Victoria Falls

November 3-6, 2008

Meeting Niku on the way to Livingstone

One day in Lusaka was enough for us. We caught an early morning bus south to Livingstone.

The bus station was kind of hectic – there were people all around us trying to get us to sell us on their bus company. We ended up going with the blue bus because we heard that they actually leave on time, whereas all the other buses only leave when the bus is full, which may be several hours after the advertised time. One of these shady bus companies was called “shalom”, so it felt funny to pass them up 🙂

There was one other backpacker on the bus with us – Niku:

niku_1

Niku’s family is originally from Iran, but they now live in Sweden (she was born there). She said that back home she worked a few different jobs to save up for the trip, including being a parking ticket officer. Apparently in Sweden the police doesn’t take care of this – private companies handle the chore of giving out parking tickets. She said that people are usually pretty cordial to her; they understand that it’s nothing personal when she gives them a ticket. But she said one guy almost ran her over!

The drive to Livingstone was a few hours, during which we saw a pretty awful film called Mama Jack – another one of those man-dresses-like-a-woman-to-escape-the-law movies, African style.

Jolly Boys Backpackers

We checked into Jolly Boys Backpackers – a very cool hostel. They have a pool, free ping pong and billiards, a bar, and all kinds of places to lounge. Luckily they also had exactly 2 dorm beds left which Pnina and I quickly snatched up (Niku took a camping spot).

With all these common areas it was easy to meet other people, so we made a few friends. Tamara, a Dutch girl who works as a psychiatric nurse back home and is now traveling with her friend Sicko (yup, that’s an actual Dutch name for a guy). Shawna, an Aussi gal who works as a tour guide back home. Matt and Alan, a couple of English guys. They were our little click in Livingstone. During the day we went to see the falls and at night we drank beer and played dice. Good times.

Victoria Falls – Zambian Side

Victoria Falls sit between Zambia and Zimbabwe. They are just over 100 meters tall, but they are 1.7 kilometers wide, which makes them the widest falls in the world. By the way the tallest falls are Angel Falls in South America (over 1 km tall) and the falls with the biggest volume of water are Niagara Falls between Ontario and NY.

Because they are so wide, it’s hard to see the entire falls except from the air, which is something we didn’t do – the helicopter flights were over $100 per person for 15 minutes. We found other ways to splurge. But I did find this drawing to help illustrate the falls:

falls_illustration

On our first day in Livingstone we went to the Zambian side of the falls with Niku, Shawna, Matt and Alan. We paid our $10 admission and started walking through the trails.

First we headed towards the bridge that connects Zambia to Zimbabwe – the ZimZam border. This is where we got our first glimpse of the falls and understood the full meaning of the phrase “dry season”. These cliffs are where the falls should be:

falls_zambia

Unlike the Niagara Falls, Victoria Falls change in a huge way from dry season to wet season, and right now (early November) is basically the driest time of year. The big rains are supposed to start in late November. The waterfalls don’t reach their max until April/May, at which time you can see the mist from the falls from 10 km away. But in the dry season the falls shrink such that the Zambian half of the falls is nearly all dry, leaving cliffs. The cliffs are nice and all, but it’s certainly not what we expected. I think Alan put it well: “I cannot contain my disappointment” 🙂

Actually at one point we did see a little trickle and we joked that these were the majestic Victoria Falls:

falls_trickle

As we walked through the trails we had a few vendors follow us, trying to get us to trade our US dollars for some of their Zimbabwe currency. I’ve never seen so many zero’s on one note. They offered (no joke) a 100 billion zim note for $1. We passed.

We followed the trails from the bridge around to the area where water would be flowing if it was the wet season. It was an odd feeling. If we tried walking here a few months from now we would get washed off the cliff to our death, but right now it was a perfectly OK place to hike.

falls_hiking

After a while we saw a part of the waterfalls where actual water fell, off in the distance on the Zimbabwe side.

devils_before_entry

Eventually we reached Livingstone Island, which didn’t look very island-like since we hiked right up to it. To get onto the island you have to pay a $35 fee, for which you also get a guide and some refreshments. We tried to sneak around this rule, but the park rangers were right there to stop us:

falls_restricted

Pnina and I decided to fork over the money but everyone else decided to turn around. Why did we decide to pay? Because we heard that just beyond the island there’s a place where you can swim in pools at the very edge of the waterfalls and we had to try it.

The ranger first explained a little bit of the history of the place. The first white man to discover Victoria Falls was a missionary named Livingstone. He found the falls in 1855 (which struck us as kind of late considering that white men found other parts of Africa and even the Americas much earlier). Livingstone decided to name the falls in honor of Queen Victoria. The falls already had a couple of local names. The common one is Mosi-Ou-Tunya, which means “the smoke that thunders”. That’s how the local beer, [Mosi], gets its name. By the way, when Livingstone reached the falls it was also November, so the falls were just as dry as we saw them – not terribly smokey/thundery.

After the quick history lesson we walked maybe 50 meters across the island to the pools. We waded through a shallow pool and reached a rock at the edge of “Devil’s Pool” – the place where you can swim right up to the edge of the waterfall. And then we jumped in:

devils_pnina_jump

devils_shahaf_jump

It was a really amazing experience:

devils_pool

At one point they had us lay flat on our stomach and look down over they falls, with them holding our legs. But unfortunately they refused to take photos of that.

Altogether we only had about 15-20 minutes in the pool. Then they said that time is limited and we have to go, which was kind of bullshit because we didn’t see another group come along for the next 40 minutes while we sat nearby having our lunch. It’s kind of pricey to pay $35 for so little time, but it’s definitely a unique experience and well worth it. Oh, and by the way, the one plus side of coming in the dry season is that we were able to sit in these pools, because in the wet season they are not accessible.

Zim Zam Bridge

After Devil’s Pool we walked back over to the bridge – we wanted to actually walk on it and to do that we had to leave the park and go through immigration. There wasn’t a whole lot to the bridge. The view was similar to what we saw before inside the park. We got to see the platform for the bungy jump, though it was closed that day anyhow so there wasn’t much to see. The most obvious thing about the bridge was that there were a lot of people walking from Zambia to Zimbabwe carrying big bags of food on their heads:

bridge

We heard that the situation in Zimbabwe is really bad, that the shelves in markets are pretty empty. This was the clearest sign we’d seen yet of that situation. We also had a few people come by to sell us souvenirs, mostly hand carvings or bracelets. We refused, mostly because we don’t want to be saddled with stuff when we have so many more months of travel ahead of us. The hawkers then tried to exchange their items for our shirts and our towels.

More Interesting People at the Hostel

We shared a taxi back to Jolly Boys with an English guy, Charles. Odd coincidence – he did a volunteer program in kibbutz Dalia in Israel, which is minutes away from kibbutz Gal Ed (where Pnina grew up). Charles said that he just finished a degree in medieval history. ‘What do you do with that degree?’ we asked, and he replied that he’s going to the army.

Back at the hostel we rushed to the pool to cool off. They had what looked like a jacuzzi but the water was cold, thank god. We sat there and struck up a conversation with a Belgian guy, Dominic, and his newlywed Zambian wife (forgot her name). They said that they’ve been trying to get her a visa to move to Belgium for 3 months so far and they’re still waiting. Actually, they gave up (for now) on getting her a permanent visa, but even the tourist visa is taking a long time. I guess the Belgian authorities want to make sure they are really married. They’ve had enough instances of people getting to Belgium on a tourist visa and then sticking around illegally. Also, btw, Dominic’s native language, Flemish, has no written form. Strange.

In the kitchen we met a couple of American girls, Kim from Illinois and Cue from Alabama. They are both in Zambia doing volunteer work, trying to curb the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Basically they go around talking about safe sex practices. They said that the Bush-funded programs require them to teach both condom use and abstinence. We mentioned to them an article we read recently about female circumcision (mutilation), written by a woman who grew up actually looking forward to being cut (in the same way that American girls look forward to a sweet 16 party), but then witnessed a cutting first hand and decided against it. They said that in Zambia some woman have a practice of not cutting but rather pulling the outer skin of their vagina; they start at an early age and the goal is to make their skin as long as possible. Apparently this is attractive to the man. Also, the man can refuse to take a bride if her vagina isn’t long enough. I guess size matters for both sexes 🙂

Rafting on the Zambezi

November 5. It was Niku’s birthday and she wanted to do something special to celebrate. Originally she planned to do the bungy jump, but when we told her we planned to go rafting she decided to join us.

The rafting trip started as the bottom of victorial falls and followed the Zambezi river for about 27 km, including 25 major (named) rapids and a bunch of other small ones in between. It’s a bit counter-intuitive but the dry time of year is the best time of year to go rafting. When it’s wetter and the volume of water is higher, many of the rapids disappear and some become too big to manage. But in the dry time of year you can do 24 of the 25 rapids (there was still one rapid that was too big, and to cross it we walked besides the river and sent the rafts down empty).

We started with 6 rafts. Our raft was dubbed ‘birthday boat’ because it was Niku’s birthday, and also because Pnina’s birthday was the next day. We went through one of the rapids singing happy birthday 🙂 Besides Niku, Pnina and I, we had an English couple, Bob and Tracy, and a French guy, Francois, with his wife. And we had our trusty guide Tembo.

rafting_1

We had a lot of fun but in all honesty we kind of sucked. The first time our raft flipped was rapid number six, called Devil’s Toilet Bowl. Tembo said that whichever one of us falls out of the raft will be called Devil’s Shit. I guess we were all Devil’s shits. The flip was kind of freaky for me because I ended up with the raft on top of me and after a while I was really thinking about air. I’m sure it was no more than 10 seconds but believe me it felt longer. We somehow got through rapid 7 safely – that was Guliver’s Travels, the biggest rapid. We took a lunch break after rapid 10, at which point most people took off (the people who signed up for the half day trip) and we were left with just our boat and one other. The second half of the river was a little more sedate, and there were more sections where we jumped in and swam along (even though we saw a few crocodiles on the side of the river). Then came rapid 18. I don’t remember what it was called but it really kicked our ass. The boat flipped again and we were all flushed down the river, but the raft stuck around for a while, surfing on the wave without us. This time Pnina was under the boat for a bit and she confirms that it’s freaky to be there. The obnoxious thing is that the other boat was awesome – they never flipped and never lost a person. They made every rapid look easy. Well, we took solice in the fact that we had more fun. That’s right, the fact. 🙂

Here are some of the best shots our photographer got…

The whole way we had big canyon walls on either side, Zambia to the left, Zimbabwe to the right.

The whole way we had big canyon walls on either side, Zambia to the left, Zimbabwe to the right.

Everybody still in the boat at this point

Everybody still in the boat at this point

Rapid #6 - we're starting to flip over (Pnina and I are in the front)

Rapid #6 - we are starting to flip over (Pnina and I are in the front)

Rapid #6 - Pnina is still trying to make it work, I'm already in the water.

Rapid #6 - Pnina is still trying to make it work, I'm already in the water.

Rapid #6 - Shahaf emerges from under the boat...finally!  ("what just happened?!?")

Rapid #6 - Shahaf emerges from under the boat...finally! ("what just happened?!?")

Rapid #18 - We flipped over in a far more spectacular fashion.

Rapid #18 - We flipped over in a far more spectacular fashion.

Rapid #18 - while the raft stuck around to surf on the rapid, the rest of us got flushed way downstream.

Rapid #18 - while the raft stuck around to surf on the rapid, the rest of us got flushed way downstream.

At the end of the trip we took an interesting cable car up the mountain. The car was picked up vertically off the ground until it reached a certain elevation, then it moved diagonally along the cable.

Happy Birthday Niku & Pnina!

That night we celebrated Niku’s birthday. Pnina and I picked up some ice cream, beer, and party favors at the local market. We stayed up playing dice and having fun. As if by fate, Niku won both games.

birthday_niko

The next day we did pretty much the same for Pnina’s birthday, this time with a couple of Welsh girls we met (Dawn and Bethan).

birthday_pnina1

Also, happy anniversary mom & dad!

One Day in Zimbabwe

Our itinerary was pretty open. Every night Pnina and I said to each other: tonight we need to sit down and figure out where we’re going next. For a moment there we considered going into Zimbabwe for a while, mostly because a random guy at the hostel mentioned that Zimbabwe has [the biggest African ruins south of Egypt]. We decided to skip all that when we saw some disappointing photos of said ruins online, and also because the situation in Zimbabwe right now is so unstable.

But we did end up going to Zimbabwe for the day, long enough to see the waterfalls from the other side. The trip cost $50 each: $30 to enter Zimbabwe and $20 to enter the park on the other side (luckily we didn’t have to pay anything to get back into Zambia because we had our special multi-entry fuck-you-Americans visa). It was kind of a steep price for a day visit, but as we said to each other – when are we going to come back here? And it was worth it…

The park on the Zimbabwe side had trails that took you along the long ledge across the way from the waterfalls, and the scenery was beautiful:

zim_1

The mist from the falls drifted to the area where we walked and created little tropical microclimates. The vegetation was lush and the ground was slippery. Mist would collect on the trees above us and trickle down. It felt like it was raining. We spoke to one lady who said that when you come in the rainy season you can’t see the bottom of the falls from all the mist. Also, there is so much mist on the trails that you see rainbows everywhere, even around your legs with every step. Wow – we’ll have to come back for that one day.

zim_15

zim_2

zim_3

People in Devil's Pool across the canyon

People in Devil's Pool across the canyon.

zim_5

zim_6

After 2-3 hours we turned around. The scenery was fantastic but it was hot and we were sunburned from the rafting trip the day before (especially me – damn my Doxycyclin!).

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3 responses to “Victoria Falls

  1. i cannot believe you leaned over the top of victoria falls. i am so jealous! the raft-tipping photos are priceless.

  2. Jasmine Khambatta

    Miss you guys so much, glad to see that you’re having an amazing time! Am so jealous!
    Glad to hear you’re safe.
    Happy belated to Pnina.
    Lots of luv,
    Jasmine

  3. I enjoyed your pictures and stories. Looks like an amazing adventure. I did want to comment on one thing though…It was curious to me that you turned-down the offer to exchange 1 U.S. Dollar with a 100 billion zim note. Even back about the time you wrote this article, a 1 Billion Zim Note was selling on eBay for about $60 to $80. And have gone up since – seeing as how they are now quite rare. You should not have passed on that guy’s offer…not only would you have helped that poor soul who was trying to trade with you, but you could have made a good deal of money selling to collectors and people who collect unusual foreign currency as a hobby. Who knows…In 20 years, having enough of those notes (in good condition) might be worth enough to pay for 4 years of college for a loved one.

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