Yes, that’s the name of a movie. But I was dreaming of Africa long before the movie ever came out. In fact, for as long as I can remember, I have had a passion to see this mysterious continent. So when the opportunity arose to do this round-the-world trip I excitedly included Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania in my itinerary. All three places were easy choices. Tanzania has the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Olduvai Gorge, where the Leakeys first found fossil evidence of early hominids. Where Zimbabwe and Zambia meet, the Zambezi River plummets hundreds of feet over a horseshoe chasm, forming the world famous Victoria Falls.
I suffered a good deal of trepidation over the African part of my journey. There is so much that is unknown about Africa. We do not hear much about it in the news. We’re unfamiliar with its cultures and people. Would I be accepted? Would I be safe? This was not just a rhetorical question where Zimbabwe was concerned – their president, Robert Mugabi, has been plundering the country for years, jailing or “disappearing” anyone who gets in his way. The result is a country that is suffering with severe poverty, high unemployment, runaway inflation and an extreme lack of even the most basic goods like cooking oil and sugar. When I initially booked the Zimbabwe portion, the situation was not so dire. But in the intervening months the situation had deteriorated. I grew fearful. I waffled.
Everyone told me not to risk going to Zimbabwe. I made a decision not to go – to walk away from the prepaid flight and hotel on the premise that my life is worth a lot more than a few measly dollars and the falls weren’t going to dry up overnight. But then I decided to email my travel agent, explaining that I was willing to lose my money and asking her to be truthful with me about the condition in the country. Her rapid reply reassured me that the press had blown the situation out of proportion, as usual. Yes, there were gasoline shortages. And yes, Mugabe was up to his usual tricks in the capitol of Harare, but that was a world away from Victoria Falls. Besides, she wrote, the country is so hungry for foreign currency that they take extra pains to ensure the safety of tourists in places like Victoria Falls. I’d had more than an inkling of this when I had to wire U.S. funds to her company in order to book the trip; I eventually discovered that the Zimbabwean currency is worthless and even the local people won’t take it. They want U.S. Dollars, Euro, Pounds Sterling, South African Rand, and even Botswanian Pula, but they will not, under any circumstances take Zim dollars. In the end, I took a deep breath and decided to go, although I didn’t sleep well for the last few nights before boarding the plane to Zimbabwe.The first pleasant surprise was at the airport, where the shuttle bus driver awaiting my seven-hour late plane (but that’s another story) scooped up my luggage and guided me to his van. “Good day madame,” he said, adding “My name is Mackenzie.”
The second surprise was the hotel, which was majestic compared to the small village homes that surrounded it. The reservations manager, Ellridge, was waiting to welcome me and show me around. He immediately took me up to the roof, explaining that it was the very best place to get a bird’s eye view of the mist that continually roils off the falls like a soft, puffy, cumulus cloud. I asked all the normal questions – could I walk alone through town to Victoria Falls Park? “Of course,” he said. But he added that I should not walk around outside the hotel grounds after dark.
I was about to be worried – was there a risk of being mugged? Of having my camera stolen? We looked out over the sere scrub desert land toward the falls and suddenly he pointed to a broad expanse of undeveloped land between the hotel and the town. “Do you see those elephants?” he asked. I did indeed – I counted six of them flapping their huge ears as they stripped the trees bare. “Well at night they come into town, along with the baboons – it is not safe for anyone to walk the streets after dark.” I settled for the hotel’s buffet dinner and a performance by a local troupe of A-Capella singers who belted out ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ in four-part harmony.
The next morning I rose before dawn and made my way to the rooftop to watch the rising sun paint Victoria Falls mists in a palette of pastels until it finally burst over the horizon in a dazzling splash of golden orange.
Following a breakfast of granola, fresh tropical fruit, and homemade yogurt I headed toward Victoria Falls Town and the park beyond. On the way I stopped into Shearwater Tours, where I met Victor, who patiently described the various outings until I decided which to book. Victor turned out to be a gem. Normally I travel with very little cash, relying upon ATM’s whenever I arrive in a country. In Zimbabwe, however, I had been forewarned NOT to use either my ATM card or my credit card, due to the high risk of fraud. Besides which, any ATM would give me useless Zim dollars, so I had to come into the country with cash in an amount sufficient to cover my drinks, meals, tours and any incidental purchases I might make. Thinking it prudent not to walk around with this much cash, I had locked the bulk of it in my hotel room before venturing into town, thus I did not have enough money with me to pay for the tours I had chosen. No worries, said Victor, just pay for the sunset dinner cruise that evening and he would come by the hotel around 7 PM to collect for the following day’s safari to Chobe Game Park. He then proceeded to instruct me on which path to take to get to Victoria Falls Park, warned me off buying anything from the young men on the streets (it’s probably stolen merchandise), and offered to exchange some of my money into Zim dollars to bring home as souvenirs (seeing as the currency wasn’t good for much of anything else).
On my way again, I strolled through the tiny town of Victoria Falls, easily finding the footpath Victor had described. It veered away from the paved road into the scrub desert and was filled with locals in colorful dress, carrying bundles on their heads as they stepped around giant elephant turds that littered the path, a less than gentle reminder that the behemoths are never very far off.
As I approached the Park the sight of the churning mists rising into the skies was joined by the roar of the water. I paid my $20 entrance fee and headed for the path that would lead me to the edge of the falls. I have seen photos of Victoria Falls – it is considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world – so I thought I knew what I would be seeing. But nothing could have prepared me for the spectacle that I was about to witness. I rounded a corner and came face to face with an immense, thundering torrent of water that regurgitated off the face of the cliff in three different places.
The afternoon sun played in the water, creating double rainbows over the chasm. A fine mist dropped out of the air, coating my face and glasses. The leaves on the trees and bushes shone as if they had been hand-polished and the smell of damp earth permeated the air. I was soon to discover that this was just the beginning of the falls.
Further into the chasm, water poured off the lip a giant rock horseshoe. The roar was so deafening that I couldn’t hear myself speak. I stood transfixed by the immense power of the water, spewing in every direction. Despite the fact that I was being drenched right through my rain poncho, I was unable to move. Words cannot do Victoria Falls justice. In this instance, and the old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is undeniably true, so I will let the photos speak for themselves.
The path came to an end just beyond the falls, with a view of the famous bridge that crosses the chasm, forming the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Through its metal arch, yet another waterfall generated rainbow danced upon the mists. I decided there was enough time before my sunset cruise to leave the park on the Zimbabwe side and walk across the bridge to see the east cataract of the falls from Zambia’s sister Victoria Falls Park. First, however, I had to pick my way through more than a dozen baboons (some of them huge) who had claimed the path as their exclusive territory. Although they made no threatening moves toward me, they are quite intimidating looking, and I waited for other people to arrive so we could go past them in a group. My theory was safety in numbers and indeed, when I was alone on the path they did not budge but when others joined me they reluctantly gave way.
At the foot of the bridge I joined a steady stream of pedestrians crossing the border, walking by a lengthy line of 18 wheelers awaiting permission to make the crossing. I passed through Zimbabwean Immigration, got my passport stamped, and stepped out on the narrow bridge.
With each step another gorgeous vista revealed itself, this time providing a clear view to the river below. Here again, double rainbows sprung up spontaneously, over- arching the chasm.
In the exact center of the bridge was a stop sign and a placard on a metal pole, exclaiming “You Are Now Entering Zambia.” I was perfunctorily waved through as a freight train rumbled across the bridge on the narrow gauge tracks set between the two traffic lanes. I had noted a sign at the bridge entrance, stating that only one large vehicle was allowed on the bridge at a time, so I was surprised to see an entire train on the bridge and less than comfortable with the way the bridge was shaking and swaying as the train clattered across.
I hotfooted it to the other side, where I checked into Zambian Immigration and had my passport stamped yet again. Voila! Just like that I had walked out of one country and into another. A few steps further put me at the entrance to Zambia’s Victoria Falls Park.
There is an ongoing debate about which country provides the best views, or whether to stay on the Zambian or the Zimbabwean side of Victoria Falls. In Zambia, the park faces only the back side of the falls. The views are not as spectacular as in Zimbabwe, but the Zambian park does allow people to hike into the gorge and experience the power of the water from the rocks at the foot of the cliff. Alas, I had no time to make this hike, so I settled for the views from above, including one looking back at the bridge as it crosses the gorge beyond the falls.
By this time I had only an hour to go through the Immigration queues of two countries and get back to the hotel in time to catch the bus for the Sunset Cruise, so I caught a taxi in Zambia that took me as far as Immigration, then walked back across the bridge and caught another taxi in Zimbabwe. I made it with time to spare and settled into one of the chairs on the pontoon boat that would take us along the famous Zambezi River. Our put-in point was well upstream of Victoria Falls, a fact I noted with relief when we got to mid-river and the guide turned off the motor, allowing the boat to drift lazily along the river as we spotted for wildlife. Between the deceptively placid, wide banks, a cornucopia of wildlife appeared:
We sat in the very middle of the river as the sun began to sink and watched the last blip of golden light disappeared behind the distant tree line.
Behind us, the sky turned a deep blue, its wispy clouds picking up the fading rays of pink and reflecting a mirror image into the river. A full moon rose as the twilight deepened, its bright reflection shattered by the gently lapping river water.
Sunset on the Zambezi – how much better can it get. I arrived back at the hotel in a state of near bliss – the day had been so very perfect. I walked down the stairs toward my room, my flesh breaking out in goosebumps as I whispered Africa! Africa!! Africa!!!