Trip Diary: Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

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The bags were right there when I got back to the airport. I’ve never had such an easy time dealing with an administrative issue. I didn’t even have to give my name — the guy at the luggage desk took one look at me, obviously thought, “Oh right, the white lady who’s picking up this morning,” and handed off the bags to the guy from the travel agency who was there to help me. With a big, cheerful grin on all sides, especially mine.

Everything has gone pretty smoothly since. It was a short flight into Victoria Falls, and although there was some confusion at the airport about exactly what we were supposed to do on arrival — was there a new policy requiring us to get an additional Covid test right there in the airport, or wasn’t there? — they eventually just let us wander off and escape. I found my driver, and we went outside.

Me, with the dancers outside the airport

Immediately outside the airport doors, there was a sudden burst of color and noise. A troupe of local singer/dancers were dressed up in warrior costume and performing right there in the parking lot! The music was actually really good, and they looked so cool in their dancing costumes that I asked my driver if we could stop a minute so I could take a picture.

I got more than I bargained for. The group immediately surrounded me, laughing. Somebody handed me a spear and shield, while one of the others relieved me of my phone to take a few pictures of the group with me in the middle of it. Ridiculous and corny, but still so much fun. I admit that I like silly touristy stuff like that, so long as it feels as if the performers are enjoying what they’re doing and inviting me to enjoy it with them. The turnoff is when they just seem to be looking for an opportunity to pressure or manipulate me (and I ran into that in a different context, a day later).

But these folks were laughing and teasing me and each other and obviously having fun, and so I rolled with it and had just as much fun myself. And I bought one of their CDs on my way out, which is what the entire display was for in the first place — but I didn’t mind; they were good singers and I’ve liked Southern African music for decades. So I had no problem with giving them what they wanted.

We got into the van and headed for my hotel, Batonka Lodge. The driver told me about the area as we drove. The local villagers live and farm on one side of the main road, while the national park and wildlife preserve is on the other. Since there are no fences to the wildlife preserve, there’s a low-key war on between the animals, who want to steal the livestock and crops they see as easy food, and the villagers, who know that their entire region’s tourism money comes from the wildlife, but also know that the cow which was just dragged off by a lion had been earmarked for sale to pay their daughter’s school fees. He mentioned that a nephew of his had nearly been killed by a leopard, which the boy and several of his friends had surprised when they went to bring the cattle in at night.

Leopards do not like to be surprised.

The boys and their dogs were very brave: they beat the leopard off their friend, at the cost of one dog’s life, and the boy only ended up needing a bunch of stitches. The story made me think of the tales I’ve read about frontier children in the American west, bringing in the livestock while facing wolves or mountain lions. We once had as rich a collection of wildlife as Africa has now — they have lion and leopard and jackal, antelope and buffalo and giraffe, while we used to have cougar and bobcat and wolf, bear and bison and moose. And both continents had the same difficulties between the wildlife and the humans who wanted to farm and raise livestock in close proximity.

Only now, Africa is where people go to see wild animals. Because they kept theirs, as difficult as it sometimes is to live beside them, and we wiped ours out. It made me sad.

Then we got to Batonka Lodge, and it was hard to be sad there; everyone was so kind to me. I have a beautiful room, with a bed that looks as if it’s got old-fashioned curtains (but it’s actually much-needed mosquito netting) and the second-biggest bathtub I’ve ever seen. It was almost too big, even for me with my love of spectacular tubs… I had to find a way to brace my foot at one end or my head would slip underwater! Aside from the guest rooms, everything else is outdoors here. Meals are served on the wide, covered porch, and since there’s only one other current guest besides me and I haven’t seen them yet, it’s the first place in a year where I’ve felt comfortable taking off my mask to eat in public. The servers are friendly, but well trained in social distancing and always masked themselves. They are friendly from a careful distance of no less than six feet, so I’ve been enjoying the chance to eat in a restaurant again (especially since that covered porch and the gardens beside it are absolutely charming).

This morning, I was up early. I had agreed to meet the manager at eight to see if the weather would allow me to go up in a helicopter sometime today. I wanted to see the magnificent Victoria Falls from above. So I went to breakfast at seven, had a nice assortment of bacon, eggs, toast, fruit and tea, and then wandered around to the front desk.

… Where I was asked if I could be ready for that helicopter trip in five minutes. Um… okay? I high-tailed it back to my room to get my purse and camera.

When I got in the van, I saw why they wanted to pick me up right away. Not only was the weather momentarily clear — in the December-February rainy season, this is as much of a rare opportunity as it is in Seattle during the same months — but they had another passenger already in the van. They wanted to take us both up at once. I didn’t mind this… and in fact, I got an advantage out of it, because when we arrived at the helicopter site and I paid for my ride, they asked me, “You want the short ride?” I told them yes; I had already checked the prices and 15 minutes was all I could afford. They explained, “That other lady, she wants the long ride. You mind going for 30 minutes so we can put you both on the same ride? No extra cost.”

They’re offering me double the air time at the same price, so they don’t have to run two separate helicopters? Sounds like a win-win to me. I accepted enthusiastically.

We got strapped in, and put headsets on so we could hear each other. I was a little concerned that wouldn’t work so well through masks, but it sounded very clear. The helicopter swung off the ground, and we headed for the waterfall.

Victoria Falls, whose local name is Mosi-oa-Tunya, usually translated as “the smoke that thunders,” is generally considered the biggest waterfall on the planet. There are some that are higher and some that are wider, but the sheer volume of water that careens over the edge is greater here than anywhere else. Having now seen it from above and below, I believe it. It’s simply breathtaking.

The Falls change the entire character of the Zambezi river. Above, it’s a wide, slow, meandering set of islands and channels, beloved of birds and hippos. Below, the same quantity of water is forced into a narrow canyon and it becomes a raging monster. We first flew over the canyons below the Falls, and then swung around and faced them head on.

There was a moment of pure beauty, as the whole glorious width of the cascade was visible beneath us. Then there was a wall of white, as we were enveloped in the spray. It was like flying through thick clouds — and, like flying through thick clouds, it caused some turbulence to the helicopter. Then we were past it, and flying upstream, with our pilot telling us about all the islands in the suddenly wide and sleepy river below.

The islands were pretty. But… “Can we go around again?” asked the young, blonde woman in the front seat. And I heard myself echoing “Oh, yes please!!” before the pilot could even ask me if I minded.

So we went around again. This time, we approached from the side, letting us follow the nearly mile-wide Falls all the way across. This time we were still in the splash zone, but not so thickly that we couldn’t see. It was a great chance to get photos, and I took a lot of them.

After that, we did fly upriver a ways. I was prepared to be dutifully appreciative, even though I felt that not much of the gentle upper Zambezi could live up to what we’d already seen. But the pilot had one more treat for us.

“Now, we will go over the national parkland,” he told us… and I remembered, as he dropped to a much lower altitude to sweep above the trees with plenty of visibility below, that the guides on my arrival had explained to me that that was where all the wildlife was.

So we kept our eyes peeled for wildlife, with great excitement. The young woman in the front seat was someone I recognized; she had come in on the same plane I had the day before. So neither of us had had time to see any animals yet, other than the exceptionally pretty dragonflies I found in the garden at Batonka. She spotted a giraffe, which I somehow missed, to my severe disappointment. But then I saw a big Cape Buffalo, browsing happily among the trees, and pointed him out; and then the pilot pointed out some vultures. That was all we had time to find, but I was well satisfied as we landed. I had seen my first African animal of this safari, and the waterfall had been simply magnificent. I’ve seen Niagara Falls and been blown away by them, but this is a whole different scale.

Later that afternoon, I got a taxi into town. Batonka uses the same taxi driver for everything; a cheerful guy named Tuylani whom they know they can trust. I saw why — he was great. He found me a place to buy the new cellphone power cord I needed, and made sure they didn’t overcharge me. Then I asked him to take me to the Falls at ground level.

He looked at me a little skeptically. “You have a raincoat, or an umbrella?”

I explained that I was from Seattle and I was used to getting wet. I’d be okay. In truth, I was looking forward to it — the afternoon was pretty hot, and I figured getting soaked by the spray would be a good way to cool off. So he let me out, raincoat-less, across from the entrance to the park, and we arranged for him to come get me in two hours. I paid my thirty dollars (everything is in US dollars here; even the government doesn’t accept its own money for entry visas) and went inside.

Victoria Falls: Real Devil's Cateract

It was a good quarter-kilometer walk before I even got to the waterfall, but once I did, I stopped counting. (When I’m doing my own rough measurements on foot, I assume my casual stride is about a meter and then count steps.) At the near side of the Falls is Devil’s Cataract, a subsection which was a little further back than the rest, so I didn’t get too wet there. But as I got closer to the center section, the air was so drenched that I began to worry about my camera, even though the GoPro is fairly water resistant. I didn’t have a lot of attention to spare for it, though. Clear back in my teens, I wrote a story set at a large waterfall, so loud and intense that my heroine completely missed the fact that the sister standing beside her had disappeared. I could well believe it, standing here listening to the roar of the Smoke that Thunders.

Eventually, I realized that I had walked far enough that my body was protesting pretty badly, and I still had to get back. I asked some visitors who were coming from the other direction how far it was, and they said about a half-kilometer — but that you couldn’t get back to the Zimbabwe side from there. I had completely forgotten that the other side of the Falls was actually in Zambia, a totally separate country for which I didn’t have a visa. Looked like going back the way I came was the only thing to do, so I began counting steps again, curious about how far I had walked overall. It ended up being about a kilometer back to the gate, so I probably went, what with occasional meandering, a bit more than two. Two kilometers — a mile and a quarter, more or less — was more than I usually walk in the heat, and I was pretty worn out, but the worst of it was that my mask, which was heavily filtered with a good seal, became completely impossible to breathe through when soaked. I gave up and pushed it down for the rest of the way, and simply avoided other people. It wasn’t hard; there still were very few. When I got back to the gate, the nice lady at the gift shop gave me one of her surgical masks.

Tuylani wasn’t yet there when I got back to the parking lot, but a big gift shop area was, along with some extremely aggressive salespeople. I had to fend them off, eventually agreeing uneasily to look, in order to buy myself some space. I thought about the dancers at the airport the day before, who wanted me to buy from them just as much but weren’t pushy about it; they made it fun. These guys very definitely didn’t.

I did find one very beautiful item that I bought as a gift for a family member; since they’re probably reading this, I won’t say what it was. Once I was in negotiations to buy something from one of the salespeople, the others left me temporarily alone. I had just finished bargaining over that when Tuylani arrived. He told me to finish my shopping, I didn’t need to come at once… but I was soaked, hot, tired, and a little afraid of the aggressive salespeople, and the last thing I wanted to do was stay among them and be pressured to buy more things. I wanted to climb straight into the car and let him take me back to Batonka. So I did and he did.

Next post: crocodile farm, and searching for rhinos!

2 responses to “Trip Diary: Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe”

  1. Joshua Kronengold Avatar

    That falls looks amazing–and it’s hard to get a feel for how without being there (of course). I’m not usually much for sight-seeing, but I admit the falls are tempting.

    You assume your stride is a -meter-? That’s big! I think my casual stride is around 19 inches = half a meter.

    1. Naomi Avatar

      Full stride, meaning both feet each have their turn, and you land back at the position you were in at the start? That’s pretty small, but I suspect you meant the distance you step with one foot, rather than with the complete cycle of two. So yeah, my casual stride would have one foot going about half a meter, which makes the full stride one meter by the time both feet are done. Easier to measure that way, since you can count every time, say, the left foot swings around for its turn rather than having to scurry to count both individually.

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