First stop is the Royal Livingstone Hotel, overlooking Victoria Falls, Zambia. Why not make a big hole in the pension lump sum to start with – we can (and will) do the back packing later. If you’ve never experienced Africa, colonial style, this is the place to do it. On the banks of the mighty Zambezi, with the mist from Mosi -oa -Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders as the locals call the falls) rising to your left , the hippos honking and yawning in the river in front and ever attentive waiters at your elbow – there is only one drink possible. “Gin and Tonic please, I’ll have a double” for tomorrow we attempt the Devils Pool.
Yes, there is a small pool, on the very edge of the precipice, from which it is possible to actually look over the edge of the falls. Our jolly boatman, Alex, expertly navigates us to the Livingstone Island from which we begin the short walk across the top of the falls to the pool. My wife, Sandra, is already in a state of shock and awe…..because Alex has stripped down to his trunks. For myself, as a man who is terrified of heights, I have glimpsed the pool and am experiencing a strange weakness in the knee area. As maintaining forward momentum becomes ever more difficult, it occurs to me that the unconscious conviction we all have that we are immortal usually expires about age thirty (i.e. thirty years ago). I experience an intense yearning for a pipe and a pair of good slippers.
In we go, and Alex expertly guides us to the ledge at the very edge, keeping us well away from the torrent to our right. At this point I am unsure whether to be more terrified of the falls, the fish feasting on my legs (yes the Devils pool is full of those little fish that give you a foot pedicure) or the glint in Sandra’s eye as she follows me forward. With the roar of the cataract reducing communication to shouting, Alex insists we look over the edge “to see the rainbow”, which beautifully illuminates the depth of the chasm. I manfully edge my stomach onto the ledge, grip the edge and pull myself forward, millimetre by millimetre. Admittedly it’s not usual to see a rainbow from above but, let’s face it, we’ve all seen rainbows. I therefore deem a nano-second should be more than enough to carefully observe the phenomenon, before slipping casually, and without any trace of panic, back into the pool. Sandra joins me a moment later, wearing a rather strange fixed grin.
Lunch on Livingstone Island follows, beautifully served in a bush camp surrounded by elephant poo, with the roar of the falls as backdrop and the sun blazing serenely above. By the time we’re back at the sumptuous blue of the hotel swimming pool the tremors are starting to subside. Zebra crop the grass unconcernedly at the side of the pool as Sandra uploads the pictures onto Facebook. It’s amazing how tech savvy she has become since uncovering this wonderful platform for blatantly showing off to the children and our friends.
Not a bad first day of the GGY so not wishing to lose momentum we’re up bright and early the next day for a kayak down the Zambezi. At this time of year, the water is low and the river full of hippos, which kill more people in Africa every year than crocodiles. It appears gin with breakfast is frowned upon, so I forebear. Our guide for this particular trip is an Afrikaans chap who introduces himself as JT. My experience of Afrikaaners is that they are all absolutely enormous and effortlessly competent in all matters concerning the great outdoors. JT proves to be no exception, offering a hand the size of a builder’s shovel for a bone crunching shake before driving us out of the hotel grounds, casually pointing out the three resting giraffe, almost invisible under the shade of the trees on a mini roundabout. We are joined on our trip by a couple from Brazil. They have slightly delayed our start, by being late, for which he was most apologetic. As we converse with some sign language, and his heroic efforts at English, his wife stonily refuses all eye contact, any facial expression faintly resembling a smile, and makes no sound in any language for the entire day. People-watching, with its attendant speculation on the little domestic dramas of everyday life, is one of the joys of travelling. Here was material for the rest of the holiday. I hope they’ve made it back to Brazil ... together.
JT drives us 20 miles or so upstream of the falls (thankfully) before we arrived at the launch site. This is a campsite on the river’s edge and in the deep bush. The site management appears to be an elderly Afrikaans couple – grey, ponytailed (both) and well tattooed. More grist to the people watching mill! With effortless competence JT and his “boys” have the kayaks in the water, down a steep bank, in no time. As we drift out onto the sun glazed water it occurrs to me that a hat might have been a good idea.
This stretch of the river meanders lazily down to the falls with Zambia on one side and Zimbabwe on the other. On both sides the bush comes right down the river. In the heat of the day the wildlife stays in the shade, but we are regularly rewarded with glimpses of baboon, water buck, basking crocodiles and a plethora of bird life. The only sounds are the birds, the gentle murmuring of the water and occasionally JTs careful instructions as we observe various pods of hippo’s from a safe (to JT) distance until eventually we arrive at the landing site. This is the waterside bungalow of a friend of JTs, a wonderful spot sheltering under the gorgeous red of a flame tree and complete with a pile of hippo poo in the middle of the lawn!
As we sip our G&T’s on the sundeck that night, watching the blood red sun go down behind the smoke from the falls, Sandra remarks, with great amusement, that I’ve grown a pair of devils horns. With her usual brand of deeply felt sympathy, she is referring to the blistering red patches in my receding hairline, either side of the widow’s peak. Clearly my application of factor 50 had stopped at a hairline some years out of date. I refrained from any derogatory comment re her possession of the coordination skills required to successfully move a two-man kayak, and stoically re-applied the ice.
It is of course essential to explore the National Park that covers the area at the top of the Falls. The walk down to “The Boiling Point”, with its spectacular view upwards to the bungee jumpers on the Victoria Falls bridge, is not to be missed though avoiding the baboons on the path is to be advised. Most of the hawkers in the park adopt the low-key strategy of starting a general conversation with a friendly comment about the weather or something similar. After fifteen minutes (often quite informative) conversation about the falls, or their village, or life in Zambia generally they will produce a necklace or something similar that “they’ve made”. Being British, we of course struggle to be rude to anybody who has engaged us with a friendly comment, or refuse to buy from somebody who has just told us their life story, with the result that our first walks in the park are spent in awkward one sided conversations, and a rare collection of copper bangles. Eventually two techniques seemed to work. The first - look fierce and tell them you’re Australian, is often effective but a little dishonest. Given the poverty that is so visible everywhere, the second approach feels more natural- give them some money straightaway with a request to let you walk in peace. The aggressive ones are easier to deal with because they are rude to start with…. and nobody is rude to Sandra!
Alas, the sun began to set on our all too brief stay in Zambia. Next stop Mauritius where I will survive Sandra’s best efforts to drown me during our first ever attempt at Scuba diving.