What we know:
FORMER NORTHERN RHODESIA. VICTORIA FALLS. CECIL RHODES.
British need a visa 50$, car insurance 36$ and an hour of form filling we are on our way.
Stopping in Livingstone (renamed Maramba) we visit its small museum dedicated to a Scottish born doctor –missionary and explorer extraordinaire David Livingstone and his wife Mary nee Moffat. David, as you might remember, was one of my fantasy ferry acquaintances on our crossing to Africa from Europe. A forerunner of European Imperialism eventually converted to African Nationalism he had come a long way from Shuttle row in Blantyre eight miles outside Glasgow to be the first white man to see and name the falls on the 16 November 1855: Victoria (Known to the Kololo people who lived up-stream as smoke and thunder)
The museum does little to prepare us for what lie’s ahead the world’s widest expanse of falling water. It does, however, leave us with some appreciation of the determination of Livingstone. To put Livingston time in context the light bulb had just been invented one year before he was born. When he first laid eyes on the falls the bicycle still had iron wheels. Sparrows had arrived in the USA and it would be another thirty-nine years before moving pictures were invented. It’s only a year since the charge of the Light Brigade. There can be no doubt that he must have being gobsmacked as his canoe floated towards the lip. It’s no wonder he could not resist the temptation of some twenty-century graffiti carving his initials and date on a tree.
Indian smoke signals of white clouds are like him our only warning that the Zambezi waters are going to nose-dive headlong into a gigantic void. Will we be as gobsmacked? Not yet.
Our first view from the riverbank is restricted. White clouds of spray and dazzling rainbows block any clear view. The awesome power and majesty that captured Livingstone will have to wait till tomorrow. For us, it’s shower time at the Rainbow Lodge. Approaching the Zimbabwean border Victoria is coughing up a cloud every few minutes. Most are crossing in our direction. That is from Zambia to Zimbabwe. Over 95% of tourists arrive at Victoria on the Zimbabwe side. Formalities to cross over with Williwaw are a bit of a nightmare. As always calm, some good humour and the might of the dollar work’s wonders with the car papers causing most of the problems. Stamp, Stamp we over. Our one-day stay in Zambia is over.
What we know:
FORMER SOUTHERN RHODESIA. IAN SMITH. UN SANCTIONS. MUGABE. WHITE FARMERS. VICTORIA FALLS.
We disappear one after the other into the tumbling hot water. Heaven in Africa is not difficult to find it’s a hot shower. How give a fuck about one millions of litres of tranquil Zambezi water that plunge over Victoria > Up to 650 million every minute in the rainy season. At this very moment in time for all, we care it might as well be a dribble. Situated right on the river edge just above the falls edge Rainbow Lodge is well named. Reborn we venture down to have another look.
David clean-shaven, sporting a moustache with long sideburns and a receding hairline found the falls while he navigated down the Zambezi in the hope of finding Gods Highway into central Africa. He first saw them some distance further down the river from where we are now standing. In another ten thousand years Rainbow lodge will have to move one and a half kilometres up river if it wants to stay from falling over the edge.
Disturbing two youths who are having an evening wash we emerge onto the very lip of the falls. The view across the leading edge is mesmerizing. Sheets of water reflect a canvas of the setting sun posing for a split second before, spilling over in long vaporizing blocks of water. One can follow individual chunks of water till they break into white drops right in front of your eyes. Further out the falls, the water disappears into large cracks where it gathers energy to make the jump into the unknown void below.
Twice the height of Niagara and one and a half times wider it impossible to get an overall view across the 1.6km width of the falls. Victoria is in fact made up of four falls: Devil’s Cataract, Main Falls, Rainbow Falls and Eastern Cataract. From its highest point at 108m water sprays up to 500m into the air creating a factory of perpetual white clouds that glide up into the sky. The only unquestionably unchanged caricature of the falls since David time is that the Zambezi River now dammed has changed its spirit utterly. On arriving at the edge as a smooth slow flowing river it changes in a wink into the rage of nature that David must have seen.
Returning to the Lodge under a full moon we are treated to a lunar rainbow, dinner and a deep sleep with water on the brain.
By the time we emerge next morning after yet another long shower session the sun is already poaching the land. Armed with some local knowledge the best way to get truly saturated is to head for the Chain Walk a pathway that descends down into a gorge called Devil’s Cataract on the Zimbabwean side of the falls. To fully understand the falls one has to realize that it is forever on the retreat. The present falls is the eight to appear on the river over the last million years. Each falls forming where the river finds a fault in the lava bed of the river. Devil’s crack is the latest and it is already 300m below the main fall line. Eventually, over the next few thousand years, the whole lot will pour down this crack to form the ninth site for Victoria.
Donning some wet weather gear we set off. The unremitting spray of Victoria gives the place its own microclimate. Just as in David’s time the falls are surrounded by lavish rainforest remaining both dramatic and dignified. Not so the hinterland, which has turned into a gold mine bastardized by the ever-increasing tourist commercialization. Now a major world tourist attraction with a population of 72000 living in and around its sides I am sure his Victorian constitution would take a turn for the worst.
Feeling somewhat strange dressed up in rain proofs we pay our entry fees. (Top TIP: Bring a waterproof bag for your cameras.) A trail through deep vegetation leads down to a jutting rock outcrop with many vantage points. Each stop taking ones breath away as the falls make’s public its claim to one of the world’s natural wonders. After the Sahara, the Kalahari and Namibian deserts we find it tricky to get our heads around so much water. God knows the way we are polluting the world drinking water it could be the source of many a forthcoming coming African war.
Around here you eventually realize that all paths lead to craft centres or craft villages and only a promise made at Danger Point overlooking Boiling Pot of lunch in the Victoria Falls Hotel saves the credit card from taking a pounding. The Victoria Falls Hotel is one of the few remaining old colonial old world hotels. Built in Edwardian style 1904 when the Cape to Cairo railway reached the falls it now caters to the well-heeled tourist.
For the second time in our voyage, we feel inappropriately clad in shorts and tees shirts. In the splendid Livingstone Room, they don’t go with linen tablecloths, fine glassware, and an array of forks and knives to tax one’s dining table etiquette. This is made more than obvious by the standing waiter with a tray that is dressed in whites, gloves and red fez. “Madam” “Noilly Prat gin Martine please,” says Fanny “Would you like it served here or on the Stanley’s Terrace.” “Sir” “On the terrace; s’il vous paît; with a large Gin and tonic if you please. Perhaps the craft shop /village might have turned out more lenient on the plastic. To hell with it, this marks the starting point to the second half of our journey. With drinks in hand we watch a bungi jumper launch himself from Over lunch I sign up for a one-day rafting trip in the morning down what called the Botaka Rapids.
7am the next morning “ Please sign the handed out forms.” Indemnities against all accidents and loss of life. Next the safety talk. Long swimmers. Hold on to the ropes on the side of the raft. Do as your raft leader requires and everything will be honkey dorey. Pay now drown later. My group consists of Dutch couple, an Aussie, a brother and sister, two employees of the rafting company and a black skipper. “OK, mount up.” I am sitting beside David our accompanying long swimmer canoeists. He hands out maps of the day’s river decent > Twenty-three rapids in total.
Looking at the map all the rapids are all suitably named to put the fear of God in those who have never done white water rafting before or who will never again. Rapid no 6 Devil’s Toilet Bowl. Rapid no 8 Midnight Diner > consisting of a choice of three runs. On the left “Star Trek” with a hole of 5m reserved for the brave, or down the middle called “Muncher Run”, or the right “ “Chicken Run.” rapid no 9 “Commercial Suicide”, “The Mother” rapid no 13, “Terminators One and Two” rapids no 16 and last but not least “ Oblivion “to name just a few.
Our converted Dutch army truck takes an hour to arrive at our launching pad so I have plenty of time to speak to David. Long swimmers turn out to be a bloke who has been swept some distance from the raft. It’s David’s job to go and fetch the drowning dude in his canoe i.e. long swimmers that are about to stop swimming. Short swimmers are those that pop up beside the raft. They are usually deal with by those who have not fallen out. If there is no left in the raft they should grab hold of the rope and climb aboard whether the raft is upside down or not.
The truck comes to a halt. Our first surprise is not long in coming. To get down to the river there is a long descent down the side of the gorge. Not by a track but step by step on a rickety ladder made from tree branches. With no handrails, it’s a true test of balance. The Dutch couples in front of me are making heavy weather of the decent. Our black captain raising his hand’s skywards in acknowledge of their difficulties. It looks like he has resigned himself to spending more time in the water than out of it. I can’t help sympathies with his premonitions. The Aussie brother and sister are attempting the descent by stepping in-between the ladder rungs. The inevitable happens. Crash! Down goes the long-legged sister chick ripping the ass out of her flimsy shorts exposing two juicy cheeks separated by a pink G-string. The panoramic view of which is not lost on our captain.
One hour later. Issued with life jackets and paddles we are assembled on the Rocky River shore. Raft places are allocated with two moons the sister getting the place of honour in the bow. Our rubber raft tethering on its painter in a backwater pool is then fitted with its steering oar. Twenty meters out from the shore the river boils. Pressure bubbles float into the backwater in long columns to explode like flashbulbs. “All aboard.” “Weil going to go twice around there for some practice.” Tayto > the captain announces indicating the circle with his hand.
OK! “When I shout full steam ahead you are all paddle to getter.” “Good.” “When: I shout on the right.” “Those on the left are to paddle backwards and those on the right are to paddle forwards. “ On the left” those on the right paddle backwards and those on the left paddle forwards.” Good! Good! “High five all the paddles in the air like this.” He holds a paddle in the air over his head with his two hands. “Got It” “All aboard.” Around we go twice. ON THE RIGHT producing a clatter of paddles and ON THE LEFT producing a new command from Tayto, “All together please.” Round two. Not much better. The view, however, has improved with our bow lady throwing herself enthusiastically on Tayto command face down over the bow.
Hitting the main flow with paddles thrashing, Tayto’s legs muscle tense as the current takes the raft. Our first sight is David surfing upriver on a never advancing backwater wave. High five shouts Tayto we have just navigated our first rapid of twenty-three. The high-five apparently is also a team signal of our achievement. Neither of the Dutch Edams got wet. On we go. The next rapid presents no problem or the following three. Smiles with Orange Juice, all around.
The walls of the cannon tower on either side of us. Zambia on one side and Zimbabwe on the other. Next up is Morning Glory our first major rapid. On the bow, cheeks tighten. Toto’s voice disappears as we hit a hole and are swept towards the canyon wall to be dumped into another big hole. While those in the stern of the raft end up in the bow cheeks is catapulted head first into the drink. Toto’s black hand pulls her aboard revealing to all that she has lost the remaining tatters of her shorts. Stairway to Heaven is upon us before there is time for a short change even if she had a pair.
The Stairway is a class five rapid very steep and powerful with heaps of massive waves and holes. From where we are sitting it is an amazing spectacle. Its size and volume distract all eyes from the bow. Over we go in more ways than one. I surface beside the raft, which is upside down. A trusty Black Hand heave’s me out of the water. With some effort we right the raft. All are salvage except the Aussie our first long swimmer. Predictable being an Aussie he arrives aboard thanks to David with stories of never surfacing; see his life in a flash, escaping the jaws of a croc. The Devil’s hole shuts him up.
I am now well into the ride (Top TIP: Don’t miss it). With Toto working hard we enter Gulliver’s Travels the longest rapid. This is the most technically demanding rapid of our decent. Cheeks are in and out over the bow like a Yo-Yo. Accelerating the raft is like a bucking bronco. How we got through without turning turtle is all down to Toto skills. High five’s all around.
“All out here please.” “With this amount of water the next section is too dangerous.”
“You can stay Bob if you want.” Man what a buzz. The Zambezi’s most infamous rapid. This one is a river wide pour-over with a narrow slot less than a meter wide. Well named it is indeed not for the non-tutor. Commercial Suicide. Toto lines the raft to be spat out like a cork out of a bottle. The words, Awe-inspiring and humbling go a long way to describe the next few seconds, from beginning to end. A surge of acceleration a boom of exhilaration it’s no wonder mighty rivers of the world are the blood vessels of nature.
Safely through we pull in to pick up the waiting crew. Toto smile he can’t wait to put Cheeks back in the bow. The raft is given a few extra pumps of air. We pass Gnashing Jaws of death and Overland Truck Eater with on mishaps, other than Cheeks, whose cheeks begin to glow. Now over halfway the whirlies and squirts don’t seem so intimidating. We watch David spinning like a top in a whirlpool popping out to ride some more surf as we go at a speed through the Three Sisters and on to The Mother a massive wave train. Super. The Washing Machine then another wave train leads into Terminator one and two which are also wave trains but on the bigger size.
Toto reminds us all if we should turtle to look around when we surface. “There is always air under the raft if you need a gulp.” “ The Terminators are gigantic. I tell myself if anything is going to happen this is where it is most likely. Toto warns Cheeks to go to watertight. She grabs the lifeline with both her hands and feet.
He was right. The raft goes skywards depositing all in the lap of the River Gods. Toto like the waiting wave has already anticipated two hours previously that his luck would run out. With the agility of a Velvet monkey he somehow or other puts in a backwards somersault like as if he was taking the high jump. He lands on the upturned raft.
I have also seen it coming. There is no way I am going to be sucked into one of those boiling pressure points and burst an eardrum. I had also taken a firm grip on the rafts lifeline.
While two are manhandled aboard a black hand once more heaves me on to the raft. The Aussi surfaces right in front of me. Panic has set in. Looking in the wrong direction he is trashing the water like a hippo tail taking a dump. Luckily I still have hold of my paddle. There is nothing for it but to give him a smack of the paddle in the kisser. Now facing the right way he grips it. David gives the thumbs up sigh. I roar High Fives! No one seems to enthusiast as we plunge out of control in a crescendo of noise and foaming water towards Terminator number two. We whistle through the nearest to whistling down a warp hole in ao Flash Gordon book. Intensely > Spine-tingling > Call it what you want. It’s a hell of a buzz.
The raft flashes over Double Trouble with no trouble to coin a phrase. Oblivion makes it self-heard the last rapid of the day but not the least. This rapid is made up of three waves the last of which is responsible for more raft flips than any other in the world. Only about one in four attempts succeed. Not to worry Toto has it all worked out? We get fucked in the raft flips over we go head first to be flushed out into tranquil waters of a large backwater pool. “Never mind the crocs” “Right the raft.” Toto last instruct.
Righted the raft is now towed ashore where it is deflated by three waiting employees. It is then hoisted shoulder-high and carried at running speed up a similar ladder to the one we descended a few hours ago.
Before our long haul out of the gorge, a small waterfalls flowing over a smooth rock face into the pool catch the attention of a brave few. It inflicts a few extra sore bums to join Cheeks she preferring to stand in the cooling water rather than in the sun. (Top TIP: If you do it > make sure you plaster yourself with waterproof sun lotion and smear your lips with lip-gloss.)
Emerging from the long climb out we now treated to a cold buffet and a few tubes of Mosi a Zambia beer named after the local name for Victoria Falls. The beers go straight to our Aussie friend head he slurring to all in sundry who he was saved by his sister from Davy Jones locker. I did not have the heart to tell him that his sister had balls and it was I who gave him a whack of the paddle in the gob.
Several whiskeys later it is I who has verbal diarrhoea describing to the girls who I had spent the day in the fury of a giant tumble washer.
That evening we move I rather stiffly from Rainbow Lodge to Maramba River Lodge in the Mosi –oa- Tunya National Park and spend the next few lazy days swanning around somewhat reluctant to recommence our travels The Question is do we go around Lake Kariba on Zambia side or the Zambezi. A ferry up the lake from Saba to the Kariba Dam costs over 400$ one-way for two adults and a child with Williwaw. The trip takes over twenty-two hours to cover the 250 odd kilometres that are if the Ferry is running. On enquiring it’s no surprise that the invisible Ferry has not being seen for some time and that it is full. On consulting or maps and Oracle books, we opt for the Zambezi side.
First, we visit a small village outside Victoria. While I was in the Batoka Rapids cycle the girls had got wind off a village where there are excellent woodcarvings. Mad dogs and English men go out in the noonday sun. That is just what we do. Not for the first time or the last time. After several dead ends, wrong villages and near divorce proceedings we arrive. What we find is not wood carvings but an English Educated village Chief.
Parking Williwaw in some shade we are ushered into a large compound housing a large traditional African thatch house. On the clap of hands from inside, we bend on one knee and enter the Royal Chamber. Here we are greeted in perfect public boy school vernacular by his lordship. I have often heard of many a tribal Chief –tee working as a porter in Waterloo station. Here we have one for real, smirks and all. I take an on the spot dislike to his Highness. What follows is surreal. Here is a well-educated bloke exploiting his situation. Out the back of his time-honoured house are parked two top of the range 4×4 and a modern bungalow. You remember our village Chief back in Senegal who ripped off any willing tourist with a tour of this village and his four wives’. He at least had taught himself and providing for his village. This fat bastard was pocketing the lot. Tea and a Royal chat for a small fee if you please.
“What will happen if China invades Africa?” “Why did you not turn down your royal duties and stay in the UK?” “Is there a fee to walk around the village?” I can’t wait to escape this specimen of hip critical African. I leave the girls and take a wander. They emerge shortly after me with two wood carvings a Rhino and a Hippo, which I have to admit, are of exceptional quality but tainted by all he symbolizes.
(To be Continued)
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