This time I get on an eight seat plane with three other passengers. We fly for an hour to Kasane, a small town of about 500 people on the Zambian border. Its business is the delivering of tourists going to see the falls. I am picked up by a driver who will take me the few kilometers to the border. As we get near it, there is a line-up of trucks for several kilometers along the side of the road that are fully loaded with goods. The driver tells me that the last one in the line will be there for a week, waiting to clear customs and waiting his turn on the ferry that can take one truck at a time across the formidable Zambezi River. Some sleep in their trucks and many check into the hotel nearby, well populated with sex trade workers. This is one of the notorious type of truck route situations that contributed so much to the spread of HIV earlier in the pandemic and I would guess that it still does.
We make our way though a lot of people, many hawking wares and cheap chotchkas. Poverty and boredom with it all hangs in the air. I clear the Botswana passport check and the driver takes me to a small passenger ferry where another driver, this one from Zambia, is waiting for me. We ferry across the Zambezi, with me as the sole passenger in a small motor boat along with my luggage. The Zambezi is a very impressive river, apparently very high and over a mile wide as it goes over the Falls. There has been a very full rainy season and it is rushing to the Okavango Delta as I saw from the plane – miles of water in all directions. The Zambezi is 2.5 meters [= 8 feet] above its normal height at this time and there is flooding in many places including the Zambezi Waterfront Hotel where I am staying. There is one foot bridge leading to another garden that is under 6 inches of water and closed. I then clear Zambian customs which is merely paying $US50. I want to pay in Pulas but that is not allowed as the US dollar reigns supreme here.
The same kind of poor scene is on the Zambia side as was in Botswana on the river. We get on a good highway and travel for a hour to Livingstone, the town above the Falls. I really know that I am in a different country. The Zambians look quite different,darker and with different features. The soil changes from sandy to red with lush vegetation. It is no longer flat – almost a relief after the flatness of Botswana.
This is a country of 12 million and 72 languages, including 7 main ones. The working language is English and everyone in this tourist town appears to speak it well. The driver asks me what I do and when I tell him, he talks extensively about how AIDS has marked his country and spread a lot through the sex trade because sex without a condom gets the sex workers five dollars more per trick! He talks about the stigma and how HIV is finally coming out into the open a bit. Previously people would not get tested or even try to get medication because of the discrimination they feared. Now they know that with ARV’s, they have a chance at a full life and openness is increasing. Of course, we do have to deal with the Pope just having visited Africa, talking significantly about the evils of condom use. What a man!! Talk about the blatant abuse of his unwarranted leadership.
Eventually, I get to the Zambezi Waterfront Hotel and check in. The reception area is outside. It is touristy and I am warned not to walk around with many valuables. After the all-inclusive nature of staying in of Delta camps, here everything is added on to the prepaid hotel rates in hefty amounts of US dollars. I think of the less appealing parts of Niagara Falls and wonder what I will find here. I book a boat cruise for the evening and a falls guided tour for the morning as I am told that it is unsafe to walk the 7 km there because of the animals. The longer I am here, the more I find the danger is from the two legged kind of predator.
The boat cruise is fun and I talk to Afrikaans speaking South Africans, a number of Germans, a French woman from Bordeaux who speaks no English and a few Zambians. The scenery is nice and like on all dinner boat cruises around the world, the dinner meets the criteria stated in the advertising – nothing more. But I have to give them credit, I had a special vegetarian meal that was delivered as promised!
In the morning, I go for breakfast at 7:45 and sit in the patio restaurant overlooking the Zambezi River which is beautiful in the morning sun and very impressive in its size and volume. My breakfast costs 35,000 kwachas and as it takes 5500 Zambian kwachas to make $US1, - that is a grand total of $US 6.36. Kwacha is another word for 'morning', I find when I ask, since everything seems to have at least one other meaning.. I am picked up for my tour rather punctually. Making money is not on the famous 'African time', that I have experienced so much already.
On the way to the tour, we stop at another hotel to pick up some more people. There, I get to see my first crocodile. In a hotel garden on the edge of a high water flood pool that is connected to the Zambezi River, is a young crocodile about five long, doing what crocodiles do in the morning, sunning to warm up their blood to get it moving for the day; they are cold blooded. There are animal sculptures behind it and it is motionless, so I doubt its veracity. But its open mouth has real pink and white coloration which the sculptures do not. Then it moves and I am satisfied that the score of the latest camera 'shot' counts.
On the way to the Falls, I see three very tall palm like trees, each one unique and twice as tall as the surrounding forest. I ask what they are. They are artificial trees created to hide the radio towers that are needed for the ubiquitous cell phone communication. I just read that in 2009 more than 60% of the world owns a cell phone compared with just 15% in 2001- and I know that for Africa it is a communication and industry booster and boon.
The falls tour is also fun and I share it with a Russian and an American couple. Frederick, the guide does all the “right” things and gives us his tour patter from rote memory and is able to answer most questions. There are some impressive views, but because of the height of the river the volume of water going over the falls is so high and creates such heavy, heavy spray that you don’t really see the height of the falls. We put on rain gear and I strap my back pack under it. Then we go fairly close to the falls and it is like walking in a cyclone. I get thoroughly soaked and feel water pouring down my sides and chest inside the coat through the neck. The only part of me that stays dry, fortunately, is my backpack. After about 15 minutes of this, I have had enough since you cannot see a thing. We go back and the tour ends. I pour the water out of my shoes and wring out my socks. There are lots [ I see #26 and there are more] of tourist shops under corrugated metal roofs and not much more of walls or building. Baboons run pell-mell across the metal roof screaming at each other and making racket as they race across the metal. As we drive up, some merchants start banging on some ‘traditional’ drums, literally to drum up the tourist business. It is comparable to the Niagara Falls hawkers in the cultural finery they offer.
Victoria Falls in the local language is called Mosi-oa-Tunya: ’the smoke that thunders’.
On the way back to my hotel, we drop some others off at a grander hotel than mine and as we drive up, four or five men in native battle attire, [I presume] jump up and down doing some probable 'dancing'; banging on some drums and the wall of the hotel portico. As always, I am not fond of that kind of display for the tourist buck, although I am sure that the management finds it well worth its investment in local wages i.e. at subsistence level or below.
I get back to the hotel and put on dry clothes and try to start my shoes on the road to usability by setting them directly in front of a fan and moving them into the sun on my room ground floor patio as I am writing. I have been warned not to leave anything outside on its own because a baboon or monkey will take the stuff for their own use. But I am going back to Botswana in the morning and will need my shoes to be somewhat dry.
At 4 pm, I take a helicopter ride over the Falls to better see the grandeur they have. The hope is fulfilled and I see the falls as they are and that is very different from the perspective at ground level. They tumble an average of 90 to 105 meters [compared to Niagara’s 85m.] into a ravine that is just over a mile long or 1.7 km. and that forms the width of the Falls. This ravine is about a half a km. wide with one small opening for all the water, 12,000 square meters per second, to escape through. Then the Zambezi winds its way down a deep meandering gorge to the Indian Ocean.
I return to the helicopter take off point to be offered a “very nice video” of myself getting into the helicopter for a mere $US 40. I politely decline and return to the hotel.
Tomorrow I will slowly be starting on my way home. At 9:30 am I am picked and go through all the production to get back to Kasane in Botswana where I am taken by my last bush plane ride and returned to Maun for my 4:30 pm flight to Gaborone. There the representative from the volunteer program I was with goes out for dinner with me and perhaps some men from the first GLBT group in the country. I hope so as it will be interesting and I may even be able to share some ideas. It will be a long day. Then on Friday morning I start the real schlep home: Gaborone, Johannesburg, Frankfurt and then Vancouver in about 40 hours. I will be glad to sleep in my own bed after a great and exciting adventure on so many levels