A to Z of Adventure Travel: V is for Victoria Falls

12 06 2009

 Vic Falls aerial mw

 

There are lots of spots around the world that have been dubbed ‘Adventure Capitals’ either for the activities available or the rugged wilderness that surround them. The adventure capital of the world is arguably Queenstown, New Zealand. The adventure capital of Australia would be Cairns. And the adventure capital of Africa is definitely Victoria Falls.

 

Not only are the Falls one of the natural wonders of the world, but the area is one of the finest adrenalin capitals and even if you venture there solely for the sights, it’s difficult not to be lured into at least one unforgettable activity!

  

Victoria Falls sits on the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia. In past years, the centre of the tourist trade was most definitely the town of Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwean side, but due to recent political unrest and economic problems, much of that has shifted to Livingstone, Zambia.

 

The Falls themselves are every bit as magnificent as any photograph suggests. During the rainy season, the cascade of water over the steep precipice is positively breathtaking – if you can actually see it through the billowing clouds of drenching mist. In the dry season, the flood is reduced to a comparable trickle, but this not only allows a less-wet viewing experience but also provides a look at the chiselled rock cliffs that stretch almost as far as the eye can see. Even veterans of Niagara or Angel Falls can’t help but be impressed by Mosi-au-Tunya, or ‘The Smoke That Thunders’, as it is called by the locals.

 

For many visitors, Victoria Falls’ most captivating feature might well be its relative lack of commercialisation. There are no enormous skyscraper hotels towering above it and no neon-strewn casinos crowding its edges. Instead, there is bush stretching in every direction and only the most basic of paths and most rickety of fences preventing visitors from tumbling over the edge and into the frothing maelstrom.

 

This modest development has ensured that the area is still healthy with wildlife and the even the town centre has its baboons, watrthogs, birdlife and occasional stray elephant. Lion tracks are sometimes seen in the early morning in the soft sand that lines the paved road and pedestrians are warned to watch out for buffalo…all this within sight of hotels and curio stands.

 

The two most famous of Victoria Falls’ adventure activities are the whitewater rafting on the Zambezi – regarded as the best one-day rafting in the world – and the 111 metre bungee-jump from the bridge that spans the chasm, both within view of the Falls. However, there are also helicopter and microlight flights over the Falls and surrounding river and bush, sunset boat trips above the drop and game drives in the neighbouring parks and wild areas. You can embark on horseback or elephant back safaris, or take a walk with unleashed domesticated lions. There are night game drives in open-back 4WDs and guided hikes with armed rangers.

 

Both Victoria Falls and Livingstone have international airports and can also be reached overland by vehicle or train from larger centres – if you have the time and spirit of adventure. Both sides of the river offer basic campsites, budget hostels, deluxe riverbank tented safari camps and luxury hotel accommodation.

 

Most visitors today tend to use Zambia as their base and sadly often never venture across the border to its neighbour. Although not immune to the turmoil that has plagued Zimbabwe in recent years, the town of Victoria Falls has remained an island largely isolated from the political violence…if not the rampant inflation and basic shortages.

 

Victoria Falls provides something for everyone from the magnificence of the Falls themselves to wildlife and adventure.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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Vertically Challenged

20 10 2008

“Would you please not stop our rotor blades with your camera?” (Katherine Gorge, Northern Territory, Australia)

If humans were meant to fly, they would have been born with wings. If helicopters were meant to fly, they would have been born with doors. When I spotted the doors of my helicopter lying on the dew-soaked grass, I began to have second thoughts about my imminent flight.

 

I’m a sucker for sightseeing flights. Whether balloons, helicopters or light aircraft I can’t help but plonk down a stack of hard-earned dollars, clamber aboard and get the full birds-eye view.

 

I am particularly fond of helicopters not only for the great photographic opportunities they provide, but also because I always feel like a famous celebrity as I walk hunched-over beneath the whirling rotor blades, climb in, fasten the double-buckle and don the fancy headset and mouthpiece.

 

Australia’s Katherine Gorge is a rugged canyon carved in the Northern Territory’s outback just south of Darwin. Explored from water level, the gorge’s cliffs rise from the meandering Katherine River providing shade for the crocodiles that lounge on the small stretches of white sand. It is a beautiful spot that has been immortalised in art, photography and movies.

 

Not content with the view from the river, I headed to the local dirt air strip for a sightseeing flight. The sun was barely up and the air was perfectly still. The helicopter had already set off on its first flight of the day. I completed the paperwork in the small utility hut and gazed at photos of the diminutive Robinson R44 helicopter that would soon whisk me off on my flight. This was clearly no normal sightseeing helicopter. It was small, tough and clearly meant business. The photos showed it mustering cattle on vast Australian ranches the size of Texas the way horses or ATVs were used on more sensibly-proportioned properties. When not mustering in the outback, the helicopter and its pilots headed north for sightseeing.

 

With my life signed-away, I heard the distant sound of the helicopter and stepped outside to await my ride. It was then that I noticed the doors.

 

They were red and lying on the grass as if forgotten or abandoned. At first I thought perhaps they were spares, but then, as my air-chariot came into view and the dawn sun shone straight through the aircraft’s body like dolphins through an aquarium hoop, I realised my error.

 

The helicopter slewed to a landing. The previous occupants dashed away from the whirling blades. The pilot motioned for us to keep our heads down and climb aboard.

 

I have long boasted of my lack of fear of heights, a boast that is perfectly true when I am on terra-firma but proves a little less certain whenever I embark on inappropriate activities like skydiving or face-first rapelling.  Helicopters without doors seemed to be in similar company.

 

With unmolested ease I climbed into the back seat. There were unfortunately only two seats, both of them perilously close to the large openings where the doors should have been. With no centre child-seat option, I chose the left seat and fastened my seatbelt tightly enough to sever all bloodflow to my legs. My feet began to tingle, then all feeling was lost. We promptly lifted off and my fears were allayed as the helicopter gently tilted nose-down and moved straight forward skimming across the treetops. This wouldn’t be so bad after all I thought, lifting my camera to my eyes to snap a few photos…and then we banked…to the left…dramatically.

 

In the space of a few seconds I went from thinking I was going to fall out and die to wanting to fall out and die to end my pain and suffering. The helicopter angled sharply and from the corner of my bulging eyes I stared transfixed at the hard ground several hundred feet below as we pirouetted in a tight circle. My seat belt strained under my weight while my feet dangled at a peculiar angle in mid-air. I gripped onto the seat edge tightly until my camera swung into the void and I grabbed it back again. We soon levelled off, I caught my breath and attempted to take unblurred photos despite my shaking hands.

 

Banking to the right wasn’t as much of an issue and gradually I became accustomed to my precarious platform. On the way back to the landing strip we tickled the treetops startling water buffalo and egret before once more looping over on the left and landing on the grass. A small group of victims stood pale-faced awaiting their trip. As we passed each other beneath the whirling blades I gestured to the doors.

 

“They fell off as we took off.” I shouted over the noise, shaking my head somberly and continuing straight past them.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan