Saturday, November 12, 2016

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe: Day 11

Victoria Falls.  Or as the locals call it, Mosi-Oa-Tunya.  The smoke that thunders.

Even though the gorge that creates the falls directly divides Zambia and Zimbabwe, the view of the falls is much better from the Zimbabwe side (but a lot more difficult to fly into).  So our mission for the day was to attempt yet another border crossing – this time, on foot!

We took the free shuttle from our hostel over to the Zambian border, and headed to the Zambia “Exit” office.  We show our passports, and the man at the desk examines them carefully. He looks at mine, then at J's.  He flips through some pages of mine again.  Peers closer.  “November 9?” he says.

For you see, even though we had entered Zambia on November 6, the immigration officer at the airport had stamped our passports with November 9th  (and today's date is only November 7th). Presumably he had been half asleep when he set the date on his stamp, and saw the 9 as a 6.  Who knows.  We only noticed after we'd left the airport, but didn't think it would be a big deal.

“Step over to the side,” the exit officer told us.  “I will ask my colleague.”  We did as we were told as he continued to stamp everyone else's passport's and letting them through.  We glanced at each other nervously.  Would we not be allowed to leave Zambia and enter Zimbabwe?  Were we trapped in Zambia forever?  Did they think we faked our entry visas (and were stupid enough to put a date in the future?)

After several minutes, he calls us back again and requests our passports again.  We quickly hand them over.  I also pull out my boarding pass from the flight, showing we entered the country on November 6.  The officer examines my passport again, flipping back and forth through the pages.  “He even stamped it twice,” he says, in disbelief.  “Was he drunk?” he asks us.  We smile nervously.  His colleague finally comes over.  We explain what happened for yet a third time.  Finally they reach for their exit stamp and bang it on both passports.  “You can go,” he says.

Relieved, we quickly walk over to the bridge that goes over the gorge connecting the two countries.  Before we can get on, however, there is a “check point” where two guards ask for our passports again.  We hand them over.  They flip back and forth through the pages, pointing at the stamp “from the future”and laughing.  Finally they hand the passports back and say “I'm going to have to send you back.  You see, this stamp...”  I quickly interrupt and explain they already checked it and they told us it was okay.  He says “oh, okay then,” and lets us through.

Finally!  We've exited the country.  Now we're on the bridge... in no-man's land.  We still have to walk about a kilometre to Zimbabwe.  The sun beats down hot on our heads as we start the trek across.  The view of the gorge is stunning, but we barely have time to to enjoy the view as a man walks over to us, asking where we're from and then trying to convince us to buy his “trillion dollar bills” from Zimbabwe.  We politely say we don't want anything, but he continues to follow us.  In silence.  We quicken our pace slightly and stick close together.  Other locals are walking across the bridge in both directions, so we just try to stay in sight of other people.  Eventually he loses interest and walks away.

We pass another man, calling out to us if we want drinks.  After we decline, at least he leaves us alone.  We're almost there.  The sun is getting hotter.  I keep pulling out my water bottle, drinking the water that has already reached a hot temperature.  I feel dizzy; my heart is racing.  How do people live with this heat?!  Finally, we make it to the Zimbabwe entry point.  Thankfully this is a much quicker process, and after a payment of $75 USD, we are proud possessors of a Zimbabwean single-entry visa.

We enter the national park and are soon on our way to the falls.

We hear the massive sheets of falling water before we see them.  The first sight of the falls is not the main part, but still very impressive.  For there are several ways to measure a waterfall.  Niagara Falls has the most volume of water; Iguazu falls is the widest; and Victoria Falls/Mosi-Oa-Tunya is the tallest.  However, it is also quite wide as well, so we walk along the trail to the subsequent viewpoints, growing more impressed each time.

Finally we are at the main falls.  They're breath-taking.  I look over at the cascades of falling water all along the gorge, the massive force of which causes rain-like droplets to cover our cameras and us (a welcome cooling from the scorching sun).  I breathe it in.  It hits me how incredibly far away I am from home.  I'm in Zimbabwe.  Southern Africa.  Staring at one of the bucket-list dreams of many people around the world.  The stunning beauty that propelled me so far from home is crashing right in front of me.

I feel so very lucky, humbled, privileged to be here.

We walk further, taking our time.  We came for the falls, after all.  The views keep getting better and better - different parts of the gorge; different angles and sections of the majestic falling water.  The sun beats down.  I drink from my warm water bottle.  I cover my camera with its plastic rain cover.  I take photos.  I stop and stare.  A cool breeze lifts off from the water every now and then and provides temporary relief.  A monkey wanders by with a tiny baby clinging to its stomach.

We walk further on.  The trails in this park look like a tropical rain forest.  Even though the rest of Africa is dry and hot, this small section is lush and green, thriving from the waterfall's generous mists.

We reach the end of the gorge.  In the wet season, the entire gorge is over flowing with waterfalls; today, this particular section is dry.  We carefully climb over the large boulders and peer down into the gorge below.  There's the Zambezi river, having completed its fantastic journey over the edges of the cliffs and now flowing quietly, greenish-blue, over and through the rocks below.

J gets precariously close to the edge, always seeking the best view (or the most terrifying one).  I hang a few steps back, biting my tongue so I don't call out too many words of caution.  Birds like this one need to stretch their wings as far as they'll go; test their limits.  I am not one to get between a bird and her freedom.
After she's done exploring the views from the edge (and I've dutifully taken all the requested photos), we slowly make our way back.  I am pulled to each viewpoint all over again, for I can't get enough of these falls.

There is a viewpoint that I especially love - one where you're still on the trail but the falls is beautifully framed by the trees and vines on the hill.  I stop and watch the falls from there for a few minutes.  I wonder if this is how the first people who discovered it felt - like peering through a window-pane at a stunning oasis of water.  The smoke that thunders.

Even though Dr. David Livingstone is recorded as the first European to "discover" the falls and there are statues and plaques (and even a city named after him) devoted to him, I find the memorial a little strange.  Who cares who the first "European" was to see the falls?  I find little meaning in that.  Today it is me.  I am the first.  So is J.  And everyone else here.  We all look upon this spectacular creation of nature for the first time.  We are all explorers, traveled from near and far, united by our desire to see the tallest sheets of falling water.

And the rainbows!  How could I forget the rainbows?  The constant mist in all directions means that when the sun is out, there are always stunning rainbows all over the place.  Usually double rainbows, too.

The intense heat gets the better of us and the water that is progressively getting hotter in our water bottles just isn't cutting it anymore, so we make our way back to the entrance where there is a small restaurant and order some ice-cold fruit juice blends.  Anything cold is a luxury here, and we slowly sip our juices under the shade of the straw restaurant hut, watching the monkeys and warthogs play in the woods in front of us.

We discuss what to do next.  Do we want to visit another part of the city?  Do any other activities?  See the gorge view from a restaurant that was recommended to us?

The heat, and our hearts, decide against all of it.  We instead walk back to one of our favourite falls viewpoints, and spend the next 45 minutes just sitting and watching.  We came for the falls, after all.  We couldn't think of a better way to end the day than just sitting and being with the spectacular waterfall that propelled us across an ocean just to admire its beauty.


We reluctantly pull ourselves away from the falls and start on the journey back across the border.  The border between Zambia and Zimbabwe at the falls closes at 10pm, but we definitely don't want to be making the walk in the dark, so we give ourselves plenty of time.  Thankfully, it is a less eventful journey on all accounts.  I watch the local women carefully as they walk along the bridge ahead of us.  Even though there is a pedestrian walkway, they avoid it in the sections where there are long lines of trucks parked, prefering to walk in the road.  I suggest to J that we follow their lead, even though it puts us in the path of the occasional oncoming vehicle.  Their instinct makes sense - using the walkway would hide us behind those long lines of trucks, making us more vulnerable and potential targets for the many desperate vendors (or others) along this no-man's land bridge.  When in doubt, do what the locals do - so we did.

We safely made our way all the way back to Zambia, and caught a cab back to our hostel.  We treated ourselves to dinner out that night, and some much needed ice-cold Mosi beers.  We clinked our bottles together, celebrating the day.  We made it to Zimbabwe and back safely, on foot, and saw the incredible beauty of Victoria Falls.

"We'll be back," we tell each other.  "We have to see it in the rainy season, too."

But for now, we are more than content, sipping our cold beers under the warm Zambian night sky, minds full of one of the seven wonders of the world.

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