01 May 2007


Last Friday (4/27) was a public holiday here in South Africa, Freedom Day, and Saturday was my birthday. (Yes, Dad, it has been 45 years since the morning Mom woke you to say that it was time to go to the hospital. Time flies.) In a really last minute decision, I booked a trip to Mosi-Oa-Tunya, better known as Victoria Falls, for the long weekend. I never went while I was living in Zimbabwe. Back then, quite a number of people were planning to visit, and I knew that everyone would want to go. I decided to wait until someone came to visit, but then I was evacuated from my school and left the country without ever going.

I arrived on Friday afternoon. I got settled in my room at the A’Zambezi River Lodge, a few kilometers outside of the town of Victoria Falls, and I wandered around the grounds. There’s a nice garden with Shona stone sculptures near the river, including several variations of the classic “Happy Family.” I especially liked the one that was a giraffe family.

I stopped near the riverbank to take a picture of a beautiful flowering shrub, and heard a movement in the water. At first I paid no mind, but then I remembered that the Zambezi is full of crocodiles. I looked into the nearby water, and saw a little baby croc sliding away. I figured that the mom must be close, so I quickly stepped away from the riverbank.

At 4h30 I went to the jetty to board the boat for my sunset cruise, commonly known as the “booze cruise.” This particular cruise was pretty mild, partly because there were few of us, and partly because there were a couple of families aboard. There was an Indian family of four, a Zimbabwean family of four, three Japanese tourists, and me. Sunset cruises are – or were – a big business on the river, and we could see the competition lining the banks of the river. But business is pretty poor lately. Solomon, the Tourism Services Zimbabwe driver who brought me from the airport, told me that Livingstone, across the river in Zambia, now gets about 70% of the tourism, and Zimbabwe has only 30%. This is a reversal from the previous 20 years. I don’t think I have to tell you why.

The cruise was relaxed, with good commentary from Corbin, the guide. (In addition, we were served by David the captain, and two waiters for the bar.) We were about 5K upriver from the falls, and we learned that the Zambezi River is over 2,700K long, and is the only river in Africa that flows into the Indian Ocean. (I’m going to try to verify this from another source.) Where we were, the average depth is 16 meters. It’s a beautiful river, and I kept thinking how nice it would be to swim in – if it weren’t for the crocodiles and hippos!

At one point, David pulled the boat quite close to the tree-lined shallows, and we got up close and personal with six or eight hippos! They were in the shadows, so my photos aren’t great, but it was fun to watch them so close. Corbin says that hippos can stay under water for about six minutes!

We watched an absolutely beautiful sunset, and as always, I said hello to my dear and deceased friend, Bonnie, who was an inveterate sunset-watcher.

On Saturday morning at 8h30, I was collected by Solomon again. We went into town to collect the three Japanese tourists (who were staying at the venerable Victoria Falls Hotel), and we went to the Victoria Falls National Park to see the falls.

Even those of us who pay attention to how others use language usually hear words that are used, not those that aren’t. So, many of you probably haven’t noticed the fact that I don’t often use the word awesome. I think it’s a word that should be used in moderation; unfortunately, the word is overused these days. But believe me when I say that the Victoria Falls is AWESOME! I have never been to Niagara Falls (it’s now high on my list), so I can’t compare the two. But I just can’t believe that there exists another waterfall that is as huge and beautiful and awesome. :)

The falls have been called various names by area tribes. Mosi-Oa-Tunya is the Makololo name for the falls, which means “the smoke that thunders.” David Livingstone, the first European to see the falls in 1855, named it Victoria Falls after Queen Victoria of England. John Cecil Rhodes, that old capitalist, commissioned the bridge to be built as part of his Cape to Cairo railway scheme.

Fortunately for me, April is smack in the middle of high water season, and the river is particularly high this year because Angola had good rains during their rainy season. As Solomon explained, it takes a couple of months for the water to make it to Vic Falls. He also told us that about 550 million cubic meters of water goes over the falls per minute. PER MINUTE. Awesome.

There is a good stone path on the south, or Zim side, of the falls. (As Solomon had told me the day before – politically, Zambia owns the falls, but Zim owns the view.) Solomon walked us all the way down to the bridge; I think he said the path there and back was 1.7K. We stopped at every viewing point along the way. I have pictures only from the first few. As you get closer to the main falls, the “mist” is so heavy it is actually like being in a downpour. So, no photos. Thankfully, I had remembered to bring my raincoat. The Japanese hired some from vendors at the entrance to the park.

After we finished with the falls, Solomon drove us to the famous baobab tree. I was saddened to see some grafitti on it, which explained the fence around it. Solomon said that people also try to take bark from it, either as a souvenir (tourists) or for medicinal purposes (locals). The tree is 1,005 years old, is 33 meters high, and 16 meters around the base. It is one honking big tree.

While we were at the baobab tree, one of the Japanese read the Japanese writing on my t-shirt (from the Ten Thousand Waves spa in Santa Fe, NM). It was then that I learned these three are actually Korean, and not Japanese. I said something about being glad to learn from a Japanese person that the shirt was correct, and Mr. Kang told me that they’re Korean. When I asked if they are from North or South Korea, he laughed and said, “Those guys! They’re too busy making weapons of mass destruction to leave!” He was funny.

Back at the hotel, I put on my swim costume and spent some time at the very nice pool. It was big enough to get some real exercise! Then I made friends with the 10 year old daughter of the Zimbabwean family who had been on the cruise the evening before. Shingi is a very good swimmer; her butterfly is lots better than mine! We had fun playing and showing each other different strokes and tricks. Then we were joined by an absolutely beautiful little coloured boy named Curtis. He was also a very good swimmer, and very polite. I think he is probably 8 or 9, but I failed to ask. He was a little more reticent than Shingi.

At 2.00 pm, I was picked up and driven just down the road to the helipad at Elephant Hills Hotel and Conference Center. Lisa Glenn, who’d been to Vic Falls at the tail end of a mission trip to Mozambique last year, had recommended the helicopter ride. I’m so glad she did. It was expensive -- $90 for 15 minutes – and I may not have done it if she hadn’t said I should. I’m so glad I did! It was … well, it was awesome. See photos if you don’t believe me.

Later in the afternoon, as I was reading on my bed, I heard a noise, looked up, and saw a baboon standing in the doorway to my balcony! I yelled at him, but he stepped further in. Yikes! I was afraid that he would come in, and that my only retreat would be to the balcony! But not. That baboon knew what he (or she) wanted. He jumped onto the dresser, took the sugar packets from the tea tray, and vamoosed. He apparently tried the same trick with the teenage Indian girls next door, because I could hear them shrieking, too.

On Saturday evening, I stayed at the hotel restaurant for a braii dinner, which included buffalo steaks, warthog strips, and crocodile stew (was really a curry). Each evening the restaurant provided several different bands or dancing groups, all of whom performed traditional music and dances from the tribes around that area. I also had a nice chat with Shingi’s parents, Benlaw and Christiana Ruredzo, or Baba Shingi and ‘Mai Shingi. (Some of you may remember from my time in Zimbabwe that a tradition in Shona culture – others, too, probably – is to call parents by a combination of the parental name and the name of the firstborn child. So, “Baba Shingi” is “father of Shingi”.) It turns out that the family is coming to Jo’burg sometime in the next 10 days or so. I gave them my contact information, so maybe I will see them again.

On Sunday, I had a relaxed breakfast (if you overlook the chasing away of thieving vervet monkeys), took another swim in the pool, said goodbye to A’Zambezi River Lodge, and headed back to Jo’burg.

Photos from Victoria Falls

Rooms at the A'Zambezi River Lodge. Formerly a Mercure Hotel, now owned by the Rainbow Group.

Zambezi Bar at the A'Zambezi River Lodge.

Zambezi River lined with cruise boats.

Katy and BabaShingi watching the sun set over the Zambezi River.

Sunset on the Zambezi River.

Lots of sunset watchers on big boats.

Rainbow near Devil's Cataract of Victoria Falls.

Devil's Cataract with mist.

Clear shot of Devil's Cataract. So called because if you go over this cataract and to the bottom, you will go to the devil.

Another view of Devil's Cataract. It is 70 meters from top to bottom.

The Main Falls from across the river. We saw more of the falls past this, but could take no more photos because the showers from the falls were too heavy to bring out cameras! So, no shots of Rainbow Falls or Eastern Cataract.

Rainbow at Victoria Falls Bridge.

Victoria Falls Bridge, completed in 1905. The border posts for Zimbabwe and Zambia are here.

A 1,005 year old baobab tree. The fence is there to protect it from further grafitti.

The mist from Mosi Oa Tunya, or Victoria Falls, from a few kilometres away. It can sometimes be seen from up to 50K away!

Approaching the falls from a helicopter.

Mosi Oa Tunya. Devil's Cataract is at the bottom of the picture. Cataract Island is next to it, and Livingstone Island is in the center.

Dead on view of Mosi Oa Tunya, with Victoria Falls Bridge in the foreground.

From right to left: the Zambezi, the falls, the Victoria Falls bridge, and the gorges.

Long view of the gorges.

The Zambezi River above the falls.

The helicopter that I shared with 3 Chinese tourists.

Victoria Falls Hotel wishes you to go not slow, but DEAD SLOW.

Security guard at my hotel tries to chase away vervet monkeys with a slingshot.

Vervet monkey waits in a tree for his chance to steal some sugar packets or breakfast food.

Vervet monkey sees his chance and runs to a table to steal.

Hotel groundskeepers raking leaves with traditional brooms made of tree branches. Only the long handles are not traditional.

The brooms are surprisingly effective.