Zambezi River: A thrill a minute

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VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe -- Victoria Falls offers a carnival of thrill rides across an exotic amusement park without borders.

I took a dare to take on the legendary Class 5 rapids of the Zambezi on a day trip organized by southern Africa operator Shearwater Adventures.

For the Zambezi Swing, harnessed adventurers thrill to a free fall down a sheer cliff 174 feet high.The British Canoe Union ranks the river a Class 5, "extremely difficult." The river let me know where I stood with it by flipping my eight-person raft. Failing to right the upended raft, we balled ourselves up and shot through a stretch of rapids equal in length to several city blocks, thankful for helmets, life jackets and the avoidance of rapids by hippos and crocs.

Trips range from a half-day to five days. The day trip offers 15 significant stretches of rapids, mostly Class 5. There is a good orientation and training session, and the guides are experienced. If you're thinking of bringing a camera, make sure it's waterproof.

Every bend in the river brings new views of the impressive gorge, which is 400 feet deep at the put-in point and 750 feet, a taxing hike, at the take-out point.

Not content to leave well enough alone, on my way to the airport I made a quick detour to a section of gorge with several thrill options.

The one that captivated me was the Zambezi Swing, about 174 feet of unfettered free fall down a sheer cliff. The fellow who was going to demo it for me backed to the edge of the launch platform, stood there for a couple of minutes, started trembling and stepped back, slipping out of his harness.

"Too much time working on the edge," explained the proprietor, a former South Africa lawyer. Before I could think about it, he had me in the harness, my heels over the edge, my hands tight around the line. Tethered to a tree, he held my arm, leaned me backwards, gave a Cheshire cat grin and said, "Three, two, one. Bye!"

The Zambezi Swing (at www.thezambeziswing.com) is worth a dare, and for $95 one can get an all-day pass for that and another wild ride, the Flying Fox, rappelling and other daredevil options.

Shearwater activities can be booked on line, by phone or through tour operators.

Activities range from one-day raft trips, $85 plus $10 park fee; to overnight, $135; to two-and-a-half days, $280; or five days, $555.

For more details, call (011) 263-13 43392 or visit www.shearwateradventures.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

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