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Botswana & Vic Falls - Part 5 (Vic Falls) -- First Timer Reporting

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From Duma Tau we headed to Zambia. We had opted to put Vic Falls at the end of our safari so we could use the time along the banks of the Zambezi for R&R after our time in the bush. The Bundu people of Zambia believe the Zambezi River has a spirit called Nyami Nyami. This spirit brings them water to grow crops and fish to eat, so they call the Zambezi "the river of life." Everywhere we looked along the banks of the river, there was life indeed. In fact, the fast-flowing Zambezi, with its eddies and rapids, conveyed a sense of liveliness and vibrancy that had been missing from our lazy-water experiences in the Delta.

We had little expectation of seeing many animals here, but we were quickly proven wrong. On our way from the airport to the lodge, a traffic jam alerted us to a herd of elephants browsing alongside the paved road. A mixed herd, they served as a great welcoming committee for Zambia - although Tindai, our driver, said they were visiting from Zimbabwe. We saw baboons and vervet monkeys in the trees and had a monkey waiting to greet us at the door to our room. Hippos abounded in the river and roamed the lodge grounds freely at night - we did not actually see them do so, but the ruckus they made was a sure sign of their presence!

On our first activity, a sundowner cruise on the Zambezi, a herd of elephants crossing the channel in the company of semi-submerged hippos was the perfect complement to the beauty of our surroundings. In the nearby national park, a game drive revealed to us the last of the big five we had yet to check off our list of sightings - the white rhino. We were lucky enough to see all three of the animals that were introduced into the park. A couple of game rangers invited us to get out of the vehicle and walk into the opening to get a closer glimpse. Seeing there was plenty of trees to provide cover should the rhino decide to charge, we accepted their invitation. It was quite an experience to be on the ground with these hulking animals; this photo op I did not miss!

Victoria Falls was the "natural phenomenon" highlight of our stay at Sussi & Chuma; perhaps even of our entire adventure. Having been repeatedly warned, we were well prepared to get soaked while viewing the falls. Our camera equipment was wrapped in specially designed rain capes. My husband had quick-drying clothes and an extra pair of shoes; not the case for me. So, I went legless - that is, I took off the zip-off legs of my pants. To boot, I removed my socks and wore sandals. Under the hooded, knee-length oilskin poncho provided by our guide, I wore my own rain jacket. The early morning air was cold enough to raise goose bumps on my exposed legs, but it was worth it. My torso stayed dry, while everything else dried quickly in the warmer mid-morning temperatures once our walk was completed. Best of all - I got to enjoy our wet and wild visit to Vic Falls.

Even though we had read much about them, we still were not prepared for the immensity of the falls and the power of the Zambezi plunging down the cataracts carved out over millennia. We've seen many waterfalls in our travels - some a rivulet gently streaming down a rock face; others a wide wall thundering down a chasm. But ... Victoria Falls was quite something else.

Our first glimpse of Vic Falls will stick with us for a long time to come - clear blue skies above; the warming rays of the sun streaming in at a perfect angle to create a brilliant rainbow set against the turbulent white surf of the falls; a mantle of mist enveloping the entire scene, giving it an ethereal quality. The natives call the falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya - the smoke that thunders; most definitely the right description. The water does indeed thunder as it plummets over the lip of the gorge and the mist is a filmy, all-encompassing shroud.

The falls cover a wide area of gorges and cannot be seen in their entirety from any one point. Each turn you take along the pathways across from the falls reveals a different and powerful spectacle of nature. We were fairly lucky - the real high-water season was over, although the water level was still higher than usual. The falls, therefore, while periodically hidden behind the mist created by the thunderously plunging water, were sometimes clearly visible to us. Most of the time, though, we felt like we were watching the falls from behind a filmy curtain that was periodically lifted to give us a glimpse of the spectacular nature of the sight in front of us.

We started off at the Eastern Cataract where the waters of the Zambezi tumble over the lip of the high canyon walls to create the falls. It was dry there. It didn't stay dry for long. As we made our way along the path, and across the bridge spanning a gorge facing the falls, we were grateful for the warnings that had encouraged us to dress appropriately. It felt more like we were walking in pouring rain than under a clear blue sky - a rain against which no umbrella could have offered protection; that's how powerful the mist falling back to earth was.

Later that morning we crossed over to Zimbabwe to see the falls from that side as well. Getting our day visas was painless. After driving across the Victoria Falls Bridge, we made our way to the park, and wandered the paths and trails along the falls, getting an even more fantastic glimpse into this marvel of nature - newly created gorges combined with well developed ones to provide an awesome experience that was equally wet. Starting at Devil's Cataract, we were soaked almost from the moment we stepped up to the overlook; we got progressively wetter, if that's possible. At some points, the rain-like mist was so heavy that forget taking photos, we couldn't even open our eyes. The highlight on this side was the view of Main Falls, where we could actually see an entire sheet of water toppling down from top to bottom as it churned over the lip and into the river below.

From a wildlife perspective, there was something equally as thrilling as Vic Falls for us - an elephant-back safari. In the early morning hours of our first day in Livingstone, we went to a nearby camp that is home to orphaned elephants - two of them were orphaned during culling operations in Zimbabwe and another four were orphaned during a bad drought there. These ellies were brought to the camp as they would have been unable to survive in the wild. By allowing visitors a close encounter, they serve as ambassadors for the preservation of their species.

Our morning started out with a safety briefing, and then we were introduced to the ellies. I've never thought of myself as small, but having multi-ton Danny, one of the bulls, come up to little ole 5'2" (1.5m) me, made me feel downright diminutive. Standing nose to trunk, he raised his trunk to sniff my hand in greeting. There was a gentle glint in his eye, as though to say, "don't worry, I'm your friend; I won't hurt you." Wow is all I can say - it's an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Shortly thereafter, we were on the backs of these gentle giants. Because one of the ellies was pregnant, Danny carried four people on side saddles; the others took two guests each. Each elephant also carried a handler. A videographer and an armed guide followed us on foot. Mui and I rode astride Lewa, one of the ellies orphaned during the drought. Together with her handler, Christopher, she took us on a ride through the national park and along the banks of the Zambezi. Her slow, plodding gait was surprisingly quiet as we rode through the bush. In our saddle, we gently swayed side to side in a motion reminiscent of a cradle. She and her buddies gave us the ride of a lifetime - when they weren't stopping to sample the bounty of nature every other step. A branch too hard to break off? No problem, let's just take the entire sapling with us! And so we made our way through the bush while Lewa munched away - it gave "take away food" a whole new meaning!

Following the ride, we had an opportunity to interact more closely with our ellie. Feedbag in hand, I sat on Lewa's bent knee and fed her - sometimes commanding her "trunk down" to place food pellets directly into her trunk. In a very trusting way she laid her head on my shoulder; ugh! That was quite a weight to bear, but bear it with a smile I did before taking over the camera so Mui could take his turn feeding Lewa.

Next Chapter: Conclusion

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