It’s been talked about for so long, the famed mighty Zambezi river, the river itself but more pointedly rafting down it. A staggering volume of water is collected from the famous Victoria Falls and all that water comes pumping down the Zambezi, one of the wildest rafting rides in the world. And today we realise the main reason for battling over the border and fighting into Zimbabwe, I’m finally going to have my crack at the Zambezi. Up at 6:30am with bleary eyes we are picked up by the bus and we’re off for our briefing on a balcony overhanging the gorges of the upper Zambezi, steep walls of about 100m plunge nearly vertically in narrow slots down to the raging croc infested waters that will soon be our home. This day can only be one of a few shades of awesome, no dull outcome is possible. 

But for a moment the Zambezi takes a back seat, we’re greeted by an African smile, a smile that is fast becoming the symbol of Africa to me. So many people so far have been truly beautiful, lean and strong with sculpted features and elegant postures but it all acts as a backdrop to that African smile that in most never seems far away. Our guide today is another African smile, all perfect white teeth; no wonder his nickname is Colgate. Getting into our briefing he pulls out another great expression, to check that we’re all understanding we get an inquisitive smile; a slight pause; then: “Are we together?” Our return smiles pale in comparison but we enthusiastically give them anyway. Yes Colgate, we’re together. 

Soon enough Colgate has us all entranced and we are on the water getting into gear for the battle ahead. There’s eight of us in the boat, Charlie and I of course bundle to the front for the wildest ride, we’re ecstatic to see two other Kiwi guys, we won’t be the only ones rowing thankfully. In no time Colgate has us all whipped into line, “Are we together?” comes the call, Yes we are. Driven on by the emblem of Africa calling us forward we row out from our calm side of the river and into the current, we’re away. It’s high water season so the rapids aren’t as tumultuous as can be but instead we have a volume of water pulsing with power that flows, churns and whirlpools with greater ferocity than I’ve ever seen. Many rivers in Chile are a force of nature but they all need to bow to the mighty Zambezi. 

“Don’t fall out on this one, there’s big whirlpools left and right, Are we together?” comes the smiling cry from the back as we plunge through the first rapid, “Creamy White Bums”. We can’t help enquire at the name. A gleaming white grill of teeth precedes the answer “Because when white people fall out on this one they always lose their pants so I have to look at creamy white bums all day, so don’t fall out. Are we together?” Do we have an option at this point; clearly no.

Through Creamy White Bums unscathed, past the O”verland Truck Eater” and into “Terminator 1, 2 and 3”. It’s a wild ride as Colgate reminds us “Don’t fall out, I don’t want you to be croc biscuits, Are we together”? we don’t answer we just paddle furiously and hang on. Well seven of us paddle and hang on, Charlie is out and we can’t see him. It’s all white water and there’s no Charlie. In what is probably just a few seconds but seems like an eternity, Charlie bursts to the surface on my side of the boat, he must have been trapped underneath. Trying to manage the wild rapids and get to Charlie at the same time I row like crazy calling on the other team members to put in big strokes, Charlie’s red life vest more lost in the churn than it is visible. We scrape close enough and I throw out my oar but it’s too late, a mountain of white froth swallows him and he’s gone again. A few moments later he’s spat up about ten metres in front of us, how the hell did he get there? We paddle like mad struggling to bridge the gap between us and Charlie which seems to be impossibly large. 

Through a pulse racing series of rapids the river slows again and we are able to get over to the newest member of the mighty Zambezi swimming team. Thankfully he isn’t a croc biscuit and we drag him back on board all thoroughly out of breath yet still attempting to emulate the smile at the back. Mighty Zambezi: reputation intact. In better form we negotiate “Oblivion”, “The Mother”, “The Washing Machine” and “Surprise Surprise” among others with distinction, barely hanging on but somehow surfing this wild ride. At many occasions waves rear up above the boat and we plunge into a trough that seems to have no exit, it’s terrifying and exhilarating and each time we manage to get through, only Colgate knows how. 

After about an hour of river wrangling the gorge opens to a gentle bay, we’re exhausted but we’ve made it. A short sharp hike up the hill and we’re enjoying a cold beer and a feast of a lunch laid out for us, what a day, we came with huge expectations and are leaving without a trace of disappointment. The mighty Zambezi has delivered. 

The adrenaline still ebbs through us long after we’ve finished our crazy ride, we’re on the bus and heading back to town passing small villages and towns on our way. Often our bus is escorted by a host of African smiles in perfect school uniforms waving feverishly in barely contained delight. At what I wonder, but I guess that’s not really the point, why not just be happy for the sake of being happy. In a country where the political and economic situation has plumbed the depths of African disaster it could be easy to think that happiness and mirth must be in such short supply. Apparently more would be required to quell an African smile. 

Those African smiles convey such a complicated story so layered in toil and hardship with effortless clarity. The freedom in abandonment of material good, the shuffling of priorities to a simpler and more robust way of viewing the world and our hopes within it are thoughts pondered for years by some. John Lennon at school famously submitted his hopes for what he wanted to be in life: happy. When told he didn’t understand the assignment he replied that the teacher didn’t understand life. Call it the triumph of challenge, the human spirit, enlightenment, wisdom; John Lennon’s philosophically complex proposition becomes simple at just one glimpse, of an African smile.