Saturday, May 21, 2022
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Zambia – Smoke on the water

Mosi-o-tunyi has competition. The “smoke that thunders” is being overshadowed by the smoke that drifts over from Zimbabwe, as Mugabe’s henchmen burn squatter camps in the town of Victoria Falls, just across the border. It is an object lesson as to why Livingstone is booming. The troubles in Zimbabwe have virtually wiped out its tourist industry, and it seems that everything has decamped to Zambia.

We hit the ground running and head straight from the airport to the falls for sunset. The inconceivable volume of water that plunges into the deep gorge throws up so much spray that sometimes it is impossible to see. It is certainly impossible to stay dry and there is a small stall renting out waterproofs. Buffeted by the permanent waves of water, I wonder why the area has so many adventure sport options when, after just a few minutes, I am left invigorated.

The next morning I have an early start to go white-water rafting. The Lower Zambezi has some of the best rafting in the world; rapids of grades four and five have been given names including The Terminator and Oblivion.

The climb into the gorge is steep and rocky, and feels more dangerous than the river, but soon we are in the boat and paddling towards our first rapid. Just before we hit the white water we are pitched up on the crest of a wave, and can look down into the bubbling froth. The boat seems to hang in mid-air then plunges into the white water. The boat is thrown backwards, and we are drenched as a wave breaks over us.

Our guide is manning a couple of large oars and keeps us on track, out of this rapid and on to the next. Two people are paddling and trying to hold on in the front; I am sitting in the back, taking pictures and trying to grip the bucking boat with my feet. For the whole trip I am popped around like a champagne cork but it is exhilarating.

In the afternoon I head to the gorge swings, where the nice people there have worked out a variety of ways to throw visitors into the void. The Gorge Swing is a monster: a cross between a bungy jump and a swing. You leap into the gorge, and, as the rope breaks your fall, it swings you out into the middle. There are a couple of “death-slides” as well, including the superman slide, where you can take a flying jump over the gorge like a superhero.

The bungy jump from Vic Falls bridge, that crosses the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, is renowned although the prize for being the highest has now passed to Bloukrans Bridge in South Africa. It is a stunning location for a jump. However, I did it six years ago and this time I am happy to let someone else have a go.

A more sedate adventure can be had from the back of an elephant. Thorntree runs elephant safaris in the National Park on the outskirts of Livingstone. The elephants don’t seem to be quite as controlled as those I have ridden in Asia, which may be down to the fact that they are allowed to live in the wild when they are not being ridden. A while ago one of the females wandered off with some wild elephants and came back months later to give birth. There is a chance we might meet buffalo or wild elephants on our travels and so we have an armed escort.

We are lucky enough to be travelling in our own plane – a little Cessna – and so we did our own “flight of the angels” over the falls as we arrived in Livingstone. But there are other options – both fixed wing and helicopters – and I want to try the microlight. This gets you much lower over the falls, close enough to spot crocodile and hippos basking in the Zambezi. The falls are much more spectacular from the air, and it is easier to appreciate their shape, and the meandering gorge leading away from them. They are pumping up so much spray that at times I can feel it on my face.

The Quad Bike Company is based at the same location as the microlights. It has a number of trails, including nature trails along the gorge, but it is action we are looking for so we opt for the shorter, more intense adventure circuit. Rough and dusty, with jumps and far too many trees, it is easy to see why there are so many dents in the bikes.

With all this excitement during the days, I figure I need somewhere pretty chilled to relax in the evenings. Tongabezi Lodge is a short drive out of town, on the banks of the Zambezi. A series of chalets look out on the river and guests drift off to sleep to the grunting of hippos. Sometimes they even come out of the Zambezi and walk around the grounds.

From the Tongabezi, there is access to Livingstone Island on the very edge of the falls. This is the spot where Dr David first gazed on the falls in 1855, and made his “flight of the angels” analogy. To sit on the very lip of the falls and look into the gaping, frothy chasm below is to get a inkling as to their true power. For the truly daring, it is possible to swim in a natural pool at the edge; for all of the man-made adrenalin buzzes at Livingstone, this is possibly the greatest rush of all.

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