Victoria Falls. Mosi-oa-Tunya. The Smoke That Thunders. The world’s largest waterfall goes by many different names, but all agree: this is a place of awesome, ancient power. It is here that the waters of the Zambezi river, having wound across the African savannah, are hurled over the cliff’s edge, through a rainbow, and into a chasm measuring more than a kilometre long and 100m deep.
Above billows the famous cloud of pulverised water droplets. Below, in the gorge, runs the blue-green torrent. This is where Orlando Duque and Jonathan Paredes, two of the outstanding talents of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, have come to test themselves.
“This is one of the most beautiful places,” says Duque, who, with 13 cliff-diving world titles, two Guinness world records and more than 20 years in the sport, has dived off most places it’s possible to dive off. “Standing in the gorge, looking around, you think, ‘This is unreal.’ But what sets this dive apart from others is the analysis you’ve got to do. It’s not as black and white as you think.”
Indeed. From vast pools with mysterious currents that burble to the surface, to violently foaming rapids, this river is alive, ever-changing and not to be trifled with.
In the eddies swirl shattered oars, water bottles ripped from tourists flung from their white-water rafts, and enough floating footwear to stock a second-hand shoe shop.
In the slower reaches lurk 3m-long crocodiles (downstream, they grow to more than 6m), and fish heads left on flat rocks betray where otters dined overnight. Humidity is close to 100 per cent, and the mercury nudges 35°C.
Aware of his relative inexperience in such extreme conditions, Paredes relies heavily on his mentor. “I trust Orlando a lot – he is a legend,” says the 26-year-old Mexican. “I will do whatever he says. If he says, ‘Here is the place to dive,’ I will dive.”
But the 41-year-old Colombian has a surprise in store. Although they will first attempt lower jumps (21m, 22m and 24m), the ultimate goal is to pull off a 30m dive.
Not only has Paredes never leapt from this height before (dives in the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series are limited to 28m), even Duque himself hasn’t dived from 30m for almost a decade.
Standard physics of high diving apply: the athletes will take around three seconds to hit the water, plummeting at a speed of approximately 85kph, and will decelerate to 0kph in 1.5 seconds at a depth of 4-5m.
But the usual risks – bruised ribs, a fractured coccyx, concussion – are compounded by the murky Zambezi: if something goes wrong and the safety team of scuba divers lose sight of Duque or Paredes underwater, it will be difficult to locate them. (In fact, it’s not unheard of for those lost to the Zambezi never to be found again.) Plus, for the 30m leap, the two divers will be launching from a spray-soaked ledge, literally in the shadow of Victoria Falls itself.
Each diver faces his own challenges. Duque’s responsibility is to set the limits on their ambition, calmly guide the younger man, and, of course, go first. The veteran is more than up to it. Not only has he been mentally preparing for months already, he has the ability to completely block out all distractions at the critical moment.
“I trust in my training,” says Duque. “I expect that if I have done all the preparation, things should work out. I cannot leave anything at all to luck or ritual. And it’s pretty cool that I can shut everything else out.”
Paredes, on the other hand, battles a visceral fear of climbing to the take-off spot. (“I would love an elevator,” he groans.) Worse, when up there all alone, confronting the void, Paredes often struggles to clear his mind of chattering doubts.
“Not many people understand, only us divers,” he admits. “But once you get up there, there is no easy way back. That helps. And Orlando keeps telling me, ‘Just believe and trust in yourself. Forget about everything. It will be higher, but no worries, you can do it.’”
Etched high against those primeval cliffs, the water crashing down from higher still, the vulnerability of the divers is painfully exposed.
Slowly, gracefully, each salutes, arms drawn up above his head, before launching off his toes, out into space as he begins to fly, tuck into a somersault, then fall, body outstretched.
Duque and then Paredes plunge into the Zambezi and burst back up again to the surface, slapping the water with joy and buzzing with adrenalin. They have nothing left to prove. But then… what about a tandem dive? Perhaps not from as high as 30m, though…
2016 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series
This season’s competition features two new locations – Japan and Dubai – and more than twice the previous number of women’s events. All events will be shown LIVE on Red Bull TV. For all transmission times, visit redbullcliffdiving.com
United Kingdom (men/women)
Bosnia and Herzegovina (men/women)