Monday, 6 May 2013

It's Wednesday, so it must be Victoria Falls - our story continues.

To visit the falls requires one to walk through an area described as 'rainforest', but it's neither a forest, nor is the precipitation that soaks the walker rain. We visited at the time of peak water levels, and the falls were immense, producing so much spray that, at times, it seemed someone had turned a hosepipe on us and the sun was completely hidden. We had been advised to wear waterproof jackets, which we brought (though Chris's patently was not waterproof!) and our friends had umbrellas, but we were soaked to the skin by the time we'd even made it half way along. If we ever do this again I shall wear cycling shorts or long trunks and a long sleeved technical top that will all dry rapidly. I'd also be very inclined to find waterproof housings for any cameras, because they all got very wet too, and Chris's stopped working. Or maybe just come in 'low' season in November.

But enough grumbling.

On entering the falls park we went straight to the statue of David Livingstone. Such is the respect of local people for him that, when all the colonial statues were dismantled at Zimbabwe's independence, they wished to retain this one out of respect and love for what he did. So we stopped there in the sunshine, took pictures and anticipated what was to come. By this time we had clearly seen the plume of spray and could hear the thunder of the nearby falls, and so were quite keen to press on.

A short walk to the left took us to the first viewpoint for the Devil's cataract, which is the section of the falls closest to the pathway – the falls themselves are partially in Zambia, although the viewpoints are almost all in Zimbabwe – and arguably the most spectacular waterfall of all. This cataract is separated from the main section of falls, and is formed from a deep cleft in the rock down which a vast torrent of water flows. The other fall sections appear to be relatively wide and un-channelled, but here the Zambezi rushes into a channel instead of simply shooting out into space, and the power and speed seem more focussed. This was also where we felt the first hints of spray, with just a fine mist falling if the wind carried spray from the invisible depths in our direction.

We walked back past the statue of Livingstone and along the path that led parallel to the main section of falls. As we progressed, so the amount of spray increased, and at the first lookout point we came across some young German tourists dressed in singlets and shorts, soaked through from the water that was falling. There were moments when the wind blew elsewhere and the clouds of spray disappeared to reveal the torrent of water falling over the edge, only to return shortly, both obscuring the view and making me wish to retreat rapidly – this water was not warm!

And this was pretty much the same, with varying intensity, all the way along. There came a point where the sun no longer shone and the sky was as grey as any February day, with cold water falling heavily. Yet further down the trail the sun was back out again, warming chilly fingers while we dripped along.

Around these parts it was no surprise that the vegetation was lush and enthusiastic in its growth. Both Mike and I stopped to take pictures of the undergrowth – the dappled lighting and shiny wetness of the plants would have made a great backdrop for a chocolate bar or anti-perspirant advert (tongue firmly in cheek). There were places where water ran across the paved trail, certainly not deep, but enough to encourage gentle squelching as we progressed alongside the falls.  

Things eased off as we came near the end of the trail, and here we found a lookout point where we could see the iron Victoria Falls bridge. This had been cast and formed in England, then shipped across and assembled on site in the early 1800s, and is still in use as the main crossing into Zambia over the canyon carrying the outflow from the falls. From where we watched, those with a shortage of adrenaline and an excess of cash could be seen bungy-jumping into the canyon. There was also the option to swing part way across, but that was also expensive for a couple of minutes thrill-seeking (and getting an exclusive view).

Since the trail did not loop around, we squelched (literally in my case) back to the car park, dropped off our damp outer clothes at the car, then walked down the road to cross the bridge. In order to cross, first it was necessary to obtain passes, stamped by the immigration authority, to allow us onto the bridge and enter Zambian territory which starts half way across. The view from the bridge was good in a quite different way, with a double rainbow formed in the spray below the bridge. The actual main falls are obscured by a bend in the river and the clouds of spray, but it still looked spectacular.

Outside the park there was a continual stream of people trying to sell tourist artefacts to us and being with a local made it easier to walk on by, although Chris did buy a copper bracelet. About half way we were gently accosted by a couple of Zambian guys (Patrick and Glorious if I recall correctly) who also had stuff to sell, but we chatted a little. In the end I gave Patrick $5 without taking goods (possibly wrongly, but I felt for the guy and really didn't want to bring stuff back) and Chris also gave some money to the chap talking to her. (edit from Chris: as far as far as I was concerned I paid him for being an entertaining & informative guide. When I said good bye I asked his name, & he told me it was Tomato!) The hawking was less intense than in India and the hawkers more polite, yet I'm sure their need was just as real, if not more so.

We reached the Zambian side and stopped for a coke in the cafe there, since the day was actually quite hot at around 32'C. Butterflies were flitting around, and it was good to be in the shade for a few min. The walk back was on the other side of the bridge past the bungy-jump station, and we got less hassle this way.

Back on the Zim side we tried to go through the gate, only to be sent back to the customs house for more passes stamped by immigration. The atmosphere was one of ambivalence – just follow procedures and all will be well. This kind of thing was visible in many places where we had brushes with authority as part of everyday life – it was clear that implementing western-style computerised systems would make things much more efficient, but would likely put a lot of people out of jobs too, and would therefore not be helpful. If one can be patient, doing things the 'handraulic' way can work fine, though it's also fraught with the potential for loopholes, error and all sorts of other things. At least it provides employment for many people.

In the late afternoon we visited the Victoria Falls Hotel for 'high tea'. This is a grand colonial pile set in carefully manicured grounds and preserved for tourists (and possibly wealthy locals) who wish to pretend the days of empire were still present. Service from 'Stanley' was exactly what one would expect in such an environment, and the selection of cakes and sandwiches elegant (possibly a little more so even than those we had seen in Liberty cafe in London) in presentation. We drank our tea, nibbled morsels of food and enjoyed the ambience and scenery, with views right down the the bridge more than a mile away that we'd walked across earlier.

That evening some more Zimbabwean friends that we knew from England dropped by for 'sundowners', and we sat talking until well after dark. Bed came early so that we could be rested for another stupid o'clock start.

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