Friday, September 19, 2014

Victoria Falls: In which we almost die (twice)

Late Wednesday afternoon, we met Don and Susan at The Victoria Falls Hotel in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.  We’re sharing the next ten days of our Zimbabwe and Botswana adventures with them.  We had a lovely evening catching up over sundowners and dinner, enhanced by the picturesque setting of our hotel, which is a large colonial style building with views of the mist rising from the falls in the distance.

As most descriptions of Victoria Falls will note, the falls are called Mosi Oa Tunya in the local language, which means “the smoke that thunders.”  This name certainly describes the falls well and is more descriptive than naming the site for a distant queen.  On Wednesday, we spent the morning exploring the Zimbabwe side of the falls.  We accessed the national park via a short path directly from the hotel.  Although the path is described as providing private access to the park, we encountered various vendors along the way who particularly like trying to sell things to Don.  Perhaps he looks like he’s in the market for wooden animal trinkets? 

We viewed the falls at a series of 16 different viewpoints.  Unlike Niagara, it is very difficult to get a sense of the falls as a whole from any single viewpoint.  The falls span the length of the Zambezi River, which is 1.7 km wide where the water streams over the edge – this makes it difficult to see the entire expanse of water at once.  In addition, the volume of water pouring over the ledge varies significantly depending on the time of year.  Although there are always millions of liters pouring over the Devil’s Cataract, the portion of the falls closest to the Zimbabwe side of the river, the falls closest to Zambia dry up outside of the rainy season, so only trickles of water can be seen.  Visitors to the falls January – May will find immense quantities of water pouring over the whole expanse of falls, but are unlikely to get a good view since the water creates so much mist and spray.  We could go on for quite some time describing the awesomeness of seeing such an immense waterfall, but instead will simply include some of Giorgio’s photos for you to see for yourselves.  We need to plan a trip to Iguaçu Falls once we are living in Latin America so we can compare all three of the world’s largest falls!

Brush with Death #1

Wednesday afternoon was dedicated to scaring the crap out of Giorgio.  We had seen a video of some of the activities available in the area, including ziplining.  Gio indicated that maybe that wouldn’t be so scary after all (despite his intense fear of heights), so Steph immediately signed up for a tandem zipline over the gorge before he could rethink.

Non-refundable tickets purchased, we stopped to watch some other zipliners a few hours before our time slot.  Although we didn’t catch anyone speeding across, the sight of the ziplines spanning the deep gorge lead Giorgio to the decision that the best lunch would be two double gin and tonics to calm his nerves (and of course to avoid malaria).  This solution did not work as well as he had hoped and as we were strapped into our harnesses, he was nervous as ever.  Steph had simply decided that the zipline would be awesome, sort of like a more hardcore version of the high ropes course at camp.  Although Gio wanted to watch someone else go first, Steph suggested that we take the lead to get the whole thing over with.  Hooked into the carabineers, off we went, Gio screaming, Steph smiling, Susan taking photos, and Don refusing to watch.  Soon enough Gio’s screams of terror subsided, and we enjoyed zipping across the gorge, all the way to Zambia.

Brush With Death #2

We were eager to see the Zambian side of the falls.  Although Zimbabwe is known to have better views (much like the Canadian side of Niagara), we wanted to experience everything.  Furthermore, the top of the falls are mostly in Zambia and boast what is known as the Devil’s Pool.  The pool was described in our guidebook as “nature’s ultimate infinity pool.” According to the Lonely Planet author, “you can leap into the pool and then poke your head over the edge to get an extraordinary view of the 100m drop.”  This sounded like the perfect adventure for Thursday morning – we envisioned a pool at the top of the waterfall that was formed away from the main raging current. 

There are limited spots available on the trips to the Devil’s Pool, located on Livingstone Island in the middle of the Zambezi.  The area is owned by a Zambian lodge that restricts access to a few small boats and individuals walking across the top of the falls with a local guide.  There weren’t enough spots for four on any of the boats, so we signed up for what was described as a 45 minutes walk to the pool instead.  How strenuous could it be?

Our morning began with the chaos of the border crossing over the bridge connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia.  We needed the proper exit stamps, payment for a new Zambian day visa, and Susan needed the correct entry form to return to Zimbabwe in the afternoon.  

On the Zambian side of the bridge, we met our guides for the day and, after a short walk through the main national park, veered off the path and onto the rocks at the edge of the falls.  So far, so good – we all had on our hiking boots and quickly made our way toward Livingstone Island and Devil’s Pool.  Our progress was quickly halted, however, when we reached a portion of the riverbed containing knee-deep water and were instructed to take off our hiking boots and proceed barefoot.  Why didn’t anyone tell us this 45-minute walk was actually going to be 45 minutes of wading barefoot through the water?  The three of us would have definitely worn our water shoes, or even flip-flops, instead of the clunky boots.  Clambering over slippery rocks, sharp rocks and hidden rocks, we slowly zig-zagged our way to the island, stopping briefly for views of the rainbows in the falls below, the sight of elephants bathing in the river, and to get rid of thorns in the feet.  

Eventually, we made it to Livingstone Island (named because it’s the spot where Livingstone first viewed the falls) and the Devil’s Pool.  Approaching the pool, we could see the water swiftly moving over the edge of the falls.  A line with buoys stretched across the main portion of the current.  At the edge of the water, our guides gave us very specific instructions to swim to one rock, followed by a diagonal swim to a second rock.  Since we are all strong swimmers, so far so good.  However, after our swim, we were at the edge of the pool itself.  The first thing we noticed was that the pool did not match up with the description in the Lonely Planet guide – there was a fairly swift current moving across the pool and over the precipice.  The instructions we received were also frighteningly specific.  We needed to slide into the pull (not leap) and swim to the rock ledge to our left.  To the right, there was no ledge so swimming that way would lead to being swept over the falls.  Following the instructions to the letter, we swam after our guide to the left (not the right!).  Stephanie first, then Susan, then Giorgio.  Once at the rock ledge, we discovered that if you don’t keep your legs down while you’re sitting, the current lifts them up and tips you backwards closer to the abyss.  To add to the fun, fish nibble at your toes the entire time.  Once the three of us were precariously situated, our guide staged an excessively long photo shoot (some of the results above).

Stephanie (oddly enough the strongest swimmer of the group) became increasingly anxious and had to exit the pool before either Susan or Giorgio.  Props to Susan for staying in the water the longest!  If you’re wondering where Don was this whole time, he made the wise choice to stay at the hotel in safety.

After our adventures on the precipice, we still had a long, mostly barefoot walk back over the top of the waterfall.  Along with several troops of large baboons, we stopped at the main national park site to take in the key Zambian views before crossing the border back to Zimbabwe.

Thursday afternoon was spent recuperating from our adventures with gin and tonics on the hotel terrace, on the pool deck, and on a sunset cruise.  On the sunset cruise, we also spotted pods of noisy hippos and a few elephants swimming across the Zambezi.

We are now off to Chobe National Park in Botswana!  Stay tuned for photos of the massive herds of elephants and other animal sightings.


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