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Published: July 29th 2017
The flight from Johannesburg was quick and inexpensive. We met up with my friend John (see 2009 Quilotoa and Galápagos blogs) and his girlfriend Cristina and explored the falls area for a few days, fully aware that it is a very well beaten and expensive tourist track.
Zambia and Zimbabwe now offer a dual visa for visiting both sides of the falls. Apparently you can go back and forth between the two repeatedly as long as you don't go to another country.
Livingstone and Victoria Falls
The town of Livingstone is surprisingly authentic, with plenty of shops and activity in town and then shanties and dirt roads surrounding, which I ran through and found to be safe and friendly, largely because most of the tourists seem to fly in and stay at extravagant camps in the bush or along the Zambezi river. We stayed at the economical and quite nice Pumulani Guest House in town before wanting a change in scenery and downgrading to a tent by the river at Victoria Falls Waterfront for more money.
It is a 20-minute, $8 cab ride from Livingstone to the Zambian side of the falls.
It was really pleasant to
Jungle Junction / Bovu Island
This was our unbelievable view of the water from our chalet on Bovu island.
walk the trails there and the viewpoints help to get across the sheer volume of the falls. July is the perfect time of year since the weather is cool and dry but the falls are still running strong. It also wasn't very crowded at all, even though we didn't get there till late morning.
Afterwards we were happy to find three empty picnic tables where we could eat our packed lunches. I sat down at one, took a bite of a granola bar we had bought at a restaurant the night before, commented on how delicious it was, and then heard Peggy say, "Oh my god!" as a blur of hair landed on me, knocking me backwards off of the table. At some point I realized it was a baboon (see photo), so I just surrendered pathetically, scooting away from it through the dirt and telling Peggy, who was resisting his stealing our other granola bar and plastic container, to just let him take whatever he wanted.
We left the park area and ate the remainder of our meals at a restaurant with a cage around it to protect against baboons (except for them peeing on you). The
four of us revisited the story about a dozen times afterwards.
Vic Falls - Zimbabwean Side
After lunch we headed across the border, thinking it would be simple since we could see people at Danger Point on the other side, only 200 meters from us. But it took over an hour to go through border checks, walk across the bridge (see photo from the boiling pot) and walk another k to the park entrance.
The Zimbabwean side is simply far superior and anyone arguing otherwise (yes- there are whole blogs about this) is just trying to be difficult or adversarial, like claiming that Newark is really better than New York.
Zambezi River Canoeing
We all wanted to do something different than just the falls in Livingstone, and John and Cristina only had a few days in the country, so the compromise ended up being a two-day canoeing trip with Bundu Tours down the Zambezi River, in the area above Victoria Falls where the water is wide and calm, instead of stage 5 whitewater rafting below the falls or bungee jumping off the bridge - two of the more adventurous activities near the falls.
knew that there were hippos in the vicinity, but the briefing before getting into the inflatable canoes was a sobering moment. After warning us to wear sunscreen and to drink plenty of water, Dominic, the head guide, said, "If a hippo comes under your canoe, and it doesn't capsize the boat, you should paddle quickly away. If it does, you should swim to the shore and then find a tree, or run for dear life. I'm not saying that this will happen; I am just telling you what to do if it does." Hippos kills 5,000 people a year in Africa, mainly by capsizing a boat and then biting the occupants in half (info courtesy of a guide in Chobe, Botswana), so his proud announcement of his perfect safety record did little to assuage our fears.
The first day was relatively uneventful but still tense. We paddled in a tight, straight line behind Dominic, who often slapped the side of his canoe to make underwater hippos rise out of the water, with Clement, the other guide, quietly and confidently covering the rear.
After 5 hours of paddling, hard at times against the wind (the inflatable canoes weren't ideal
John and Cristina canoeing
This is mostly pre-hippo innocence.
for this), we arrived at Bovu Island. We weren't expecting more than a tent to sleep in, so we were pleasantly surprised to hear that we had been upgraded to the chalets, which are built within the dense woods and looked out onto the water (see photo), where hippos frolicked (or maybe loomed is a better word) and chomped on the grass, and where lions and elephants were often spotted on the far side, as told to us by Brett, the eccentric white Zambian caretaker of the island, or at least of his brainchild, Jungle Junction, this little island resort with hot, spacious showers, delicious vegetarian food, sandy, well-manicured paths, and a genet who patiently perches by the dinner table. Brett provided an inspired and lengthy introduction to the island, including that there was no money on the island and that he doesn't deal with money himself, while a thick wad of cash in a sandwich bag bulged in his shirt pocket. If we had known about this place, we would have just stayed there for three nights instead.
At dusk the cacophony of birdsong made me wish I knew their names, but this was accompanied by the ominous
That bastard baboon stole my granola bar.
grunting bass of the hippos that Brett said we would see many more of the next day.
I don't think any of us was thrilled to get back into the canoes the next morning, so we didn't get started till after 10.
The six sets of rapids were exhilarating and definitely bigger than we had expected - some of the swells were about 6 feet and we got pretty well drenched. Anything larger would have flipped the canoes and provided an even greater adrenaline rush as we scrambled to climb back on before a croc noticed us. We saw plenty of crocs on the banks and many slid into the water as we passed, but they were barely an afterthought to the hippos.
Information from the guides was spotty throughout and we were close to celebrating when we made it through the final set of rapids and pulled the boats onto a sandy bank. However, we were then informed that the winds had delayed us by at least an hour and that we now had to paddle through an area rife with hippos. The water was choppy, making it difficult to see their heads, so Dominic crossed
the river to the far bank (which is Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe) and we inched along the shallow waters less than a meter from the shore.
We slogged along for over an hour without a break. Hippo heads rose above the water 50 feet away and I began scanning the trees for climbable limbs. Admittedly, Dominic's skill and sense was impressive, hitting the side of his canoe in dangerous areas where we had to go into deeper water to avoid fallen trees, or splashing the shore to scare off any elephants that might be coming for a drink. Nonetheless, it was terrifying and just not fun. But this made the sigh of relief much greater when we finally arrived to the finishing point and the incredulous laughter much greater when the guides earnestly asked if we would like to extend the trip to a third day.
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