LIVINGSTONE, Zambia — Victoria Falls is right in the middle of nowhere you will find anywhere else.
When Dr. David Livingstone, a Scotsman exploring for the British Royal Society, first heard the roar of a waterfall down the Zambezi River in 1851, it took the explorer/missionary another four years to sail his steamboat in 1855 to an island at the center-brink of the falls and become the first English-speaking viewer of this expansive waterfall that has carved its way up the Zambezi River for thousands of years.
It took our party, Adolf and Estelle Kleinhans, wife Jean and me, less than four minutes to plan a Batoka Sky Helicopter flight from the Waterfront resort up current from the falls. Good idea.
Even during the lowest flow level of the Zambezi River, the entire falls can not be seen from any site on land in either Zambia or Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). Unlike Niagara Falls, no towers provide an elevated view. Lookout points along the opposite hill crest allow strollers about a half mile of walking access to view the span of 1.7 kilometers, or just over a mile of falls water and misty spray.
Our helicopter flight also afforded an overlook of just how this river has carved its way up current for thousands of years. Experts say Niagara Falls began at the Lake Ontario shoreline and carved its way through a gorge directly to its current site on the Niagara River.
Victoria Falls, through thousands of centuries, has sliced its way from side to side in Z-pattern switchbacks that course through steep gorges. Currents directly below the main flow from the falls begin with class-6 whitewater rapids – current flows too dangerous for any watercraft.
Our aircraft did just fine, circling the falls twice and providing a view of the main falls, the whirlpool directly below the main outflow of the falls, the Cecil Rhodes Rail Bridge crossing below the falls and those remarkable switchback canyons that continue for more than a mile down current. Our English-speaking pilot spoke royal-British-like when telling us about all these distinctive features, including Livingstone’s steamboat landing site near the center of the falls’ brink, which is now named Livingstone Island.
Our arrival early this month followed a peak of Zambezi water flow; two months earlier there had been floods. Along both the Zambezi and the Chobe River the water level rose well above many root bases of shoreline trees; Victoria’s six separated sections of falls were roaring, wide and white.
Each section approximates either a U.S. or a Canada version of Niagara Falls, with a width about three times that of Niagara Falls. The average height of Victoria Falls is set at 340 to 360 feet, about twice that of Niagara Falls.
While Victoria lacks Niagara’s Cave of the Winds walkway, viewers along the half mile of a walk opposite the falls are treated to mists, sprays and rainfalls that soak through any rain gear and under the widest umbrella a walker might use on this pathway.
A walk bridge over the main flow between the falls and the whirlpool is a refreshing challenge. Set about 300 feet above the current and some 50 feet below the brink of the main falls, this bridge provides a Hemingway-type moment of truth for acrophobic folk. All, more or less, were glad we made it across and back so we could say we saw the farthest Zambian overlook to the falls center.
Misting and rain along the way made photography impossible except for those with specialized gear; a better view of the river’s outflow, whirlpool and outflow lower rapids can be enjoyed during a walk onto Rhodes Bridge below the falls. This span connects Zambia and Zimbabwe, affording walkers a chance to walk from one country to the other without showing passports.
What showed most were riggings for bungee jumpers; none of us bought that package. We also saw zip lines with their high side in Zambia. Zip liners made no appearance that morning, but street hawkers were abundant, willing to sell everything from ornate copper bracelets to billion-dollar bills. We have some bracelets but passed on wealth enormity.
Clearly, even the helicopter ride the day before and the walk along less than half the base of Victoria Falls represented an impressive series of sights and some interesting photo takes, but Victoria’s immensity is such that another trip would reveal more unusual views. For example, we were told that at low pool visitors are allowed to walk to brink edges of the overflow along the dry ridge/rim sections of the falls. Maybe next time.
Life and death
Famed African hunting guide and author Peter Hathaway Capstick wrote about hunters, hunts and outcomes on Safaris in the Dark Continent’s long grass and silent places.
Capstick focused on the business ends of .375 and .458 calibers; our views were hunting prospects but mainly wildlife watching and photography around national parks at Kruger, Victoria Falls and along the Chobe River.
As a result, we got to see much living wildlife and the prospects for their departures/deaths. There are no dead spots in the Africa wilds; we saw everything from baby monitor lizards to bull elephants, rhinos and hippos.
At least nine rhinos walked within 100 yards of our vehicles – a car during the day and a sightseeing safari truck after dark. But the most telling of the life-and-death struggle showed when we came upon a massive Cape buffalo bull curled up under a small bush not large enough to shade its enormous body on the other side of the Sabie River in Kruger Park.
In areas open to hunting, this bull’s head and horns would be a record-book trophy. But left to nature’s courses, younger bulls had expelled this once-powerful pride of the herd. It was left to fend alone until the right lion or crocodile comes along to finish it off for a mass feeding of cats, ’crocks and birds.
While I have never sought to take a lion trophy and have lost interest in having a leopard mount in our collection, we intentionally went to key places known for cat activity.
Lions had left their mark (spoor) at a few places we visited in Kruger Park; leopards and lions were numerous in the Chobe Park. But our sightings were mainly thousands of impala, hundreds of hippos and elephants, some rhinos and assorted other plains game and bird life.
One elephant spotting was unusual. About 8 or 9 elephants were bathing in the Chobe River in a tight circle along the river’s shallows. We watched them for a while and when they began emerging onto the land we could see why they were gathered rather than separated for bathing. In the middle of the circle was one lone infant elephant less than four feet tall. The adults ensured that no crocodile got a chance to feed on this young one.
The next morning we went on a photo shoot just above this elephant bath to a clearing where leopards often showed. We saw a few birds, including a fish hawk, but no cats. Later we learned that during the next photo safari an adult leopard killed a small impala on the shoreline and has brought two cubs to feed on the impala carcass. Maybe next time.
Our Chobe photo gear and transport were from Pangolin Photo Safaris (pangolinphoto.com); trip arrangements were through Cape Valley Safaris (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Next week: An African fishing and hunting wrap-up.