The Victoria Falls, David Livingstone and the Royal
To get three land rovers across the Zambezi River takes all morning. It’s part of the majority world travel experience. From Kasame we cross into our fourth African country, Zambia, and taste of the uncertainties of travel in Africa. The two border offices of Botswana and Zambia are reasonably well-organized, but between them is the Zambezi River which we must negotiate via vehicular ferry.
When we line up to board the waiting ferry, belonging to a Botswana company, we can’t all get on. There is room for only two land rovers, and it is decided that Jan will wait for the next ferry. Eddie buys Botswana tickets for the two vehicles, his four charges and himself, and a separate one for Jan and his land rover on the next ferry, belonging to a Zambian company. We set off on the 10 or 15 minute crossing to Zambia, assuming Jan will arrive shortly afterwards.
But, oh no. The Zambian ferry instead chugs downstream to take some machinery to another ferry under repair some distance away, leaving Jan on the Botswana shore. The only ferries now crossing the river belong to the Botswana ferry company and Jan has a ticket for the Zambian company. We wait and talk and watch life go by around the river. We wait, along with all the trucks whose drivers have also purchased Zambian tickets. We wait and we watch the Botswana ferry dock with empty spaces on it. We wait, trying to deflect the vendors of trinkets and goods, whose attentions we don’t want.
More than an hour goes by, and Eddie decides we have done enough waiting. He buys Jan a Botswana ticket, hoping to get re-imbursement for the Zambian ticket. Soon he discovers the Zambian ferry office has closed – after all, there are no Zambian ferry crossings at present for which to sell tickets – and he is unable to get a refund. Eddie is frustrated but resigned. Jan arrives on the next Botswana ferry, frustrated but pleased to join the team.
We all go off to be processed at the Zambian passport office, lining up in the hot sun on a narrow concrete platform outside an office big enough to hold the official, his desk and one passport customer. I note the new buildings under construction next door and assume improvements are on their way. The ‘all’ being processed includes the land rovers as well as the people. For each vehicle has to be checked for the correct Carnet de Passage en Douanes, an internationally recognised customs document allowing temporary duty-free vehicle importing into particular countries.
As we drive into Zambia, the lines of trucks continue. I had already counted 40 trucks waiting behind the Botswana border, and now I count 112 at the Zambian border. In addition there must have at least 30 around the river, waiting to cross or to be processed. Further down the road in Zambia another multitude of trucks wait around the weigh bridge. I cannot help admire the patience of African truckies but I wonder what all that waiting does to the economy of the countries involved. It can hardly be beneficial. At least the trucks are mostly in good order with well-treaded tyres. Eddie tells us that the Zambian government has tightened up recently on vehicle regulations.
Our destination is the well-known town of Livingstone and the celebrated Victoria Falls. They are known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders, by the indigenous people, a wonderfully apt description. It was David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer, who named them after his British queen in November 1855. He is believed to be the first European to set eyes on the mighty falls. Later at the Livingstone Museum, we learn a little more about his missionary and exploration exploits, including his momentous anti-slavery campaign.
If you want to get absolutely drenched and thoroughly saturated, despite wearing a raincoat, the Falls in April is the place to be. As we approach the mighty cataract, we can hear the overwhelming thundering roar of the plummeting Zambezi River as it descends into the First Gorge. It is the end of the rainy period, and thus the peak of the flood season. I have had visions of enjoying the spectacle of the full length of the Victoria Falls, as we did at Niagara last year. But we can get a good view only near the beginning of the walkway. Beyond that, thick spray covers the face of the Falls and the walkway, and it is impossible to see the foot of the Falls. We make our way through the shroud of mist and across the narrow Knife Edge Bridge, hanging onto the railings and peering down uncertainly into the hazy abyss below. We continue along the path as far as we can go, getting wetter and wetter and seeing very little for our efforts. Fortunately it is warm and we don’t take long to dry off.
We take the walkway towards the Victoria Falls Bridge and watch a number of baboons entertain the tourists in the scrub on the way. Because of the wet slippery conditions and the poor visibility in the gorge, we do not negotiate the path down to the Boiling Pot, but we are able to get some good views of the bridge when the mist parts. We also walk along the path above the Falls and view the pool near the lip of the descent where people swim in the dry season. No one is foolish enough to try it now, but even in the dry season I think it is a risky business.
Those wanting their adrenaline fix today line up on the Victoria Falls Bridge to make a bungee jump. We, concerned for life and limb, are quite content to watch. We walk out of the Falls area and down the road to the bridge where we chat to some of the prospective young jumpers, wound up in anticipation and excitement. A notice beyond the bungee jump area informs us that we are now entering Zimbabwe; if we want to go further than the end of the bridge we have to pay something like $50 US each for an entry visa. A photo of the famous Zimbabwean Victoria Falls Hotel across the gorge in the distance will suffice. We retreat to the Falls Café for lunch refreshments and an excellent view of the bungee jumping.
One of the vendors attaches himself at my elbow when we first approach the bridge and despite my best efforts, I am unable to shake him off.
‘Something for a dollar,’ is his opening gambit. I should ignore him then and there, but I am tempted to look. I find I don’t want any of his one dollar masks or carvings of a chief, but he now regards me as a prospect.
‘Where are you from?’ he asks, and when I respond, he says, ‘Kiwis. All Blacks. Auckland.’ He has obviously met others of my fellow countrymen. He is still waiting for me when I emerge from the café, satisfied and mellowed. Perhaps it is better to buy some of his products, giving him support, than donate to someone begging. He begins at 70 kwacha for one carved rhino but after some haggling, we agree on 30 kwacha. When I offer a 50 kwacha note, he says he has no change. I should have seen that one coming! I end up buying a rhino and a hippo for my 50 kwacha note.
On the return to our camping accommodation at The Grotto, we stop off at Zambia’s equivalent of the Victoria Falls Hotel, the Royal Livingstone Hotel, to enjoy a slice of the colonial high life. Giraffes and impalas set the scene as we drive in, grazing along the road way. Amid elegantly manicured gardens and beautifully mannered staff, we enjoy wild berry smoothies on the hotel veranda. Beyond the wide lawn and the classy swimming pool is a stylish wooden platform decked with lounge chairs and tables on the edge of the fast flowing Zambezi River. The low roar of the Falls in the distance does not diminish the genteel and peaceful atmosphere. We soak it up and write another postcard to three year Isaac at home. After all, we have heard that our last post card proudly did the rounds to kindy and every member of his wider family.
The following evening we dress up in what finery we have and return to the Royal Livingstone with Judy and Graham for pre-dinner drinks on the deck by the river. White and black stripped zebras, beautiful against the green lawn, wander around, controlled by a shanghai-wielding warden, who pings them on rump to keep them in place. We are told they can give a tourist a thumping whack with their heels, given the opportunity. We enjoy the atmosphere as we watch the glow of the sun disappear beyond the river.
‘Martin,’ I say, ‘if we ever come back to this part of the world, I want to stay a night here.’ He grins, knowing there is so much more of the world to see. We had hoped to have dinner at the Royal Livingstone, but there isn’t room and so we change to the neighbouring Zambezi Sun with its agreeable all-night band and African style decor. We have a most congenial setting near the pool and enjoy the buffet dinner that includes delicious bream and kudu steak.
The evening finishes with a very funny incident. On their way back to the Grotto, Graham and Judy stop at the Livingstone post office to post some cards. As Graham mounts the stairs to the post box, a gun-carrying policeman follows him.
‘What are you doing?’ the policeman asks.
‘I’ve just got a couple of letters to post,’ Graham says.
‘Oh no,’ says the policeman. ‘You can only post letters between 9.00am and 6.00pm. Look at the hours on that sign.’
Graham stares at the open slot in the wall with ‘International Mail’ over it. Then he looks at the gun and the rounds of ammunition, and he decides that discretion is the better part of valour. So he retreats with his letters, to be posted another day. We roar with laughter as he later relates the story.