Our Southern African Adventure, Part 10: Zimbabwe – Victoria Falls

Crossing the border into Zimbabwe we drove towards Victoria Falls, a town on the Zambezi River and the Zimbabwean home of the gorgeous waterfalls of the same name. For the next few days we’d be spending time around the falls.

Day 22 (continued)

Driving into Victoria Falls we headed directly to the Drifters Lodge in a residential area of town. The area around the lodge was cute, green and leafy, with large houses on massive rolling lawns. It would have reminded me a bit of suburban New York, had it not been for the many abandoned homes with their crumbling walls and dilapidated toy sets.

The lodge, like many other houses in the area, was protected by a rolling iron gate and high stone walls. Before entering the lodge and receiving our room allocations we were given a stern warning not to walk around town at night; if we were to find ourselves outside of the lodge we had to call for a taxi. My obvious initial assumption, based on the abandoned homes, iron gates, and firmness behind the warning, was that there was rampant crime in the area. Instead of crime however, it turned out that what we really had to fear in this part of town was elephants. According to the lodge manager elephants often entered town after dusk to eat from the abundant trees in the area.

We also found that what was often the greatest luxury of staying at a lodge after much time at campsites was not to be had here. Clean water can be hard to come by in Zimbabwe and during the day especially it was unlikely that we’d be have water enough for a nice hot shower.

Dumping our belongings in our stifling hot room with its one tiny window and fan, we did the next best thing to taking a shower and jumped straight into the lodge’s pool – fully clothed.

We were ushered out of the pool not long after as we had to meet with a man from a local tourist agency. He’d be explaining our options in regards to the activities we could do the next day. Like in Swakopmund, here we’d be able to explore the area individually. The activities presented to us included bungy jumping, gorge swings, elephant rides, walks with lion cubs, horseback riding, and white water rafting along the Zambezi.

I was tempted by the gorge swing, but wasn’t keen on aggravating my old back injuries. Rich and I however had long been tempted to go white water rafting and decided that this would make our ideal day trip.

A bit after this we all sat down to dinner at the lodge. Tonight there was meant to be a local dance troop coming to perform for us.  Watching the dance at the end of dinner was really quite entertaining. The troop performed some ritual dances for us, and I was especially pleased when one of the dancers pulled Rich down onto the “stage” to have him dance with her. Sadly, I spent much too much time falling out of my seat laughing to be able to get any good pictures or videos.

As it was only frequented by guests and its staff, Rich and I had hoped that the lodge would prove to be a relatively safe place. With the stifling heat in our room and lack of air circulation we hid all our valuables and left the door to our room slightly ajar so that we could breathe.

With several members of our group having gone out drinking after dinner (as usual I was exhausted and not much in the mood for drinks), we shouldn’t have been too surprised to be woken up twice in the middle of the night by one of the Norwegian girls drunkenly stumbling into our room and laughing at the top of her lungs before ducking back out. It honestly was really quite funny watching her attempt to play peek-a-boo with us from behind the door. We had clearly missed out on quite the party.

Once she seemed quite contently asleep in her own bed we fell back to sleep, but we were woken up a few hours later to a much nastier surprise. 200 South African Rand (approximately USD20) had been taken from Rich’s wallet, which we had tucked into a drawer. Whoever had taken the money had clearly been careful not to take all our cash – which would have certainly raised the alarms. Instead they had just taken little enough that we’d spend a few hours pondering as to whether or not we had accidentally misplaced the cash. We hadn’t misplaced it, someone had clearly taken advantage of our aversion to heat and crept into our room whilst we were asleep. Neither of us thought it was the Norwegian – she was too kind and had been too “happy” to think that coherently. She had also done a good job of making her presence known to us. I want to assume that it was a staff member that had taken the cash, therefore I can accept that they probably needed it much more than we did.

Regardless, we were certainly keeping everything locked the next night – heat kill us if it has to.

Day 23

After a hurried breakfast, Rich, BJ, and I were picked up by our white water rafting company, Wild Horizons, and taken to their headquarters closer to the center of town. From here, we were split into groups, assigned a guide, and given a brief safety demonstration. Once all this was done we were put in vans and ushered down to the Zambezi River.

Our starting point was only a few hundred meters from the base of Victoria Falls, though we were unable to see the falls due to a bend in the river and the massive cliffs around us. Climbing down the cliffs and to the river, we brought our helmets, life jackets, and paddles while the guides shared the burdens of carrying the deflated rafts between them. Kayakers, who would be acting as our lifeguards in case we went in, followed with their kayaks.

A placid start to our rafting trip
A placid start to our rafting trip

Getting into our raft, Rich and BJ were placed up front. A man from Wisconsin and a proud looking teenager from Zimbabwe who would prove to be the ultimate lily dipper sat behind them. Along with a South African, I sat in the third row, while another American woman – the wife of the man from Wisconsin – was placed behind us. Our guide took up the rear of the boat. After demonstrating that we, along with all the other boats, were able to work as a team and follow instructions, we headed down river.

Before we came up against a rapid, our guide would inform us of exactly what we were facing, what directions we’d have to paddle in and where to go if we were flung out of the raft. During a rapid he’d shout instructions out at us, but the waves crashing around us were often so loud that no one in the front of the raft could hear him. Years of team sports showing their usefulness, I instinctively started yelling out and repeating orders for the boys up front.

Conquering a Class 3 rapid
Conquering a Class 3 rapid

The Class 3 – 5 rapids were an absolute blast. It’s a challenge staying in a raft when rapids are smashing all around, but I thought it was the greatest thing ever – fighting against the water to stay afloat. Starting with Class 3 rapids we slowly built up to Class 4 and 5 rapids. Class 5 rapids are considered the most difficult rideable rapids. To go down a Class 6 rapid is essentially suicidal.

At one point of the tour we had to get out of our rafts and walk along the rocky shore, down past a Class 6 rapid. Our raft was sent down the rapid without anyone in it. This rapid certainly promised a swift death – jagged, powerful, shallow, with rocks protruding from every which direction, and a solid looking waterfall at the end to cap things off. I was almost surprised that our rafts managed to float to the top after tumbling off those falls.

Further down the Zambezi we were given the option of going down a Class 4 or a Class 5 rapid. By staying along the right bank we’d only hit the Class 4, but by staying dead center we’d encounter the Class 5. By a vote of 5 to 2, we chose to do the Class 5 – only the other American woman and the South African man wanted to go for the Class 4.

We had to wait for two rafts to go before we could take our turn. The first group went for the Class 5 and almost as soon as they hit the rapid, their raft was getting picked up and tossed over and backwards like a rag doll. Everyone got back in just fine, but it certainly made me feel a little less secure about our decision. The second team went for the Class 4 and easily stayed upright.

Paddling into the rapid I took a long gulp of air in, just in case we went over. For a few moments I was convinced that we were going to get thrown back, just like the first group. Hitting the center of the rapid, our raft was lifted up by the water, nearly causing us to go vertical, waves and white water lapping around us, stinging our faces. However, in one great instinctive effort by the whole team we all immediately moved forward, pressing our body weight against the front of our raft and miraculously we made it over the rapid, soaking wet but everyone still in the upright boat.

Nearly getting tossed by a Class 5 rapid
Nearly getting tossed by a Class 5 rapid

Finding ourselves in calmer waters, we all raised our paddles in the air so that they touched and swung them back down onto the water in celebration.

One of the best moments though, was when approaching a Class 3 rapid, our guide ordered us to get out of the raft, and hang onto the safety rope that was strung along the boat’s edges. Trying as best we could to float on our backs, feet pointing down the river, we were tossed up and down through the rapids. Clutching the rope desperately, white water whipped my face and several times I felt my contacts trying to slip away from my eyes. For a few moments, all I could hear was the rushing of the water and Rich’s whoops of laughter. It was amazing.

Not until near the end of our journey did we have a single man thrown overboard. The Zimbabwean teen, our resident lily dipper tumbled out of the raft in still water. Though we all tried to get him back in the raft as quickly as possible, I feel I speak for our entire group when I say that we were all happy to see him fall in. The rest of us had been spending most of the trip trying as hard as we could to get through the rapids while this kid’s paddle barely grazed water.

Reaching the end of our journey, we all climbed back onto dry land and, though tired, were forced to walk back up the cliff to where lunch and our rides into town would be waiting.

Fighting our way through rapids
Fighting our way through rapids

Arriving back at the lodge we immediately headed for the showers, hoping to wash our skin of the sweat. As I turned the faucet on only a thin stream of water sprouted from the shower head. As we waited for more water to appear, the slow stream dissipated and died. With this disappointment we dove into the pool to wish the stink away.

Walking around town after our swim, the poverty of the area truly struck us. From what we understand there was a period of currency hyperinflation that began here in the late 1990s. Though the government blamed hyperinflation on sanctions imposed by the United States, the IMF, and European Union, the reality is that inflation was brought on by the policies of the Zimbabwean government. The president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, in an effort to correct supposed injustices brought on by colonialism, began to redistribute land from white landowners to black farmers. Black farmers were encouraged to take over farms owned by whites and were offered a stipend to live on white land. However, the government lacked the necessary funds to provide the stipend to everyone who resettled the land, meaning that they had to step up the printing of money. Additionally, many black farmers had little to no training in farming and the country experienced a 45% drop in food output capacity. In turn the banking sector, along with the manufacturing, raw materials, and tourism sectors all collapsed and farmers were unable to gain loans for development.

Over a course of five years of hyperinflation the rate fluctuated so greatly that the US ambassador to Zimbabwe predicted that inflation would reach 1.5 million percent. In 2008, the annual rate of price growth was 11.2 million percent. At one point the exchange rate between the Zimbabwean and U.S. dollars was Z$2,621,984,228.00 to US$1. In stores, a loaf of bread could cost Z$550 million.

The government did not attempt to fight the inflation but instead started printing larger and larger bills. The reserve bank even printed a Z$21 trillion bill to pay off debts. On three occasions, the central bank redenominated its currency by slashing zeros. One attempt to redenominate saw the Z$10 billion dollar bill changed to Z$1.

By the time 2009 rolled around, Zimbabwe abandoned its currency altogether and to this day over 80% of the population uses the United States dollar.

It should have therefore been no surprise when walking around the area impoverished locals desperately tried to sell us Z$20 billion dollar notes. Rich too was approached by people asking him for his shoes. Many locals were walking around in shoes that were hanging on for dear life and were hoping that Rich would donate his to them.

Despite this poverty, Victoria Falls is a tourist hub and I was stunned to find that the ATMs distributed US$100 notes, and that our dinner of soup and sandwiches in town cost US$31 – more money than we had spent on dinner the entire trip!

Day 24

This morning BJ, Rich, and I walked to the Wild Horizons office in town to pick up some pictures from the rafting trip. At this point we had yet to see any wild elephants roaming through town and were horribly disappointed. However, as we approached the office, a rare treat came in the form of a warthog rummaging for trash in a drainage pipe. Not wanting to disturb or infuriate it, we stayed on the other side of the street and just kept walking, heads twisting backwards to watch it as we went past.

After speaking with the guides, we made the twenty minute trek from town down to the entrance of Victoria Falls. After avoiding eye contact with the many street peddlers offering old Zimbabwean dollars and hippos carved from wood, we passed through the park gates. Soon we found ourselves at the edge of the falls. Standing at 108 meters high (for comparison, Niagara Falls on the Canadian/US border is just over 50 meters high) and 1688 meters wide, Victoria Falls is the largest waterfall in the world.

The beginning of Victoria Falls
The beginning of Victoria Falls

The falls are so wide that each of the various vantage points reveal something new. The pathways between the vantage points feel like a rain forest – lush, green, and very wet thanks to the enormous spray-back from the water falls. Even without the falls, the area is absolutely stunning.

Really brave or really stupid? A tourist and his guide enters Devils Pool
Really brave or really stupid? A tourist and his guide enters Devils Pool

The biggest shock of the morning came from something we saw on the Zambian side of the falls. Devils Pool can be described as either the world’s best infinity pool or its most dangerous swimming hole. During the dry season of May – October, it is possible to walk along the waterfall’s top and swim in Devils Pool, which is only a few feet from the edge of the falls. The flow of water is so strong that once you’re in it’ll sweep you across the pool, towards the edge. No safety gear is used. Several deaths have occurred in this pool as people have slipped over its natural rock barrier and plummeted 90 meters to the base of the waterfall. One more recent incident includes the 2009 death of a tour guide who plunged over the falls while saving the life of a tourist.  In another incident, a Chinese tourist fell over the side of the falls as he was trying to take a picture – astoundingly, though, he survived with only bruising.

Lis and Rich at Victoria Falls
Lis and Rich at Victoria Falls

Recovering from our astonishment that people actually risk their lives in such a fashion, we continued down along the falls. After a few more minutes we turned around and went back to meet the Drifters truck in the center of town. From here we were to head south and onto our next set of adventures.

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