We could have died in any number of ways. We could have slipped into the river and plunged 108 metres to a watery grave. We could have lost control of the rope and plummeted 54 metres to the rocky bottom of the Batoka Gorge. We could have choked on a bream bone.
Honestly, the flight from South Africa to Zambia was probably the safest part of those first two days.
What were we doing, you ask? Visiting the wonder that is Victoria Falls.
Victoria Falls was named for Queen Victoria by the intrepid Scottish missionary, David Livingstone. But, as you might have guessed, the falls already had a name: Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke that Thunders.”
No wonder. The sound of the Zambezi River cascading over and down the sheer face of the falls, some 1,700 metres (5,600 ft) wide, was indeed thunderous. With the sliding glass door open, we could definitely hear it from our room at the Zambezi Sun, situated just outside the entrance to the falls on the Zambia side.
Our first order of business after checking in was to see the falls, which were literally a minute’s walk from our room. After a quick formality at the gate between the hotel and park, we continued on a paved path through some trees, turned a corner and saw this:
(OK, technically we didn’t see the rainbow on the first day, but why waste your time with non-rainbow pics?)
Here, both the thunder and the smoke become obvious. The mist, or spray, from the water crashing into the rocks below the falls rises high above the falls in the form of an ethereal, white cloud. Only, this smoke will drench you, soak you, flood you.
As the path descended further down and ever closer to the falls, the mist changed from a light spritzing to a torrential rain. We were fresh off the plane, unprepared, unprotected. Still, we stood and marveled. I tried to take pictures. The ones from a later visit turned out better:
For those who have visited Niagara Falls, it may be apparent from these photos that the tourist experience at Victoria Falls is quite different. Absent are the seemingly incongruous things like giant slabs of concrete at viewing areas, glass and steel buildings in the background, laser light shows, etc. For the most part, the only real attraction at Victoria Falls is the falls itself. As it should be.
The other thing that is conspicuously absent, from the vantage point of visitors from an overly litigious country, is safety apparatus. Sure, there are a few wooden barriers at the main viewing area, and the railings on the Knife-Edge Bridge are high enough, but walk the path in the opposite direction, further up the river, and find yourself on a rock outcrop that juts into the raging rapids just a few metres from the lip of the falls. This is Africa. Proceed at your own risk.
A few steps further and the paved path gives way to dirt. Here, the river is a bit calmer, though still flowing at a steady clip, and more accessible. We stuck our toes in.
It’s a good thing we didn’t slip and fall in. We wouldn’t have lived to experience our next death-defying adventure: abseiling!
Backwards into the Batoka
Abseiling, as you may know, is a fancy German word for rappelling. Rappelling is a fancy French word for jumping off a cliff backwards while holding a rope behind your butt.
Sounds like our kinda deal.
A stout, semi-bearded, fully friendly chap named Mathias fetched us from the hotel on our second morning in a white pickup truck that had been converted into an open game drive vehicle. Jenny and I climbed up onto the bench seats, still wet from the rains that had just subsided, and braced ourselves as Mathias drove us down 4 km of cratered, muddy, puddle-pocked roads, past a power plant and the workers in standard-issue blue jumpsuits who would surely be among the last to see us alive. We wondered, aloud, “Why do we always
end up in choose to go to places like this?”
On arrival at “the place,” we jumped down from the truck and saw several men waiting for us, including one with a cheap video camera, which was recording us as we walked towards the large, stone-and-thatched-roof hut where we would be briefed about the safety measures entailed in our leap into the void. Apparently, our walk from truck to hut would be the opening scene on the film. You know, the film they will make for us – and sell to us on DVD – after we successfully fall to our non-deaths. No thanks.
After we signed our lives away (seriously, the form mandated that we would not hold these people liable for injury or death, even if they were proven to be negligent), we met two new guys: our instructor and belayer. Since we were both familiar with the gear from a short rock-climbing course we took in Chicago, our instruction session was brief.
Speaking of brief, we had forgotten how the climbing harness fits so snugly around certain pelvic areas, to the point where a high degree of male accentuation occurs. Once strapped in, I tried to avoid eye contact with the young Swedish couple that had signed up for abseiling through their tour operator, but decided at the last minute to forego the thrill. Don’t mind me…
Other than the potentially risqué attire, abseiling follows most normal rules of etiquette. As in, women and children first. Or, the one shooting video on his iPhone goes second.
Jenny was ready to go. She stood on the platform, 54 metres (177 ft) above the floor of this section of the Batoka Gorge, checked her ropes and carabiners, and began to lower herself, backwards, down to the rocky cliff face. With the instructor’s encouragement, she pushed off the wall and glided down the rope.
I was next. I clipped in. I leaned back. I started walking down the slatted metal ramp. I slipped, my shoes slick with mud. I tightened my grip, took a breath. I lowered myself until my feet were on the rock wall. I let go, just a little. I abseiled.
We could have died in any number of ways. And that’s what turned a trip to a waterfall into the adventure of a lifetime.
Up next, Part 2: Hunting for hippos on the Chobe River with a boy named Diane.