Hang-gliding over the hundred metre precipice at Victoria Falls is not to be recommended. Nor had I intended to take the plunge, my ‘sail’ being nothing more than a wet kanga-wrap, held up to fend off a tropical deluge. Somehow, though, circumstances (and a lack of sensible forward planning) had led us to the Falls’ knife-edge just as Zambia’s 18-month drought was ending, and the rains beginning. Even without the hang-gliding it was a heart-stopping moment.
The prolonged drought across Southern Africa was of course the reason for Team Farrell’s presence in Zambia in late 1992. The Team Leader, Graham, had been seconded to the European Union Delegation to manage maize flour and cooking oil distribution to foodless villages across the nation. We had only been in the country a couple of weeks when G was directed to go down to Livingstone on the southern border to inspect a newly arrived consignment of maize. His boss suggested he should drive down on a Saturday and take me too. Naturally Nosy Writer (that’s me) was only too pleased to head off on a several hundred mile safari.
Looking back, the diplomat’s suggestion that I should go was possibly a kindness in disguise. Nothing was spelled out, since we were newly arrived, and Bernard (aka the boss) did not wish to scare us before we had found our bearings. But security in the capital Lusaka was not good. President Chiluba, the newly democratically elected leader, had been in office for barely a year, this after ousting the incumbent of decades, Kenneth Kaunda.
Later it transpired that Kaunda’s army officer son, Rezi, had been intent on destabilizing the country, and was apparently behind the city’s upsurge in violent crime. On top of that, in neighbouring Zaire (now DR Congo) President Mobutu had not been paying the army, and so gangs of gun-toting soldiers would drive down to Lusaka for a spot of night-time car-jacking and house-breaking. In a nation of impoverished people, the diplomatic quarter was the obvious target. Better, then, that I should not be left alone. Not that I knew this then. Nor had G’s company thought to mention any of this before offering his services to the EU. As they say, ignorance is bliss.
And so one Saturday morning under a wide blue, and seemingly ever rainless sky we set off south. The road, once clear of the city, ran on mile after mile after mile with hardly another vehicle in sight. We passed through landscapes of rolling woodland, the tall-tree miombo which, at first glance seemed more like Europe than Africa. After nine months in Kenya the vistas, too, seemed curiously lacking in drama –until, that is, we reached Livingstone.
Our hotel stood beside the Zambezi, and after tea on the lawn in the English manner it was off to the nearby Falls. The photo above was my first view of them. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh, cry or simply stare open-mouthed. Where was the water?
The drought had much to do with it of course. But the other reason was that Zambia abstracts large volumes of water to run its hydroelectric plant.
The Falls as seen (and ‘discovered’) by David Livingstone.
Engraving from Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa 1857
G told me the best view of the falls was across the border in Zimbabwe, and that if we had remembered to bring my passport we could have walked across. Most frustrating.
Instead, we walked along the path beside Zambia’s waterless gorge. But trailing through dead vegetation while staring at the stark basalt cliff face felt more and more oppressive. It made me think of Tolkein’s Mordor. We gave it up and went back to the hotel.
Our room theoretically had a river view. In reality all we could see was its empty bed, with huge boulders and clumps of palms here and there. But on Sunday afternoon I noticed that people walking across it. “Let’s go,” I said.
The sun was shining when we set off, and soon we were joined by a boy who appeared from nowhere and offered to guide us to the best Falls’ viewpoint. We duly followed, picking our way round oily looking rock-pools, mammoth sized boulders, and piles of fresh elephant dung.
We must have scrambled on for nearly a kilometre when the sky started to turn grey. I began to feel nervous, glancing upstream and expecting a wall of water to come rolling down. Or to walk round a boulder and into an elephant.
And then the rain came down. Fat freezing drops. We made a dash for cover, which happened to be some trees on Livingstone Island, the very spot from where the explorer had first viewed the Falls in 1855. We crouched for ages under dripping trees until at last, thoroughly soaked, G asked the boy if the ‘good view’ was much further. On discovering that it wasn’t we made a final dash. And here it is. The view:
Not much to be seen for the spray coming up, and rain coming down. I took this quick snap, and then held up the sodden cotton wrap that I had been wearing earlier to fend off the sun. As I stood on the knife-edge the sudden gust of wind that filled the wrap was enough to lift me towards the abyss. I stepped back in shock. I’d had more than enough of Mosi-oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders). So had the boy. Soon he was sprinting away without even waiting for a tip, and that really had me worried. What did he know that we didn’t? We slipped and slid, back the way we had come. More phantom elephants. More imaginary flash floods. More getting lost in outcrops of giant boulders. It seemed a long, long way back to the hotel.
It was not until several months later that we finally got to see the Falls, this time from the Zimbabwe side. On this occasion we only got drenched from the spray, while I took yet another wet and misty photograph, but thankfully avoided all inclination to hang-glide.
copyright 2014 Tish Farrell
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