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Trip Report: Madikwe, Garden Route, Cape Town, Vic Falls (Part 5: Victoria Falls)

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Sat 3 Dec: Cape Town-Victoria Falls

As our flight into Livingstone passed over Victoria Falls, there was a rush over to the right of the plane (me included) to catch a glimpse of the seventh wonder of the world. It turned out to be the briefest of sights but it was enough to get me excited that we were so close to something as magnificent as this. After a swift and friendly route through immigration (make sure you get your hotel to send through confirmation to allow a visa waiver) we were picked up from the airport and were on our way. Immediately on leaving the airport it was obvious that Zambia is a much poorer country than South Africa, a fact borne out by GDP per capita of only $900 compared to $11,000 in SA. There were many more people on foot but it was probably a more “African” sight that you would expect. We passed one hotel that called itself Fawlty Towers – clearly the BBC gets good coverage out here anyway!

We were staying at Stanley Safari Lodge, situated just outside the Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park, where the falls are located. We were greeted by the resident dogs, Gin and Tonic, two wonderful Labrador-type dogs that loved to mix with the guests. It had an impressive open plan arrangement with the trees falling away below it down to the Zambezi in the distance. Our suite was equally breathtaking – it too was open plan with a large four poster bed opening out onto a deck with a plunge pool and in the far distance we could see the plumes of spray rising up from the falls. It gave us a wonderful view to wake up to and indeed to watch the sunset. Even the toilet had the same view!

We decided to have dinner in our room that night and it was very romantic to sit out in the deck under the stars, with a constant buzz coming from the forest reminding you how close to nature you are. The service was also good, in fact in our time in Zambia everyone we came across was very friendly and helpful, always ready with a smile. We had an early night but not before spraying ourselves thoroughly with insect repellent. We soon found that this was one of the downsides to open air accommodation in the middle of the rainforest – there are insects everywhere and some of them are huge! Fortunately once the lights are out they don’t bother you but the thought of getting up in the middle of the night was not too appealing… Of course this is made up for by the experience of falling asleep to the sounds of wildlife and in our case thunder and lightning.

The next day was still overcast but everything had a definite green tinge to it. It had not rained for 6 months until the last few days so the fauna was drinking in all the fresh water now. The falls were also noticeably higher, or at least the spray was. In afternoon we went on the Livingstone Island tour. This takes you by boat to the top of Livingstone Island, which extends out to the edge of the falls. Our boat zigzagged along the Zambezi as the mist from the falls shrouded the view ahead of us. The river was up to 100m wide at some points but seemed to be teeming with plant life. Surprisingly the water was slow moving although in high season they close the island as it becomes too dangerous. We later learned the island tour was going to close the following week so we felt quite lucky.

Disembarking at the top end of the island, we were led down towards the falls. It is quite small but it was here exactly 150 years ago that David Livingstone also arrived and was as amazed by the falls as we are today. He named them after his Queen and a memorial plaque can be found on the island commemorating this event. Indeed I had read that they had recreated his journey only 2 weeks previously, with a host of famous people including possibly the greatest explorer alive today, Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

We approached the edge and our senses were assaulted – initially by the noise and spray, which gave way to wonderment as the chasm opened up in front of us and the full majesty of the falls was revealed. The Zambezi flows from over the falls mainly from the Zambian side, with the Zimbabwe side overlooking the falls. The opposite side probably allows for better appreciation of the size and power of the falls but for the sheer experience you have to be in the falls from the Zambian side. We could see multiple waterfalls tumbling over the edge, dropping down into a narrow gorge, with one particular area called the “Boiling Pot” that was shrouded completely due to the volume of water coming down being greater than that flowing back out through the gorge. The water level did look low, with many areas of the riverbed exposed but this didn’t take away from our enjoyment.

We then continued onto the whole reason we had booked the tour. We crossed over some more rocks, following our nimble guide until we reached the river’s edge. Then he said to us

“Now we swim across –you are good swimmers, yes?”

We looked at each other as if we must be crazy and started undressing. The water was a muddy brown but quite warm (our waiter at the lodge joked that the drinking water they provided was a Zambezi cocktail – the best in Africa!). With trepidation we entered the water and swiftly swam across the 20m, ensuring we swam upstream so that the flow brought us to the planned exit point. At one stage Helen had to pause on the way across and when the guide came over, he said “just stand up!” We laughed when we realised the riverbed was only about 1 metre deep!

Safely on the other side, we were now on an even smaller island, really just a few rocks on the edge of the falls. The Zambezi flowed around both sides before dropping the 100m to the gorge below. Now our guide pointed to a rockpool no more than 2 metres from the edge and said to us

“You jump in here and swim over to the pool, stay in the middle though, don’t go left or right as the water is stronger there”.

The last thing I remember thinking before jumping in was “this is crazy!” but fortunately there was another group of 4 already there so we knew it was safe (sort of…) I swam over to them and grabbed onto the rocks for dear life. There was a natural indentation in the rocks which provide a sort of bench that you could perch on, with your back to the falls and the Zambezi flowing over your shoulders. Sitting here was as exhilarating as anything I have ever done, knowing that just behind me was the edge of Victoria Falls! Yet if you closed your eyes then you could imagine it was a jacuzzi in a spa somewhere rather than being in the middle of Africa. Our guide took some amazing photos of us relaxing there looking as if we were having a drink by the pool, even though in reality we were shaking with terror!

After recovering back onto dry land, we looked back at what we had done and all I could think of was “wow!” We noticed the people on the Zimbabwe side of the falls could see the same pool we had swam in and they must have thought “what on earth are those crazy people doing??” Helen was still a bit shaken and indeed she had a sleepness night remembering the day! Only later did we find out that a few months earlier some elephants had been crossing the Zambezi and one had lost it’s footing. Even something that size was helpless as it was swept down the river and unfortunately over the falls. Good job we didn’t know that beforehand! We finished off with afternoon tea on the island, discussing what an experience it had been and how we had all survived. Just as we were finishing, the sun came out and as we went back to see the falls one more time a rainbow appeared inside the gorge, a great way to end our tour.

The next day was brighter, which was fortunate as we were doing a helicopter flight over the falls today. We waited until it was our turn then we went outside to the landing pad and watched the helicopter swoop down. It barely touched the ground before the people inside came out and we were ushered forwards whilst the rotors were still spinning. There is something thrilling about getting into a “live” helicopter, because of the inherent frission of activity, suggesting an urgency to be on the move which is at odds with the easy pace of life normally found in Africa. It felt like something out of ER, when the lifesaving doctor rushes off to the accident scene, crouched down and white coat flapping as he approaches. I was lucky enough to be next to the pilot and no sooner had I put on my headphones to drown out the noise than we gently lifted off. It was my first time and I was surprised at how smooth the movements were. We rose quickly and soon we could see for miles in all directions. Now the falls seemed like a distant speck but as we got closer the fissures in ground became clearer. It surprised me to see that there are a series of winding gorges in front of the falls, which once many thousands of years ago had been the original falls before the river had slowly eroded it back to the present one. We were told that there are already signs of this one being cut back and in another 10,000 years or so there will be a new one further back up the river.

But it was the falls themselves which was once again the star attraction. Viewed from above you can truly appreciate the size of the falls, which extend for almost 1km across. Now it was a series of smaller waterfalls and the base could clearly be seen in parts as the water landed and forced its way through the narrow gorge and under the Victoria Falls Bridge. I can only imagine how it looks in the wet season when it is a single sheet of water thundering down over the edge, obscuring the view from one side to the other. We did a few circles of the falls and from every angle it was obvious that we were seeing one of nature’s greatest sights. Never let it be said that Victoria Falls is not worth going to when the waters are low as there is always an impressive aura about it at any time of year.

However the ride was not over yet. We had booked the longer trip which included going into the gorge itself. As we hovered over the Victoria Falls Bridge we could see some tiny yellow specks far below on the river. These were the white water rafters making their way along the 23 rapids, most graded either 4 or 5. They looked insignificant against the might of the falls yet from up here the rapids also seemed to be quite calm so maybe it was deceiving. We now sank down into the gorge, the helicopter banking and descending with ease, at an angle that literally made it a rollercoaster ride. We were now below the level of the plateau, almost skating over the river at a height of no more than a few feet (or so it seemed). From some of the pictures I took it looked as though we could be on a boat if it wasn’t for the view of the controls. The pilot didn’t settle for just cruising along following the path of the river though. As it wound it’s way through the series of gorges we had seen from above, he pointed out the rapids the rafters would go over, combined with sweeping around the corners at 45 degrees and banking it from side to side. It was real boys stuff and I enjoyed it immensely, as did the pilot I think as it made a change from the out-and-back flights. However when I looked around I could see Helen was not enjoying it so much, but then she would normally steer clear of any fairground rides however innocuous!

Finally we rose back up and cruised over the plains. We passed over a few villages and could see people going about their every day life, animals being herded around and curious kids emerging from their round huts to get a better look at us. We even saw a herd of elephant moving along at pace, no doubt trying to escape the annoying sounds of helicopters that seemed to follow them around… All too soon though we were approaching the landing spot again. Although it is an expensive activity, you get to see the falls in a completely different light, combined with the buzz from swooping around like a bird. I would recommend this as a must for anyone, all the more so at the peak of the wet season when it must be amazing to see the falls in full flow. As I’ve said before, it leaves me something for when I return…

We had booked a more sedate way of seeing the country in the afternoon. We were driven to Thorntree River Lodge where we were to do an elephant safari. There is an elephant reserve here with 7 adults and 1 newly born elephant. They have been rescued and trained and now here guests are encouraged to learn more about them rather than just ride them. The training techniques are based on the " perform and reward " method as opposed to the controversial " discipline and submission" technique commonly associated with Asian elephants. It was clear that the handlers and staff had a deep affection for these elephants and these gentle giants seemed to respond to that.

There is only one word to describe an elephant and that is “BIG”. We were on a 30 year old called Danny and he must have been about 3 metres high. However our guide told us he is still growing and would continue doing so for a few more years! One interesting fact is that an elephant’s lifecycle is very similar to us humans. They live up to 70 years but the reason they die is not because of old age but because their teeth wear out and they cannot feed any more. However just as we go through te hdifficult teenager years, so do elephants. They are social animals and move as herds but adolescent males are often made to leave the group because of their hormones overworking. We were told of one that tried to charge a vehicle that it considered a threat, only for it’s mum to barge it out of the way into the bushes. There followed plenty of screaming and bushes being thrashed around before the male slowly emerged with its head bent low, looking suitably chastened. A lesson from his mum that he won’t forget quickly! Another was so sexually charged that he tried to mate with a rhino, needless to say the rhino was not best pleased, although it would have been interesting to see the offspring of that union…

We mounted the elephant using a high platform and settled down into the saddle. It was actually quite comfortable although the smell was rather overpowering! The movement was slow but steady, aided by the huge feet. The handler talked constantly to the elephant, either urging him on or telling him off for stopping to eat. An elephant eats about 150kg per day, for a period of 16 hours, so going for a walk with some tourists wasn’t going to stop them doing their favourite activity. This is where the versatility of their trunk comes handy as they can use it to strip a branch without breaking their stride. However they can also be quite destructive, as they will push over any trees with shoots that they cannot reach.

We spent an hour crossing over shallow rivers and through forested areas. It was a very peaceful way to see the surrounding area and from so high up you felt safe in case any predators were lurking around. Alas the rifle that the guide carried was more of a prop and we didn’t see much game but we felt like the royalty of old up there on the back. Helen seemed to enjoy this a lot more than the morning but I have to admit towards the end my legs were starting to get cramp. This was more from the fact that the elephant has quite a broad back so when you are straddling it you have to have your legs wide apart. When we eventually got off we all had the John Wayne syndrome, waddling around waiting for the bloodflow to come back to our legs!

We were then able to feed them with food pellets and pat them. Having seen their appetites, I found it funny when Helen started giving them handfuls of these pellets since it was probably akin to feeding someone soup with a teaspoon. But the elephants were patient enough and allowed us to get really close to them (or as close as the smell would allow anyway!) It surprised us to learn that the old saying that elephants are afraid of mice was actually true. Apparently elephants have an acute sense of smell so they can tell when mice are around but since they are so small they cannot see them, which is was gets them agitated. The thought of an elephant panicking when mice are running around their feet brought a smile to my face but it was difficult to believe these creatures could be disturbed by anything as they slowly, thoughtfully made their way back to join the others.

Returning to the lodge we spent our last night in Africa having dinner with the rest of the guests and a couple of the guides (8 of us in total). We discussed the great experiences we had had these few days, and the people we had met. One other woman who had flown in with us was still trying to get over the fright of swimming in the rock pool! It was a perfect way to end the holiday and was just one of the many memories that I still can’t get out of my head (to paraphrase Kylie…)

We left the next morning via Victoria Falls airport, stopping on the way to see the falls. We had used up all our US dollars so when I asked how much the $40 would be in UK pounds, our driver told us

“ Over here dollars, euros and pounds are all the same. We don’t make any distinction between them”

I was already smarting from the fact that my entry visa was twice that of Helen’s (who has an Australian passport whereas I have a British one) and this was the last straw. Add to the fact that there was monsoon weather outside (not just raining but bucketing down) and I decided it was not worth spending £40 for half an hour of getting soaked through (yes I know that may be the whole point of the falls but my general impression was that Zimbabwe really doesn’t like the British…). Also the atmosphere just felt a lot more tense than in Zambia, with officious looking types everywhere and certainly none of the friendly service we had experienced in Zambia. Later at the airport we saw some Japanese tourists trying to dry out their shoes and socks – they looked pretty wet! A further example of the ridiculous prices was that a bottle of Coke at the airport was $5!! This didn’t put off some of the Americans though, some of whom had more than one. It reminded me of the time in Kenya on safari when I saw them asking for a glass of coke at breakfast – obviously for them this was the equivalent of the English cup to tea.

A final scare was when our flight back to Johannesburg was delayed. We were flying back from there at 9pm so when I heard that it had been delayed until 6.15pm, I panicked. I hurried over to someone official looking, who was confused at my ramblings, until a tour guide came over and reassured me that the announcement had said 1.15pm so it was fine (in case you’re wondering I misheard 18 for 13). We duly landed and went through to check in as soon as the flight opened. One nice touch was that as we were flying First class, we had an escort through to the lounge. My only disappointment was that there were no queues at either immigration or the x-ray machines so we didn’t get the full benefit of this perk!

The lounge was nice, with showers, internet access, plenty of seating areas, BBC News and a selection of snacks and drinks. We were able to relax for a full 4 hours since we were the first ones in and also as we had already claimed our tax refunds when we left for Livingstone. That itself was a frustrating experience, not because of the admin involved but again because of the Chinese tourists in front of us. They were definitely Chinese not Japanese, as not only did we understand what they were saying but they were pushing in at the front to claim their refunds, ignoring the long queue waiting behind. Eventually someone complained and they stopped although by then they had almost all finished anyway. It’s ironic that the only annoying things about our trip were the encounters with Chinese tour groups!

However putting that aside, our trip exceeded my expectations on all levels. Everything about it was so memorable and that’s partly why I have written this report, to remind both of us of how enjoyable it was. South Africa is probably the most beautiful and alluring country that I have ever been to, I could have easily spent six months doing the itinerary that we covered in 3 weeks. Highlights for me include the treetop canopy tour and the walk up Table Mountain, as well of course as seeing our first lions and wild dogs. However the driving along the Garden Route was also hugely enjoyable for me and those many hours on open roads were a highlight in themselves (although they could make some of them less straight to keep it interesting!) The scenery and wildlife, the food, the people and the weather are all outstanding adverts for a South African holiday and I now understand why it gets so many repeat visitors here. With just a 2 hour time difference and plenty of overnight flights, it is very tempting to come back just for a long weekend! I am happy to become one more of the many people I have met who have nothing bad to say about a holiday in South Africa. Thank you to all those who have helped me out both actively and unknowingly with their advice to enable me to pack so much into the short time we had. I think my experience is best summed up by a quote:

"The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." -- St. Augustine

Well that book is a real page-turner and hopefully I have covered one more chapter on this trip.

John

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