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Or, your guide to shredding one of the Seven Wonders of the World!
Or, your guide to shredding one of the Seven Wonders of the World!
Like other perhaps more mature-obsessions, there are niche fetishes.
For some surfers, perfection’s a size thing: the bigger the better. For some, it’s length. The longer the more impressive.
For others, it’s shape: the Aristotelian aesthetic dream. The average surfer’s sweet spot lands somewhere between the later two: voluptuously shapely, and near-exhaustingly long.
And like all romantic pursuits, much of the allure lies in the wave’s virgin beauty—no crowds, thank you very much—as well as the effort required—the thrill of the hunt, so to speak.
So what if we told you that there was a dreamy, three-foot wave that broke for hours—days, even—deep in the African continent, which only appeared suddenly twice a year?
And what if we regretfully informed you that this might be the very last time it appeared? That a massive dam project might bury the whole miracle a hundred meters underwater as early as next year?
Welcome to the Zambezi River. Don’t forget to pack your river quiver!
Mikey February: From South Africa, often considered surfing’s foremost stylist.
Harry Bryant: From Australia’s Sunshine Coast, surfing’s closest thing to Steve Erwin.
Dylan Graves: From Puerto Rico, surfing’s preeminent Weird Wave expert/river surfing aficionado.
Paul Daniels: From South Africa, one of surfing’s finest cinematographers.
Alan Van Gysen: Also from South Africa, surfing’s most decorated and dedicated African explorer/photographer.
Sam Moody: From the US East Coast, a heavily-inked rascal of a cinematographer and filmmaker.
Ashton Goggans: From Florida’s Gulf Coast, Stab’s Editor at Large.
Over the last decade-and-a-half, no photographer has scoured the African continent as thoroughly as AVG. From Nigeria to Namibia, Mozambique to Ghana, and nearly everywhere in between,
Paul Daniels: Do you want me to talk about AVG and his fashion sense? AVG is probably the most fashionable person on the river.
Harry Bryant: Yeah, he’s got all his hiking gear on, his face mask and he’s just — a freak, that guy.
Paul: He’s ready for anything. He’s pretty much a Swiss Army knife—shooting, videoing, hanging off the side of a cliff, on a raft—whatever it is, AVG is on it. I think all the boys can confirm that. If James Bond decided to stop being a spy and started shooting surf photos, that’s AVG. He’s one step ahead of everything that’s happening. He already knows. It’s ridiculous.
Harry: An absolute hog, that guy. There’s not one minute of the day that goes by where AVG’s not running around, doing sit-ups, push-ups, bloody just fiddling with his camera stuff. He’s so hardworking and just so dedicated to getting the shot, it’s crazy. Such a legend.
Paul: I don’t think we’d be able to put this together without him. He’s the glue that brought this whole project together.
Harry: While we were surfing, he was getting the rubber-ducky bouncing between countries (on one side of the river is Zambia, the other is Zimbabwe) looking for angles. He’s just a maniac.
Harry Bryant: I was actually at the pub, near home. It was like four o’ clock, and I got a message that just said, “Give me a call when you can.” So I called the number and it was AVG, saying he had some crazy river wave in the Zambezi—I’d never heard of Zambezi before, I’d never been to Africa before, or anything like that. So, I pretty much rode my pushie back from the pub, just thinking, “I’m going to Africa tonight!”
Then AVG called me back on my way home, and he’s like, “Hey, the flights actually at 7:50PM. You’ve gotta get to the airport in like an hour.” I live 50 minutes from the airport!
Mikey February: Dylan and I flew from LA, got stuck in New York for twelve hours, and knowing that the wave was like kind of fickle—that the water level could rise and then there’d be no wave—we were kinda stressing, but we didn’t have any other option.
As we arrived in Zambia, after the biggest mission for like two days, we just saw Harry, AVG, and all the guys ready to take us to the river. No going to the hotel or anything. Then we pretty much had to scale down a mountain…
While even some of the most remote surf spots now enjoy plush camps with Wi-Fi, Air Conditioning, and a poolside view of a perfect wave, surfing the Zambezi requires a bit more grit than most surfers can handle: a thirty-minute haul in a 4wd crawler, then a 2k vertical hike down, before navigating a handful of the most difficult rapids in the world.
But, that’s the easy part. Getting back up is the real doozy: A thorough flush down some of the Zambezi’s famous Class-5 rapids, then a 2k vertical climb out.
Harry: Before I came I thought that, you know, we were staying in this nice resort, and maybe the wave was just right behind [the resort]. Something like that [laughs]. I very soon found out that we were like scaling down a cliff, for about 40 minutes, whitewater-rafting through three-foot walls of water...
Dylan: It was by far the most adventure of a surf trip I’ve ever been on. I’d never even seen anything like that cliff before.
When we first got there, they’re like, “Yeah, pack light, bring only what you need.” I was like, “Yeah, cool. No worries.” Like, I’ll just bring my board and my gear that I surf in and a couple of snacks, water—I’m good.
And they’re like, “No, bring more than just a couple snacks. And bring as much water as you possibly can, and have the porters carry your boards.”
“I don’t want these guys to carry my board,” I said. “I’m just gonna bring one and I’ll carry it.”
“No, it’s actually really extreme,” they said. “And if you haven’t walked down this trail before, you need to work it out before you go down there. It’s pretty strenuous and you can eat shit and get really hurt.”
So, I’m tripping. I just flew 36 hours, and I’m amping, like, let’s do this. But we got down to the bottom, my legs were full on shaking, I’m just tripping, you know, from the entire thing. Each step just getting harder and harder and a little bit more strenuous.
Harry: We seriously couldn’t have done what we were doing without the local porters.
I didn’t really know how much of a mission it was going to be to get down. So the first day, I brought my whole board bag down—cause I didn’t know what the wave was gonna be like, or what to ride and stuff like that. And one porter, this little skinny bloke, he had my whole 25-kilo board bag on his shoulder, just walking vertically down a cliff.
Then another guy had the frame for the raft—a big, steel piece of scaffold—tied to his back, just walking down this cliff!
Dylan: Then you pack up all your gear back into the rafts and raft down three rapids that are pretty intense. The first time we went down, we got flipped over, me and AVG went overboard [laughs]. Then yeah, you pull off after rapid 14, and hike up this straight vertical cliff, basically. Like there’s kind of a path, but it’s just made of rocks and you’re taking, like, vertical steps, all the way to the top. It’s like 2,000 steps or something, but It felt like maybe more, I don’t know.
Harry: Coming up and down the cliff every day, we were just carrying, uh, jackets and helmets and bags for wax and food and stuff. And they had to do two or three trips, to get all our shit up and down. Those guys are so fit—I’ve never seen anything like that before.
Mikey February: "I’ve done white-water rafting before at home but nothing this hectic. They let us jump in with our boards, just to feel like the movement of the river and stuff, and then we got into like a sort of dead spot just before the wave, and they were like, ‘Oh, there’s a resident crocodile right here, you might want to hop in.’”
Dylan Graves: "And the heat, you know. I think that was kind of the main thing that threw me off. I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere so hot.”
Harry Bryant: "There’s baboons jumping from tree to tree, and it’s so nice and quiet, there’s not a noise at all, just the river running. There’s a heck of a lot of wildlife, it’s pretty insane—hippos, monkeys, we went and saw the elephants…”
I had surfed other river waves before, so I kinda knew what to expect as fas as how it was gonna be to get onto the wave—but not with a proper life vest and helmet and everything.
Sometimes it can be really tricky as far as the amount of water that’s flowing, and having to battle that to get on to a wave—everything happens really fast, and there’s no room for error. You’re basically fighting and paddling against an entire river just to stand up, and I knew that [the Zambezi] river was gonna be probably, you know, two or three times, maybe even more, stronger than anything I had experienced.
For kayakers, whitewater rafters, and river enthusiasts alike, rapids are categorized by a fairly simple numerical system. A Class-1 rapid is mellow, basically not much more than a babbling brook. Whereas a Class-VI rapid will pretty much fuckin drown you straight away, and are considered literally unridable.
But we all know surfers ain’t good with numbers, and need to have things spelled out. So here’s our simple guide to just how heavy rapids can be:
Class-1: Huntington Beach or Bondi (in summer)
Class 2: Lower Trestles
Class 3: Duranbah, Hossegor, or any other punchy beachbreak.
Class 4:Jeffrey’s Bay, Snapper Rocks, or Restaurants at, say, four foot AU (six-foot US)
Class 5: Teahupoo, Pipe, you get the drift.
Class 6: Cortez Bank—pretty much a deathwish, no bullshit.
Our little miracle wave, Rapid 11, is called The Creamy White Buttocks, named for its nack for ripping people’s pants clean off.
As a Class-5 rapid, Dylan Graves coined it:
“The Jaws—of River Surfing.”
As with much of remote Africa, Zambia has fallen prey to outside interests, foreign investors with questionable concern for the area’s natural habitats and resources. In the case of the Zambezi River, a Chinese investment group interested in energy production in the region, has begun construction, on a somewhat shaky legal foundation, of a massive hydroelectric dam down river from Victoria Falls. The dam would flood the river nearly the entire way back to the falls, and bury not only the miracle wave at rapid number 11, but all of the world-class whitewater rafting that draws thousands and thousands of visitors to the region each year, eliminating countless jobs.
Paul Daniels: I mean, with this dam project, and a lot of other projects like it in Africa, the biggest problem is we’re throttled with corruption. The biggest problem with this dam on the Zambezi, is how it’s gonna affect not only the ecology, but the social structure around the river, and the lives of all the people that basically live and work around the river.
The only thing that I can see is just greed. I could be wrong, but there’s plenty of other options and people will be quick to come up with other solutions, in terms of providing power. I mean, I think it’s the hottest place I’ve been. Harry managed to cook an egg on the rock. There’s more than enough sun here to get some solar projects going.
It’s just one of those situations where there’s a lot of deals going on that people aren’t being informed about and, essentially, they need to bring everything to light and explore other options before destroying something which is pretty incredible.
I think the big problem in Africa is they just think about “what can I get now?” Not what’s gonna happen tomorrow, or in 10 years time. They’re not thinking about what it’s gonna do for future generations. I think that’s been the big problem all through Africa: they get foreign money thrown in their face and it’s like, “I can take that now,” and not think about the repercussions down the line. It’s actually a disease in that sense.
Harry Bryant: "[This trip] was one of those where it’s an impulse decision—you know, you just drop everything, jump on a plane not really knowing much at all, heading to a country that you’ve never been before. And it’s one of the best trips that I’ve done in my life—to have this opportunity, to come and explore a new place and literally see one of the Seven Wonders of the World—and surf a wave underneath it? That’s something I’ll be telling my kids when I’m older, I reckon.”