In a few months, it’ll be a year since I went to South Africa. As such, it’s ridiculous that I was still lagging in putting up my posts on the trip so here is the final part of my trip to Victoria Falls- leaving Polokwane, South Africa and driving into neighboring Botswana and then Zambia for much-too-brief stays.
We got up early again the next day, continuing our trend of early starts, and TJ told us he wanted to try a different route to get to the Botswana border crossing faster. As such, we drove around a Polokwane township in the early morning, and I half wondered at times if we were lost. TJ was true to his word, and we reached the Botswana crossing at Martin’s Gate at the time when he’d promised. We drove over a bridge spanning a river where there was a large hippo resting on a bank in the center. Several locals were standing on the bridge looking at it and somebody threw stones which annoyed TJ. When we reached the border crossing, we had to get out on the South African side and get our exit visas stamped, then drove over into the Botswanan side where we got out and got entrance visas. Botswana is a relatively wealthy (and stable and peaceful) African country and I thought this was perfectly demonstrated by the clean and newish interior of the customs station as well as the glossy and free photo magazines provided by the country’s tourism body. My male Australian fellow tour member was not similarly impressed, saying how the interior looked like it was 30 years old.
Botswana is wealthy because it has lots of diamonds and a small population (just over 2 million). It is also a decent-sized country, bigger than Spain or Germany, and this means wildlife is abundant all over it. It didn’t take long to make this apparent. A short distance from the border crossing, TJ pulled into a gas station for a snack and toilet break (for us all). Can you imagine then, right at the entrance, there was a pond with a duck family at the side and a hippo inside? A hippo in a pond. Thinking about it now just makes me chuckle. How it got there, TJ told me, was that it probably came up during flood season from a nearby river and then stayed in the pond after the waters receded. A short wooden fence surrounded the pond, though that was probably for humans’ sake and not the hippo, which could easily destroy it if it wanted.
We drove past Botswana’s second city Francistown and several small towns. Unfortunately the drive that day was so sleep-inducing that I dozed off in the front seat. We were driving through the dusty eastern part of the country along a highway that was fenced off on both sides surrounded by shrubs and small trees. There were even checkpoints to check on cattle to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease. The scenery was one of the most dreary I’d seen because it was just bushes and fences, with some huts, goats and cattle from time to time. My fellow tourmates laughed at me as did TJ but later that night, I felt vindicated when travelers on another group also remarked on the boring landscape.
Botswana is a well-off African country, being blessed by sizable gold reserves and a stable government as well as a small and relatively homogenous population, with 80% being from one tribe. I sensed this first from the modern customs post, and then that noon, when we pulled in a strip plaza with several South African chain stores like Steers (BBQ) and Spar (supermarket). There wasn’t any sense of menace or apparent poverty (not that there isn’t), and I can’t explain it properly, but it just felt like this could have been somewhere in Trinidad. I went into the Spar to buy a pie and I wanted to buy a newspaper too but the ones being sold were outdated (I know this sounds ironic given I just talked about Botswana’s obvious economic wellbeing but I mean, it’s got a population of just over 2 million, South Africa has 50 million while Taiwan has 23 million).
We stayed that night at Elephant Sands, a backpackers located in the bush that was only accessible via a deep, sandy unpaved road off the side of the highway. There were some tense and bumpy moments on the sandy road, which required Bild, our van’s name, to struggle valiantly while TJ warned of being stuck. The hostel itself was a compound that had outdoor showers and had a restaurant situated next to a dry waterbed. Elephants sometimes came to the waterbed to drink (which we just missed) but we got kudu instead. That evening, after a fine dinner, we sat on the patio near the firesite and waited for the animals to come. As I said, we wanted elephants but they never came and we got a small herd of kudu (a majestic large antelope second only to the eland in size) which came to drink. As it got dark, a larger group of younger people came to sit around the fire and we talked a bit. They were coming back from Victoria Falls to SA, while we were going there. We were warned about the long vehicular lineup in the crossing to Zambia and we exchanged stories about animal sightings and they talked about the fun of going into Zimbabwe (from Zambia) and buying trillion-dollar bills, the unfortunate byproduct of that country’s economic collapse.
That night was a bit rough, not because I slept in a tent again, but because first I had to take a cold shower outdoors in their outdoor shower stall and then early the next day, I had to use the washroom and brush my teeth in the dark as this place had no electricity during the night. It ran on its own generator which was shut off in the night and turned on only in the morning. Actually, taking a shower under the stars was a bit nice, but getting up at 4 and walking in the dark to the washroom and bumping into a thorn tree that gave me cuts that took a while to heal was not cool. TJ actually told us not to get out and walk to the washroom in the night because of the possibility of elephants or even leopards prowling and this was in the back of my mind too, as ridiculous as it seemed. My hands also got cracked up due to getting dry in the cold weather and then having little cuts form during the day. This took a long time to heal, giving my hands a grotesque look as bloody cuts opened up daily for the next week.
So after one day and one night in Botswana, it was time to travel onwards to another African country. Still a little worried because of what the other group had said about long lines forming on the border crossing, I looked forward to Victoria Falls. This time, the surroundings were almost pure forest, meaning none of the dry, dusty, fenced off environment that had been so prevalent the previous day. Heading north, the land was much heavily forested and less inhabited. Soon we saw antelopes and even elephants grazing on the side of the highway. It wasn’t enough to make up for last night, but it was still cool.
Coming closer to the border crossing, there was a long line of container trucks that weren’t moving. These trucks waited for days to cross, but because we were tourists, TJ said, we had priority. It sounds kind of colonial, us from the developed world coming into Africa for vacation and being given automatic privileges, but on the other hand, we were contributing dollars. We were going to cross the Zambezi River by ferry, which seemed an archaic way to me, compared to say, a bridge. At the riverbank, we waited a short while for the ferry to come, along with a few dozen locals and I am a little ashamed to say I asked TJ if it was ok to take pictures. Because you know, being in Africa (Botswana) on a river amongst black Africans was not exactly the safest place to show off your valuables (sarcasm implied at myself).
The ferry was not exactly a rickety deathtrap, but neither was it something to inspire confidence in crossing the widest river I’d ever come across. It was an open-decked vessel which besides carrying people, carried trucks and our trusty Bild, TJ’s beloved van. The ferry was steady enough as we crossed over, and coming towards the Zambian shore, several mokors (dugout canoes) came alongside us. A few people offloaded their stuff, including what looked like cans of oil and sacks of groceries, which the canoemen carried off. When we reached land, we got off, went into the customs office to get our visas and then TJ left us for a while, during which time a stray dog came by us hungrily. An Australian woman in my tour group threw the dog a potato chip and the mutt sniffed it, then haughtily walked away without so much as a bite. A damn picky dog, I thought whilst also feeling some respect too. A guard walked by us, an AK-47 slung across his shoulder. Damn, I thought, this is the first time I’ve ever seen that famous rifle in person. Zambia is a relatively poor country and the customs office was much different from Botswana’s, more earthier and less sleek. That wasn’t the only difference.
Now that we were north of the Zambezi (and Botswana), it felt mercifully hot, making it ok to not have to wear a jacket for the first time since South Africa and Botswana.
From the border post, TJ drove us straight to Victoria Falls, along the way passing some really nondescript bush and forest which made for some monotonous scenery on the way to one of the world’s greatest natural sights. “Discovered” by the great Stanley Livingstone, for whom the nearby town is named after, the falls are called Mosi-o-Tunya or “the smoke that thunders” by the locals. This was an apt name as the mist from the falls could be seen from afar.
Be ready to get wet, TJ had warned, and luckily he had said so, because at times, the park trail was soaking wet. I covered my camera in a baggy and wore sandals but I forsook renting a raincoat, trusting in my jacket. Victoria Falls on the Zambian side is enclosed within a park, for which TJ paid our entrance fee of US$10. We entered through a booth, passed a bunch of vendors selling crafts and shirts, then went into the park proper. The park is mainly on a clifftop that overlooks Victoria Falls across a gorge. The park extends up along the riverbank of the Zambezi where it becomes Victoria Falls.
It was a magnificent sight, but it’s the noise that really strikes you. You first hear the falls before you see it. Then it materializes into a wide curtain of water (of which only about one-third can be seen from the Zambian side). I’ve visited Niagara Falls but I think Victoria Falls has it beat. Of course, the fact the latter is in the middle of a jungle while Niagara Falls is surrounded by tackiness and gaudiness, not that all of it is not good, may have something to do with this. It’s not the highest nor the biggest waterfall in the world, but in terms of the combination of height and volume, I believe it’s number one.
Anyways I walked towards one end of the park, overlooking the falls on one side and a gorge on the other. From there, you could see across into Zimbabwe, which was nothing special, just some trees and bushes. On the bridge between the two countries, there was a bungee jump in the center and I saw a person doing it. Needless to say, the part facing the falls was wet and several times, spray from the falls fell like rain. I took some pictures, trying to time when the spray stopped, and this partially worked. My camera got a little wet, and so did I, but whatever. I passed tourists, many of whom were white and wearing the yellow plastic raincoat that the park sold, for which I envied them a little. Being cheap, of course I had not bought it and I felt like a bum walking around with soaked pants and wet hair, trying to cover up my “baggy-enclosed”-camera inside my jacket. To cross to that end, you had to walk over a bridge and it was very wet and slippery. I did take a photo holding the camera inside the plastic baggy but it almost slipped from my grasp and in hindsight, was definitely not a smart thing. I also passed a few black visitors, who were probably locals and this was notable because it felt weird to see so few of a people within a place in their own country.
Walking back to the part where I entered, a group of American tourists, probably a family, passed me by. In a great example of American hospitality, a member of this party, a middle-aged lady, who had stopped to look at the falls, asked me when I passed her if I wanted my picture taken which I did. I thanked her then continued walking but instead of going back to the front, I turned towards the Zambezi. As I said earlier, there’s a section of the park that adjourns the Zambezi River as it approaches Victoria Falls. I walked along there, no guard rails or nothing, seeing people posing for pictures on rocks at the riverbanks, as well as lone visitors sitting close up to the water, probably contemplating the majestic river. I also spotted two black guys, wading in the middle of the river amongst some boulders, trying to make their way to the other side. I thought they were fishermen but maybe they were Zimbabweans who had entered Zambia illegally (I highly doubt that it would be the other way around even though Zambia is poor) and now were trying to sneak back so as to avoid crossing the border customs post.
By this time, I had to rush back because TJ had given us an hour and a half and the time had gone by. Near the entrance, I crossed paths with some baboons, some the size of a middle-sized dog. I almost got a heart attack when one walked right in front of me but the “brute” paid me no attention as he casually strolled across on four limbs. One of these guys went up to a tree trunk and sat down, sitting in a kind of obscene manner, while another posed gladly for tourists who were happily taking pictures. By this time, I had half a mind to pet one because they really seemed big and dopey. I rushed back out to the carpark where TJ and the couple were waiting for me but they didn’t mind at all.
TJ was really looking forward to the evening because he had booked us for a sunset cruise, except that instead of a quiet dinner enjoying the view, we were going to be drinking ourselves silly. This was the infamous “booze cruise” and TJ really was exuberant about it. This cruise would be later in the day and launched from where we were staying, a decent hotel/hostel/campsite located right on the bank of the Zambezi, with the towering mist of Victoria Falls visible in the horizon distance. This place was filled with tour groups like us, except that they were mostly large groups, traveling on giant “bus-size” vans. I was going to sleep in a tent so I pitched the tent next to TJ’s van and took a rest.
We met later at the dockside restaurant just before the cruise was to begin and by then, TJ could barely contain his glee. He was barefoot, and that combined with his constant grinning and rotund frame, made him look like a cheeky schoolboy. True to form, we were the first passengers to board the boat and we made ourselves comfortable at the stern on the top deck. While we were there, the captain, a rather short and ruddy fellow, came by and he made it a point to greet TJ extravagantly, bowing and saluting him like if he was some military bigwig or something.
The sunset booze cruise, as opposed to the regular sunset cruise, soon took off in the opposite direction from Victoria Falls, heading west. There were a lot of young people on board, though mostly 20-somethings (at my age, 20-something is young). There was a Brazilian or Mexican group on one side, while around us were a lot of caucasians, young, fit and social. Along the way, we were told to look at the banks to try to see crocodiles and other large animals. While I saw a giraffe and some colorful birds, no crocodile were to be spotted. The drinks started flowing and we had some local lager, Mosi-o-Tunya, named after the falls. It was alright and we then had rum and coke and rum and sprite. Dinner was a plate of chicken and rice that wasn’t very flavorful. To be honest, though we had several drinks, it wasn’t like there was a full-blown drinking bachannalia going on, with people going wild and vomiting and carrying on like animals. I remember the sunset was nice and the feeling of being in a large, placid river in the middle of Africa with several other cruise boats (the non-booze ones) was peaceful and a bit surreal.
I then had the fortune of bouncing into a family of Trinidadians. Not only that, but one guy was an acquaintance of several former classmates of mine and he happened to be living in Beijing. They had traveled up from South Africa as well, through Zimbabwe and by themselves. This was also not their first World Cup, having been to Germany 2006 and Korea/Japan 2002. We had a little conversation, with the requisite “Wow, imagine us Trinidadians meeting up in the Zambezi in the middle of Africa” comments and then when the boat docked, they left for their backpackers.
At this point, I made my way back to the tent and decided to take an early night. Meanwhile, a disco was underway for most of the night in a giant hut in the compound, with Akon’s Sexy B!tch/ Sexy Chick being one of the more audible tunes. For me, a morning helicopter ride the next day plus a noon flight back to Joburg meant sleep was a priority.
The next day, I got up bright and early, got picked up along with the couple for the helicopter ride at a nearby helicopter field that was about 5 minutes’ drive from our hotel. The ride wasn’t cheap at all, costing US$160 for 15 minutes, and it had taken me a while to decide on this the previous day. It was looking at a poster that showed that barely a third of the falls could be seen from the Zambian side that finally convinced me. Normally, the cost would have been an insane amount for me to spend, but being in a part of the world I’d likely not ever come back to and never having ridden in a helicopter before, I decided to splurge a bit.
Unfortunately things didn’t go smoothly at all after we got there. For some reason, the couple decided to pay for all the seats (5) in the helicopter ride so I couldn’t ride on the same flight. Then several groups came for helicopter rides, and because I was just one person, they took priority. As the flights were 15 minutes long, not including the time to descend, discharge and take on passengers then takeoff, and there were only 2 helicopters, I ended up waiting almost two hours. The staff tried to get me to switch to a microlight, which was a very tiny plane with an open cockpit, or compartment. It might have been cool but I turned it down because of the fact you couldn’t take your own photos, either because it’s risky or because they didn’t want people dropping their cameras and getting pissed. I was pissed at the couple because it was only when we were about to walk towards our helicopter that the guy told me I would not be on the same flight as them. The next flight turned out to be the next 5 flights or so. I felt offended because after all the camaraderie and shared moments during our tour, they didn’t tell me beforehand.
When I finally got on the helicopter, it was with an Australian woman and her 3 small kids. As they all sat in the back, I got to ride shotgun and it was alright. Upon getting on, the noise of the rotors drowned out everything and I was handed a pair of headphones that looked like giant earmuffs. These dampened the noise and let the pilot communicate with us. Taking off, we headed over forest that was a national park along the bank of the Zambezi. Look at some elephants on the left, giraffe down on the right, said the pilot and indeed, we saw them. The pilot took us over the falls and flew in a wide circle around it, giving us great overhead and side views of the falls and then just like that, it was back to the airfield and getting dropped back to the hotel.
The chopper ride was cool and during my near two-hour wait, I saw a robbery take place in Africa for the first time. It wasn’t a human, but a baboon that was the culprit, which had dashed into the souvenir shop and grabbed a bag of chips. I was in the shop at that time and while looking at something, I heard a staff member shout and brandish a broom while something like a dog whooshed by the door. By the time we got outside, the baboon was in the bushes about 30 feet away, opening his bag of chips and eating them. Whe he finished, he had the nerve to toss the bag on the ground and amble away. “He always does that,” said the staff. And that was really an African moment for me.
The helicopter ride was the last thing I did in Zambia. TJ was good enough to drive me to the Livingstone airport, though I had waken him up, still sleeping off the revelry of the previous night, when I came back. The airport was a small, quaint and old structure. It had the most casual atmosphere for an airport I’d ever seen. How casual- there was a cat strutting around in front of the check-in desks. The flight to Joburg was good enough to pass by Victoria Falls, giving me one last look at the falls.