Thrills, Chills and Spills At Victoria Falls

Zambia's flag
Africa » Zambia » Livingstone
February 8th 2012
Published: February 8th 2012
Edit Blog Post

Back in Livingstone (pronounced as if there was no "e" on the end) for a week, we decided to partake of some touristy activities that are the specialty of this area - sort of an amusement park on steroids. This town has more of that vibe than just about any we have visited so far, and yet it is also a small city with all the regular activities that go on there, with colleges and a technical university, as well as some manufacturing. Also, even the "amusement park" type activities are all centered on the natural beauty of the place: geography, geology, hydrology, flora and fauna.

Where else to start than the falls itself. Our hostel sends a daily free shuttle van the 10 or so kms from the town centre to the falls on the border with Zimbabwe (we got right into the lingo of describing things by whether they were on the "Zim" or "Zam" side.) Then $20 to get into the falls park itself and get ready to get wet. The falls tumble into a very narrow gorge that stretches width-wise from Zam to Zim, unlike Niagara which tumbles over an escarpment. This makes it very hard to see the whole thing, except from the air (more about that later). But it is majestic and awe inspiring anyway. Have I mentioned the rainy season is on here?! That means the water flow is at its highest, with a thundering spray.

As you walk up the other side of the gorge facing the falls, getting closer to the centre, the spray gets stronger and stronger, making photography as well as just talking to each other difficult. Folks rent raincoats, but these are only minimally helpful, and besides, I didn't save my disposable plastic Niagara Falls poncho for 20 years and carry it all over the world (packs very small) not to put it on at its rival site in Africa. In the rainy season Vic Falls carry 10 times the water per second as Niagara, but during the dry months ten times less. Then there is a tiny foot bridge (aptly called "Knife Edge Bridge") to cross as you get closer to the centre, and here the water is coming down in buckets. When you do get to the centre you can look down the funnel towards the outgoing river below and the spray lets up a bit so you can see the vehicle bridge which joins the 2 countries. We walked down to the centre of that bridge as well, but not actually into Zim, as the visa cost is higher for Canadians than any other country, and it would require yet another visa payment to get back into Zambia.

After exploring the town centre a bit, we took a sunset cruise the next evening. Note, not the "booze cruise" that seems to attract the younger crowd, but a much more civilized large boat safari up the river above the falls. The young people who were on the same van down to the dock as us and a few other "middle" agers were worried they were on the wrong shuttle! We saw crocs, hippos, dozens of species of birds and quite a stunning sunset. We got free booze too, it was just served in real glasses right to our table at the very front of the boat.

The next morning was the biggest event: white water rafting in the Zambezi gorges below the falls. After a bumpy ride to the "put-in" site, and a safety briefing from the trip leader, we had to climb down 220 m (vertical) of rickety "sticks" ladders, literally nailed together from 2-3 inch thick branches, with no hand-rail. As well as being somewhat scary, this was also hell on our thigh muscles, all before getting in the water. Again we were put in the "old fogies" boat (of 3 boats, plus one safety raft and 2-3 safety kayaks), which would have been fine with me, as it is supposed to take the "safe" route down the rapids, avoiding as much as possible the big water that some younger travellers seem to want to get into. This should make it less likely for you to tip over. Unfortunately, some big waves just can't be avoided, and we ended up with too few strong paddlers on our boat, a necessity for pushing through the biggest waves without tipping.

Did I mention we were trussed up in very good life jackets and helmets, and each had to do a practice fall out of the boat in the quiet pool above the first rapids, to practice pulling each other back in? Then we got into the rhythm of our boat guide calling out instructions: "Paddle forward hard, all together!" and "Stop now, relax". The first rapids sent a giant wave over the boat that would have soaked us if we hadn't already dunked for practice. Then the guide would announce the up-coming rapids. They have names like "Overland Truck Eater", "The Washing Machine", and the one where we finally met our doom, "Oblivion", number 18. We were only going through rapids 11 to 25, in just over 2 hours, because rapids 1-10 are closed in the big water rainy season. When the raft tipped over, both Barbe and I were stuck underneath, and it is not easy to get out in such fast moving water. When I did finally come up and grab onto the rope that encircles the raft, I could not see B, so I called her name, assuming she might have come up on the opposite side. No answer. The guide was back in the boat by this time and making a head count, and did not seem to be worried, but was too busy shouting instructions to confirm where B was. It was a panicky several seconds, not while I was under water, but until I realized B had been forced to let go of our raft to get out from under and had floated downriver towards the safety raft where they were waiting to pick her up.

[I have been a white water paddler and sea kayaker for quite a number of years now (too many to count) and so a rafting trip down the Zambezi River from the Falls was high on my list. This trip is not very technical, just big water 'haystacks' with no real rock obstacles or dangers. So flipping over on number 18 did not come as a big shock (more of a disappointment as I thought we could have avoided this) but getting 'stuck' under the raft did. After I plunged into the warm, boiling pot of foam, I popped up and hit my head on the raft sidewall, still under water. A couple of attempts to push myself away failed. I succeeded in coming up in the air pocket of the overturned raft hull and grabbed a lungful of air. Then I was back under and still could not get free of the boat - all this while me, the boat and presumably the others where hurling down the rapid. I thought my lungs were going to burst and I distinctly recall thinking 'so this is what drowning feels like.' Then I made one last push on the hull above my head with both my hands and I was free. I burst out of the water and gasped for air. I was now downstream of the boat and forced myself into the whitewater floater's position - on your back with feet in front. The safety boat was downstream in front of me and the safety pilot Katie forced me out of my shock with loud commands to swim for her boat. I made it over to them (I can still remember my 'leisurely' breast stroke over to the boat) and they hauled me in like a sack of flour, my energy completely spent. It was an experience I will never forget; not unlike the Tazara Train, I am glad I did it; will never do it again (never say never - they say you can raft on the Orange River in Namibia - hmm).


After that all the remaining rapids seemed easy. And apart from a rainstorm that started just as we were landing, the ride was fine. Luckily there is a cable car to take you back out of the gorge, as our legs were really like jelly now. Then we had to endure soaking wet clothes through lunch (hot, yeah!) until we were dropped exhausted back at the hostel. So glad we splurged for the room with a private and hot shower!

We are learning all about the "backpacker hostel" (usually just shortened to "backpackers") life in Africa. Jollyboys is one of the biggest, fitting for this town in the centre of Africa which is a stopping point on every imaginable route. There must be about a 100 beds here, in everything from 8 person dorms to private double and twin rooms. There is also room to set up your own tent if you really want to save ($6 per night), and yesterday we met 3 Spanish guys travelling in what looks like a small white hospital room mounted on a truck, who kindly let us use their dvd drive to transfer pics onto our USB stick (thanks lads). There are shared showers, a laundry area (no machines, just big tubs for hand wash), and a communal kitchen, as well as a restaurant and obligatory bar where everyone converges. This one has a pool, as well as many comfortable and quiet sitting areas. The staff can book all your excursions, and presumably make a nice commission to keep their business afloat. You meet all kinds of travellers from all over the world, and seem to become sort of a reluctant family. All are happy to share items (lend a camera charger after Barbe's broke down) and hear your stories. This one was very clean and with good security at the gate. Kalula in Lusaka was smaller, but much the same idea. And every day new people come and go.

On Sunday we took to the air. It rained early in the morning, so Barbe's micro light flight was postponed until afternoon, as they will not take off if the runway is even a bit wet. The sun was out in time for my 1/2 hour helicopter ride, over the falls and through the same gorges we had rafted the day before. "Over" the gorge was a bit of a misnomer, as we actually dropped right down into it, skimming barely 50 feet over the water, leaning almost completely on our side to take the sharp bends in the river. The view of the falls was spectacular from 1000 feet, and we even got to see some wild animals in Mosi oa Tunya National Park ("The Smoke That Thunders") that lines the upper part of the river. I will let Barbe describe her 1/2 hour strapped to what is essentially a large kite with a sewing machine motor attached:

Things got considerably calmer as the week progressed. Monday morning we took a walking safari in Mosi oa Tunya National Park above the falls. The other guest was also from Halifax! Being on ground level with most animals was fine (zebra and giraffe), but the Cape Buffalo were a bit disconcerting as our guide calmly mentioned that they are unpredictable and can suddenly charge without provocation. We had an armed ranger with us and he soon received a radio call that turned out to be a rhino sighting. They have 7 in this park, imported from South Africa many years ago in a slowly progressing attempt to repopulate after hunting and then poaching decimated the stocks. We jumped back into the van to reach the other side of the park, then walked about 1-2 km with another armed ranger/tracker to see a mother-child (13 months) pair lazing under a tree in quite a dense bush area. It was a bit hard to photograph with all the greenery around but still a thrill. And Lucas had assured us we would see lots of rhino in Kruger Park at the end of our trip.

Today we are just relaxing and doing laundry before we head out on our big overland tour. I also took a "bridge tour" on the Vic Falls Bridge, opened in 1905. This consisted of a historical theatrical presentation with an actor who played Georges Imbault, the chief construction engineer, telling tales from the period (Dad didn't him, and his company Cleveland Bridge Co play an important role in other well-known bridges?). Then I had to get harnessed up like the bungee jumpers taking the leap into the gorge so I could walk the cat walk under the main driving and train platform. What a great view!

Tomorrow we join the 21 day overland, and don't know when we'll have internet or e-mail so don't panic if you don't hear from us for a while. Thanks again to all those who took time to send personal messages.


Additional photos below
Photos: 24, Displayed: 24


Tot: 0.057s; Tpl: 0.02s; cc: 8; qc: 26; dbt: 0.0068s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.3mb