We spend the better part of a week in Victoria Falls, where the first tour ends and the second half begins. The Zambezi Waterfront is a lovely campsite / hotel with two small swimming pools and a bar overlooking the mighty Zambezi River, the rising mist from Victoria Falls (locally called Mosi Oa Tunya, ‘The Smoke that Thunders’) visible in the distance.
There are tons of activities to do here, and the costs mount up pretty quickly.
We go on a game walk / Lion Encounter combo (USD 160). On the game walk in the national park (no carnivores), we see a four day old baby giraffe that looks exactly like those baby rockers, neck erect and adorable tufts of baby hair on its mane. There are armed guards who protect the park against poachers and they lead us within 4 meters of a sleeping white rhino.
It’s the heat of the day, so the animals are rather lethargic, plus he’s got a gimpy leg (the rhino, not the ranger), so we are able to get in close. A tense moment comes when we approach a herd of cape buffalo, one of Africa’s Big 5, so named because of their danger to humans, especially when wounded.
The herd of about 50 animals rise as one and advance alarmingly close, nostrils flaring, intently staring. Apparently, they have bad eyesight but a keen sense of smell so they need to get close to figure out what we are. We stick close to our guide and the animals go back to repose, leaving us in sweaty palpitations.
In the afternoon, we go to a lion conservation center. They raise cubs with the view of establishing a pride of lions to be released in game parks. Apparently, African lions are a threatened species, their numbers declining up to 90% in the last 25 years. We walk with two 15 month old lionesses, their baby spots still visible on their almost full-grown bodies (about the size of a Great Dane).
They’re playful with each other and seem oblivious to our presence. Supposedly, they view humans as dominant members of their pride and we’re discouraged from doing anything to diminish our dominance, such as crouching down or touching their face and ears. We’re given short sticks to distract them if they give us a “naughty” stare which is a prelude to wanting to play – with full teeth and claws.
Other activities on offer include bungee jumping, gorge swinging, abseiling, zip lining, elephant safaris, white water rafting, microlighting, helicopter riding, guide bike rides and the list goes on. The gap year boys do the bungee (one eager and jittery, the other pale and sweaty) and the whole truck comes along for moral support, watching from the metal bridge linking Zambia and Zimbabwe.
It’s been six weeks of traveling and I go for a haircut, Wil warning me that local salons only know how to do African hair. I get nervous when the man before me asks for his cut hair to be swept up and given to him in an envelope. In the absence of any information, images of the dark arts spring to mind. The barber makes hesitant snips at my hair but in the end, it turns out fine.
The group takes a trip to the 1.7 km long Victoria Falls (Zambian side). It is located in a pleasant park with nice trails and all important railings. Even though the falls aren’t at their full strength at this time of the year, they are still spectacular.
Because the gorge the water falls into is so narrow, at times, the mist can rise up to 1,000 feet. On sunny days, rainbows form. The walk along the path is at times wet, a sudden change in wind bringing on the unexpected mist shower. There is also a sizable crafts market at the entrance of the falls with cheaper prices than almost anywhere else we’ve found. Wood carvings taking on the form of salad spoons, masks, and animals vie for space with beautifully mottled green malachite. I bargain heavily and get a beautiful malachite rhino for USD 12. Later I see similar carvings for up to USD 100 in other shops along the way.
On the final day, there is a flurry of activity as some go off on elephant safaris (USD 150), microlighting (USD 120 for 15 minutes) and bike riding through the local villages (USD 25 for 4 hours). A few of us go on the Livingstone Island tour (USD 60), taking a small motorized boat to the island at the very edge of the rushing water of the Zambezi, the spot from where David Livingstone first observed the falls, spawning the quote, “On sights as beautiful as this, angels in their flight must have gazed”.
We make our way over the volcanic rock, following the guide to within a meter of the edge of the eastern cataract. It is a thrilling sight, vertigo-inducing, a totally different perspective from viewing the falls from the other side of the gorge. Whenever I get to a spectacularly high spot, I have the inexplicable urge to throw myself over, but I succeed in repressing it, and we turn a corner to the main cataract, mouths agape at the cascade of rushing water and a huge rainbow that ends in the swirling green water 108 meters below.
One of the highlights of Livingstone Island is its proximity to the Devil’s Pool, a small pool literally on the edge of the waterfalls. Pictures of swimmers hanging precariously over the falls look sick. I want to do it.
The guide explains how to get there.
‘Wade out to the first clump of grass. Then the water will be deep. You must swim against the strong current upstream and let it take you to the second clump of grass. From there, you must walk across the rocks to the Devil’s pool (as he points to some indistinct location in the distance). You must be a strong swimmer’.
When booking the tour, I ask the activities coordinator whether the Devil’s Pool is safe.
‘Well, someone did go over the falls in October. But they went on their own, not with the tour. An overland tour guide took a client and the client was about to fall over. The tour guide saved him but ended up going over himself. However, our tour is very safe. Oh, there was also a rumor that someone went over at Christmas’.
Hmmm. Christmas – like a week ago!?!? As I would’ve been the only one swimming, and because I’m kinda loving the way my life is right now (much less have the second half of my overland safari left…), I chicken out on the swim. Instead, we see a small pool along our walk, fed by a small waterfall, just meters from the edge.
It isn’t exactly the Devil’s Pool, but we happily climb in and take photos which look much more dangerous than the experience actually is. Our tour finishes with an incredibly civilized breakfast of Eggs Benedict, scones, juice and a surprisingly delicious maize / banana drink.
We also bid adieu to four leaving members – the gap year boys on their way to an orphanage in Kenya, and two of the single girls – and take on three new people – a retired Canadian couple and a laid back American grad student completing his studies in Cape Town after the tour ends.
We’re down to eight now and we quickly get acquainted over campfires, chores and late night corny animal jokes. (What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhino? Eliphino!… Did you hear about the 3-legged dog who walked into a saloon? He said, “I’m lookin’ for the man who shot my paw…) Well, maybe you had to be there… The presence of alcohol may also have been a contributing factor…
Our six days at Livingstone initially seemed too long, but we’re well rested from lazy mornings around the pool and energized from the many excellent activities we’ve done. Next stop — Botswana!
Travel tips: (1) When visiting the falls, bring along a small wet/dry sac to store your camera. You will get wet. In a pinch, a ziploc bag works just as well. (2) Throughout Africa, sellers were amenable to trading for goods. You may want to consider bringing things to bargain: old t-shirts in good condition, pens, hairbands, etc.