Guide Talk: Learning to Swim on the Zambezi
Meet OARS Oregon Guide Blessed Ndlovu
When you live in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, your river guiding career can only start in one place—on one of the biggest and most notorious rivers in the world—the Zambezi. In 2007, after walking away from his job as accountant, that’s exactly where Blessed Ndlovu headed.
“I was doing a job I did not enjoy,” says Blessed. “I hated eight hour days sitting behind a desk. It wasn’t for me.”
“When I started rafting, it was just to do something while I figured out the next step of my life,” he says.
Never mind the fact that Blessed didn’t know how to swim.
“I pretty much had never been in the water, but when I started training to be a raft guide they make you swim Class V rapids just to get you used to being underwater,” he recalls. “I had to swim.”
The hurdles he faced to become a guide on the Zambezi River didn’t phase him, though, and Blessed has been guiding ever since. “If you can get paid to have fun, it’s good,” he laughs.
In 2015, Blessed left Zimbabwe to be with his wife in Oregon. He admits he didn’t know anything about rafting in the U.S., but as he started applying to different rafting companies, he remembered hearing about OARS.
“George [Wendt} was one of the names that we knew back home in Africa, and I’d seen OARS people down on the Zambezi,” he recalls. “So OARS was not a new name to me.”
Blessed was hired on by OARS and has been part of the company’s Oregon crew ever since. Below, he shares about his years guiding Zambezi rafting trips, his best flip story and the unexpected challenges he faced when he started guiding on the Rogue River.
You learned to guide on one of the toughest whitewater rivers in the world. Weren’t you scared?
It was scary, but you know, it’s just big water. The waves, when you look at them, they’re scary, but it’s fluffy big water.
What do you remember most about some of the first trips you guided on the Zambezi?
Well, at first I couldn’t speak English, so that was interesting. Maybe half of the clients were English speaking, so that was the worst part. You have to make someone understand something as simple as tightening your life jacket, and if you don’t, you die. Having to communicate that was pretty hard.
Flipping is almost a given on a Zambezi rafting trip. What’s your best flip story?
Within two hours, it’s possible to flip the boat like three or four times. One time, it was a Class V rapid—Stairway to Heaven, which is just one big drop into a giant wave—and we flipped an oar rig. When we re-flipped the boat back up, there was an empty life jacket stuck on the oars.
We thought we had lost someone. So we pulled everyone in, and I just sat down and I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t tell anyone what was going on. But the guy was just holding onto the side of the boat. He was like, “Are you going to pull me in? I’m fine. I took off the life jacket. I was feeling uncomfortable on the boat, but I’m a good swimmer.” I was so happy but I almost punched him in the nose. Every time I think about it, I actually just laugh, but it wasn’t funny when it was happening.
It’s not as technically challenging as the Zambezi, but what was the most difficult aspect about working on the Rogue River that you weren’t foreseeing?
When I was on the Zambezi, we had no women guides at all. So that was the biggest change from what I was used to. It’s all testosterone flying all over the place. Then, I came to the Rogue, and when I did my first trip with the team I think there were just three or four guys and 16 or so women. It was a little bit intimidating. I didn’t know how it was going to go since I was used to working with guys only. It was different, but refreshing. When a job is well done, it’s well done. It doesn’t really matter who did it.
What do you love most about being a guide?
Except getting paid to have fun? I’m at school right now and being locked inside just drives me crazy. So the refreshing part of being out on the river is the best thing for me.
What’s one of the best memories you have from a trip?
When I was starting out, one of the clients walked up to me and he was like, “I recently lost my wife and I haven’t had anything to smile about, but this is the first day that I feel like I’ve lived after having lost my wife and you made that possible.” It wasn’t something epic, but it stuck with me.