The Summer Rains Tour
A team of Wet Planet guides, both past and present, embarked on a journey to Africa for the winter. Tyler Houck, David Wells, Trevor Sheehan, and friend Sean Eddington explored remote regions of southern Africa, focusing primarily on the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. They discovered new stretches of river allowing them to claim “first descents”, gathered water samples for a global micro plastic study, while documenting all their adventures and explorations. They spent time kayaking the Zambezi River – Africa’s endangered river, as well as many other rivers in South Africa and Uganda, hiked through mountains with kayaks on their backs, building shelters out of tarps, and now, upon their safe return, they are proudly sharing their experiences. They are epic, and thankfully all missions were successfully accomplished. Read on.
We left Livingstone ready to take on whatever would be thrown our way, however 15 minutes after leaving we were pulled over and received a 300 Kwacha ($30) speeding ticket. No worries, it would be great practice for Zimbabwe. About an hour later, just as I was beginning to fall asleep, the Land Cruiser began to violently rattle back and forth shaking the entire vehicle. That was the beginning of the “death wobbles.” As we pulled over to assess what was happening, we all seemed to have different opinions on what the issue could be. Was it the steering stabilizer, the sway bar, or the swivel pins? The only thing we actually knew is the “death wobbles” would start somewhere between 40 and 60 km/h, which is exactly the speed we needed to be going. So we crept our way towards Chirundu, the border town on the Lower Zambezi that would eliminate countless roadblocks. However it would entail driving through the “Road of Death.” That night just before dark, we pulled into a backpackers hostel on the Zambian side of things and settled in for the night.
We crossed the border without incident and made our way towards the capital city of Harare. It was pouring down rain the entire day as we crept along between 30 and 40 kmh. There wasn’t a single police checkpoint after the one near the border, who asked to come with us on our adventure to the Eastern Highlands. As we approached Harare, the “death wobbles” seemed to worsen, slowing our progress down to near 20 kmh. Dave Lewis seemed dissuaded by the slowing of progress and was convinced he could continue to make forward progress to the Eastern Highlands. We, on the other hand, did not share his confidence.
We made an executive decision to spend the night in Harare and fix the Land Cruiser the following morning. Through some very useful contacts sent by friends in Livingstone we found a Land Cruiser mechanic and had the problem solved in about an hour and a half. It turned out to be two small bushings that none of us had even considered. We were on the road again. Onward and outward. We made the eastern highlands with about seven hours of continuous driving, interrupted by one police checkpoint. We were fined $4 and a $2 bond note for having a fire extinguisher that was too small.
Finding the place of Legend and Lore
As we came across the first major hill looking across the Eastern Highlands as far as the eye could see, it dawned on us. We had reached a granite mecca. Giant domes dotted the landscape in every direction, huge spires reached for the sky like fingers trying to grab the clouds, magnificently large waterfalls tumbled free-falling off mountain plateaus. We had finally reached the place of legend and lore that I had been researching for the last three years.
Our directions were to drive to the Aberfoyle Lodge in the Honde Valley. That is all we had to go on. It seemed too simple. We drove and kept driving until it felt good. The valley paralleled the Pungwe River, which drained the western slope on Mt. Inyangani. Eventually we made it to the end of the road at the high end Aberfoyle Lodge, located on the Eastern Highlands Tea Plantation about 10 km from the Mozambique border. Here we met Chris Cragg. Chris was the son of the whitewater pioneer of the Eastern Highlands, Bernie Cragg. Bernie Cragg had been paddling in the granite paradise of the Eastern Highland for the last 25 years. Mostly paddling solo. He had taught his 3 boys to kayak and they had spent their entire whitewater career in the shadow of Mt. Inyangani. Chris was the oldest and managed the Aberfoyle Lodge. He was an encyclopedia of knowledge that had been passed down from his father. Upon meeting him, he immediately gave us the keys to the Hornbill House, a beautiful 3 bedroom house overlooking the tea plantation. The next morning we were paddling the local class 4 creek situated on the tea plantation. The Nymangura was reminiscent of creeks in Ecuador or Appalachia; steep, low volume, and majestically beautiful. The water was crystal clear, allowing you to see the river’s bottom no matter the depth. As we made our way further down the creek, the jungle canopy opened up to give us a unique view of the valley. Staring up from the cool and clear water at our surrounding big granite walls, the landscape was similar to that of Yosemite Valley. As we approached the confluence of the Nymangura and Pungwe Rivers, we floated by a group of women bathing in the river. The local women standing there naked started whistling and smiling at us, trying to get our attention. Their lack of modesty and embarrassment was something unseen in the western world.
Guiding on the Pungwe River
This place was one of paradise. The next day we were guiding rafts on the class 3 sections of the Pungwe River. Even in the far reaches of Eastern Zimbabwe, we found ourselves drawn into the guiding community. It was refreshing to do something that came so natural in such an unfamiliar place. Chris then sent us to a section of the Pungwe River just below where a Hydro station had been built a few years prior.
The dewatered section of the Pungwe was home to a massive unrun 80 ft slightly off angle granite waterfall and very steep class V boulder gardens. Unfortunately for us, as the name implied, the dewatered section didn’t have enough water. So we put on just below the hydro station where the water was fed back into the river. The only beta we had was that the river was “quite steep and hectic”. We put onto a granite boulder paradise. As we made our way downstream the rapids got steeper and of higher quality. Ultimately we only had to portage once for wood strainers. It was exactly what we had hoped for and wanted. The section just below the hydro station led into what was known as ‘Bernie’s Section’ a treat of a class 4 section that Far and Wide Zimbabwe, the Cragg family business, commercially rafted when conditions and crews were ideal. Reaching the takeout we saw Dodgy Dave sitting cross legged on a wire and stick suspension foot bridge. He was sitting there smiling with the finger like granite spires lining the horizon behind him. We took off the river where a naked Zimbabwean man was bathing.
In Search of Beer
We felt like champions. It was a brilliant experience and the only logical option was for us to find a local bar and get some beers. Dodgy Dave (DD) drove us through one of the local villages we had seen earlier with a building labeled ‘Judgement Bar’. We pulled up and were immediately surrounded by children, pregnant women, and drunk men asking for money and drinks. We walked inside to a large group of young men shooting billiards and listening to exceptionally loud African reggaeton. The bar did not have a single beer. It was a spirit bar. We left in a hurry, craving beer and already tired of the constant nagging to buy drinks for everyone. As we loaded back up in the Land Rover, we watched the group of pregnant women standing outside waiting for the wasted men to come stumbling out to their responsibilities. So we kept driving to our next possible watering hole, a bar DD had spotted on the drive up. DD threw the Land Rover in 4×4 and we drove up a hill that had probably never seen a vehicle drive up. Parking in front, we walked inside and were happy to find 660 ml tall boy Castle beers. There was a group of locals sitting outside drinking the local millet beer, chibuku, out of old 2 litre soda bottles.
Big Man’s Beard
Everywhere we had been so far, Trevor’s beard seemed to be the most popular member of our group. The locals sitting outside seemed to be focused around a dready rasta man with a goatee. Trevor and Dave immediately made friends with everyone, grabbing our bluetooth speakers and putting Bob Marley on. Sitting there for multiple rounds of the tallboy Castles, we watched as a very nice quad cab Hilux pulled up and 4 men in suits walked up to the bar. The jovial tone of the impromptu soiree changed immediately. The suits walked up to us and introduced themselves. They were the local government officials, who had been waiting at one of the downstream bridges on the Pungwe for us. They had been waiting for approximately “40 selfies”. They were very excited to shake our hands and get our email and whatsapp information. The rasta man who had been sitting down earlier walked up and started talking to the local mayor in Shana. Eventually, after a few pictures with the American kayakers, the suits left allowing the laid back attitude to return. The rasta man thanked us for stopping by the bar. Apparently the road had been badly damaged and he had wanted to talk to the government officials about it. We gave them reason to come to the bar. Another man told us to be weary of the suits, as they were the ones who had his father killed. After a few more rounds and a number of people asking for jobs, we grabbed some beer for the road and returned to the tea plantation.
Stay tuned for more Summer Rains Tour episodes soon…
Authors Tyler Houck and Dave Wells spent the winter traveling through Southern Africa as a part of the Summer Rains Tour, exploring rivers throughout Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Swaziland, and Lesotho. You can check out the Summer Rains Tour on Facebook: Summer Rains Tour and on Instagram: @Summer_Rains_Tour to find out more about their adventures in Africa and to see what they’ll be up to next.
Catch up on previous episodes of the Summer Rains Tour: