Smoke that Thunders - How to rig a cliff diveHow days of behind-the-scenes scouting and rigging made one of the most dangerous cliff dives ever possible
When cliff divers Orlando Duque and Jonathan Paredes launched themselves into the spray at Victoria Falls and plummeted down towards the Zambezi river, many days of behind-the-scenes scouting and rigging had already taken place in order to make those few seconds of airborne grace possible.
Significant challenges stood between the two athletes and safe, successful dives. Not only is Victoria Falls the world’s largest waterfall, but as they say in that Leonardo diCaprio diamond-smuggling flick, “This is Africa”.
The wildlife can be lethal: hippos and crocodiles live in the river, and snakes like the green mamba inhabit the banks. The Zambezi itself is a frighteningly powerful and unpredictable body of water, and the summer thunderstorms can deliver shatteringly violent lightning strikes.
All of which meant that Duque and Paredes were all too happy to rely on a highly skilled local team of safety and rigging experts to set up and secure their dive locations.
Expedition kayaker Andrew Kellett lead the team. “On site, we had two sub-surface divers, three rafts, raft guides, a 2IIC, myself, two riggers, and a paramedic,” he says. “We had an evacuation protocol on both the Zimbabwe and Zambia sides of river, with helicopters on standby which would fly straight to South Africa in the case of a medi-vac.”
For anyone on the river, it is compulsory to wear a high-volume flotation aid, but obviously the divers were without such life-jackets. “If they black out underwater and don’t resurface and if the divers don’t get them in time, they will be swept down the next rapid and then it will be very difficult to locate them,” says Kellett.
“This river is full of rocks and potholes and underwater caves that pick up debris and people. It’s not the first time people have died on the river. There’s wildlife here – many times we don’t find people when they’re gone due to the wildlife.”
Although the pools are certainly deep (up to 85m deep, as legend has it), appearances can be deceptive. Each jump zone had to be cleared by the scuba divers who completed a 10m x 10m grid search up to 12m deep; in one instance a rocky ledge projecting three metres out below the surface was found – the take-off point obviously had to be moved.
Duque and Paredes’ highest dive was from 30m, near the Eastern Cataract on the Zambian side of the river. “We had to abseil in from over 100m to find that spot,” says rigging leader Leander Lacey.
“We hauled a 35m-long ladder up the cliff, and rigged a tramway system to lower gear and a cameraman off to the side, above the water. The ladder was pinned top and bottom, and there was another line running next to ladder, with a belay device that tracked the divers as they climbed. If they slipped, it would stop them from falling.”
For the divers, other subtle dangers to be dealt with included falling rocks, the sheer mechanics of ascending to the jump spot, and removing their climbing harness and shoes while exposed on the cliff. Then, once they were standing free on the ledge, they could prepare for the leap.
Even a veteran rope-man like Lacey was intimidated by what the divers faced when they looked down. “From 22m up, the perspective felt comfortable,” he says. “I was nervous, but I could stand there comfortably. At 30m, I couldn’t even stand there comfortably. Even though I knew it was safe and that it’s a ledge and I’m clipped into the ropes, for me it was pretty high.”