Victoria Falls – What a spectacular reward and finale for our Southern Safaris Tour! The name alone evokes images of deepest, darkest Africa: Stanley and Livingstone, drums, skin-clad natives, jungles, exotic animals, and even Tarzan. A Unesco World Heritage Sight, it is also an undisputed member of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It is all that – and more. The native Kololo name is Mosi ay Tunya, “The smoke that thunders,” eminently more appropriate than Victoria.
"Mosi" is so much more descriptive, captures some of the visceral experience of the falls, and paints a more vivid mental image than the mundane appellation given by Livingstone. But Victoria Falls is how the world knows this wonder and so I will refer to it (its easier to spell too).
Victoria Falls boast mind boggling dimensions. The falls occur where the mighty Zambezi River drops its entire width (just over a mile) over a 350-foot cliff into a narrow gorge. The volume of water typically ranges between 10,600-106,000 cubic feet per second. The annual mean volume is said to be just over 38,000 cubic feet per second or 1 million liters per second.
Mist generated by the falls can be seen and felt from several miles. In all waterfalls, the river erodes the underlying rock making it "creep" upstream over geologic time. What makes Victoria Falls unique is that instead of moving gradually over time, it creates cracks in the underlying basalt at a different angle than the cliff at the brink of the falls.
That angled crack eventually forms a new chasm intercepting the flow of the Zambezi River, forming a new brink for the falls and leaving the remaining cliff that once supported the edge of the falls bare and exposed. The last such redundant edge forms today's respective (Zimbabwean & Zambian) national parks, the viewing area for the current falls. Over time, the result has been a series of gorges. Currently there are 6 or 7 of them zig-zagging their way downstream.
The reward of Victoria Falls was not without cost. Two hours spent at the border crossing in the hot African sun made us appreciate our comfortable accommodations at the Rainbow Hotel. The redundancies and inefficiencies of the border experience were enough to make us Americans pull our hair out In our computerized world, watching a tedious task done by hand is hard to endure. But we persevered and continued the last 45 minutes to the town of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The town itself is a bit sad. Two streets in a T, with aged and deteriorating strip malls, a couple banks, adventure sports companies and safari outfits, a handful of restaurants, and a couple big hotel complexes make up the entire business center. Dusty roads, broken pavements, and too much garbage didn’t add to the ambiance. But we didn’t come for the town.
Our hotel, the Rainbow, was a nice comfortable retreat. A cheerful and light breakfast room looked out over the beautiful pool, poolside bar, and manicured grounds complete with entertaining but pesky monkeys (we were advised never to leave our windows open). Though worn, our rooms were spacious and clean and the air conditioning worked well. A heaving breakfast buffet provided everything imaginable (and some things not imagined) for breakfast. And the coffee was good! We were set.
Our first afternoon was free. Ordinarily we would have headed straight for the Falls, the ultimate reason for coming. But as fortune would have it, we had arrived the night after full moon – one of the evenings when a special, nighttime visit to the falls is allowed to witness the singularly unique “moonbow”. I had been anticipating this magic moment for months and I prepared by purchasing sparkling wine for a surprise toast. But the magic never came. Sometimes the best laid plans are for naught and the travel gods smile not. A rare, for April, storm front moved in and the moon was obscured by clouds. The park officials stalled and waited, finally deciding to plunge ahead when the clouds momentarily cleared.
The park rangers gathered everyone together, gave too rapid and unclear instructions, and took off at an unbelievable pace. Within moments, all but about 7-8 people had fallen behind, including the majority of our group and me. We stumbled blindly along in the dark, hoping we were headed in the right direction. When we reached the clearing opposite the middle of the falls, we got hit with the torrential downpour that forms from the “Smoke that Thunders”. I don’t really have words to describe how wet we got. We were soaked to the bone. Moreover, most of us never saw the moonbow. Apparently, those with the lead ranger got a quick glimpse before the clouds closed back in. Like most of the crowd, I trudged back to the gate, having seen nothing, soaked, and in my case, carrying a heavy, wet pack of unopened champagne. Hardly magical. You win some you lose some.
But the evening was not over for me or my group. We had lost someone. After determining that she we not back at the hotel, we organized a search for her. It took about 20 minutes, but the park rangers found her at the furthest reaches of the park. All is well that ends well, but there were some scary and confounding moments before the good ending. But there was a silver lining. A lifetime of travel has taught me that, sometimes, the most special and spontaneous travel moments are forged from the refining fires of disaster. In my personal case on this evening, that is precisely what happened. When we organized the search I took the area of the park which includes the statue of Livingstone and the first 3 cataracts. I had not been there earlier in the mad scramble to see the moonbow. In the intervening time, the clouds had cleared and the light from the nearly full moon was bright and clear. Abruptly I found myself alone at the viewing edge opposite the first two cataracts. It was my first and completely unanticipated view of the falls. The power, energy, and thunderous noise were heart-stopping. Bathed in the shadowy moonlight the thunderous falls were dramatically ethereal. While searching for my lost tour member I’d seemingly stumbled through a magic portal to an unexpected mystical realm. I felt like I’d awakened in one of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, so powerful was my reaction. It was THE moment of the tour for me. My only regret was that my group did not share it with me – and that is a powerful regret. I later learned that 4-5 of my group had been with the lead ranger and had seen the moonbow glimpse as well as returning via the first cataracts and seeing them in the moonlight as well.
As always, my Imprint alums were stalwart and philosophical about the disastrous falls visit. But I felt terrible. I can’t control nature and the weather, but I also felt like our local guide did little to mitigate the tough situation faced at the falls. So the tour paid for everyone to visit the falls again, during the day. And it was spectacular! Perhaps not the magic I had hoped for on the moonlight visit, but the wondrous spectacle of power, majesty, and the unbridled force of nature was suitably and singularly impressive. Everyone got wet again, but at least we were mentally prepared this time. How do I describe an indescribable experience? You FEEL the falls in your bones. It’s a visceral reaction, not an intellectual one. You feel connected to the most fundamental elements and unbridled power of the earth. It is humbling and exciting at one and the same moment. You feel incredibly tiny, weak, and insignificant yet your spirit soars with the transcendent joy of discovery, pursuit, and the shared wonder of the universe. The ear-to-ear smile that greeted me on the face of every tour member assured me that the experience was felt as deeply by all. Despite the flop of the night visit, the Falls turned out to be the perfect finale of the tour.