A traveler crosses into Zimbabwe from Zambia to take in the sight of one of nature’s most amazing natural wonders.
Zimbabwe immediately felt different from Zambia: the asphalt was decrepit, the road signs faded. The poverty was palpable. It took about a minute for the first beggar to start stalking me: “Where you from? Want to buy Zimbabwe money? Billion-dollar bills! Want to see?” He seemed very excited by the novelty value of hyperinflation.
I walked less than a mile to the Victoria Falls Hotel, the legendary palace that welcomed kings and queens for much of the twentieth century. This colonial gem is still rather beautiful, albeit almost as faded as the road signs: whitewashed walls; early 20th century halls dotted with dark, wooden furniture; tall ceilings and large windows; staff in colourful uniforms. The garden and terrace were idyllic, facing the gorge, with a direct view of the bridge I had just crossed to get there from Zambia. I could see the tiny, colourful shape of a bungee jumper getting ready to leap off the side.
On such a beautiful day, the restaurant was almost full of a mix of locals and tourists. Looming in the distance, I could see the tower of mist coming from the falls: Mosi-oa-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders.”
The geography of the area around the falls is very odd. The plateau upstream and downstream is all at the same level: the waterfalls are formed by the river dropping into a long and narrow hole that looks like it’s been slashed into the earth with a giant scalpel. The river is over a mile wide, and the falls cut straight across it, forming one side of a very narrow gorge. On the other side, tourists can take a leisurely stroll and admire them along their entire width.
A unique geology created this particular topography: the folds of different rock types in the earth underneath the river happen to run perpendicular to it, so erosion created a series of canyons connected by hairpin bends, rather than one continuous canyon. The river downstream of the falls zigzags for miles in these canyons, like a boat sailing upwind.
The tourist viewing areas face the falls on the opposite side of the main gorge. The Zambian section is well organised and safe, with marked paths and railings. The Zimbabwean section, much larger, has a path and various facilities, but there are no railings or safety features.
I stopped at a couple of spots on the edge of the cliff, my legs dangling into the abyss, facing a mile-long wall of water and stone. The river’s thundering rumble filled the chasm, covering up all other sounds. All around me was a fast-moving mist full of countless rainbows.
The amount of water feeding the falls changes massively throughout the year, and, conversely, so does the visible amount of rock underneath. In August, the water flow was in the mid-range, and the wall in front of me was about half falling water and half dark rock, creating an image like a supersized bar code. Had it been the rainy season, it would have been practically impossible to see much from ground level because of the amount of spray.
The narrow gorge acts as a drum for the sound and traps billions of tiny droplets into a column of haze, rising vertically with nowhere else to go. The combination of these two effects gives the falls their original name: “the smoke that thunders” (“Mosi-oa-Tunya” in the Lozi language). Even in August, walking by the cliff was like hiking inside a cloud: I had to speed up my pace in some sections not to get positively soaked.
I stood at the very tip of the park, above the point where the two sides of the gorge merge and the massive flow is funnelled out into the next canyon. As I was filming the churning waters below me in the strong breeze, a very large flying insect was carried by the wind to bump into the middle of my chest. It nearly toppled me over, which would have sent me down a hundred metres or so to a swift demise. I sat down.
Around mid-afternoon, I walked back to Zambia. I still couldn’t fully make sense of the landscape: Victoria Falls is one of those places that is just too big and too close from any observation point at ground level to fully understand.
I abruptly decided to get on a chopper and see the site from the sky. The weather was perfect: a bright day with no clouds or haze in the gorgeous late afternoon light. The seasonal brown colours of the savannah gave way to greens in the vicinity of the Zambezi River. The vast waterway was dotted with a thousand islets and areas of swampy ground as it peacefully approached the falls. A cloud of mist shrouded the bottom of the gorge, as if the water had been boiling down in the depths. The canyons downstream did not look like the result of natural processes, but rather as if a colossal giant had laboriously scored the earth with enormous tools.
As I sipped a vodka Martini at the Royal Livingstone Hotel a few hours later, I looked at the placid waters and at the same column of mist in the distance. A string quartet was playing on a deck by the shoreline, backed by a pink and orange sunset, and I felt like an explorer. I had walked from one exotic country into another, even richer in history and myths. It had been a day of deafening roars and crashing water; of powerful winds and dizzying precipices; of being tickled by a rainbow-filled mist sprinkled with glittering sunlight. I had seen one of the great wonders of nature and come back to utterly civilised sundowners and dinner on a manicured lawn.
The human history of extreme poverty and extreme wealth in this corner of Africa, tourism, even the very lawn I was standing on were just a blink in the existence of the thundering smoke I could hear faintly in the distance, between one song and the next.