An African Roadie: Part One
“You are a complete girl,” says the Swedish traveller who has already crushed my expectations of what backpacking graduates from her nation should look like. The mono-brow turns to chide me again, but I’ve already planned my defence and exit strategy.
“The woman in front of me was going slow. Was I supposed to push her down the mountain?” I say. “Is that what you want? Is it? Is it?” The Scandinavian disappointment skulks off shrugging her shoulders, as I realise she was possibly just offering up some harmless banter, but served with man-like delivery – clearly what had instigated my defensive reaction.
The confrontation was centred on our earlier descent of a 200-foot cliff that our group of some 40 travellers needed to undertake in order to start a Zambezi river rafting trip. Maybe I was descending like a girl, but I was sure the flimsy twig-constructed ladder made to take daily groups of overweight Westerners would give out at any moment. In the back of my mind was one thought – “Do not use your travel insurance on Day One” – particularly because the insurance had been bought off a dubious man who turned up at the office with a form that said little more than “Travelling Insurance”. And he demanded cash. And I was pretty sure that cliff-related falls would be exempt. So yes, I descended like a girl.
The rafting trip we were heading to is one of Livingstone’s great adventures. The British explorer that the small Zambian town is named after died in the north of the country, having battled his way through Africa for four years. I doubt he ever imagined groups of tourists bum-sliding their way down a cliff to ride the Grade 5 rapids below the famous falls he discovered.
The day started with what I would come to know as “The Activity Dawn”. Almost everything entertaining in Africa demands the traveller rise early, which many of my fellow nomads seemed to find acceptable. Not being a morning person, I wasn’t feeling quite so accepting having to rise to a Nokia jingle at 7am, shuffling towards the hostel’s communal bathroom only to have to queue for a chance to pee. Seeing the same girls from the bar the night before looking slightly less groomed was a saving grace, but one look in the mirror quickly dampened the pleasure. Little did I know that my dishevelled reflection in a cracked hostel mirror would be nothing compared to an embarrassing climb down a Zambezi cliff, but travel is full of surprises, and normally they make the adventure special. Normally.
Once down the troublesome ladder we located Temba, our guide, who had paced it down the cliff, overtaking us in the same way a 747 can just about outrun a paper plane. He was waiting for us at the side of the narrow river that runs through a deep gorge cutting its way between Zimbabwe and Zambia as it heads towards the Indian Ocean 2000 miles away. There is little on either side but brackish vegetation and pools of sunlight that serve to warm the virgin rafters. We pushed the boat in, practised holding on for dear life, and set off.
I sat opposite Alex, my travelling companion, thinking partly of the lethal rocks we were about to pass over, but also of the land I was facing, Zimbabwe – one that has banned the BBC, evicted white farmers and turned, in the space of only a few years, Africa’s breadbasket into its starving embarrassment. The man behind Zimbabwe’s decline, Robert Mugabe, a basket case himself by all accounts, is somewhere above the dramatic cliff I’m staring at, albeit hundreds of miles away past decrepit farms, trillion dollar loaves of bread and, I assume, a thick-headed bodyguard or two. There is little sign of the economic collapse from our inflatable raft, but it’s a thought that flies around my mind. Until we hit the first rapid. At which point the only thing flying is the raft, its occupants and millions of litres of frosty African water.
Every rapid brings new orders from Temba, but less butt cheek clenching from me, as the experience isn’t as terrifying as the posters in the briefing area would have you believe. It’s really 70 per cent sitting in the raft, talking to the other travellers, meeting a pair of Irish student nurses on third year summer holidays, an IT technician from Cape Town who’s been on assignment in Luanda, a Kiwi nomad who somehow affords endless travels, and learning about Zambian life, or dating, from Temba. When the river is then forced between narrow rocks the mood swings, business-like, as we focus on one of the major fifteen named rapids, or the many turbulent ‘freebie’ spots that Temba repeatedly announces to us as though we’ve earned bonus fun from our $115 experience.
The time of year we took to the Zambezi was high water, when the wet season run-off is still filling the river to such an extent that the top rapids are too dangerous to raft. Temba tells us that when the first ten rapids are open, normally between August and January, some tourists take the first one and ask to return afterwards, frozen in fear, preferring to walk back to the start rather than carry on. Whether this was a ruse to encourage a manly return when the top rapids are open, or the reality of riding this dangerous river, his excitable tales enthralled us until we finally rounded the last bend and landed the raft on a small beach.
At the start of the day we were informed that rafters used to have to climb out of the gorge in similar fashion to my ‘girly’ entrance, but these days a cable car has been installed for an easy departure. And what a cable car. It wasn’t that I felt unsafe, but the sensation of travelling in a contraption that first winches you into the air vertically 80ft, then switches system to travel slowly up the steep cliff was something that French ski resorts have never introduced me to—of course I doubt ‘Les Pisteurs’ have ever needed to move tired rafters out of a pocket of tall, riverside African trees, but if they ever did I’m sure they’d pull it off, albeit with a surly shrug and a couple of strong espressos.
Finally reaching the top of the gorge, we break out into the sunshine, warming our soaked, shrivelled skins. Some of the rafting teams revel in the fact they managed to flip over, and one girl comes to thank us for rescuing her after such an incident. There’s really no better feeling than having a tanned and damp damsel thank you for saving her life. Thoughts of us sharing a wild night in the local pubs are unfortunately dashed as the damsel is whisked away by a taller, younger and more tanned man than I, but solace is nearby—I spy a crate of local beer being loaded onto our transport for the journey back to base.
Headquarters, or base camp, for Shearwater, the company organising our excursion, is a hotel on the banks of the Zambezi called Waterfront Lodge. It is situated above Victoria Falls, where the waters are calm and wide before their impending 360ft drop into oblivion. Further down from Waterside Lodge is the area’s original hotel, the colonial Victoria Falls Hotel. An imposing structure that seems to demand the wearing of linen suits, Panama hats and old-school ties, we were neither packing the necessary clothing or able to compose ourselves for an evening with Miss Marple, so decided to stay with Shearwater and, after a necessary feed, we headed out on their euphemistically-titled “Sunset Cruise”, otherwise known as a ‘booze cruise’.
The contrast of being above the falls to below the falls is striking. Birdlife abounds, hippos wallow, crocs bask and drinks are poured regularly from the open bar. I wouldn’t say the booze cruise is as much of a must-do as the rafting trip, but if you want to truly celebrate surviving the world’s wildest rapids, then it beats returning to the ‘chillout zone’ at a hostel, or sitting on Facebook in an internet café. But most things in life beat sitting on Facebook for any period of time. Period.
Taking in the banks of the Zambezi also highlighted the slow, constrained development of Livingstone and Victoria Falls. Compared to its nemesis, the US/Canadian Niagara Falls, the area has a scattering of shore-based lodges, and the sleepy town of Livingstone, which has grown around the tourism industry. Whereas Niagara Falls has its giant casinos—the Vegas of the North—and its intrusive, ill-fitting developments, Livingstone has maintained a local charm, with backpack hostels and quiet bars. On the town’s streets the only nuisance are Zimbabweans trying to peddle their famed trillion-dollar note.
The money, which is genuinely absurd, and a testament to insane economics, is made even more ridiculous as the street hawkers have created their own denominations, taking the currency into the realms of the truly incomprehensible—anyone want a ZIM$100,000,000,000,000 note? Yours for only US$1. A good souvenir if you have a bar-owning friend that likes to cover it in foreign currency, otherwise just give the poor guy some change and move on.
Not needing any money on the booze cruise we were in good spirits, but the manager of the trip tells us that developers seem hell bent on following the Niagara Falls model by building on the islands in the middle of the wide river. It is an issue that has divided the local community as it would be the first step to imposing on the wild landscape, creating the usual five star hotel retreat seen the world over, displacing local animals and birds along the way. My feelings on such developments are uncomplicated. Community beware. Not wanting to become embroiled in a local debate, or make any enemies, which I have previously achieved in similar conversations, the subject was soon dropped.
My attention was quickly taken by shrieks from a group of girls calling themselves ‘The Otherssssss’. No misprint. They wanted to start a band with that name. “It’s The Others, with extra esses,” I was told, in their north-eastern English accents. Not wanting to pour realism, or a jaded journo outlook, on their 18-year-old expectations I wished them well and tried to find out what had elicited such high-pitched girly squeals on this tranquil trip. “Hippos!”
I looked overboard to see the usual sight that tourists get of the bloated hippopotamus—it’s fat bottom waddling off into some protective cover. Nonetheless it was great to see the animal—one that is annually blamed for more deaths in Africa than any other. I turned back to the excitable ladies, keen for some female conversation. “Have you taken a trip around the Falls?” I ask. “Not yet,” they respond, so I start to tell them about the area, noting them gradually glaze over with every mention of David Livingstone and his grand adventures.
Sensibly, I change tack and tell them about the previous day when Alex and I took our own tour. Walking the area has been made considerably easier than anything Livingstone would have encountered. In his journals he recounts how he battled natives, wild animals, sickness and his British financial backers to finally find ‘The Smoke That Thunders’, as the Zambians call Victoria Falls. Alex and I only had to endure the backseat of a poorly sprung Nissan taxi to make the 15-minute journey to Victoria Falls car park, but we did have doubts about a safe arrival on several bumpy occasions.
Tourists can view the waterfall from a well-built, but slippery, path that runs the course of the 1,708m wide attraction. The furious landing area blows vapour above the falls soaking all who dare to visit in a matter of seconds. All the pictures and videos cannot match the experience of actually standing there in the endless rainfall that comes off the vapour. Many people take the wise option of buying a waterproof poncho. We didn’t. So were drenched. Moving on to try and dry off we took a path that we hoped led to the old railway bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It didn’t. Instead we were treated to a spectacular view of the Falls from afar, and to the less glamorous sight of baboons vigorously mating, before ending up at the path’s end where, amazingly, another Zimbabwean was trying to sell us some Zim dollars from behind a tree. It never fails to amaze me that in Africa, much like in Asia, wherever you go someone has something to offer.
Doubling back we managed to find the proper way to the bridge where baboons were again out in force, but in a more hostile manner. Shoppers crossing back to food-scarce Zimbabwe are attacked daily by the apes, who have learnt to recognise the rustle of plastic carrier bags. A local Zambian called Michael, who proudly tells us he supports Arsenal Football Club, much like everyone else we meet, tells us to throw stones at the baboons. So we do. With gusto. Feeling more like Victorian circus visitors than modern day eco-friendly tourists we hurled fist-like stones at the beasts scaring them back into the bush. Having seen one woman run from an Alsatian-sized ape I think our aggression was justified… But before I get hate mail, let’s move on.
Once at the bridge, there is a strange feeling of crossing one of the world’s quietest international borders. The rifle-carrying patrolman barely acknowledges us as we walk towards Zimbabwe assuming that on the other side of the bridge there will be a group of guards much less ambivolent to the British passport holder. Needless to say we stopped in the middle, in no man’s land, and looked over the drop into the chasm that bungee-jumpers recklessly throw themselves into. At 111m, it’s Africa’s second highest jump after the 216m Blouwkraantz Bridge in South Africa. And it’s scary as anything, so having asked about a jump we were more than satisfied to learn that business was finished for the day. With that we returned to the Fall’s car park, again dodging the aggressive baboons, and headed back to Livingstone.
Our tale of visiting the Falls was told, as above, to the assorted members of ‘The Othersssss’, at least to those that had managed to stay attentive. And then I felt a hand shaking mine as I was introduced to a preacher from England who told me the girls were in his charge and were here to volunteer in Africa. “They don’t drink,” he pointedly tells me. “Each to their own,” came back my response, and before I could blink I was back talking to Alex, the girls long gone, with me trying not to do a Scooby Doo impression - cursing the missionary and “his interfering ways”.
Before long it was all forgotten, as an open bar is all too successful at achieving, and the setting sun heralded an end to a lively day. Having been up and down the Zambezi, it’s difficult to say what was more pleasurable—an energetic rafting trip or a lazy booze cruise, but the two complemented each other perfectly and I was sure, as I rolled into bed in the small hours, that it was time very well spent.
CLICK ON PART TWO TO READ MORE
(FIRST PUBLISHED IN 2009, iQ Magazine)