On that first visit to Cataract Island a bug had bitten. I wanted to know more. I wanted to see more. I wanted to explore more. Tom and I made several more trips to the island together, sometimes we swam there and sometimes we kayaked there. We explored as many different routes and possibilities as we could. Each visit always brought out our inner child. The Island always reminded us of our own innocence. There we could revisit the purity of our essence as human beings. Open to a world of possibilities where time stands still and for a while we could be truly present. The island became our Neverland.
On one particular occasion, whilst Tom and I were playing in one of the small rapids between Cataract Island and the adjacent island, I started to quiz Tom about the rapids below the Falls. I had many times visited the infamous “Minus rapids” just below Horseshoe Falls and had seen them run several times by some of the world’s best kayakers, but I was curious to know what lay further up below the main falls and the Devil’s Cataract. These rapids were not accessible from below. The Minus Rapids are numbered backwards and only Minus 2 and Minus 1 had ever been run. The first descent of these rapids had been done in the 80’s by Jerome Truran and friends. But what lay further up? What was hidden by the mist of the Main Falls and kept from us by the vertical cliffs of the gorge walls? Tom’s answer, “Let’s find out!”
We started to hatch a plan. Immediately we began to scour the island for the best access route that would allow us to descend to the base of the gorge cliffs as high up the river as possible. Access was not going to be easy. The gorge walls are 100m tall and sheer. Additionally, the constant spray from the falls kept the gorge walls perpetually damp with a thin layer of algae that added a new slippery dynamic to the challenge. The only way down would be by rope access, but the question of where we would access the river from was still on our minds. The basalt walls of the gorge are notoriously brittle. Rock falls are a constant threat and attaching our ropes to the wrong bit of rock could be catastrophic.
The first thing we had to look for was a good sturdy anchor point for our ropes. There aren’t a lot of big trees near the edge of the gorge on the island so we soon realised the only real option would be to place bolted anchors in the rock. After a lot of deliberation we decided the best access point would be “The Crack”, a geological fault line where the waterfall is starting to cut back the new gorge. Geologists predict that in a couple of million years this will be the new waterfall and the current waterfall will be the first turn of the river. The waterfall has been cutting back like this for millennia giving the first few sections of the gorge its zigzag shape.
Bolting anchors brought its own challenges. We would have to source a drill capable of attacking the basalt that was at the same time light enough to get to the location. Ideally a 36 volt battery operated rotary impact drill would have been the answer, but, unfortunately these come with a heavy price tag and are not readily available in Zimbabwe. Even if we had the money I doubt we would have had the patience to wait for one to ship from outside the country anyway. There were a lot of things to take into consideration. We knew we were going to have to go home, plan this properly and regroup.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I kept going through my gear. Planning, designing and redesigning the anchor systems I was going to use. Even when I had gone to bed I kept replaying every possible scenario in my head. It was way too exciting. Sourcing the drill was going to be the hardest part of the mission, but luckily, my housemate at the time was dating a very handy individual that I knew could help. The next morning I asked Brendan if he knew of a drill that could fill our needs. The good news was that he happened to own a drill that could do the job perfectly but the bad news was that drill was not cordless. If you read Instalment 3 you will already know that getting a generator to Cataract Island presents its own challenges but these are challenges I was willing to deal with to get the job done.
Later that day, Tom called me and told me that he had managed to source twelve bolts and hangers. I gave him the good news about having sourced a drill from Brendan but told him we would have to take a generator there somehow with a long extension to get the job done. He seemed pretty confident that this was doable as he had just got his boat back and he knew a route through the shallow, rocky, river and rapids that we could take to get the generator and equipment to the island. It was all coming together.
A couple of days later I woke up nice and early and drove over to Tom’s place. We loaded up the 5.5Kva generator, tools and equipment and headed off to the boat club in my truck. When we arrived at the boat club, Tom and I transferred all the gear onto his boat. The generator just fitted on the front of the boat between the fishing seat and the nose. The route from the boat club to Cataract Island is not a simple one and very few people know how to get there safely without destroying their boats on the rocks in the shallow water and rapids on the way. It starts off in nice deep water as you cruise downstream along Khalundu Island. Then past the pod of hippos that live off the point of Princess Elizabeth Island. These hippos are the staple wildlife sighting for the commercial “Booze Cruise” boats every evening. From that point on the route is shallow with a series of rapids that require skill and experience to navigate. The boat must then be driven parallel to the drop before being parked at our favourite little swimming spot on the east bank of Cataract Island.
The ride down to the Island went without a hitch. I had to hold onto the generator as it bounced about through the rapids but other than that Tom skilfully navigated each section with the confidence only years of experience could bring. He drove slowly along the length of the main falls as we both breathed in the view and took time to truly appreciate the privilege of what we were experiencing. No Matter how many times you go there, it never stops being breathtaking. We docked the boat and I jumped out first to tie up. Then Tom and I gathered the bulk of the gear and carried it down to a nice shady spot on the edge of “The Crack”. Next we went back for the generator and together we hauled that genny about 200m, barefoot over the hot basalt rock to the spot.
We both started to gear up, Tom with his cameras and I with my harness, ropes and drill. The generator was placed as close to the edge of the Crack as possible but we still had to run a 20m extension cable in order to reach the spot we intended to bolt. The plan was to put 2 bolts in near the top to provide a safety anchor while I tested the rock on either side of the crack about 5m down to establish the placement of the main anchors. I got myself into position to drill the safety anchors and Tom went to start the genny. With one swift pull of the cord, the genny roared to life. It was business time!
I climbed down to a ledge roughly a metre and a half below ground level and proceeded to tap the rock with my hammer. You can hear by the sound of each tap where the best places to place the bolts are. A dull thud indicates a hollow point or loose flake of rock that is likely to give way under stress and a high pitched sound generally marks a spot that is solid and conducive to drilling. Unfortunately due to the nature of this environment I was receiving more thuds than I had hoped for. I knew immediately that this was going to be a little trickier than I was used to but eventually settled on two good points to set my initial safety anchors. Once the two bolts were placed, I equalized the two anchors with a sling and set up my safety line and descended another ten metres or so to the ledge in the middle of the crack where we had planned to set up the primary anchors for the big descent.
As I lowered myself down to my work station I remember acknowledging the privilege and splendour of where I found myself. Over my right shoulder the Devil’s Cataract cascaded over the lip of the gorge falling some eighty-something metres to the river below. The force of the water created an updraft that brought a thunderous sound and spray that cooled me as I worked. What an Office! With a view very few have experienced first-hand. The river surges in waves and in doing so the spray also comes in bouts as if it knows just how much you need to keep cool while working in the November heat. Once I had got into position and decided on the first drill point, Tom lowered the drill down to me and I began to work.
In a normal environment I would have happily set three bolts as my anchors and then create a master point by equalizing those three anchors, but in this environment with such sketchy rock to work with and rather high consequences I decided to go completely overkill with safety. I always say that if you have the opportunity to take extra safety measures then why not? So in this instance I decided I would identify three anchor points and drill two bolts at each point. That would mean we would have the safety of six bolts equally weighted when we eventually made our descent. To further ensure redundancy I made sure that I placed one set of bolts on one side of the crack and the other two sets on the other side whilst also ensuring that each bolt was placed on a completely separate part of rock. The bolting is a pretty laborious task so I won’t go into more details right now.
Once all the bolts had been placed, Tom and I took some time to just sit and marvel at the splendour of the Devil’s cataract from this unique perspective and to daydream about the big mission to the bottom that was still to come. The ground work had all been laid down and now the only thing left to do was to pack up, go home and start putting together the plan to bring this entire expedition to fruition. We could have gone straight down that day but we decided to delay gratification and give the mission the attention and respect it deserved by waiting for conditions to be perfect. We wanted the light to be just right for Tom’s photography. We wanted the weather to be just right, and, we wanted to have all the time in the world and not rush the experience. We wanted to savour every second.
I don’t think Tom and I said another word to each other that day. Words weren’t necessary. The smiles on our faces and the calm sense of knowing what we had already achieved and were going to still achieve on this project was enough. There is an incredible connection and power that you experience when you come together with a common purpose and a mission to achieve. So, with that, we packed up the gear in silence and carried the genny back to the boat. Without a word we launched the boat and Tom again navigated the shallow, rocky water this time upstream. I continued to day-dream about the mission ahead while the little boat struggled up one of the bigger rapids, and as the sun set in front of me, I acknowledged the moment and quietly gave thanks for the day that had passed.
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