Sunday, October 21, 2007
Zambia & Zimbabwe - Victoria Falls, "The Smoke that Thunders"



Sunshine at The Smoke that Thunders

On my way to heat up water in the camper for coffee, I found a carafe of hot water had been left at the doorstep of our chalet.  How nice!  

I spent about an hour this morning cleaning dirt and sand out of the camper and wiping down surfaces.  It had gotten pretty filthy during our time in the bush.  A little whisk broom with our kit from the rental depot would have made such a difference, but instead I put on my work gloves and brushed the dirt out with my hands.  

The fridge wasn't as cold last night as it had been, and when I checked it this a.m., it had completely failed.  The lunch meat had gone bad, so I threw it out and made sandwiches with the last of the cheese.  The leftover dinner from last night that we'd planned to have tonight had to be thrown out as well.  But worst of all, the beer was warm!  Now that's just sad.  Thank goodness the fridge hadn't failed while we were in the bush.  Even with all our other camper problems, at least we had a functioning fridge when it really mattered.

We had the whole day today to hike around Victoria Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the world.  October is dry season, so just a fraction of water was falling as does in wet season, but this is supposed to be a good time to visit, because in wet season there's so much mist and spray that the falls are obscured.  Maybe someday we can visit a different time of year and confirm this.  I'll keep you informed!

Some stats:  Vic Falls is 1.7 kilometers wide (over a mile!), 108 meters high (354 feet!), and has an annual average flow of one million liters per SECOND.  The falls are formed when the full width of the Zambezi River plummets into a deep chasm.  The spray from the falls can be seen from kilometers away.  Victoria Falls is on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, and there's a national park in each country to protect the falls and collect your tourist dollars.

Dr. David Livingstone, the famous explorer, was the first European to see the falls, in 1855.  He named them Victoria after the queen of England, but they were and still are known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya, "The Smoke that Thunders."

For $3 we parked the truck for the day on the Zambian side of the falls at a gated area next to a souvenir market with pushy vendors, just outside Victoria Falls World Heritage National Monument Site, part of Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.  Entrance to the site is US$10 each.  It's open from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and we got there at 8:45.  There were no area maps available, but the trails are signposted and pretty straightforward.  

We elected to walk the Falls Trail first, to avoid a hoard of guided tourists headed the other direction.  This trail leads away from the falls.  There are good views of the gorge and of the Victoria Falls Bridge connecting Zambia with Zimbabwe.  Here we met our first unofficial tour guide, actually one of the vendors from the market by the car park.  These touts introduce themselves and chat you up so you'll buy something from them later.  So irritating.  The first guy wasn't so bad, but they got worse later.



Victoria Falls Bridge

The Boiling Pot Trail was next, a steep and beautiful path ending in a scramble over boulders down to the Zambezi River to the put-in spot for rafters on the Zambian side of the river.  As soon as we started down the trail, a large group of rafters came hiking up behind us, virtually chasing us down the gorge.  I guess they were ready to start their raft trip!  The rafting looked awesome.  If we'd had another day, we'd have joined them.



Ready to row, Zambezi River at the Boiling Pot


Things that are swept over the falls, including animals and humans, are frequently found swirling about at the Boiling Pot.  The bodies of two people mutilated by crocodiles were found here in 1910 after two canoes were capsized by a hippo at an island above the falls.  When we visited, there was a dead croc washing about here, but our illegal tour guide assured us that there are certainly no crocs in the lower Zambezi, hence it's perfectly safe for rafting.



An ex-croc in the Zambezi

On our way to the Boiling Pot we picked up another unofficial tour guide, much more bothersome than the first guy.  He was wasting his time following us around and should have saved himself the trouble.  It was a long, hot hike back up the trail.  We passed a guy working for one of the rafting companies carrying a backboard down the trail.  I asked him if a rafter had broken his back, and he said yes.  I wonder how good the hospital is in Livingstone.



A local sneaks into our photo on the Boiling Pot Trail

The third trail we took was the main path, leading along a cliff opposite the falls and across the footbridge to Knife Edge Point.  The best views of Victoria Falls from Zambia are along this trail.  The gorge is gorgeous, but there just isn't much water to see here in dry season. 



Victoria Falls from the Zambia side, dry season



A gorge-ous view

You can also walk around some of the dry part at the top of the falls this time of year, and we walked out a little ways but didn't find it that interesting.  It was a very hot day, and we went to the concession stand for ice-cold water and Sprite instead.

Exiting the park brings you right to the curio market, where our unofficial and unwanted guides from earlier found us, and oh-so-many additional shopkeepers also wanted to be our new best friends.  Tom told them we certainly weren't going to buy anything right now because we were walking across the bridge to Zimbabwe and didn't want to carry extra stuff with us all day.

Victoria Falls is on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, but the best views are on the Zimbabwe side.  Most tourists are lodging on the Zambia side nowadays due to the economic turmoil and political collapse in Zimbabwe, but it's easy enough to walk across the bridge and see it from both sides, though it's gonna cost you a few additional bucks to enter Zimbabwe, naturally.  With the low water in October, a trip to the Zimbabwe side is a must!

Zimbabwe had one of Africa's strongest economies before President Bob Mugabe's seizure of white-owned farms wrecked the agricultural sector.  The land ended up in the hands of Mugabe's cronies, who had little to no farming experience, and the once productive farms which formerly made Zimbabwe the breadbasket of Africa soon were barren.  Thanks to Bob, Zimbabwe has the world's highest inflation rate, close to 25,000 percent.  The International Monetary Fund expects inflation to reach 100,000 percent by the end of the year.  In response to the runaway inflation, Mugabe instituted price controls, which has led to widespread shortages of necessities, since shopkeepers can't afford to stock goods to sell at a loss.  Desperate Zimbabweans have been illegally fleeing to South Africa and Botswana.  South Africa has put in a triple fence topped with barbed wire in response to the growing influx.  The border fence being built by Botswana is electric.

To visit Zim from Zam, we had to officially exit Zambia, getting our passports stamped on the way out.  I told the immigration official that we were going to Zim for the day only and would return.  We hoped that our passports were properly stamped such that we wouldn't have to pay the $100 visa fee that we'd gotten waived yesterday when we reentered Zam later!  As we left the Zambian border post, a guy tried to sell us Zimbabwe dollars.  What a ripoff at any price.  The Zim money isn't worth the paper it's printed on.





Geronimo!

We left Zambia, walked across Victoria Falls Bridge, and were surprised that the border entry post to Zimbabwe was not immediately on the other side.  We kept on walking till we reached the border facility and went in to get our visas.  Zimbabwe doesn't do day visas, so we had to buy visas for an entire year, US$30 each.  Interestingly, I noted a sign stating that the fee for Canadians was US$75.  Weird.  It was a very nice, very official-looking stamp in multiple colors with a hologram and everything, taking up an entire page of my passport, but it still seemed pricy for just a few hours' visit.

The entrance to Victoria Falls National Park is just outside the border post.  Entrance is US$20, payable in US dollars only.  We started at the western end of the park by the statue of good Dr. Livingstone and worked our way east.  The panoramas of the falls from the Zimbabwe side were stunning.  Even during dry season, we could feel the mist from the falls and had to cover our cameras.  In wet season you wouldn't even be able to stand at many of the viewpoints.  Unlike on the Zam side of the falls, we had the Zim park almost to ourselves.



Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwe side

From one of the viewpoints we could see Livingstone Island across the gorge in Zambia at the top of the falls.  Livingstone Island is a chunk of rock at the lip of the Victoria Falls that can be visited on a private tour.  During dry season, paying daredevils transfer by motorboat to this private island, swim in the Devil's Pool right at the top of the falls, and even hang over the falls' edge while someone holds their legs to keep them from plummeting into the abyss.  Those people are nuts.  I mean, what if, while you're hanging over the side, the water surges even just a little bit?



Idiots on the edge of nothingness, Devil's Pool, Zambia



They survived!

Still early afternoon when we exited Victoria Falls National Park, we decided to walk into the town of Victoria Falls, just about a kilometer from the park.  On our way we were accompanied once again by a man trying to sell us something.  He wanted to sell us two roughly handcrafted stone hippos for $10.  We really weren't interested and we said so.  He kept following us and kept lowering the price until, finally, when he lowered the price to $2, we bought them and threw in an extra buck.

The town of Victoria Falls used to be a major tourist center.  Almost everyone visiting the falls stayed in Zimbabwe rather than Zambia due to the superior views.  Now, with Zim's troubles, it's practically devoid of tourists.  At the gas station there was nothing for sale, no petrol, no diesel, no paraffin (kerosene), but yet a guard was posted.  We walked to the town center and were immediately surrounded by children begging and men trying to sell us things we didn't want.  I was ready to leave.  Someone offered us a taxi ride as far as the Zim border post for $5.  That's only the first kilometer of our long walk back to our truck, so we declined.   It's really quite sad in Zimbabwe now.  This used to be a prosperous country.  We'd like to return someday when their president is deposed.



A typical store in Zimbabwe



Way to go, Bob

Again we stopped at the Zimbabwe border post, getting our passports stamped on the way out, and made the long trek through no-man's-land to the bridge.  More people followed us around and tried to sell us things or even to trade for whatever we had.  Eventually, I bought something from one very persistent fellow who followed me for over a kilometer and  kept calling me "mama," which was quite annoying.  I ended up getting three copper bracelets for $5 and my bandana.  In retrospect, not a very good trade, especially considering that I didn't even want the bracelets!  He just finally wore me down.

There were bungee jumpers launching themselves from the bridge and a kayak contest going on in the river below.  It's quite a bungee jump at 111 meters (360 feet!)  We stopped and watched until the searing sun forced us to press on. 



A kayak competition on the Zambezi River

I was delighted that our re-entry into Zambia went as planned and we did NOT have to pay any kind of visa fee.  Then we returned to our truck, parked over in front of the curio stands, where all our "friends" from this morning waited.  They shouted "Remember me?  Remember me?  I'm so-and-so.  Come look at the things in my shop!"  I was sick of it.  We jumped in the truck and made our escape.

Back at the Maramba River Lodge, our feet were killing us.  We walked over 15km today (over 9 miles).  For medicinal purposes, I drank some vodka and warm orange juice while we got cleaned up.

Since the faulty fridge spoiled our leftovers, we went for dinner in the lodge restaurant.  It was all formal looking, with white tablecloths and candlelight and an overdressed waiter, but all the guests were decked out in ordinary safari drab like us.  Not being a real busy place, the restaurant had only four choices for dinner:  fish, chicken, burgers, or steak and bacon.  We both got the steak and bacon with mustard sauce, which came with french fries, veggies, and bread.  It was excellent!  We also had two beers each.  The bill came to 124,000 kwacha.  With tip, that made it $35.  Very reasonable.

The mosquitoes were out in force tonight, and we lit coils, used repellant, and hid behind the mosquito netting.  Still, each of us got bitten at least once, hopefully not by an infected Anopheles mosquito, the malaria-carrying kind. 



Mosquito-coil art by Sunshine

10 kilometers or less driving today.  Most of the action was on foot.

Continue to October 22

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