To the European traveller, if anywhere could be in the middle of nowhere, it is seldom-visited Zambia. But for those prepared to choose a destination that’s less than obvious, there are classic landscapes and wildlife in abundance. And of course, there’s one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, the majestic Victoria Falls.
Bay’s Nick Smith finds out more…
As unfair as it may sound, when travel writers talk about Africa, they tend to mean what’s technically known as ‘sub-Saharan Africa’, the region either just on the Equator or south of it, the land of elephants and lions, wild savannah and jungle. When travellers talk about going to this part of Africa, they inevitably say they’re going on safari, which is a statement of the obvious. If you speak any Swahili at all you’ll know the word ‘safari’ literally means journey. So, what our intrepid explorers of the Dark Continent actually mean is that they’re going on a journey to see the above-mentioned elephants and lions, wild savannah and jungle. You can hardly blame them: it’s a fantastic experience. I’ll hold back from using the lazy travel writer’s cliché that it is a ‘once in a lifetime’ ambition, because once you’ve done it once (if you see what I mean), you’ll want to do it again and again. I’ve gone back to ‘big Africa’ pretty much every year for the past three decades and of this I can assure you without any hesitation: you will never get bored. So much so, I dislike having to leave the place.
I was sitting in the verandah of my rustic little villa at a safari lodge on the banks of the River Chobe, listening to a hippo-potamus gurgling in the mud, when this very thought crossed my mind. I’d been travelling through Botswana photograph-ing elephants for a travel piece that I was doing for the Telegraph and my trip had come to something of an abrupt end when I found myself with an entire week to kill with nothing much to do other than wait for my scheduled flight back to Johannesburg. Since I’d photographed just about every elephant in this part of Botswana several times by now (I’d even amused myself by photographing the snakes and chameleons in the garden out-side my villa), there seemed to be a press-ing need to change the scenery. Don’t get me wrong: photographing elephants in the Okavango Delta and along the Caprivi Strip ranks high in the list of best things you can do with your life – especially as this batch of pachyderms seemed to be willing to let me get close enough to take some intriguing ‘detail’ shots – but there also comes a time for moving on. So, when one of the safari guides working at the Chobe lodge – a young South African by the name of Rassie – asked “why not take a trip to Victoria Falls?” the ears pricked up. We’d been whiling away the hour before dinner with a beer, shooting pool and watching cricket on a television set that only worked half the time. Unfortunately, I explained to him, a trip to the falls seemed a bit of an improbability, since they were on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, while we were in Botswana and my plane was all booked up, boarding card in my wallet, bound for South Africa. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Rassie in the dismissive way South Africans sometimes do: “but it’s nearby and I can drive you to Zambia, no sweat. I can change your flights for you.”
The following morning dawned freezing cold, with a thick mist lurking over the river as we packed up the Land Rover. Then we set off east along a dirt track for the ferry at Kazungula that would take me across the Zambezi River to Zambia a few metres away on the bank opposite. This was where I’d meet Rassie’s friend, who was rather confusingly also called Rassie, who would fly me in his Cessna light aircraft to another lodge close to the falls called ‘Sussi and Chuma’. After a while all these places are the same, but its name brought to mind the 19th century explorer David Livingstone’s native servants, who buried his heart in Africa and carried his body all the way to Zanzibar on the east coast, from where his remaining remains were taken home to Britain. Before any of this could be achieved, said Rassie #1, I had to negotiate Kazungula, which he assured me would be chaos, not just because small busy towns in this part of Africa always are pandemonium, but because it is also the only place in the world where four countries meet and so there would be bonus mayhem to contend with. In alphabetical order, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe collide where the rivers Chobe and Zambezi meet in what some geographers call a quadripoint, and what others maintain is actually two tripoints separated by 150 metres of river and utter confusion. Somehow in amongst all the parked-up lorries (that seemed to stretch for miles in every direction), the apparently endless queues at wooden immigration shacks, street hawkers, pickpockets and all manner of obstacles cluttering up the place, I was supposed to find a small boat that had been sent to meet me by a person I’d never met. And yet I did.
I won’t say that finding myself on my own in the middle of nowhere was a comfortable experience but, I reminded myself, adventure travel isn’t always easy going and you just have to look at the slings and arrows as being part of the fun. That having been said, by the time Rassie #2 had driven me to an earthen airstrip and we were aloft in a bumpy old four-seater, I was looking forward to the moment when it all got a bit more straightforward. “Don’t worry about a thing,” said my new guide, who assured me that he’d got everything under control and my upcoming excursion to the falls was a formality: “This is Africa. You’ve got to think differently here. There’s no point in getting worked up about anything. Things happen the way they happen.”
Over the years I’ve become accustomed to ‘Africa time’ – a polite way of saying that even the simplest things take much longer to get done than you expect. You routinely wait hours for your Cessna to turn up. Things never get delivered on time. People are unpunctual and vehicles break down as a matter of course. It’s a case of leaving your expectations behind. Even so, I got the feeling that Rassie #2 was managing mine. But he just carried on going with the flow as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Later that day he took me on a boat trip down the Zambezi and we photographed more elephants.
There comes a point in every journey when you finally feel you’re on top of everything, and it was at Sussi and Chuma, chilled Chablis at my elbow, where this finally came to pass as I reflected on a camera full of photographs and a reassuringly beaten-up notebook full of notes. This is not as routine as it may sound because I don’t normally have the inclination to write anything down until I’m on the plane home, by which time I’m looking forward to my next trip. There are some travel writers who literally walk around with their notebook in their hand recording every detail like a courtroom stenographer. But I’m not one of them, as I’ve always been of the opinion that if something is truly memorable then it stands to reason that I’ll remember it. Even so, it was a nice change to have everything on paper, if only so that I could say I once did it. In fact, I was so ahead of the game that I even decided to do some research. After all, the following day I was going to Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa: first seen by European eyes when Scottish physician, Congregationalist, and pioneer Christian missionary with the London Missionary Society, David Livingstone (19 March 1813 – 1 May 1873), ‘discovered’ them in 1855 (I think the locals may have been aware of them before that); the largest sheet of falling water on the planet (one-and-a-half times wider than Niagara Falls and twice as high), known to the African people as Mosi-oa-tunya, which means ‘The Smoke That Thunders’, and re-named by Livingstone in honour of Queen Victoria. My guidebook informs me in a mixture of metric and imperial units that, “around mid-April is when peak flood waters occur. Roughly 625 million litres of water flow over the edge per minute. This huge volume of water produces a spray that rises up to 1650 feet into the air.” I was just starting to wonder if this is what all travel writers do (and if it is, they really shouldn’t), when I was snatched from my musings by Rassie#2, who informed me that there were leopards along the river nearby if I wanted to go and have a look. Thinking that taking a stroll along the bank of an African river at sunset was infinitely better than reading about it, I joined my guide who slung a Ruger Hawkeye rifle over his shoulder, barked into his walkie-talkie in Afrikaans and led the way off into the wilderness, my brief relationship with the orthodox travel writing process mercifully stopped in its tracks by a leopard.
You don’t need me to tell you how impressive Victoria Falls really are, especially when it was Livingstone who described how “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” It’s a beautiful image, and one you can see for yourself, especially if you visit the Fawlty Towers travel agency in the nearby town, where you can book a helicopter flight over the falls, enterprisingly dubbed the ‘Flight of Angels’ tour. Rassie#2 advised me not to bother as the best way to see the falls was on foot. Besides, I’d see them from the plane on my way back to Johannesburg. More important than seeing them, he said, was hearing them: “after all, they are the smoke that thunders. You won’t get to hear that riding in a chopper.”
The hot African air was softened by the mist billowing up from the falls as I stood on a viewing platform in the shade of an acacia tree. I listened to the unending boom of the water crashing a hundred metres over what looks like the edge of the world into the gorge below. The constant spray meant that there were rainbows everywhere, reminding me that the name of the falls, long before Livingstone ever clapped eyes on them, was once Seongo, meaning ‘the place of rainbows.’ I spent the afternoon roaming a network of vertiginous paths and shaky bridges, before my rendezvous with Rassie#2 at the Livingstone statue that, while presumably meant to be imposing, bears an uncanny resemblance to the fictitious historical figure Jebediah Springfield on The Simpsons. I mention this to Rassie#2, who creases up with laughter. “That’s what it is,” he squawks. “I always knew it reminded me of something…”
Rassie#1 had been as good as his word to the last detail. When I arrived at Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport (formerly Livingstone Airport), there was a flight booking for Johannesburg waiting in my name. As I flew south, I looked out of the porthole to get a final glimpse of the falls, only to realise I was on the wrong side of the plane. I delved into my daybag for my notebook thinking I’d jot down a few notes about the day’s events before I forgot them. But I’d left it at Sussi and Chuma, and for all I know, it’s still there now.