clinging to a rock in the middle of the river at the bottom, with all their gear missing. They were Chinese tourists*, and when finally rescued, said to the guide, “that was fun, but no more big ones please.” I’d have to say I agree with them.
*The waterfall is now dubbed Chinese Takeaway.