Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Victoria Falls (Chapter 2: The Falls)

It's no small feat to get from Mozambique to southern Zambia.  

Besides the hassle of public transportation in the developing world (which, at this point, we have all but accepted), there are the additional frets and complications:  passports, visas, exchange rates, strange cities, new languages, lodging, and long hours.  A person leaving from Zobue, Mozambique can reasonably expect to be on the road for at least two and a half days before reaching their destination, and this is with great pluck and luck and fortunate timing.

Our trip took us through Lilongwe (the capital of Malawi), Lusaka (the capital of Zambia), Livingstone (the Zambian side of Victoria Falls), and into Zimbabwe.  We spent more than 54 hours on the road and traveled more than 3,000 kilometers.  We saw monkeys and rivers and forests and villages and used four different currencies in ten days.  I earned twelve new stamps for my passport.  It was a big, big adventure.

Dan and I started from Zobue on Friday, April 12. We brought with us two bags, one raincoat, and 25 original Werther's candy suckers.  Best of all, we brought our good friend Dylan.  


This is our report from the road.

8 hours (Should have been six.  Or four.)

Border crossing-  Mozambique to Malawi.  No visa necessary for US citizens.

Good luck-  Arrived in Lilongwe before dark and, through a bit of trial and error and running and asking, managed to secure three seats on a bus to Lusaka for the following morning.  

Food-  Pizza and ice cream!  Lilongwe is a capital city, for sure.

13 hours 

Border crossing-  Malawi to Zambia.  US Citizen Single-Entry Visa:  $50 US

Notes on a new country-  Zambia is much bigger and emptier than Mozambique.  At least, along the Great Eastern Road.  Villages are pretty with lots of sunflowers.

Other notes-  13 hours is a very long ride on a public bus.  

Bad luck-  Arrived after dark, confused and without money.  Managed to find an ATM but not without significant taxi fare.  Future travelers-- do exchange some money at the border.

Food-  Pizza and ice cream.  Not as exciting the second time around.

7 hours

Noteworthy events-  Due to a shortage of options, the three of us booked rather expensive (115 Zambian Kwacha, 21USD) seats on a Mazhandu Family Business Class Bus.  Totally worth it. Perks included seat belts, newspapers, air conditioning, cupcakes, orange soda, and one seat per passenger!

Good luck-  Arrived in Livingstone at 3PM.  Plenty of daylight to check in and explore. 

Lodging-  Jollyboys Backpacker's Lodge.  Bar, pool, and hot running water.  Dorm beds for $10 a night.

Riding the A'zungu Express from Lusaka to Livingstone
Dan on the Mazhandu Family Bus:  Free newspapers
Jollyboys Backpacker's Lodge in Livingstone, Zambia
Jollyboys Backpacker's:  The reading pit
Jollyboys Backpacker's:  The travel desk
Jollyboys Backpacker's:  Second breakfast at the bar

The first thing that you need to know about Victoria Falls is that it is flanked by two very different towns.  The closest (also known as Victoria Falls), is on the Zimbabwe side of the falls and is approximately one kilometer away from the edge of the water.  The second town, Livingstone, is located in Zambia.  Livingstone is about 10 kilometers away from the falls.  

For years, the town of Victoria Falls was the launching point for tourist excursions to the waterfall.  The town is walk-ably close to the river, after all, and has access to nearly 75% of the total viewing area.  In many ways, it is the most logical choice in terms of over-night accommodation.  In the late-nineties, however, Zimbabwe took an economic spill (see hyperinflation- the Zimbabwean dollar) and the tourist industry disappeared.  Tourism was then re-routed to Livingstone, the one-time capital of Zambia.  

Lately, it seems as if tourism is on the rise for both Zambia and Zimbabwe.  Visitors now face the uncomfortable task of trying to choose between two equally foreign small towns in Africa.   

Because we would be arriving at the Zambia/Zimbabwe border from the Zambian side (Peace Corps regulations ban travel through Zimbabwe), it made sense for us to find accommodation on the Zambian side.  Frankly, I was unwilling to spend 30 hours in transit just to find myself elbowing through another border station, fighting my way into Zimbabwe.  We would be staying in Zambia, and that was that.  Plus, the budget lodging was better in Livingstone.   

We compromised, though, and chose to stay for one night in Zimbabwe (at the end of the trip).  We wanted to get a feel for it, and it just made sense.  It was a good decision, and I would urge other travelers to do the same.  

Zimbabwe, Zambia, and the location of Victoria Falls

So now we begin our story where we left off-- hefting our bags off the bus in Livingstone, Zambia.

Livingstone was a nice little town.  The setting was dominated by a broad main street (leading northwards from the falls and onward to Lusaka) and buildings with clean, square corners.  Tens, if not hundreds, of sky-blue taxis circled the street, waiting and looking for business.

I felt comfortable walking along the sidewalks of the town.  Because Livingstone was located so far from the actual tourist attraction, the atmosphere felt sweeter and more natural than on the Zimbabwe side.  I rarely felt like a tourist.

Our lodge was located just uphill from the main road.  We were staying at Jollyboys, which was the most popular and well-rated of the budget-accommodations on either side of the Falls.  The dorm rooms (two, four, or eight bunks) were clean, simple, and colorful.  The crowd was young and international and mostly European.  Dan's favorite part was the ping-pong table and Dylan's favorite part was the reading pit, which was little more than a ball-pit stuffed with pillows.  My favorite part was the front desk, the staff at which managed to respond cheerfully and accurately to a near-constant barrage of questions.

On our first full day, we hitched to the Falls from along the main road.  It was about 6:30 in the morning, which was far too early for the one-and-only 10AM free shuttle from the lodge.   Luckily, we were able to wave down the first passing car that we saw, and we arrived at the Falls by seven.  We were, I think, the only ones there.

We payed the entrance fee into the Mosi-ao-Tunya National Park (20 US dollars!) and then passed through a small kiosk to check in.  There, a park worker was kind enough to hand Dan a free poncho (usually one dollar), and point us in the right direction.  Besides the park worker and a few random curio dealers unraveling canvas in the parking lot, there was no one else in sight.

We could hear the falls before we could see them.  What had been a tall cloud of mist from the road had turned into a steady roar of falling water.  Then, through a break in the trees, we saw a wall of mist and a rainbow.  

Our first view of Victoria Falls

The paths to the left seemed a little wet, so we started by exploring the top of the falls.  The sun was just starting to gain strength.

The water at the top of the falls was churning and seemed dangerously strong.  There were several moments when I asked Dan, somewhat pleadingly, not to go any closer.  I would not be surprised if I had scolded Dylan, too.

At the top of the Falls.  Probably a little too close.
First views of the Falls
Reading about David Livingstone.  Here, he states that the Falls are the
 "most wonderful sight" that he has "witnessed in Africa"
Fast, strong water at the top of the Falls
At the top of the Falls
Fast water
Dylan and Dan at the top of the Falls

From there, we zipped up our jackets (or, in Dan's case, flailed into our ponchos) and stepped into the mist.

A wider view of the Falls
Ready for the mist
Facing down the falls (which,  although you can't see them,
stretch from  beyond one side of the frame to the other)
Facing Victoria Falls.  Beautiful, right?
Crossing the Knife's Edge bridge in front of the Falls.
Things are getting downright dangerous for my camera, now.
Another solid view of the Falls
Treacherous Mist
Dylan notes, "Maybe jeans weren't the best choice"
A brief clearing in the mist
Dylan and Dan enjoy a soggy moment
Knife's Edge Bridge
Knife's Edge Bridge
A couple crosses the bridge in the pounding mist.  I showed them this photograph afterward,
and they responded, "Thank you dear.  That's lovely."
 I managed to take all of these pictures by using my jacket like a tarp.
My camera stayed dry.  I, unfortunately, did not.
Knife's Edge Bridge with the Falls behind

When we stepped out of the rain, we were surprised to see how busy and warm the park had become.  The sun was high in the sky and waves of people were making their way past us towards the Falls.  Still ahead of the crowd, we took a side path down to the bottom of the falls to a spot known as the "Boiling Pot."

Knife's Edge Bridge, as seen from afar.  The Falls, of course, are the white glare directly beyond.
A flower grows in the damp soil under the mist of the Falls
Flowers in front of the Falls
The actual ecosystem of the surrounding area when not affected by the mist
First glimpse of the bridge between Zambia (left) and Zimbabwe (right)
Note:  This is the bridge from which Dan will soon jump.
Below the Falls at the Boiling Pot (the Falls are to the right)

By mid-morning, we had walked every square inch of footpath in the National Park.  I had even gone back and done the Knife's Edge Bridge a second time, leaving Dylan and Dan to dry out and get a Coke.

After I had shaken the last drops from my raincoat and wiped my camera lens with the inside of my shorts pockets, we returned Dan's poncho and exited the park without buying a single curio ("No, no thanks.  No, we live in Africa.  No thanks.").  From there, we crossed through the Zambian border station, heading towards the bridge.  Because the bridge exists in no-man's land between Zambia and Zimbabwe, it is possible to go bungee jumping without actually buying a Visa or getting a passport stamp.  In the same vein, it's also possible to go and watch the bungee jumpers without getting a passport stamp, which is exactly what Dylan and I planned to do.  Dan, of course, was planning to jump.

In operation since 1994, Victoria Falls Bungee actually has a fantastic safety record.  Unfortunately, their one and only bungee cord fail happened just last year, in 2012, and made international news.

Thankfully, the girl survived.  And, with only one such incident taking place in over 150,000 jumps, Dan figured that he would be fine.  I wasn't so sure, of course, but Dan was convinced.

Victoria Falls Bungee actually offers three different activity options:

1-  Flying Fox Zipline.  $35.  A 20-second zip across the Zambezi River gorge.
2-  Bridge Swing.  $130.  A drop then "swing" out over the river.
3-  Bungee Jump. $130.  Bungee from the bridge for a distance of 111 meters.

If you combine the three activities above, you get the "Big Air" package (at the equally appalling rate of $165).

Dan selected to do all three, and started filling out the paperwork immediately.  Dylan mulled it over and then selected the most reasonable of the three options-- the Flying Fox zipline.

"I don't see a need to fool around with Death," he confided, later.

As for me, I just winced and fiddled with the settings on my camera.  It wasn't that I was scared, necessarily.  I never had an urge to jump, so I never had to think about or come to terms with my fears.  I simply just wasn't going to do it.   I'm more of a thing watcher than a thing do-er.

So the boys sat at the table and signed their lives away.  It is interesting to note that once a customer has signed the paperwork, they can NOT get their money back.  Not even if they burst into tears and vomit before even setting foot on the bridge.  Oh, and also, the company takes no responsibility.  For almost anything.  Even for injury or death caused by negligence on the part of the staff.

The boys had their jump number and weight penned onto their wrists (for later identification?), and were then strapped into a serious of harnesses.  I just watched and bit my lip.

The boys started with the Zipline.  We walked out onto promontory jutting into the gorge and turned around the face the bridge.  The guide let me lean against the rope railing and take pictures while first Dylan, then Dan, zipped across the river.  It did look like fun, but it was also over very quickly.  My jealously was short-lived.

The guide then helped me pick up the boys' bags and jog back to the bridge, where Dan was getting ready for the great Gorge Swing.

"How was it?"  I asked Dylan.

"Great," he said.  "but I don't know if was worth 35 dollars."

We watched as the guides talked Dan through the Gorge Swing procedure.  We could see, about 100 feet in front of the platform, the pulley from which his cord would catch and "swing."  It looked exciting, but also a little painful.  Dan would later describe the Gorge Swing as "the activity where you step off a bridge, drop for while, and then get caught by your junk at the accelerated rate of 80 miles per hour."

Eventually, he jumped, swung, and got pulled up.  Then, it was time for the big-ticket item.

I fiddled with my camera some more, imagining what I would do if the bungee cord snapped and Dan went plunging into the river below.  I couldn't exactly jump out after him...

The guides wrapped his feet in double towels and, in low voices, gave him preparatory instructions instructions out on the platform.  To his credit, Dan looked totally unfazed.

"Aren't you nervous?"  I asked Dylan.  "I'm nervous."

Dan moved the front of the platform.  Suddenly, I realized that the staff-appointed camera-man was going to block my entire shot.

"Waaaaaaaiiiiittt!"  I called out, running behind the platform.  I dashed to the other side and managed to get my camera up just as the operator called out-

"TWO ... ONE ...  BUNGEE!"

And, without missing a beat, there he went.  I wonder how many people falter at that point?

I watched the whole thing through the camera lens.  Dan bounced once... twice... and three times in the lens, starting to spin slowly.  Then, he was caught by a guide (who had been lowered down on a rope), and tugged back in to safety.  Dan and Dylan enjoyed a nice congratulatory hug on the bridge and Dan gave me a dopey smile.

Bungee achieved.

Dylan registers and the boys go zipping
Dan on the zip line (left) and on the Bridge Swing (middle and right)
Bungee Jumping
Bouncing on the Bungee, Retrieval, and a Celebratory Hug

Later that afternoon, we signed up for a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River.

The cruise had been highly recommended, and it was something I was really looking forward to. I had heard that you could see animals from the boat, even "elephants swimming to the islands."  That in itself was enough incentive, but the cruise also offered dinner and an open bar at sunset above the falls.


One of the staff members grilled chicken and sausages at the bow of the boat while another managed the bar and narrated the scene on a microphone.  We saw hippos and crocodiles in the water and impala and waterbuck on the shore.  We ate dinner as the sun set and I even managed to finish two and a half beers before we made our way back to the dock.  It was my favorite part of the trip.  

Another boat on the Zambezi River
Grilling sausage and chicken on the bow
Early sunset over Mosi-ao-Tunya National Park
Watching for hippos
A very nice Zambian beer
Other boats on the river
Dylan and Dan at the bar
Sunset over the Zambezi River (incidentally, this is the same river that flows through Tete)

The following morning, we woke up early for a Walking Safari through Mosi-ao-Tunya National Park.  We were surprised to find that we were the only ones who had signed up for that particular safari, but also extremely gratified.  Three people, we reasoned, could sneak through the bush much more sneakily than could a large, gaggling horde.  

Our safari started with a short game drive and park introduction by our guide, Tawendi (or Kawanda?  Kawendi?).  Then, we parked the car in the bush, had some tea and biscuits, and set off on foot.  

At 66 square kilometers (25 square miles), Mosi-ao-Tunya is not exactly a large national park. It's really too small, even, to support large predators, so most of the wild animals simply putter around in a state of carefree relaxation.   It feels large, however, to those on foot, and a rhinoceros is just as dangerous as a lion in the right situation.  So it was still an exciting walk.  

For the first hour or so, we encountered nothing but excrement.  Our guide rifled through big piles and small piles, pointing out nuts and seeds and bits of fluff.  

"Here," he said.  "What made this?"

"We have no idea," we would say in unison.  "We're American."

He showed us footprints and wallows and hair stuck to trees, all while moving determinedly through the bush.  Our armed escort, Mr. Chauncey, didn't say a word.  He just walked steadily at the front of the line, gun at the ready, scanning the horizon.  

Then, the animals started coming.  We first saw a lone wildebeest, followed by two warthogs. Then we saw a family of giraffes, and a herd of Cape Buffalo.  As we were approaching the herd of buffalo (who numbered at least a hundred), I realized that I was very deeply uncomfortable. It turns out that I much prefer tracking animals to actually finding them.   I spent the next hour or so looking over my shoulder, hoping not to see an elephant.

Towards the end of our safari, we came upon the rhinoceros.  Of the eight rhinos in Mosi-ao-Tunya National Park, we encountered four of them.  The rhinos were surrounded by armed guards, all of whom were lying in the bushes, writing on clipboards, and munching on snacks.  

It was with great reluctance that I approached the rhinos to within forty or fifty feet.  There in front of us (and largely ignoring us) were a dominant male, submissive male, and a mother and her calf.  I managed a few shaky photographs before backing away and waiting in the bush.  I was happy when we finally returned to the truck. 

Our journey ended with a soda and a handful of cookies, eaten off the tailgate of the safari vehicle.  Then, we brushed off the crumbs, clamored into the back of the truck, and bounce-bounced back to civilization.  

The insignia for Livingstone Walking Safaris.  I, of course, am the small person to the far left.
Giraffe poop
Ilala palm fruit
Wildebeest hairs 
Mopane leaves
Heading towards the Cape Buffalo (with Mr. Chaucey at the lead)
One of eight white rhino in the park (and one of ten in all of Zambia)
There is another, a nursing mother, lying in the background

For dinner that night, we chose to pack a block of cheese, box of crackers, half a watermelon, and three spoons to take to the bridge.  The Zambia/Zimbabwe bridge, we reckoned, was free to cross and offered the easiest view of the falls.  That, and it would be a fantastic place to watch the sunset.  

Armed and laden with cheese and watermelon, we tried to wave down a ride to the falls.  At first, the prospects seemed good.  Then, we quickly realized that every other car was a taxi, and that we were gathering a lot of attention.  Finally, unable to fight off the advances of all the eager drivers, we gave in and accepted a ride for 35 Zambian Kwacha (about $7).  

Our driver's name was Ivan, and he seemed nice enough.  He wasn't very comfortable with English, though, and our conversations led in repetitive circles.  

"Where are you going?"  He asked.  "Do you need a ride back?"

"We are just going to the bridge," we said, "but no ride back."

"I will be your ride back," he said.  "I will wait for you."

"No," we argued, "no, thank you.  You go back without us.  We will find different ride."

"I will wait for you.  Just pay me extra."

"No!  Just go!  No pay!  No extra!"

"I will wait for you.  We can walk to the bridge together."


"Yes.  I wait.  Bridge together."

"... ugh.  Fine."

And thus we ended up on Victoria Falls Bridge, enjoying our cheese and watermelon at sunset, flanked by our strangely insistent taxi driver, Ivan.

Here we are, enjoying the waterfall.  You can see our shadows on the right:
Dan, me, Dylan, and ... Ivan
A view of the Victoria Falls Bridge at sunset

Finally, on our last day, we chose to cross into Zimbabwe and see the other size of the Falls.  

It was an expensive proposition (a single-entry Visa costs US$30 and entrance into the National Park Fees also costs US$30 per person), but it didn't seem reasonable to go all that way and then stop short.  So, loaded up with all of our gear, we took the Jollyboys free shuttle (for the first time in three days!) and walked across the border to Zimbabwe.  It was a surprisingly long, hot, sunburn-y walk.  

The town of Victoria Falls, we discovered, was very different from the town of Livingstone.  It has several large, central resorts, for one thing, and about twenty different tourist bureaus. Tourist police pace the streets and hawkers run at you from every corner.  Within twenty minutes, I knew that I didn't like it.  I felt like an object and a tourist.  

We booked a room at Shoestrings Backpackers and left our bags in a dorm room that was shaped like an old boxcar.  It wasn't anything like our accommodation in Livingstone, but we weren't willing to back out.  We were determined to spend a full day (24 hours) in Zimbabwe. Otherwise, our visit wouldn't count.  

From the Backpackers, we walked back down to the National Park.  Along the way, we were jostled and heckled and bothered incessantly.  I heard the word a'zungu repeatedly, for the first time in several days.  

In Zimbabwe, as in Zambia, all access points to the falls are blocked off and consolidated into one single National Park.  Until recently, the price of the park was US$20.  Somebody must have realized, however, that Zimbabwe had the most commanding view of the Falls, and postulated a rather extreme jump in price.  Now the price is US$30 for foreigners and US$20 for Africans-Who-Are-Not-Zimbabwean.  Essentially, this means that none of my students will ever, ever get to see the greatest view of Victorian Falls.  It doesn't really seem fair.  

True to the massive leap in price, however, the Zimbabwean park was correspondingly better than its sister park in Zambia.  We entered the park through a turnstile (a turnstile!) and were greeted by a collection of maps and natural history displays.  The cobblestone paths were well-marked and well-managed.  Each of the 16 viewpoints was named and delineated.  Delightful!

As was suggested by one of the park maps, we started on the left-hand side of the falls and worked our way out to the most extreme vista-- Danger Point.  

The Falls, as expected, were big and wide and wet.  

Victoria Falls Footpath Guide:  Although the proportions of the Zimbabwe vs Zambia side
seem to be exaggerated, do note that Zimbabwe has a more commanding view of the Falls
A view of the Falls as seen from the far left
Sunshine and mist mingle, creating a year-round rainforest ecosystem
A family silhouette
In the rainforest, between viewpoints
A broad, foggy glimpse of the falls
A broad, foggy glimpse of the fog
Dan (now poncho-less) heads out towards Danger Point
Dylan and Dan at Danger Point.  Please note the tuxedo T-shirt
And back out again
One last look at the Falls
A clear shot of the rainbow and the wall of mist

Finally, satisfied that we had truly experienced Zimbabwe, we shouldered our bags and headed back home.  We spent a few nights with our friend Jacqui (and her husband Al and their dog Wart), climbed a big rock, and had a picnic, all before landing safely in Mozambique.  

It was, in Dylan's words, "one of the best vacations ever."

One of many long bus rides back home
A pit stop in a game park yielded this fantastic moment
A Good Housekeeping magazine from 1986:  Just another strange find in Africa
Jacqui's darling dog, Wart
Going for a hike with Jacqui
Climbing "the Big Rock"
On the ascent
Big Rock flower
Big Sky
Big Rock Art
Jacqui takes a photograph
Jacqui, Dylan, and Dan
... and me
On the Big Rock with Jacqui
Wine and Picnic
Dylan and me (photographic proof that I was, indeed, present on this trip)
The boys and a big, beautiful African sunset

The end!

1 comment:

  1. This post is amazing. How COOL that you guys went there. You're so right, sometimes as a volunteer the extra $60 can seem like SO much money, but it's totally worth it for the experience to just do it. The photos you got are just stunning.