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The smoke that thunders

Friday, June 29th, 2001 | Southern Africa 2001 | 17°55' S, 25°51' E
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The smoke that thunders

The security guard at the Red Cross woke us early the next day. He was very much the worse for wear, having clearly been drinking all night, and slurred at us that we should get out, that the place next door was much better, that we were being ripped off here, and quite a lot more that I couldn’t understand. We gathered our stuff and managed to check in at the Jolly Boys hostel next door. We spent the morning there doing washing, shopping, and relaxing, before finally working up the energy to go and see Livingstone’s raison d’etre: Victoria Falls

The Victoria Falls are Southern Africa’s greatest tourist attraction. The sluggish Zambezi, over a mile wide, thick and green, has its tranquillity interrupted by a cliff, one hundred metres high, which it plunges over. Downstream, the river is squeezed into a succession of gorges no more than fifty metres wide, churning along in a mass of white water for many miles. Touted as one of the great natural wonders of the world, it draws some 150,000 visitors each year. And it’s incredible: the vast, never-ending wall of water can’t fail to impress. But after the isolation and remoteness of the Ngonye Falls and the rest of Western Zambia, it was a bit disappointing to find little paved walkways, raincoats for hire and souvenir stands.

But even a traveller as snobbish as me could see that the falls were impressive. What impressed me most was that the river basically falls into a great crack in the earth, so you can stand on the opposite side of the crack and view the falls face-on. The river flows out through a narrow gap in the slot-like chasm, and forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Though you can see less than half the falls from the Zambian side it’s still an awful lot of waterfall.

In the heyday of the British Empire, Cecil Rhodes had the insane dream of building a railway from Cape Town to Cairo, passing through British territory all the way. Between 1918 and 1960 the territory was all there, but by then the dream had died. The railway got as far as Lusaka, and at Victoria Falls crosses the second of the four Zambezi bridges, built so close to the falls that the carriages get wet with the spray as they cross.

We explored all around the falls, and I felt like I owned them. After all, I’d been following this river since Zambezi town, I’d swum in it, fallen in it, seen countless amazing sunsets over it, and now been rained on by it. Who did these tourists on day trips think they were?

Sunset here was possibly the finest of the Zambezi sunsets, and as it got dark the falls took on a new appearance. The previous two weeks of travel had been pretty strenuous, and at times I’d felt like the whole trip was stalling, so it was good to be here.

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