I am standing in front of a flimsy wooden fence- the only thing that separates me from the black basalt boulders and the swirling maelstrom below. Straddling the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, the evocative local name for the Victoria Falls is Mosi-oa -Tuniya or the ‘smoke that thunders’. Before Zimbabwe's political troubles, the Zambian side of the falls was the less visited of the two vantage points, but now Zimbabwe's loss has been Zambia’s gain. To the Scottish explorer David Livingstone it was, 'a scene so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight'. The largest sheet of falling water, one of the seven natural wonders of the earth, twice the size of the Niagara Falls, 546 million cubic metres of water per minute- all the superlatives don’t do justice to the magnificent phenomenon that the Victoria Falls is. It’s more than a century and a half, after David Livingstone set foot here in 1855, but the area is still relatively unspoiled. There is the unbeatable combination of bush, river and waterfalls. There are no neon signs, searchlights, shopping malls or even guard-rails.
Our hotel, the Royal Livingstone on the Zambian side, is an oasis of colonial luxury with shaded verandas, rattan furniture, African artwork and sepia portraits on walls, liveried butlers with red fezes, and vervet monkeys and zebras grazing on the grounds. We take a guided trip, with our guide Justin, walking gingerly on the slick and wet concrete path around the rainforest bordering the falls. The forest green ponchos that Justin insists we wear look a little excessive to me, for a walk in the forest, but soon enough, I am thankful for the protection that it offers me from the elements. I feel like I am walking through a rain cloud, drowning in the torrential downpour with the surround sound of the thundering roar of the waters. The fall is actually five separate falls: Devils Cataract, the Main Falls, Horseshoe Falls, Rainbow Falls and the Eastern Cataract. An umbrella in hand, with our cameras tucked out of sight inside our ponchos, we soak in the columns of iridescent mist, and feast on the visual delight of double rainbows. Each bend in the path gives us spectacular views of the river plummeting over the rocks into deep gorges, and lasting images on our cameras.
Justin tells us about the River God Nyaminyami, a creature with a body like a snake and a head like a fish, who created the cataracts in a fit of rage. The natives used to believe that the ferocious torrents were the result of malevolent spirits, and used to drop offerings of beads and necklaces into the waters to appease the gods. Walking on the precarious Knife Edge Bridge we watch the furious river turn into the Batoka Gorge as we get drenched in the downpour. In the distance is the Victoria Falls Railway Bridge, on the ‘no man’s land’ between the two countries. It was commissioned by Cecil Rhodes "where the trains, as they pass, will catch the spray of the Falls", and is now the favoured place for adventure junkies to bungee jump over the Zambezi.
The Falls is the omnipresent motif in the next few days. You can experience the fall in different ways: from the ground, from the river and from the sky or even watch an ethereal lunar rainbow on a full moon night. I have a massage at the open gazebo of the Royal Spa at the hotel, with aromatic plant oils. I lie face down, with an angled mirror below the table, adjusted to reflect the mighty river and the plume of mist of the falls in the distance. We take a speed boat on the swiftly flowing river, past floundering hippos, to Livingstone Island, a small promontory of dry land on the edge of the falls from where Livingstone first spotted the falls, from a dugout canoe, accompanied by members of the local tribe.
Trips are subject to water levels, and only 12 guests are allowed to visit the island at one time. We squelch into the soft soil and walk past a ‘Loo with a view’ on the rim of the falls, peering into the falling curtain of water, plunging 103 metres into the gorge below, with a frisson of fear, listening to tales of intrepid travellers and accidents from our guide. At the very edge is the Devil’s Pool, a natural infinity pool which is accessible in the dry season, for a swim that is daring and adventurous.
Come sunset we take a languid cruise on the Zambezi River, spotting pods of dozing hippos with their jaws open showing their formidable teeth, crocodiles sunning themselves on rocks and an astonishing variety of colourful birds. My true ‘ahaa’ moment is when I slap on a helmet and sit on the sole seat behind the pilot for a 30 minute flight on a micro light ( a hang glider with a motor) over the mile-wide Falls, smiling into the camera attached to the wings. Just me, the pilot, an engine and wings and the glorious wind buffeting me from all sides, this is the most unreal and heart- pounding view of the falls. As we fly over the Mosi-oa-Tuniya National Park I see herds of elephants and zebras grazing in the afternoon sun. The mist enshrouded forests, the massive Zambezi River, the rainbow studded thundering falls are forever embedded in the recesses of my memory chip.
Published in the Mumbai Mirror, JULY 2012