Our joy at making it to Livingstone, named after the famous Dr Livingstone, the first European explorer of this region of Africa, was palpable as we pulled in to town. Finally, we had made it to the halfway-point, from here we were headed south to countries which would be distinct from those we had seen in East Africa. From Livingstone onwards, wealthy tourists from Europe and America would become a more familiar sight: people flying in to luxury lodges in Cessnas, elderly tourists trying to check off some of the more adventurous spots on the globe before they get too old. We would soon be trading the bush and hills for the immense flatness of Botswana and the monumental sand dunes of Namibia. But first it was time to see one of the great natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls.
Even the most casual observer could see that life was tough for the average Zambian. Although the deceptively neat uniform of hand-me-downs, which the First World continues to clothe Africans in, makes Zambians (and most of the Africans we have encountered so far) seem wealthier than they are, you don’t need to look far to find evidence that many of those who live outside the capital, Lusaka, or the tourist magnet of Livingstone are struggling.
Like Malawi, Zambia seemed to be suffering from runaway inflation in food prices. Going to thesupermarket in Lusaka or Livingstone is enough to give you a heart attack as you try to make sense of the number of zeros forming the suffix to every price. It gave us pause when we saw sausages at $7 for a pack of 6, minced beef at $18 per kg and apples at $4.5 per kg. Cleary many of these prices were out of the reach of the average Lusakan or Livingstonian, and even if they were in reach, they were likely to be an occasional treat. No wonder our driver, Henry, was so convinced meat must be the essential component of every meal. As a Kenyan with first hand experience, he knew that if you are at the wrong end of the social spectrum, procuring meat in any decent quantity was almost impossible. Conversely, if you wanted anything imported with little or no nutritional value (and immense tooth decay potential) like Milo, chocolate bars or crisps (potato chips), you virtually needed to come up with the equivalent of the GDP of a small banana republic in Kwacha, the national currency.
Anyway, I have digressed enough, so before this turns into an economic thesis on Zambia, I should get back to the place in the title which probably drew you to this post: Victoria Falls. It probably sounds clichéd, but nothing can prepare you for your first glimpse of the mighty ‘Smoke that Thunders’, as it is known to locals.
At 1.7 km wide and plunging 107 m into the Zambezi Gorge, the 545 million litres of water which fall each minute create a truly thunderous sound and send a fine spray into the air which can be felt whenever the wind blows the wrong way. Providing succour to the surrounding rainforest which grows around the falls, the spray can suddenly, and without warning, give you the impression that you are caught in an intense rain shower.
There are a huge number of activities to engage in at Victoria Falls including bungee jumping, booze cruises, scenic flights and lion walks. On our first night in Livingstone we went on a wonderful sunset cruise during which we saw a hippo or two and tried and failed to drink the bar dry while devouring plates of barbecued meat. The drunken inclination to swim in the river was quickly scotched by the knowledge that crocodiles were abundant.
Martin wanted to get a bit more adventurous, so he decided to do his 5th bungee jump. Although we saw a married couple who must have been in their 60s doing a joint gorge swing and twin sisters who might have been pushing 70 doing a tandem swing, I was not going to be induced, for love or money, to jump off the bridge which connects Zambia and Zimbabwe!
As you can see from the photo below, he did a great job of launching himself into the air like a bird, swooping down into the gorge with its beautiful double rainbow below. Unfortunately, he came away with a souvenir rope burn which is still not completely healed a fortnight later!
Henry, our driver, had warned us that the road from Chipata to South Luangwa was awful; he said that was his least favourite road in the whole of Africa. He complained that it was so bad, that he had rebuffed all requests to visit the national park there for the last four years. Perhaps it was because we were such a good group of people, or we needed to be challenged (after all three of us had already been to Africa and two of those three had lived in Kenya for the past 6 months); maybe it was fear that we would be disappointed if we didn’t get to experience sleeping at a campsite that plays host to a whole cast of characters from the animal kingdom. Looking back, we are not really sure what exactly made Henry break his own rule of skipping South Luangwa, but we completely understand his rationale now.
The road did not deserve to be called a road. The 100 km trip, a mere fingertip from our starting point on the map, required us to rise before dawn, pack up tents, prepare breakfast and be on the road by 6:30 am. For the next 6 hours we barely ticked above 10 kph until the last 20 minutes of the journey. Rocking, rolling and jolting on the muddy red tracks; remnants of the infrequent traffic on this clogged artery carved into the dense bush, fringed with grass twice the height of a person, this land was harsh, dusty and mercilessly hot.
Occasionally, a cluster of huts could be seen nestling in a clearing set back from the road. I wondered what the people who lived here ate and how they sustained their families, as even in Malawi, a much poorer country than Zambia, the countryside was a neat patchwork of subsistence arable farms. The interior of Zambia looked comparatively desolate.
As we navigated the obstacle course of rutted dried mud and cavernous holes which looked like they had been formed by meteors, al the while shrouded in choking dust red dust. We stared longingly at the new road, which was nearing completion, to the left of us. Parts of it seemed to be lacking the last cosmetic touches; one could almost imagine a portly official cutting the ribbon at an inauguration ceremony, but Henry assured us that the last time he had been here, the road was also being built. Progress, if any, on this project would be on African, or more specifically, Zambian time. So we trundled along the red earth at 10 km/h mocked by the grey strip of asphalt which ran parallel but off limits to us. Diggers and road building equipment sat idle in the dirt. Not a single labourer was visible on the journey there or on the return trip three days later.
When we arrived at Croc Valley, named after the sly reptiles which ply the river at the back of the camp, it was already dark. After pitching tents and cooking dinner, we headed to the bar, which has been designed to emulate the features of traditional African architecture. It was possible to look out into the inky moonless night and just decipher the river, which hosted a large population of hippos whose grunts travelled across the water to give the impression that they were right next to us.
That night our sleep was fitful as we slept with the flysheets off our tents in wait of the animals which we had heard regularly prowled the camp, including lions. A pride had been sighted days before devouring a giraffe at the entrance to the camp, hippos were known to occasionally wander in and hyenas, baboons, elephants, monkey and others were also sometime visitors. As a precaution we had been banned from buying fruit that day because Henry knew the scent of it could make the elephants wild enough to attack the truck or wreck a tent (and unintentionally kill its inhabitants).
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for us, nobody saw any lions prowling the camp that night (although it might have had something to do with the natural deterrent from nocturnal toilet visits which wild animals on the loose create!). However the next day we woke to find ourselves surrounded by a bouncing group of mischievous monkeys which had to be chased off before breakfast. The most exciting moment of the day was the unexpected arrival of a family of elephants, including a very small infant, which came to graze within the camp. For over an hour we watched them in awe as they strode through the camp eating their fill. In that hour the honour of getting so close to wild elephants made us realise that the bone rattling journey had all been worth it.
Nestled between the two neighbouring ‘Z’ countries in south-central Africa, Zambia miraculously manages to avoid the international pariah status of Zimbabwe and the basket case label routinely applied to the failed state north of it, formerly known as Zaïre (the Democratic Republic of Congo). Most people we have told about our plans to visit Zambia have responded with blank looks as they hurriedly search their mental world maps, desperately trying to locate the country. Now that we are here it is easy to see why.
Zambia does not feature among the top destinations for Europeans wishing to take a holiday. Were it not for the instability in Zimbabwe, with which Zambia shares a crucial border at Victoria Falls, it is questionable whether as many tourists would make it here at all. Prior to arriving, we had no inkling of what to expect: unlike Kenya with its wildlife; Tanzania with Ngorongoro, the Serengeti and Zanzibar; or Malawi with its lake and famously friendly people Zambia truly is terra incognita.
So far on our trip, we have found border crossings and dealings with Immigration officers to be a good barometer of the service level and warmth to be expected in a country. Zambia was no different. As we entered Immigration, we found ourselves in a cramped office shared by nine staff, busy sipping coca-cola from bottles as they devoured BBC World News from a flat-screen TV and gossiped among themselves. They carefully avoided all eye contact with the rapidly growing crowd of visa applicants – we were invisible and inaudible until they chose to recognise us.
Nevertheless, having heard complaints from another group of travellers who had been waiting for over 45 minutes, we decided to try to alert a pretty young officer to our presence (we were after all paying $50 each). She immediately waved us off with a flick of the hand as she set about trying to crack open a bottle of coke with her molars, kicked back in her chair and proceeded to devote her attention to watching the news. Just one of the nine officers on duty was actually processing visas. There was little we could do but wait.
Scanning the room we noticed a large, prominently placed box of lubricated condoms, which were presumably provided to reduce the likelihood that tourists left the country with more than they bargained for or that any STIs were left behind by visitors. Nearby a large poster proudly proclaimed “A real woman waits.” Several of us wondered whether this was supposed to be a not so subtle reminder that using the services of prostitutes is inadvisable (the proximity of the condom box seemed to be confusing the message, though); perhaps it was intended to inspire guilt in women who were considering pre-marital sexual liaisons? Whatever the intentions of the poster, several of us wondered why a real man could not also wait, especially given that one in every seven Zambians is HIV positive; 79,000 new infections were recorded in the country in 2009 (an average of 200 per day); the current life expectancy is around 39 years.
After watching the BBC report on the earthquakes in Spain and bombings in Pakistan, our visas were processed. We were finally free to roll over the border and into the dry grassy landscape of northern Zambia. Travelling along potholed roads we trundled towards Chipata to camp for the night.