Chapter 6: Victoria Falls
A tourist in real Africa. “There’s an elephant behind you.”
Our flight to Zimbabwe seemed to tumble over a dirt road, rather than float through the air, threatening every few seconds to eject us from our seats. When mercifully we touched back down on African soil, we disembarked into the terminal at the modest airport in Victoria Falls. Haily and I were officially in Real Africa. Which, to an American mind, is any part of Africa where there's a non-negligible chance of being eaten by large and aggressive fauna.
There were only three gates in the terminal, along with a small waiting area and a ramp down to customs. We took a customs card and ambled down the walkway with two-hundred other people who intended to gaze at waterfalls and wildlife in this epicenter of African tourism. The people who look the most out of place in safari clothes are also the one who are most likely to dress up in them, full regalia. Those people had arrived with us en masse in Victoria Falls. On the ramp down to customers a poster on the wall read, “A healthy nation is a wealthy nation.” Haily made note of this prudent sentiment. Then she suggested that a nation that issues its own currency would seem to be one step closer to affluence than a nation that washes it hands. I asked her what she meant. She informed me, “My Zim friend told me the country doesn’t issue its own bank notes. It doesn’t have any ATMs, either. He said they don’t accept credit cards.”
This sparked an otherwise latent economic curiosity in me. I had about $40 in cash on me between USD and South African Rand. I remarked on how I wish she had shared this factoid before irreparability touching down in country. This was worse than Poland. I need to start checking CIA Factbook or something before entering a new country. Wikipedia, at least.
The good news is this intelligence proved not to be entirely accurate: Zimbabwenese bank notes, while rare and printed in the same factory as Monopoly money, do exist. They also do indeed have a few ATMs and almost universally accept Visa and Mastercard. The bad news is that I wouldn’t discover this for another few hours as I waited in line to go through customs. It’s not that their customs lines were especially inefficient. They just conspired to be especially inefficient for me. As we hadn’t moved with a sense of urgency to get into customs we ended up near the back of the line. There were ten queues. We were in number five. The airport seemed surprised to have just received a freight full of visitors, as if this was something that happened only on occasion and unexpectedly. Then an usher came over and redirected me—and just me, because I’m white, presumably—to number six, in which I would, it was my hope, be able to get an on-arrival visa. The different numbered booths offered different visa options, depending on whether your nationality was African, Chinese, or other, and whether you’d already obtained a visa. I trusted, naively, that the usher had omnipotently placed me in the appropriate line. After thirty minutes the lines started to atrophy. That is except for number six. Haily was about halfway closer to the customs desk than I was.
At that point a new flight came in, unloading about four hundred Chinese tourists, all outfitted in Safari gear. In Zimbabwe, Chinese tourists are celebrated guests. If you’re Chinese, you don’t need a visa to get into the country. It’s free to you, welcome home. If you’re not Chinese, then you’ll need a visa. Which kind you need depends on which nation you’re from. For example, an American multiple entry visa costs fifty bucks. If you’re British it’ll cost you an extra ten bucks, just for being a limey Brit. Canadians: no double entry. Once is enough for you folks. Now, customs lines are notorious for being inefficient and taking forever. But this generally isn’t the case for me. I’m an American. Typically, when I present myself in a new country all I have to do is proclaim, “I’m an American, and I’m ready to come in now!” Then they unhook the red velvet rope and let me through. I’m not used to having to wait in line, ask nicely, and slip some money to the guy at the desk. At length I got to the front of the line. By "at length" I really do mean to imply a serious amount of time here. By the time I reached the front, there were precisely zero other people -- that is, not a single other person -- in the customs area. Not only had everyone on my flight made it through customs, but every one of the Chinese tourists had made it through as well. I deduced that it had been the desk guy’s first day in queue six. That's why he had processed our line slower than everyone else's. I handed him my passport.
“Hey man, how’s it going?” he asked.
“Fine,” I said hotly. I’d already decided it was his fault I was still here.
He looked at my passport and crinkled his nose in consternation.
“My friend, you are in the wrong line,” he told me. “You are supposed to be in queue five.”
He handed me my passport and I stepped sidelong toward the attendant in the adjacent stall. I presented her with my passport and my credit card. She went bang-bang-bang with a few official stamps, wrote my identifying information down and sent me on my way. When I finally was allowed to exit the airport I met back up with Haily. “Where have you been?” she asked. “I was beginning to worry.”
A van was waiting out front to take us to our hostel. We hit the road through the savannah, where we were apparently the only vehicle in Zimbabwe that could attain one-hundred kilometers-per-hour. Even at a languorous ninety, we blew the doors off competing vehicles on the two lane highway. On the side of the road were cows, donkeys, monkeys, and varieties of African deer. We were officially in Real Africa.
The van delivered us to a compound in a residential stretch outside the city center of Victoria Falls. The driver tapped a code on the compound gate which gave way onto the premises. The communal area featured a modest array of the necessities of tropical luxury, such as a small pool, a lounging swing, and a giant human-sized chessboard carved in the suggestive motif of White Man versus Black Animals. The rooms were housed in huts with thatched roofs. The notion of a thatched roof conveys a flimsy covering that could fly off at the behest of a zealous wind gust. But this is far from the reality. Upon inspection they are sturdy, like a weaved steel, and inspire the utmost confidence in their structural soundness. The façade of the compound was Real African Safari; the bones were up to the duty of coddling tourists.
Having deposited our effects in the hut, we inquired with the concierge about a satisfactory spot for dining in town. He recommended a craft brewery that served good food and good beer.
So we took off into town. It was a two mile walk, about forty minutes on foot. We picked our way through the asymmetric layout of our residential neighborhood. We stopped on our walk to admire a couple warthogs wallowing in someone’s front yard. On the outskirts of the city center—so called because of its centrality, not its urbanity—I decided to bring us through a short cut. Instead of taking the long road around the park, we could simply cut through the park and shave off tens minutes from our walk. There appeared to be a dirt path, and we took it. On this dirt path we were joined by a troop of baboons. This was sort of like finding oneself in the midst of a cohort of persons known to be on methamphetamine. They’re a twitchy bunch, and if they decided on a whim to come at you they’d likely overpower you through sheer force of abandon. Uneasily, we made our way through the park. The shortcut did however work to shave a couple minutes off the trip, and soon we found ourselves at the mouth of the road leading to the brewery.
This brewery would no doubt have been at home in Seattle or San Diego, such was its hip and industrial allure. Judging from the rest of the offerings in town and the surrounding countryside, this was probably the only craft brewery within five-hundred miles. We ordered a couple beers and a couple burgers. At the table next to us were a group of Zimbabwenese white guys. They were swapping what I can only imagine are typically Zim white guy stories. “On my way over here,” began one of them, “I was walking down the road and—SMACK!—the guy behind me had been hit by a car. He went skidding across the pavement and the car tore off. Then I walked the block and half to meet you blokes here.” He relayed this anecdote with all the casualness of if he had just run into a mate from university. His buddies nodded in amusement, as if this tale merited some acknowledgement but not much. Then the conversation wandered toward baboons, as I imagine it so often does in Real Africa. “I was taking a nap earlier today,” another of the men intoned, “when a baboon came in and took the sugar off my night. I yelled, ‘Hey, you! Come back here!’ And he scampered off.” Classic stuff.
When we were sated with food and drink we walked back through town. We made a stop at a liquor store to acquire brandy, because that’s what Hemingway would do, were he ever to find himself dropped down in Victoria Falls. Then we hailed a taxi and retired to our compound where doled out brandy and clinked to being tourists in Real Africa.
The next morning I awoke in Zimbabwe, which was surprising, because that had never happened to me before. We got up from under the mosquito net, showered, and presented ourselves again to the concierge.
“We’d like to do a safari,” we told him.
“Well,” he replied, “everywhere is a safari. The walk to town is a safari.”
We looked at him skeptically. We insisted that he take our money and shuttle us off to somewhere with animals of a more lethal strain. We also booked a white water rafting trip, and—what the hell, let's go for it—a helicopter tour of the Falls. Then we made our way back into town to investigate Victoria Falls on foot.
The indigenous name for the Falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means ‘the Smoke that Thunders.’ This is indeed an apt label if ever there was one. The Falls can be seen from a ways off as a restless mist somewhere beyond the horizon. Then it disappears, occluded by trees and flora. You hear it before it comes into view again. We took a path toward the Falls, and it was strewn with men proffering Africana trinkets laid out on blankets. “My friend!” each one of them implores, “We have the best deals! No one will beat our deals!” they called out, employing the same rhetorical strategy as Donald Trump. We bypassed the deals, purchased a ticket and a poncho at the gate, and entered the grounds of Victoria Falls.
Victoria Falls is the largest waterfall in Africa. It first became known to white people through the adventurous exploits of David Livingstone, who presumably stumbled on the Falls and murmured a dumbfounded "holy shit." It was revered as a god by the locals, and it’s clear to see why. It is power personified.
Like a quality stripper, Victoria Falls reveals herself piece by piece. To see it up close is only to glimpse a single section at time. It’s a synesthetic experience. Feeling the rumble and hearing the resonant booming come from the same merged, all-encompassing sensory input. It rains at the base of the Falls. Inevitably, you get wet when you enter its vicinity. The rain comes from below, though, bouncing off the invisible ground at the base of the waterfall, like so many bouncy balls. You get more drenched as you go. It’s a state of permanent rain during the wet season, and eventually it just looks like dense fog. We concluded with a sidelong view of the Falls, which drops off from the river into a great open slit in the earth.
Having made contact with the Falls, we repaired to the Lookout Café for lunch. This involved a rather long walk down a dirt road away from the Falls. Clearly it was meant to be driven to in a tour bus, as we were the only ones on foot. It had a nice view but no tables, so we headed back down the road to catch a cab back to our hostel. As we walked down the road an oncoming African man said to us, “‘scuse me guys.”
“Sorry, we’re not interested,” we began to say.
“There’s an elephant behind you.”
Sure enough, moseying along through the path about twenty yards behind us, was an elephant. It traipsed along the road, then disappeared into the trees on the other side. Everywhere is a safari, I guess. We walked back along the road toward gates of the Falls where a line of taxis waited. They quoted us a murderous price to get back to our compound. It would’ve been cheaper to cover the equivalent distance in Manhattan. But, same as the taxi negotiation process in Poland, we didn’t have recourse to other options. When we got home we ordered lunch and enjoyed a couple Zambezi beers by the pool.
After lunch a car arrived, and we were driven out to a game reserve. This was the helicopter launch site. A Norah Jones song played the in terminal when we arrived. The entire album, on repeat. After a brief instructional session, we loaded into a 'copter and spun up toward the Falls. As we approached, we saw the Mighty Zambezi trail off into the horizon. All at once it drops off into a vast crevasse. We came at it from the it canonical angle, which is what you see in the postcards around town. Then we made the first turn to get the view of the Falls from the side. Breaths, at this point, are hard to come by. We circled it a few times while rainbows danced around in the mist. Then we were shuttled home.
Later that day was the World Cup final. We headed back to the brewery we’d scouted the day before. On the way in we met a guy wearing a shirt with the name of the establishment on it. I told him we were headed to the same place. He introduced himself as Ibrahim. We informed him of our confidence that Croatia would take the whole thing. He contradicted us, placing his confidence in France. I proposed we bet a round of beers on the result. He proposed "tequilas" instead. In the end France won, and I bought a round of tequilas, which we threw back.
Then we returned in the evening to the compound for brandy.
Our cohort left on a bus at seven on a cool morning in Victoria Falls. We were headed to the Zambezi river, for whitewater rafting. It was the two of us and eight Irish college students. They looked to be about fourteen years old.
Our first stop was the tour group’s office in the city center, where we were offered instant coffee and tea. We sat in a semi-circle and were given an intro to whitewater rafting. Basically, it was an enumeration of all the ways one could die, be maimed, or sustain serious injury. We would be traversing level-five rapids, which is the highest, most perilous echelon of rapids. Attempting such a feat could incur broken arms, capsized rafts (this, our host emphasized, was a likely occurrence), and dislocated shoulders, among other maladies such as death from cracking your head, or losing consciousness and drowning. This information painted a contrast with what a couple of the more feeble looking Irish kids had in mind: a gentle paddle down the stream. As the list got longer, so did the space between the blond Irish girl’s upper lip and her jaw. Eventually, she was able to rest her chin comfortably on her knees.
We were presented with an indemnity agreement, which we had to sign before we were allowed even to hear the safety info—how not to crack your head and die. Before the distributing the papers, the man explaining the plausible deformations and threats-to-life told us: “Just sign it. I don’t recommend to read it. It’ll just leave a sour taste in your mouth.” I read it. It said that if you die, even if due to negligence—for instance, your guide hitting you over the head with his paddle—you cannot sue the company. I raised my hand and asked about the trip's historical rate of death. “It’s uncommon,” he assured us.
After we signed our waivers the lot of us were shuttled off somewhere into a fastness north of Victoria Falls, upstream on the Zambezi River. We were fitted for helmets, life-preservers, and handled paddles. The leader of the Irish pack engaged me in conversation, which was an unwelcome social advance.
“So, where are you guys from?” he asked Haily and me.
“Boston,” I told him curtly.
“Lots of Irish there, huh?” he followed up.
“I suppose so.”
From there, we were instructed to hike down the gorge to the river. The man pointed over the rolling edge of a cliff and told us to follow the trail. We hiked down the gorge, clambering over rocks, informal ladders, and steeply graded hillsides. Before the river came into view we glimpsed the canyon-side carved by the venerable river and the African sun peeking over the top of the dusty striations of the gorge. It was about five hundred meters down, not an especially easy hike for something not properly advertised as a hike. There were some in the party whose lack of physical adroitness—let us call it—was inferable from their prodigious accumulation of mass. One of the girls was on the chubby, honestly. I don't say that to knock her, but it did prove to be a protracted struggle for the poor girl to descend to the river. By the time she got there she looked totally spent, which isn't a promising state in which to begin a treacherous rafting expedition. A more favorable sign was that, by this point, her colleague—the blonde one—had collected her jaw off the floor.
We were divided into two rafts and embarked on our journey. Our crew was Haily, me, Leader of the Pack, Mouth Agape, and Cumulative Mass. Together we set off into the Mighty Zambezi. Importantly, the river's name is pronounced ‘My-tee Zam-baaay-zee,’ in your best Lion King voice. Linger on the baaay, and try to wrap your whole mouth around the syllable. Never speak of the river in any other manner. None of our guides, who knew and respected the river, ever did. Our guide taught us to row in concert according to three commands: Forward!, Stop!, and Get Down! Forward, we ventured forth into the Mighty Zambezi.
At first the journey was serene. I looked up with geological interest at the tall canyon walls, layered with rock striations encoding the events of millions of years available at a single glance. We floated along in the lazy wanderings of the Mighty Zambezi's repose.
Then we began to take on rapids. They started off easy, as mild disturbances in an otherwise calm stream. They were like flight turbulence—perhaps a bit bumpy, but don’t require of you any direct engagement. Things got more tumultuous as we entered our first level-four. “Get Down! Get Down!” yelled our guide.
We hit the thrashing white water. The bow of the boat shot up and as it righted it did so without the burden of the largest passenger. In a period shorter than a moment she was hoovered into the water and under the raft. Her colleague's mouth gaped. It was a look which conveyed the sentiment that her friend had just been consumed by the Mighty Zambezi and may never return from its digestive tract. Our guide scrambled over to the side of the raft, calling me to move out of his way. I scurried to the opposite side. He searched for her in the water but only found more rapids. After lingering under a few long moments she reappeared as a specter under the water. The guide, calling on all his bodily power, gave a great big heave and hauled her back on board. She returned physically undamaged, save for a couple scratches. But from the look fixed on her face for the rest of the outing I believe the Mighty Zambezi may have kept a small portion of her soul for itself.
After that incident we held a vote: should we take on the level-five or should we skirt around it and remain in a level-three? Our guide explained that there was, in his statistical estimation, a ninety-eight percent probability of flipping if we take on the five. The rule was that if anyone voted for the lesser adventure we had to go with that. So we went with that.
There’s a sort of negotiation with the river that takes place right before you hit a rapid. Our guide would call out “Forward! Forward!… Stop!” at precisely the moment that would angle us toward a minute but desirable swirl in the rapids. This particular swirl would position so as to maximize the chances of us being in that two percent. We came to a junction in the river. The near side of the river looked like the sort of rapid we had already been taking on. The other side of the river frothed menacingly. It presented us with a continuously cresting wave, which towered over our hopelessly inadequate watercraft. Our guide did the mental trigonometry to angle us precisely in the direction of the more tenable rapids. But the Mighty Zambezi had other plans for us. We drifted helplessly in the direction of the level-five, caught in a rip tide toward the oncoming tsunami. The rapid pitched us about with no consideration for any of our predilections concerning our direction or orientation to the ground. It was a sort of probabilistic splash mountain. We entered the vertex of two colliding currents. We took a real shellacking from the river, at one point going completely airborne, but remaining blessedly upright throughout. The Mighty Zambezi had been merciful.
Once through, we looked on at the other raft, which had successfully made it into the lower level but had capsized nonetheless. We made fun of them for being unskilled rafters, but left out how we’d been the unintended beneficiaries of inept navigation.
Filled with sailor’s hubris we rounded a bend in the river. The wind was against us now, coming head on. We paddled desperately for all we were worth, and then some. But we went nowhere. Though we were stuck for only a minute or so, it was a stark lesson: you don't get anywhere unless the Mighty Zambezi wills it. That we were able to have any say in our trajectory at all is a small miracle. Though he had misled us into the level-five, our guide was a man of phenomenal skill. He called out Forward!, Left!, Right!, Stop! as if reading the transcript of events that have not yet transpired. It's as if he was looking at a map that is being composed in real time. It was really quite something.
At length we parked our watercraft on the river bank. Our rafting trip was over. Any further and we’d careen off the magnificent and never-ending drop of Victoria Falls. But just because the rafting was over didn't mean the activity was. Between us and lunch stood a half-kilometer in vertical ascent up the face of the gorge. What goes down must come up. I don’t think this came as a welcomed development for our colleague C.M.
Once at the top of the canyon we ate a lunch of grilled chicken and rice. We drank ice cold Zambezi beer while looking out over the Mighty Zambezi itself, which we had just conquered in our own inconsequential way, an event which will be neither remembered nor acknowledged by the river. Sated by the beers I went to relieve myself in the little bull’s room, as they say in the bush. As I peered over the canyon edge I made my own modest contribution to the flow of the Mighty Zambezi. I reflected on how strange it is that something so grand as the gorge could be architected by a force so unthinking as moving water. Something so stupid with so much power. Sort of like the American government, if you think about it.
Later that afternoon we were met outside the compound by a four-wheel-drive safari vehicle. It resembled a large pickup truck, stacked with three rows of canopy-covered stadium seating in the back. Save for us, it was empty. We were shuttled off down an open highway with Zimbabwanese plains sprawling out on either side of us. We felt part of a great expansiveness, alone in the open seating of the truck, the yellowed space unfolding around us. Men, women, and children, rarely all three at once, walked along the side of the road. We turned off the highway and onto a dirt path. No other cars were present, and we made our way through the nascent wilderness at high speed, unsettling a festive commotion of dust in our wake. Soon we were presented at the gates of a compound, the game reserve. Our driver hoped out and a new man swung in. He informed us that he would be our guide and introduced himself as Pressure. He pronounced it Presh-uh. “Like the song,” he said.
We ventured forth into the six thousand acre game reserve. The trail through the reserve was a dirt road with two deeply carved ruts through which the vehicle sped along, as if on the track of an Indiana Jones ride. At first the terrain was dense with vegetation. The dimensions of the brush seemed precisely calculated to fit the vehicle. It was like driving under a twelve-foot overpass with a semi that measures in at eleven-foot-eleven. The brush would’ve severed off an extended limb if you’d have given it an opportunity. Sometimes the truck would veer at an angle, tilting to one side, persuaded by the soft dirt, even though it was still moving straight ahead. At seventeen kilometers an hour, we were really bookin' it.
Soon enough the jungle opened up into undulating plains of yellowed grass and small clusters of eucalyptus trees. Pressure acted as both driver and spotter. He scanned the landscape. First all the way to the left, then ahead, then ninety degrees to the right. He was looking for animals in the fore and background, as well as signs of animal activity (for example, informatively arranged piles of shit; to be distinguished from the uninformative variety, of which there were many). The plains were speckled with herds of impala, as common as squirrels in a park. There were scores of dopey little birds running around on the ground. We even passed a duo of lady lions—possibly lesbians—and their kill, which we viewed from a distance.
After traversing for a while we stumbled upon a quintet of Zebras. Pressure stalled the vehicle and we watched them admiringly, pondering the evolutionary mystery of their inexplicable stripiness, as well as their pitiful role in the animal kingdom as lion food. One of the Zebras approached her colleague. This caused the targeted zebra, evidently a male, to acquire an erection of prodigious magnitude. It looked like something a SWAT team would use to bust down the door right after the captain yells, ‘Police!’ We had arrived punctually for zebra mating time. The erection inflated with the length and curvature of a long balloon. In full bloom it thumped against the Zebra’s chest. The three of us looked on with zoological interest, as well as that poorly disguised excitement that comes with any act of voyeurism. The zebras were angled in preparation for the male to mount. But just as quickly as he had gotten it up, his erection retreated. The female, sensing performance issues and growing impatient, turned around and stuck her nose in the male zebra's crotch in an apparent inspection of the unit. Dissatisfied, she wandered over to a nearby compatriot and began to inspect his unit as well. Meanwhile the underperforming zebra commenced to scratch his head against a tree, seeming to find more gainful diversion in this activity. The female shivered with desire. The new male however wandered off to an adjacent patch of grass and began to graze. She made another go at the first guy, but he could not be compelled to scratch any itch other than the one on his head. The female huffed off in a fervor of sexual frustration. It was riveting.
We went down to the lake to have a drink and enjoy the sunset. Then we heard a call come in on the radio about a rhino sighting. Pressure got on the horn and inquired of its whereabouts. He asked us if we’d rather sit serenely by the lake and watch the sun go down or head off in search of the unfolding spectacle. We hopped in the truck and made off toward the rhino.
We got there just as the other cohort was concluding their visitation. Their truck was spilling over with people, some of them hanging off the sides like monkeys. There were two rhinos, a mother and a baby. The rhinos appeared heavy and dense, like granite, like something you could build a bridge out of. Under all this weight they seem to sag, first in their long face culminating in the horn, then in their thorax, which bends from the weight. Their eyes are like black glass marbles. The other car drove off. We were alone with the rhinos, Pressure, Haily, and me. The rhinos came over to have a look at us. Should they have decided to charge us, our open air vehicle wouldn’t have protected us from them any more than it would an incoming Scud missile. My heart beat heavily. I readied myself to record a video of a mother rhino charging our vehicle. Alas, no such footage was captured.
It was dark now, and time for dinner. It became bitterly cold and we layered up in blankets provided by Pressure. We were driven to the other side of the reserve and delivered to a covered patio where dinner was prepared, buffet-style. The menu was braai and accoutrement. We took up a table by the fire and called Pressure over to join us. Together we looked up at the foreign constellations of the Southern hemisphere. They weren’t foreign to Pressure, and he illuminated a green beam from his hand into the night sky using a laser pointer. He indicated the constellations which were the most notable and his favorite. I asked, “Pressure, how long have you been guiding?”
“Guess,” he replied.
“No,” I said.
“Guess,” he repeated.
“Ten years,” I offered.
“That's a long time,” he said. “No, I’ve been a guide for just three.” He went on to explain that he had trained for six years prior to be coming a guide.
“That’s a PhD!” I remarked.
“And that’s only to be an assistant guide,” he told us. The full thing takes another couple of years getting familiar with a specific reserve. His expertise and passion were clear. He told us how he got into the job because of his love for conservation. We asked if poachers were common.
“Quite common,” he said.
The most recent had been about two months prior. Even though the guides are constantly monitoring the grounds, it’s still a big place to patrol.
After dinner we piled back into the truck and headed back to our compound. As we snuggled up in our blankets, rocketing through the thicketed brush on our way home for another round of brandy, we decided that being a tourist in Real Africa was a pretty sweet deal.
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