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, after winding across the African savanna, are hurled over the cliff’s edge, through a rainbow and into a chasm more than half a mile long and 300 feet deep.
Above billows the famous cloud of pulverized water droplets. Below, in the gorge, runs the blue-green torrent. This is where Orlando Duque and Jonathan Paredes, two of the outstanding performers in 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 of. “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 bubble 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 secondhand shoe shop.
In the slower reaches lurk 10-foot-long crocodiles (downstream they grow to more than 20 feet), and fish heads left on flat rocks betray where otters dined overnight. Humidity is close to 100 percent, and the mercury nudges 95°F.
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 from Mexico. “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 shorter jumps (69 feet, 72 feet and 78.7 feet), the ultimate goal is to pull off a 98-foot dive.
Paredes himself has never jumped from this height before (dives in the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series are limited to 92 feet), and Duque hasn’t done it in almost a decade.
The exotic location notwithstanding, the standard physics of high diving apply: The athletes will plummet at a speed of approximately 53 mph for three seconds, then plunge into the water to a depth of about 15 feet.
But the usual risks—bruised ribs, 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.) Plus, for the 98-foot 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 the task: He has been preparing mentally for months already, and 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, en tanto, batalla en contra de un miedo visceral por subir al lugar del salto. “Me encantaría un elevador”, se queja.
Peor aún, en la soledad de la cima, frente al vacío, lucha: “No mucha gente lo comprende, sólo nosotros los clavadistas”, admite. “Pero una vez que llegas allí, no hay una manera más fácil de bajar. Eso ayuda bastante. Y Orlando siempre me dice: ‘Sólo cree y confía en ti mismo. Olvídate de todo lo que te rodea. Será más alto, sí, pero no te preocupes, porque tú puedes hacerlo’”.
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 adrenaline. They have nothing left to prove. But then… what about a tandem dive? Perhaps not from as high as 98 feet, 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 transmission times, visit redbullcliffdiving.com
United Kingdom (men/women)
Bosnia and Herzegovina (men/women)