Prep time: One month
Time off work: One week
When to go: October–December
It's one thing to witness the power of Africa's mile-wide Victoria Falls, created by the Zambezi River as it flows between Zambia and Zimbabwe; it's something altogether life-changing to hike to the base of the falls, hop in a rubber raft, and give yourself over to the river's fury. As the whitewater careens through the Batoka Gorge's narrow basalt walls, the Zambezi serves up 23 world-class rapids, all of which rival those found in the Grand Canyon. You'll encounter 20-foot drops, 12-foot waves, and swimming pool-size whirlpools. And that's just day one of your five-day, 75-mile journey from Vic Falls to the Matetsi River mouth. Back in 1981, when U.S. river runner/explorer Richard Bangs led the historic first descent, rafting the Zambezi was considered a death-defying proposition. These days local outfitters guide thousands of whitewater amateurs down its Class IV–V rapids each year. "You put in at one of the seven natural wonders of the world and get to experience the culture of a village that's more than 500 years old. It's some of the most spectacular big-water river running on the planet," says Scott Lindgren, expedition kayaker and adventure filmmaker. "As far as getting the complete river experience, it doesn't get any better." The gorge is so steep and deep that you won't run into the usual suspects seen on a safari, but there is a chance you will spot vervet monkeys, baboons, black eagles, giant kingfishers, the rare hippo – and crocodiles. Don't let the rafting outfitters tell you otherwise; there are indeed crocs patrolling the Zambezi. We've seen them, and the farther down the gorge you go, the bigger they get. Odds of being attacked are really low, but consider it extra motivation to stay inside the raft.
Start today: See a travel medicine doctor. Make an appointment four to six weeks prior to your trip so you have time for vaccinations, including those for typhoid and hepatitis A and B, and to pick up malaria pills. Check cdc.gov for the latest recommendations. Start swimming. Even though it's not absolutely necessary, as you'll be wearing a life jacket the entire time, it's a good idea to be a relatively strong swimmer. Do several light swimming workouts before you go.
Don't Leave Home Without: A pair of river sandals. But avoid those with Velcro fasteners, which won't stay on your feet in turbulent whitewater. Instead, get a pair with buckles, like the Teva Universal Buckle (teva.com).
MJ Insider: The reason the misleadingly named "low water" season (October to December) is the best time to go, is because the rapids are more fun, thanks to steeper drops, snakier runs, and safer conditions.The most dangerous creature in Africa isn't the lion or crocodile; it's the malaria-carrying mosquito. Obviously, malaria pills are key, but also bring strong DEET-based repellent and a lightweight silk or cotton Permethrin-treated sleep sack.