Zimbabwe Part II: The Smoke That Thunders (Victoria Falls)

It had been a long flight in darkness from London so I was happy to see the sunrise over Africa because it meant there was only a few hours to go before we landed in Johannesburg.  The year was 2001 and as the cabin crew were about to serve breakfast the Virgin Atlantic Captain spoke to us about a delay.  Thanks to an early departure and a strong tailwind we were now arriving too early; basically Johannesburg wasn’t ready for us so we’d have to circle somewhere.  By way of apology he explained that he had secured permission to take us on a little scenic flight in the meantime.

I don’t think many of us had done a ‘little scenic flight’ on a Boeing 747 before so we all eagerly opened our window shades as the pilots circled first one way around Lake Kariba then the other so that everyone could see, with those in the middle crowding to the closest window.  He explained that they had permission to go a little lower to improve the view and apologized that we were only able to do a few circuits before moving on.  Needless to say we were all very happy with this unexpected development and many years later a Southwest Airlines pilot did a similar thing when we waited to land in Las Vegas.  The Captain got permission to take our 737 on a little circuit over the Grand Canyon complete with a commentary from the cockpit on how it formed.

Back over Africa we all enjoyed the experience but unlike the Grand Canyon many of us didn’t know exactly what we were looking at.  Lake Kariba is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world that harnesses the power of the mighty Zambezi River to generate most of the electricity supply in both Zimbabwe and Zambia.  Further downstream another hydro-electric dam provides energy for Mozambique and South Africa.  But the thing this beautiful hippo and crocodile infested river is probably most famous for is Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world and a World Heritage Site.

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Lake Kariba from space.  We were a little closer than that.

Image sourced from Wikipedia Commons

Victoria Falls or Mosi-oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders) straddles the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.  The town of Livingstone is on the Zambian side with the aptly named Victoria Falls being the town on the Zimbabwean side and where I had my experience.  Our three nights here marked the halfway point of my trip from Cape Town to Nairobi.  All but three of our group finished their African trip here whilst eight new people joined us.  So not only was it a time for sad goodbyes and meeting new people, but a time to seriously attack laundry, mop out the tents, give the truck a good clean-up and of course experience the destination.

I’m not sure if the town of Victoria Falls ever had a heyday but if it did it has long since passed, unsurprising considering the economic and political climate of Zimbabwe that I covered off in my last post.    Despite the international status as a tourist attraction I found the town ramshackle and rundown which was fine with me but we all had issues with the sheer volume of hustlers on the streets.  It was impossible to walk more than a minute without being hassled to buy something whether it be a souvenir or a tour.  Sometimes it was an invitation to a party or a bar where naive tourists are said to fall prey to theft or sexual assault after having their drinks spiked.

These hustlers didn’t take no for an answer and would follow you down the street, usually in groups, presumably thinking that if they harassed you enough you’d buy something just to make them go away.  Except that didn’t work because as soon as word got around that you did buy something you’d be inundated by another group even more presistant than the last.   A lot of people in Zimbabwe who don’t belong to the political elite are extremely poor and are struggling to meet their basic food, healthcare and housing needs.  This kind of situation draws hustlers and beggars to virtually any tourist destination around the world but despite being hassled mercilessly on Caribbean beaches, followed around Moroccan souks and literally wading through crowds of people in India with kids hanging onto my arms and legs, I had never experienced anybody quite so tenacious as the Zimbabwean hustlers and most worrying was the sexually aggressive undertone that us women experienced if we walked alone or in groups without our male friends.

If you have ever been told that you need to learn how to say no then I suggest you head to Victoria Falls for some practice.  After just an hour of walking around there you will have said no hundreds of times in hundreds of different ways.    On the other hand the town does have a handful of good restaurants and is only a few minutes walk to the Falls.  The first thing we did was visit a tourist office where the local staff explained the multitude of ways you could experience them.  This included river cruises, helicopter rides, a gorge swing, a bungee jump, a zip line, white water rafting and kayaking.  You can also go walking with lions, crocodile cage diving, on safaris and cultural tours.  Basically there are lots of ways to have fun whilst hemorrhaging cash, something I seemed to do particularly well in Victoria Falls.

After listening to the activity options I decided that I wanted to do the helicopter trip.  As I’ve discussed a few times previously I have done a lot of flying in my life and was beginning to miss it.  Since we left Cape Town I’d barely seen a contrail let alone an aircraft so I was willing to sink a chunk of money into twelve short minutes of flying just so I could get above everything for a while.  Plus it seemed like a good way to see the Falls. Two others from the group joined me and we were soon being whisked off on a transfer to the helipad.  It was a hot day and when we got in the vehicle I found another thing I hadn’t experienced since Cape Town: air-conditioning.  Once we got to the site none of us wanted to get out of the cool car to the amusement of our driver.

There were lots of amazing things about this helicopter trip that started with the weigh-in we all had to go through.  I was dreading this until I saw that I had lost a whole heap of weight since the last time I’d been weighed over a year earlier.  Beaming with that information I watched lots of brand new helicopters taking off and landing.  A signature of Victoria Falls is the constant sound of helicopters buzzing overhead that lasts from dawn til dusk and in the short period we waited for our one we saw numerous arrivals and departures.   One particularly nice purple one caught my eye that I hoped we’d be on.

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It shouldn’t matter what kind of livery your aircraft has once you are on it but it does to me.  I was mortified when Air New Zealand painted livery from the Hobbit movie on their 777s and would get irrationally upset if I had to fly on one.  I used to feel a huge relief when I saw one of their new black Silver Fern liveries at the gate.  I know it is stupid but that didn’t stop me from being overly excited when I found that we were indeed destined for the purple chopper.

The flight was short but incredible.  I honestly believe this is the best way to see Victoria Falls and therefore worth every cent.  We were able to get a true sense of what the waterfall is all about whilst getting a context you just can’t experience from the ground, something I’ve found time and time again when I’ve splashed out on scenic flights in other parts of the world.  In every direction around us wide flat plains spread out as far as the eye could see, browned by drought and dotted with trees.  In one direction the broad Zambezi formed a wide shiny ribbon of water in the afternoon sun.  It looked huge, flat and gentle then suddenly it simply fell into a deep narrow chasm which is of course Victoria Falls.

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From there the water is forced through one narrow outlet into a series of raging white-water gorges that twisted and turned through the plain before disappearing into the distance.  Out of sight from our helicopter the Zambezi once again becomes flat, calm and wide in places whilst in others it forms into man-made lakes such as Lake Kariba before eventually turning into a wide delta that spills into the Indian Ocean on the coast of Mozambique.

The mist from the waterfall looks like smoke and from the ground you could easily mistake the location for a fire.  Rainbows were often evident from the air and at night during a full moon this mist is capable of forming Moonbows, something I didn’t get to see but would love to.  We circled the falls several times in different directions so that everyone got to enjoy different aspects of the view then exactly 12-minutes after we took off we landed again, dodging the people trying to sell us customized video footage and photos before being transferred back to camp.

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Three weeks of camping through mostly windy and dusty landscapes had left me with dirt so ingrained in my skin that no amount of scrubbing I did would get it out.  I needed professional help so booked three hours of spa treatments the next morning.  I could tell from the prices that this wasn’t going to be a fancy experience yet the open-air shack with nothing but pretty sheets for curtains and set in the leafy garden of a backpacker hostel looked better than any five-star spa I’d been to before.  Another traveler joined me and as we sunk into comfy armchairs to begin our pedicures I realised that in addition to missing air-conditioning and aircraft, I hadn’t sat in anything other than a folding camp chair, truck seat or restaurant chair since I left Cape Town.  It felt blissful as did the next three hours of pampering by two beautiful Zimbabwean women who chattered and laughed quietly in their own language as the two of us drifted off into la-la land.

There was one interesting event that interrupted us.  One of the ways we found to placate the hustlers was to give them stuff that we no longer needed such as shampoo, soap and so on.  They would disappear quickly with it but we weren’t sure where it was going.   That morning one of our group left and had given us a large bag of items like this to give to someone on the street so we’d done that on our way to the spa.  Whilst we were enjoying our pedicures our therapists were approached by a man who was evidently trying to sell them something.  Sure enough it was the stuff we had handed out on the street except this wasn’t the guy we’d hand it to so in the 15-minutes it had taken us to do that then sit down for our treatments  it had changed hands a few times and eventually wound up here.  Whilst my tripmate stifled giggles I kept a fairly good poker face and tried to help out by explaining why a particular Dove body wash was really good and why another overseas insect repellent brand wasn’t, not letting on that I knew this from the friend who had donated them.  In the end they bought a few of our friend’s half-used items so everyone was happy and it was a good example of recycling combined with entrepreneurship.  Sort of.

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The wonderful day spa

Although one or two people had already left the rest of us celebrated our last night together by booking a boozy river cruise on the Zambezi.  The cheap ticket price included unlimited alcohol so we imagined a few hours of viewing animals and enjoying the sunset whilst warming up for the farewell dinner we had planned.  It was a nice cruise on this beautiful river.  We saw crocodiles and elephants on the banks along with numerous hippos in the water.

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The problem was our fellow tourists, a few groups of mainly Dutch and Italians (incidentally the two nationalities we saw fighting a few weeks earlier in Namibia) who had got a booze cruise mixed up with a safari.  It is true that when you are in an animal sighting you should be quiet with any talking done in a whisper so that you don’t either scare the animal or draw unwanted attention from it.  But this was a cruise at the tourist hub of Victoria Falls where animals on this part of the Zambezi have been enduring the din of helicopters, river boats and humans for decades.  It wouldn’t have been cool to yell or scream around the wildlife but there was no need to suppress laughter or talking, especially when it would be barely audible over the boat noise.  Despite this they loudly and frequently shushed us and each other, something that became hilariously funny over the course of the cruise and the more we giggled the more they shushed us so that by the end some of us were crying with laughter, no doubt helped by the strength of the Gin & Tonics the barman was pouring.  But they were also hogging all of the best spots to take photos and were stingy with their tips for the crew so we didn’t feel guilty.

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The cruise culminated with an absolutely stunning sunset over the river before we went back to camp for the farewell dinner that lasted late into the night.  The next morning we said very sad goodbyes to our departing friends and the three of us that remained waited anxiously to meet the new folks.  We needn’t have worried as our eight new arrivals turned out to be wonderful traveling companions, something I’ll write more about in my next update as I talk about our wonderful trip through Zambia.

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