Monday 11 November 2013

o : Victoria Falls

The Waterfront
Upstream of Victoria Falls

Dear o,

The Zambezi isn’t much of a river here, but rather a peaceful, narrow lake that saunters a little to the left.  The sun is setting behind thick clouds and the water reflects its red-orange glow.  There’s a bar, tables, ledges and a little wooden pier, all looking out and taking it in as if this were an oceanside resort.  Further upstream one of the tall white boats chugs along, carrying tourists who have selected the “Sunset Cruise with Unlimited Drinks” package from their hostel or hotel’s laminated activity sheet.  The only thing that suggests the world-renowned, earth-slicing cascading tumult downriver is a faint rumble, barely audible; it’s a little vibration that tickles the ears.  And despite the long, floppy list of things to do, the distant roar is the one that everyone has really come for. 

The Victoria Falls are ‘dry’ in the month of November, which means that only the Main Falls and Devil’s Cataract, mostly visible from the Zimbabwe side, are in full force, while a few other small waterfalls trickle down an average of 100m into the long trench.  When you walk across the Knife-Edge Bridge in Zambia’s Victoria Falls park – avoiding the baboons who will confront and harass you for food – you can just barely see the spraying torrent of water crashing down in the distance, but most of your view is of a dry, brown, slender and rocky canyon.  It is incredible, and majestic, and enormous, but it isn’t the long unfurling scroll you’re used to seeing in the pictures.  Further downstream, at the Victoria Falls Bridge, you can't spot any running water.  This is worthy of note, because the bridge was built just where it is in 1935 in order to catch the spray of the Falls.  Today that spray shoots up and is visible over the autumnal cliffs, but it doesn’t rush down the gorge, blow around a corner, and touch the bridge or its bungee jumpers.  When I stand and peer into the yawning crack in the earth, or descend along a valley path to the Boiling Pot at the base, or strain to hear the little rumble now, I find myself having to imagine what the Falls are like when ‘wet’: green and tumbling, impossible to behold at once.  David Livingstone, the first known European to see them, wrote that "scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight."

But I don’t just stand there in the glory of a different, more deluxe version of Victoria Falls.  Not only is the dry one more than enough to fill the mind’s eye or a camera card, there are ways to experience it now which will be impossible in a few months time.  When the Falls are at full strength, the spray is so great that onlookers get soaked in seconds from across the chasm, and often they see only a column of mist before a white nothing.  There are shuttered kiosks now that will open in the new year, solely to provide raincoats to those who didn’t realise what they were getting into.  And, the longer the section of ridge with pouring water, the shorter that laminated list of activities. 

Yesterday we joined one of the advertised group excursions.  We walked over sharp, dry rocks, between stagnant ponds, and over the tall ridge of the Falls to Livingstone Island.  At times we were just a few metres away from the edge, gawking down into the smoking abyss.  Just after the island we swam across a part of the river to an outcropping of dry land that overlooks the Devil’s Pool.  One by one, watched carefully by the two guides, we dipped into the water and doggy-paddled to sit on the ledge – not a ledge over another pool, or over a rapid: but a ledge immediately over Victoria Falls.  The guide who joined us in the water, and who held our legs as we lay on our stomachs over the ledge, made it clear from the start.  He pointed to the whirling pool just a foot or two away from where we entered, and said without emotion or humour, "you go there, you die."  One of the Argentinians in our group, the disobedient, daredevil type, casually swam over to the forbidden area and stuck his hand in it to feel the current.  He laughed, we cringed, and the guide looked ready to slap him.

The stomach-on-the-ledge, face-over-the-gulch view was astonishing enough.  The spray hit my face, the wind made me grip tight, and though I couldn't quite see all the way down through the huge vapour pillars, still the sense of scale overwhelmed me.  The second guide stood over on the rocks with seven or eight cameras wrapped around his neck, asking me to smile and pose (that's why you're supposed to do the Devil's Pool, by the way, for the photo souvenir), but I couldn't look away.  I ignored the little fish pecking at my legs and feet, the same ones which tickled Al so bad that I had to hold her for fear of her arching her back in laughter right into the misty doom.  I forgot the fact that there was another group waiting to go for a swim.  I was mesmerised, and when the time was up I had to be tugged back into the eddy.

When the water gets too high (it will start rising again in a couple weeks) the Devil's Pool becomes inaccessible.  The same is true with whitewater rafting, as the rapids first lose their smash and then get submerged altogether underneath a roaming lake of water.  This was our activity of choice for today.  A full day's rafting starts at the Boiling Pot, just beyond sight of the Falls, and hits 25 rapids for 29km downstream, meandering through forest and high cliffs which sometimes seem to point a thumbs-up.  The rapids range from Class 2 to 5, with the Class 6 ninth rapid only shot by thrill-seeking staff members in their one-person sport kayaks.  The rafts were sent down along the calmer side to be picked back up at the other end.  Everyone watched the rafts as the tumbled through the rapids, imagining themselves getting thrashed in the front.  Some wished they could shoot it.  Some wished it was the last one.  

It's the end of the day and there is the flushed sense among the rafters that it's been a day well spent, a day where something was done; maybe not accomplished or discovered or even enjoyed, but certainly used up.  The photo slideshows of each raft are playing in succession from the Mac computer at one end of the bar counter and the Hollywood-style video was just shown on the main screen.  The whole crowd gathered to enjoy each other's shrieks, flips, shenanigans and crazy moments.  Like the Devil's Pool, the whole event sometimes felt like an elaborate film production.  Halfway through every big rapid our guide in the back yelled, "wave!", and sure enough, there was the cameraman and videoman, standing on the rocks with their electronic eyes pointing.  The next rapid, and there they'd be, perched and rolling; I didn't see them go by.  Did you?  And now the package is ready to be wrapped up, bought and sold.  Like the Devil's Pool, this is meant for the record, like the necksnapping rollercoaster ride you can now say you've done.  Day out on the gorge: 850 kwacha.  Combination, photos and video: 390 kwacha.  Memories: yeah, yeah, priceless; but where's my certificate?

Victoria Falls is the great African amusement park, with more colourful slots to put your cash than I've seen anywhere else.  The roads are paved and smooth, the buildings are freshly painted, there are more restaurants and lodgings than I can keep track of, and everybody seems to have an American accent.  It's easy to get caught up in the glitzy playground where even the volunteer opportunities are sold with full-colour pamphlets and clever monikers, and to get transported out of the continent I've been trying to get to know for half a year (although: get to know, continenthalf a year... really?).  It's odd to first see tourists hanging out by the pool, at the bar, in the hammock, totally oblivious to the wonder of the world just down the road; it's not odd at all when you join them.  Okay, Victoria Falls, saw them, got the photo, felt the spray, now what?  Walk with sedated lions: done that.  High tea at the Royal Livingstone Hotel as zebras and monkeys walk by the table?  Pencil it in.  Then how about a day in Botswana?

But when you're there, when you look down into the gorge, when you sit and look and wait, wait for it to hit you, to rise up and grab you, when Victoria Falls breaks out of the postcard and reaches up and throttles your eardrums as well as your balance, you get it.  The laminated list could get tossed among the rocks, torn up and lost for all you care.  Dry or wet, whispering or roaring, if you put away the camera and hold yourself from falling, it starts to make sense why you've come.  Below where I sit now is Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders, and even if the edges become as ghastly and unnatural those of Niagara, still the sound and the mist and the terrible basalt slopes will tug me down.



Model of the Falls and gorges 
Victoria Falls Bridge, from the Boiling Pot 
Zebra wandering by the path, Zambezi Sun Hotel
Baboons at work 
The dry Victoria Falls
Knife-Edge Bridge 
Victoria Falls 
Victoria Falls 
Victoria Falls 
Victoria Falls 
The Devil's Pool
Looking downstream
Victoria Falls, end to end 
At the Zambezi Sun Hotel 
Monkey by the Zambezi
Royal Livingstone Hotel 
Steam train, sunset, Knife-Edge Bridge, Victoria Falls, little waterfall

PS: 12 October.  The Zimbabwe side might not have the backpacker spirit of Zambia, or zebras and giraffes in the hotel gardens.  Instead, warthogs wander in front of the smooth white tables of the Victoria Falls Hotel, and the closeup view of the Falls is nothing short of awesome.  And, even when dry, there’s spray.

Warthogs at play
Victoria Falls Hotel
Victoria Falls Bridge 
Entrance to the park 
The Zimbabwe side includes a rainbow
Victoria Falls, Main Falls
The Devil's Cataract
Victoria Falls 
Devil's Pool, from across the divide
Devil's Pool at right-hand corner
The canyon 
Victoria Falls