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Alex Nicks and high water Zambezi

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Long time Bio Bio guide Alex Nicks talks about running the Zambezi at record high water, solo! 

Most people will have seen footage of the Zambezi and it’s
famous huge volume pool drop rapids. 
Of the many facets that makes the river so special a significant one is
its variation in flow. Victoria Falls is Approximately mid way through the
2500km course of the Zambezi and with natural flows rising during the rainy
season or ebbing during the dry season. This means that over 12 months the
White Water section below the Falls is always either rising or falling with a
vertical cycle of over 8 metres in some places in the gorge.

The result is that the world famous run occurs at the low
ebb of this cycle but as rains bring it up the upper section (rapids 1-10)
become commercially un-runnable. There are two reasons for this. Mainly because
the pools disappear and the raging, thunderous volume of water causes huge
boils and whirlpools that would swallow rafts and paying clients. Specifically
because the level means that the one portage (rapid no 9) can now no longer be
portaged. Putting in at rapid 1 commits you to a class 5+(++) rapid.

It can however be run by a kayak. And after finding myself
in the Zimbabwe for a shoot it’s too hard to pass up a run on this upper
section. Unfortunately I can’t find any one to go with me. Most of the river
staff are working in other countries as the commercial rafting is closed due to
the level and the locals are perhaps just too wise.

It’s always a dilemma deciding to solo. But sometimes
opportunities like being next to the Zambezi are just too good to pass up,
curiosity outweighs wisdom and I know this section too. So on the 18th
July I put in at rapid one on my own. The Porters who carried my boat in wish
me luck and wander off squabbling over the fist full of Kwatcha notes I’ve
given them.  I know their look,
they can’t quite work out if I’m mad but they’ve seen me here before so are
expectant that they’ll at least earn some more money carrying my boat out of
the gorge at the take out.

These huge flows mean I can’t even see the falls as I push
away from the boiling pot as spray 350ft high drifts though from the cascade to
the head of rapid one. It’s a quick hop across the cushion wave at rapid one
and I’m on my way, buoyed in confidence by the feel of the warm water across my
face and the rainbow formed by the mist from the falls. There are major hurdles
along this run, rapids 5, 7, the narrows at 7and a half, but at every stage of
this run Rapid 9, the commercial portage is at the back of my mind. If getting
there is a challenge, then certainly rapid 9 is the gauntlet.

It’s clichéd, but life is nothing without taking risks and
finding challenges. And none are more valuable than calculated risks based on
years of skill, experience and the odd arse kicking. Today I run Solo but I’m
with everything I ever leaned, I’m carrying all the confidence from years of
paddling with a huge array of paddlers on diverse runs around the world. Today
we’ll find out if that’s worth anything.

To see how it went …watch the footage from my head cam on
the short film ‘Solo’ at


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