Day 286: The Smoke That Thunders

Sun. 26th May 2013

Looking along Victoria FallsToday is the last full day of our Nomad trip and our last journey in Janis as we are heading to Victoria Falls (both the falls themselves and the eponymous town in Zimbabwe). First though, we have an early morning game drive in Chobe National Park and so we are up before sunrise in the cold and dark and waiting to be collected by our safari jeep at 5:45. Yesterday’s river cruise whetted our appetite for what we might see here.

This drive is one of the optional activities in our Nomad trip and our one criticism of the trip is that it has been compressed into too short a period of time. One of the consequences has been that some of the activities that were listed as optional in our trip notes have, in practice, been impractical or impossible. We didn’t mind too much with the other activities but a dawn game drive in a well known game park is a different matter. Zenzo did warn us that if there were delays at the Zimbabwe border we might not get to see the Falls today – not a problem for us as we have a few more days in Vic Falls, but this would be a problem for some of the others who fly home tomorrow.

Dawn comes to Chobe National ParkAs a compromise, we settled on a 2hr (rather than 3hr) game drive, a quick breakfast and a packed lunch and everyone felt they could live with this. It is chilly before dawn here and positively (but not literally) freezing as we drive along in our open sided jeep despite the double layer of fleeces. As we drive around, we can see that other jeeps from the posh hotels have issued blankets to their clients to help keep out the cold.

Wall to wall buffaloIt’s still dark as we get to the park entrance just before the gates open at 6am. The sky gradually lightens as we bump our way down the track towards the river. Then the sun pokes up over the horizon and colour returns to the world in shades of orange and yellow and blue. Once again, it seems that we are up before the animals and all is quiet (and cold – perhaps that should have been a clue!). We see Impala and Guinea Fowl and a Honey Badger – alright, but not really what we are after.

An early morning urge!At last our driver points out some buffalo in the distance – and not just one or two but a whole herd of them – and we drive over to get a better view. Initially, it seems that the buffalo are happy grazing and to watch us watching them with their sombre looking eyes. One pair clearly have other things on their minds. Then the herd decide to move on – in our direction – and soon our jeep is surrounded. Our driver is unruffled but I have heard that buffalo aren’t hugely bright and can be unpredictable. Certainly, I wouldn’t fancy the jeep’s chances against those horns and lump of bone on their heads. But there is no problem when we decide to move on and they part happily enough to let us through.

Kudu (male) with distinctive hornsThe buffalo were the highlight of our drive and although we see more Impala, Kudus and a few Giraffes we are a little disappointed with our viewing. Even a pair of elephants in the distance fail to get us excited. We now have to keep our fingers crossed that we don’t get held up on the Zimbabwe border. As part of his expectation management, Zenzo, has told us a few horror stories of 3 or 4 hour delays there but we needn’t have worried. Our UK passports mean that we have to pay more than other nationalities to get in – and too late we realised that we only got a single entry visa. For a little more money ($80 rather than $55) we could have had a multiple entry visa that would give us more flexibility in our itinerary as we are right at the meeting point of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia.

We'd like to welcome you to Zimbabwe!Then we are in the ‘Mighty Zimbabwe’ and heading for Victoria Falls. As if to welcome us into the county, we soon pass a pair of elephants just standing by the side of the road watching us impassively as we stop to take some photos. We also pass a pair of Ground Hornbill– black with a red blotch on its face and a large beak – that has just caught a small snake. If this is Zimbabwe, then we are all in favour. On reaching town, our first stop is at the activity centre to give everyone a chance to sign up for bungy jumping or white water rafting or an elephant ride. No one is interested, we all just want to go see the falls (and also Zenzo has warned us that there is another company offering helicopter flights right by our hotel who are more reliable and no more expensive).

Looking down the First Gorge at the fallsSo its off to the falls with no further ado.  Like Iguassu, the falls are divided between two countries (in this case, Zimbabwe and Zambia). Our Lonely Planet guide tells us that whilst the best views are from the Zimbabwe side most people see them from the Zambian side. We are lucky in that we’ll get a chance to see them from both sides over the next couple of weeks. The falls are unusual because the whole Zambezi River drops into a deep, narrow slot like chasm, connected to a long series of gorges which zigzag away. They are formed as the full width of the river plummets in a single vertical drop into a  chasm 60–120 m wide, carved by its waters along a fracture zone in the basalt plateau. The depth of the chasm, called the First Gorge, varies from 80 m at its western end to 108 m in the centre. It is across this gorge that the famous iron bridge was built taking trains and cars across to Zambia.

Mr Livingstone, I presume?There is a footpath along the side of the gorge from the statue of David Livingstone over looking the Devil’s Cataract all along the 1.2km length of the falls to a viewpoint overlooking the bridge. Whilst the falls are impressive from the volume of water (and spray) and the noise it is hard get a full perspective of their size. Often, the view is obscured by overhanging branches (particularly around the Devil’s Cataract) and elsewhere there is so much spray it hides the bulk of the falls (and makes taking photos impossible). Nevertheless, by taking it one piece at a time we could begin to appreciate it all and understand Livingstone’s quote “… as gazed upon by a flight of angels”.

Panorama of the fallsThe bridge over the ZambeziIn some places the path was totally enveloped in the spray. Janet chose to wear her ultra-glamorous plastic poncho and I went for the simpler approach of just getting wet. Both had their pros and cons but away from the falls the sun was warm and I began to dry out quickly enough and we sat down with a beer to compare our experience here with that in Iguassu. Whilst there is more history here (and I got wetter here) I think that we would say that Iguassu was more spectacular. Certainly we spent longer there and (despite the crowds) we had better views of the falls themselves.

The spray of the fallsFinally, we tore ourselves away and loaded back into Janis for the very final time for the short drive to Elephant Hills hotel just outside of town. Here, perched on a hillside overlooking town and the Zambezi river we can see the spray rising high above the trees. At last we understand the indigenous name for them – Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke That Thunders) .



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