26: Walking Victoria Falls
Falling into the falls might not be the best idea, but only if you don’t like crocs.
The guidebook said the Zambian side of Victoria Falls offered a better view and cheaper admission. Hmm, cheaper and better. It didn’t take long for Raylene and I to decide to stroll over the Zambian border to view mighty Victoria Falls. But like everything else in Africa, all was not what it appeared to be. The “short walk” described in the book became a 30-minute trek in the 100-degree African sun, and the cheaper entrance fee must have been before the Zambians got wise to charging in US dollars.
We finally arrived at the Zambian entrance to the Victoria Falls park and found that we had to pay $10 US on top of the extra $10 for a one-day visa Americans were also required to pay. Already this had become more expensive than visiting the Zimbabwean side, where you could pay in local currency, making entry a measly $2-3.
But we were here now and determined to experience what has been described as one of the most magnificent falls in the world. But where were they? We walked past large groups of local vendors peddling their wares and families of monkeys trying to steal our chips and could hear the distant freight train roar of the Falls, but we still couldn’t see them.
When we finally spotted Victoria Falls, my first reaction was “is this it?” I’d been told the spray from the Falls is so strong that visitors get soaked from 500 yards away and that the mist is so thick you can barely see the Falls themselves; but I was very dry and looking right at them… or at least at all the rocks were the water was supposed to be. We’d come to Victoria Falls in the dry season, but it never occurred to us that that meant the falls could dry out! While there were still some sections flowing, at least 50 percent was currently nothing more then a rocky precipice.
Disappointed, we wandered around the bit, trying to get closer to the wet areas when we did a double take – we spotted people walking along the top of the dried falls! These weren’t locals, these were other tourists. Somehow they’d managed to cross a water barrier to the dry sections and were picking their way to the flowing portions. This gave Raylene and I renewed purpose: we were going to walk the top of Victoria Falls. After all, how many people in the world can say they’ve done that?
Quickly, local boys appeared, who for a few dollars would be our “guides,” walking us along the Falls until we reached a portion where there was actually water flowing. But first we had to cross a small concrete band about six inches in width, over which flowed rapidly running water.
At least it comes with a disclaimer…
We smirked at a sign warning us of water bursts and crocodiles, until we stepped in the ankle-deep water and realized the water’s force combined with the narrow ledge could lead to a potentially dangerous fall into the inhabited waters. But we uneventfully reached a dry patch and began to stumble our way over the jagged and jumbled rocks. It was hard to imagine that this barren land was inundated with hundreds of millions of gallons of rushing whitewater most of the year. Along our hike, the boys got word of an errant and hungry elephant also trudging along the top of the Falls, so we veered closer to the Falls’ edge to make sure we gave the unseen animal a wide berth.
Occasionally there would be a patch of still water we had to circumvent. At one point, Raylene beckoned me to follow her as she figured out yet another water detour. I looked at the scene behind her and silently shook my head “no” as I made my own way. After she finished crossing she asked me why wouldn’t follow her. I replied, “look over your shoulder. It was then she realized she was within five feet of the edge of Falls, just steps away from a 1000+-foot drop into the gorge.
Eventually, we came upon a group of boys jumping into a water hole located precariously close to the white water hurtling over the edge of the Falls. Our guides invited us to join in for a swim. We were definitely in need of a cooling-off period after our trek, but even being able to have bragging rights to swimming in Victoria Falls wasn’t going to convince us to get an arm’s length away from instant death.
Soon after taking pictures of ourselves leaning over the Falls, we realized the sun was starting to set and we had at least a 40-minute hike back to our starting point. At the risk of turning an ankle on the twisted rocks, we tried to quicken our pace. With roaming elephants, lurking crocodiles and no flashlight, the prospect of being out on the Falls after dark was quickly making us uncomfortable. But about halfway back we had to stop at a curious sight.
Maybe it would’ve been better to stay here in the first place?
There were white table clothed tables being set up on a stretch of elevated grassy knoll in the middle of the dried up Falls. I asked a tuxedoed man who was setting up the tables what it was about. He commented that this stretch of land was an island normally only accessible by boat. Guests at a nearby resort are ferried over by speedboat to have dinner in the middle of the Falls. I couldn’t imagine dinner during full faucet mode could be all that pleasant, with guests having to struggle over the roar of the water to ask their fellow diners to pass the salt, while using their fancy dinner napkins to continually wipe the spray from their faces.
I asked the man if there was any way Raylene and I could pay for a boat ride back so we didn’t have to walk another 20 minutes in the rapidly failing light. Since just about everything in Africa is for sale for a price, I was surprised we couldn’t sway him. We didn’t say much after that, keeping our focus on our goal and hoping our second crossing over the water ledge wasn’t in the dark.
As we finally plodded wearily back to Zimbabwe and our adrenalin started to wane, we began to realize the risks we’d taken. We finally admitted to each other that this wasn’t the smartest thing we had ever done. But, like everything we’d experienced together thus far, it would make a helluva great story when we got home.
What I lost this week: my brand new bra with the clear shoulder straps… I left it in on a windowsill in Harare to dry.