Rising to the Victoria Falls
Text and photos by Jillian Thomas
In 1855, British explorer David Livingstone described the Victoria Falls as having “scenes so lovely (they) must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” These days, as intrepid tourists dangle over the lip of the falls, the pounding current on their backs and nothing between them and a watery death but a local guide clutching their ankles, you have to hope that the angels, preferably guardian, are still on duty.
With vast columns of water plummeting some 100 meters into the Zambezi Gorge below, cascading white-water rapids, and scores of wild elephants and lions, the Victoria Falls area is simply stunning. It is also a treasure trove of activities, from rafting, gorge swings and bungee jumping, to canoeing, helicopter rides and safari excursions if you’re looking for a more relaxed southern African sojourn.
Both Zambia and Zimbabwe border the Victoria Falls, but with the latter now a political pariah and economic basket case, most travelers are opting for Zambia instead. The result is a developed and reassuringly well-organized tourist industry in the town of Livingstone and around the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.
The National Park is also where, on an early but already warm September morning, we found ourselves entrusting our lives to a white-water rafting guide by the name of Captain Potato. In a soupy local brogue, he explained that the Zambezi River was classifi ed by the British Canoe Union as Grade 5, with “extremely diffi cult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas.” Nothing to worry about!
“When you fall out of the raft, count to three and your life jacket will pull you to the surface. If after 10 seconds you’re still underwater … you counted too fast,” he deadpanned during the half-hour safety briefing. Despite his flippancy, Captain Potato and his team proved themselves to be trained professionals. Each time we were unceremoniously dumped from our raft, Potato would spring nimbly to the edge of the raft and – with a strength belying his wiry frame – haul us out of the water by the soggy scruffs of our life jackets.
With names like The Devil’s Toilet Bowl and Gnashing Jaws of Death, rafting the rapids on the Zambezi is not for the faint-hearted or immaculately manicured. We capsized a shameful four times out of nine rapids; a record, we were told later - and each occasion felt rather like being in the spin cycle of an industrial-sized washing machine. So for an activity that was less physically demanding but still high on the adrenalin scale, we took a plunge into what must be the ultimate infi nity pool, right on the lip of the falls themselves.
Access to the pool is via Livingstone Island, a large protrusion of rock situated about 500 meters down the length of the falls, on which visitors can have breakfast, lunch or high tea with a super-sized view. The easiest way to get there is via speedboat, although in the drier seasons it’s also possible to climb over the rocks with the help of a guide.
Overland our chosen route, and after a slippery hour and a half, we reached Livingstone Island and stood on its edge, peering nervously into the roaring abyss below. The locals don’t call it “The Smoke that Thunders” for nothing. Then we walked a few meters away from the drop and swam a short distance through a mild current, clambering up to a slippery, narrow ledge. Below us was the pool, a tiny lagoon more reminiscent of a small, stonelined Jacuzzi, opening out directly onto the falls. Through the iridescent, bubbling water, we could just make out a rocky wall, which was to be our only protection against getting swept over.
“I’ll take good care of you,” Jonah the guide promised, before hurtling head-first into the pool with a loud whoop. Having come this far, we had no choice but to follow suit, so with varying degrees of enthusiasm and grace, we dive-bombed after him. It was more exhilarating than we had imagined. Although the current was only on the water’s surface, it immediately swept us to the edge of the rocky ledge where we were rewarded by a shimmering rainbow and the thrill of being as near to the raw energy of the falls as anyone could get and stay alive.
Then another guide came prancing out onto the ledge with several of our cameras slung around his neck and a big grin on his face. More agile than a cat, he prowled up and down the narrow strip snapping away, blissfully blasé about the gaping chasm next to him. Perhaps inspired, a particularly foolhardy member of our tour agreed to let Jonah hold him by the ankles while he lay over the edge of the falls, waving his arms in front of him like a rather waterlogged superhero.
Getting to know the falls up close and personal, we decided the trip wouldn’t be complete without an aerial view as well. There are two options: by helicopter or by microlight, a motorized two-person hand glider. Although momentarily tempted by the sturdier-looking helicopter, we opted, just because being buffeted by the winds looked more fun – for the microlight.
It is only by seeing the Victoria Falls from above that you really understand how they were formed. The Zambezi River in this area flows from north to south, creating east-west cracks where the falls descend. The years of upstream recession have resulted in a zigzag pattern of gorges. From the microlight, unencumbered by glass windows or the pounding of propellers, the jagged rent in the earth and the deafening rush of the river are almost close enough to touch.
On the way back to the airstrip, we spotted a lone elephant standing kneedeep in the calm upstream waters. Watching his unhurried gait as he foraged for a mid-afternoon snack, all I could think of was how lucky the bugger was to be living in such an amazing place. We will defi nitely go back.
When to go: The most spectacular views of the falls are during the peak fl ood season in March and April. But be warned that the clouds of spray rising from the cascading water mean that you cannot visit the falls on foot. Downstream activities are also suspended during this time of year for safety reasons, so adventure-seekers should plan to go in the dryer August to November season.
How to get there: Make your way to Johannesburg, South Africa, where there are four daily fl ights to Livingstone. The flight takes just over 90 minutes. Livingstone is about 470 km from the Zambian capital of Lusaka, so a road trip is a good alternative.
Visas: Pre-arranged visas are not required for nationals of most Commonwealth and European countries, including Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. In most cases, a visa will be issued on arrival. The visa fee can be waived if you’ve pre-booked accommodations or a tour -- the hotel or local operator should arrange this for you.
Where to stay: There is a wide range of accommodations to suit all budgets, from the backpacker friendly Waterfront Lodge to the five-star Royal Livingstone, which is a minute’s walk from the falls. Particularly recommended for its luxurious privacy is the boutique style Stanley Safari Lodge.
Rafting, Livingstone Island tours and other activities:
Tel + 260-3-324407
Fax + 260-3-324406