Victoria Falls; In which I face a bizarre sort of homecoming; The new people arrive

We’d spent three days in the Victoria Falls area without actually seeing the Falls, so we thought it was time to rectify the situation. There was a morning brunch tour that we could take, which took us directly to the brink of the Falls onto Livingstone Island. It was a bit pricey but it included breakfast, and you got to swim right at the edge of the waterfall. Everyone from our group who’d gone the day before had raved about it. It was booked solid for today, unfortunately, but since it was our last chance to see the Falls Paul and Cathy were nice enough to switch their booking to tomorrow so that we could go today - thanks guys!

Coming to Victoria Falls is very strange for me. As probably everyone knows, I grew up next to the world’s other famous waterfall, Niagara Falls. It’s legendary for its tackiness, hustlers and overpriced souvenirs, and everything I’ve seen here has reminded me so strongly of my Falls that it’s more than spooky. Jet-boats, tours behind the Falls, expensive hotels - it’s all here, but it’s warped like a funhouse mirror. Instead of Canadian flags there are Zambian. Instead of tacky moose souvenirs there are tacky hippo souvenirs. Instead of the Thundering Waters it’s the Smoke that Thunders. Instead of Father Br├ębeuf there’s David Livingstone. And so on, and so on. I was instantly comfortable here and slipped seamlessly back into the old patterns of behaviour, which may or may not be a good thing, depending upon whom you ask.

Our morning excursion to Livingstone Island was as far from tacky as possible, though. The meeting point was at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, a ten-dollar cab ride away (everywhere is a ten-dollar cab ride here apparently, no matter how far you want to go). The hotel was ridiculously upscale and full of fat old white people. The contrast between its spotless cream paint, lush emerald lawns and crisp attentive staff with the dirt, noise and squalor we’ve been seeing for a month (seeing, living with, participating in and contributing to enthusistically, actually) was almost physically shocking and more than a bit morally repugnant to me at this point. Sheryl and I, being firmly populist in our views, spent the time waiting for the tour to start by chatting up the staff. We’re quite clearly not of the same class as the hotel guests, being scruffy and tattered, so we got an earful from them about having to “sir” and “madam” everyone and be deferential and how hard it is to suppress their natural talkativeness. When the other guests arrived they clammed up and assumed their professional masks. The guests were nice enough, in an moneyed oblivious way. None of them could quite understand why we hdn’t been on a helicopter ride over the Falls or that we were camping and not staying in a hotel.

Sheryl and I and an elderly British couple were bundled onto a little fiberglass speedboat with an outboard motor and sped off to the Island. The weather was fine and the water was nice and warm. The area around the top of the Falls is marshy and shallow, here at the end of the dry season, and I’m not sure if Livingstone Island is reallly an island at all. We were only scheduled to have an hour and a half there, so when we disembarked we were hustled up the path past the brunch tables, the “loo with a view” and out of the trees to the very brink of the Falls. The view was… stupendous. Amazing. Victoria is twice as high as Niagara, and even now in the dry season, with water flow about a tenth of the wet season and much narrower than Niagara, it’s still incredible. During the wet season it’s 1.7km wide to Niagara’s 1km, and the volume of water flowing over the edge is something like 9 million liters per second. Not that I was thinking about all that, peering over the edge into the foaming cauldron of spray far below. Again unlike Niagara, Victoria has an opposite wall to the cliff edge of the Falls themselves, and the two cliffs are quite close. In the wet season there’s so much spray, apparently, that you can’t see into the gorge at all - so we were lucky, being able to see the bottom all the way down to the water. A giant double rainbow looked as if it was only meters away from us, down inside the chasm. Shouting over the roar, the guide told us that we’d come on an important day. November 16th is the anniversary of David Livingstone’s discovery of the Falls in 1855 (naturally thousands of people had discovered it daily for a long time, but they weren’t white explorers and don’t count, I guess).

Victoria Falls

The guide led us away along the edge to where the water was flowing - quite slowly, which surprised me. Sheryl and I stripped to our swimsuits and jumped in, and when our lifeguard/babysitter showed up he led us away through the water. The current was strong, but nowhere near as strong as I’d have thought - any decent swimmer would have no trouble swimming upriver. We swam to a ledge of rock, walked over it, and found ourselves before a deep pool at the very edge of the waterfall. The swirling current had worn away a room-sized scoop of the rock at the edge and had left a thin shell of stone at the brink which the water poured smoothly over. The left side was open to the stronger current which swept right over the edge, and nothing prevented us from swimming there except a small white buoy. The guide jumped into the pool in a showy backflip and we followed with our clumsy cannonballs. When we reached the edge another man was there with Sheryl’s camera to take pictures of us. I could’t sit still for them, though, because there were what felt like a hundred big fish nibbling at my toes. They were tickling me and making me laugh uncontrollably. I was happy to get up on to the ledge and peer face-down into the gorge, the guide keeping a death-grip on our legs the whole time. The view was mind-blowing. They wouldn’t take any pictures of us on the edge, no matter how hard we begged, which made me think that having us up there was immensely dodgy if not outright illegal.

After they got us out of the water and we dried off, they served us breakfast - scones, tea and Eggs Benedict on proper table linen. The tables were surrounded by flowers that looked like palm-sized red puffballs on thick green stems - Doctor Seuss flowers that, if I remember correctly, are called Fireball Lilies, though they bear no resemblance to any lily I ever saw.

Fireball Lily

Later in the evening back at camp, all the new people arrived - our companions for the Livingstone-Cape Town section of the trip. There had been some sort of fiasco and they’d all understood the tour to begin the day before, so they were quite upset about having to pay for a night’s accommodation that they hadn’t expected. Once they got past their anger they all seemed like nice people. Counting the six holdovers from the first half (5 Canadians and an Australian) we’re now 14 - Another Dane, an Aussie, two Estonians, three English and seven (!) Canadians. Everyone is a bit bewildered by the preponderance of Canucks on the trip - us most of all. Each of us had assumed we’d be the only Canadians. At least there’s nobody else from Toronto, or even from Ontario - they’re all from Vancouver and Edmonton.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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