Nyami Nyami is the snake-like river spirit of the Zambezi River, and frequently associated with Mami Wata, the inspiration behind our brand. Similarities abound. Both deities are called upon to deliver you from heavy water. But whereas Mami Wata could take you to be her lover and make you better looking and more successful, Nyami Nyami is an angry god; angry with us humans, so the legend goes. The Cahora Bassa dam in Mozambique and the Kariba Dam in Zimbabwe have separated Nyami from her husband in the river’s lower reaches. One day, it is said, she will cause a heavy rain from Congo through Zambia and Namibia to wash away the dams, reunite the lovers and after the flood and destruction, to bring balance and peace to the region.
The overhead standing wave that breaks in the mighty Zambezi is no secret. Discovered by kayakers over 20 years ago, more than a few surfers have made the journey through the Kalahari to explore its quirky pit and tireless curves.
The Zambezi is the largest river system on Africa’s East Coast. Shaped like a Fibonacci sequence, spiralling from Northern Zambia along the Congolese border and round through Angola before swooping back into Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe before flaring out across Mozambique and into the Indian Ocean. By the time it reaches the 108 metre precipice known as the Mosi oa Tunya (The Smoke That Thunders), it is heavy with the waters of a rain-drenched region. Above The Falls, the river stretches over a mile across; in the Batoka Gorge below it condenses to just 20 meters at its narrowest. That’s on average 1088 cubic meters of water per second or 625 million litres per minute, forced down a steep and extremely narrow channel. The Zambezi you meet in the gorge, simply put, is an angry river.
Things to organise: budgets, surfers, vehicle, passports, cameras, video, reflective jackets, fire extinguisher, cash, food, shelter. Things to worry about: crocodiles, hippos, elephants, cattle, goats, trucks, potholes, roadblocks, bad drivers, the mighty river itself and the spirits that dwell within… At 3am on a Tuesday, boards strapped to the roof, we hit the road.
The area around Livingstone is a mash up of game reserve, village, tourist operations, lodges, hotels; a jumble of wild and urban spaces. The truck stops in a clearing at the edge of the gorge and we offload to prep and schlep. The nerves are beginning to jangle. Gear into dry-bags, apply sunscreen, lifejackets, helmets. Melvin Ndlelwa, our Zambian river guide, son of a local chief and our self-designated chaperone meets us and presents us with hand-carved Nyami Nyamis. “For protection in the gorge and on the river,” He says, as he holds them out for each to choose before tying them around our necks. But it’s not just the water you should fear. There is a large female croc in the pool above the wave. She’s been there for a while.
Then we start the long line down into the gorge. So steep that they’ve constructed staircases out of hard mopani stakes. It’s not sheer enough to climb like a ladder, but enough to give you the wobbles and a dash of vertigo, especially in flip flops, under the plaintive wail of the trumpeter hornbills, endemic to the Batoka Gorge. A fall here would be a very bad thing. 580 mopani stairs later we’re at the water’s edge, legs shaking like Elvis Presley!
The surfers, their eyes are wide, as they meet Nyami for the first time. Round an S-bend the river slows and runs ominously still. Around the next corner, it opens up into a big calm pool; a horseshoe, that empties down a long tumultuous rapid, with the perfect wave breaking at the top, like a mouth waiting to swallow, gargle and spit you into the torrent below.
But as we round the bend into the big saucer above the wave, we spot the legend; at least two meters of green greasy Nile crocodile, sunning itself on the flat rocks of the Zimbabwean bank. It spots us and slides casually into the water and disappears.
Surf we must, but move briskly through the pool and into the wave. It takes a few circulations to get the feel. No lurking. The wave delivers rides as long as your legs can hold out. Cramp and exhaustion brings rides to a close here.
“I’ll never forget the way the water comes together to form that wave.” Friend of Mami Wata, professional surfer Royden Bryson enthuses on the bank. “It kind of twists in to it. It’s bizarre.” Finally, with the gorge in shadow and everyone exhausted, we call it quits.
And as we leave, we wonder if we’ll ever get to surf this wave again. Thanks to another, largely ill-considered hydro-electric power scheme scheduled to break ground in the lower reaches of the Batoka Gorge, drowning the rapids to create electricity for the region, Africa’s weirdest wave may soon be no more.
Words: Andy Davis
Photographs: Greg Ewing