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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Breakfast of Champions

8 06 2009

Oxpecker mw

“Can’t we go somewhere else for breakfast? I always feel someone’s watching me here.” (Masai Mara)

My Mum has always said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, although we didn’t always see eye-to-eye on just what constituted a good breakfast. For the record, I see nothing wrong with twiglets and Coke.

Many travellers would certainly agree that breakfast is extremely important. It is the fuel that keeps legs pumping during sightseeing, and a great way to avoid expensive lunches – or at least eat less at mid-day. There’s also a certain magic to breakfast that’s possibly due to the excitement of anticipating what wonders the rest of the day holds in store, or of finding yourself in beautiful surroundings so far removed from a quick stale muffin devoured on a cramped subway train on your way to work.

There are many breakfasts that stick in my memory as being nigh on idyllic. Anything on a sun-dappled terrace, patio or balcony overlooking the ocean always qualifies for instant consideration as a Top Ten spot. The daily ritual of a large platter of fresh fruit and miniature oven-warm pastries in Fiji still brings a smile to my face. Daily breakfast in the garden of the Pink Baobab in Victoria Falls accompanied by the roar of the water – and a nearby fence crushed by a wayward elephant during the night – will always be remembered fondly. And for a touch of civility, who could ever challenge a vast spread of cheeses, meats, jams and croissants in a palazzo overlooking a quiet canal in Venice with enormous French windows ushering in the fresh morning air and the sound of church bells?

But the most memorable breakfast ever was simple picnic fare in Kenya’s Masai Mara.

As anyone who has ever been on safari knows, the best wildlife viewing takes place in early morning and late afternoon. The higher the sun, the lower the animals stay trying to avoid the oppressive heat and conserve their own energy. Morning game drives generally set off in the dark, just as the orange glow of dawn seeps along the horizon. At such ungodly hours, a full breakfast is generally out of the question and a simple plate of biscuits and cup of tea is more customarily followed by a hearty brunch upon return. Occasionally though, there is an opportunity for a picnic along the way. Not only does it provide sustenance to quell growling stomachs that might otherwise scare away particularly nervous wildlife, but it also provides some of the most unique and memorable breakfast spots on earth!

After several hours of exploring the Mara’s savannah and being captivated by prides of lions and herds of elephant, we pulled to a stop in the shade of a large acacia tree. The engine was turned off and a large picnic basket removed from the back of the Landcruiser and placed on the hood. From within were withdrawn foil-wrapped cold sausages and hardboiled eggs, bread and jams, bananas and pastries, juices and flasks of tea. No champagne, no gourmet omelettes – but who needed luxuries with such a view?

All around us the great African plains rolled to rocky outcrops and thickets of trees. With naked eyes we could see elephant and buffalo, giraffe and impala, zebra and Tommies. Apart from the metronomic ticking of our cooling engine, the only other sounds were the lonesome song of African mourning doves and our silent devouring of breakfast. Even now, I can still taste those cold sausages and remember the wonder of that perfect morning.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





A Blister In The Sun

16 02 2009

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              “Is this really where Victoria fell?”  (Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe/Zambia)

 

For thousands of years, blood letting was a common treatment for many ailments. It was believed that by withdrawing considerable quantities of blood, the evil could be released and the ailment relieved. Blood letting was widely practiced until quite recently – and in fact still exists in slightly different and considerably less dramatic forms even today – but it is now largely accepted that draining someone’s entire blood supply to relieve a case of hiccups is probably not a good idea.

 

Now, I’ve always believed that anything worth doing is worth doing properly and therefore a foot blister that indulges in a little blood letting is far more satisfying to me than one that merely causes great discomfort.

 

At the Zambezi, I was to be a very satisfied boy indeed.

 

Whitewater rafting on the Zambezi River is a test of endurance on so many levels. There’s the physical exertion of climbing into the chasm without slipping and landing head first in the river, of fighting Grade 5 rapids with a paddle, of gripping on for dear-life to an airborne raft, of swimming through raging whitewater to safety…and most demanding of all, simply surviving the 400 foot vertical climb out of the gorge when the day’s over.  

 

I was wearing rugged rubber-soled sandals with velcro straps and, not wanting to lose them in the maelstrom and thereby endure the climb-out barefooted, I pulled the straps so tight that my toes almost turned blue and fell off. No Grade 5 rapid, no hungry crocodile and no Flying Walenda impersonation was going to separate me from my footwear…but my footwear was going to separate me from several layers of skin, I was to discover.

 

By the end of the day I clambered from the raft and regained land. I was suitably sun-burned, my finger-tips pruny and my toes bluish…but I still had my sandals as I gazed skyward at the trek out. By the time I reached the top of the gorge an eternity later I was completely breathless, hunched over…and my implanted sandals had cut several impressive swathes through my heels.

 

These weren’t just any blisters, these were epic: almost as deep and dramatic as the chasm itself. The sort you could lose a pair of socks in or mistake for a mouth. And as far as blood letting goes, there was enough here to end the Great Plague of London.

 

That evening I saturated my own Zambezi gorges with enough antiseptic to drown a pod of hippos. Unable to put the sandals and their offending straps back on, I dug out my hiking boots. They were a fabulous new pair with fancy Goretex, odour-eating pads and great ankle support.

 

My feet slid in and felt their delicious support. The softness of the cotton socks against my war wounds was equally wonderful and the earlier agony was forgotten. My feet were again in Nirvana and I headed off to explore more of the Zambezi Valley. It was only when I was halfway through the hike and precisely at the furthest point from home that brand new blisters on each of my little toes began to make their presence known.

 

With each step, their screams intensified, reaching a crescendo that even their rafting ancestors couldn’t match. I hobbled back to camp with teeth gritted and brow furrowed.

 

“Problems with the boots?” someone asked as I carefully unlaced. “I find sandals much more comfortable.”

 

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Back In The Saddle Again…Part II

8 01 2009

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“I think it needs a jump-start.”                   (Near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)

 

Our parade of elephants ambled into the bush in a loose line. Despite his earlier misbehaviour, my elephant was now behaving impeccably…apart from the occasional ticklish exploration of my bare leg with the snout of his trunk. I would like to think he was just being inquisitive or affectionate, but I had noticed that he only ever did this when the mahout was looking the other way and I began to suspect that it was actually a form of intimidation.

 

Apart from our little convoy of elephants we had one other companion: a man with a gun. As if sitting on top of an elephant wasn’t security enough, the armed guide who walked alongside us acted as a reminder of just what lurked in those long grasses and prickly bushes.

 

“Is he here for lions?” I asked my mahout, gesturing at our escort.

 

“No, no” he replied dismissively. “Lions aren’t much of a threat.”

 

Buffalo?” I asked, attempting to recover some semblance of respect.

 

“No. Not buffalo” he answered. “He’s here in case we encounter any wild elephants. They could charge us and attack. Or they could try and mate with one of our elephants. You wouldn’t want to be caught between two mating elephants” he explained.

 

The thought of being crushed between an amorous bull elephant and his love interest didn’t really merit much contemplation and I looked nervously behind us. In keeping with my perfect record when it came to eventing in dangerous neighbourhoods, we were of course the last elephant in the group. I just hoped romantically-inclined elephants could differentiate between males and females long before they came forward for a dance.zim-elephant-1-mw

 

From our lofty swaying perches, we spied antelope and warthog who regarded us with only passing interest. We ducked beneath branches and if the coarse hide wasn’t tenderising the insides of my legs enough, thorns were doing a mighty fine job on the outsides leaving my appendages like two sausages chewed by a pack of Rottweilers. I smiled with tears in my ears when the mahout asked if I was having a good time.

 

At one point, a lone cape buffalo emerged from the bushes to survey us menacingly. He stood a few hundred feet away, his fine curved horns and solid boss framing his glaring face. Not generally comfortable in the company of one of Africa’s most feared beasts, I must admit to a certain cockiness this time around and had to fight the urge to poke my tongue and make rude faces at his ugly countenance. Our armed guide tucked closer to our entourage and we ambled past with little worry.

 

We eventually arrived in a small clearing in which a table had been set for breakfast. Our elephants knelt down, and we clambered free although I was convinced that it would be several weeks before I walked properly again. I used to mock John Wayne and other cowboys for always walking as though they were riding horses, but I now looked as though I’d been straddling an elephant for several hours…which I had.

 

The elephants were freed of their saddles and allowed to wander around the clearing, while the rest of us were seated at the table and treated to a cooked breakfast. It was a surreal experience to sit at such a civilised table surrounded by a small herd of elephant, made even more surreal when one of our former steeds persistently attempted to steal our sausages and had to be chased away by a mahout.

 

On the drive back we spotted a group of circling vultures. Our guide stopped the vehicle, collected his rifle and led us through the bush to the source of the scavengers’ attention. There, not far from the road was the carcass of a young dead elephant. She had died during the night, the guide explained, likely of the cold or natural causes. He added that she had probably become separated from her mother and the herd. The sadness in his voice and the pained expression on his face were quite evident.

 

“If only we’d known she was out here” he continued, “we could have brought her to the ranch and looked after her.”

 

We returned to the vehicle and continued in silence. What had a few minutes earlier been a fun excursion and great experience without much thought of conservation, had suddenly become something a bit more meaningful. Whether or not domesticating elephants for tourist rides was a worthy cause was debatable, but with the alternative still burned into our memory, we were all very glad that our jaunt had played some part in saving a few orphans from a very sad end.

 

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Back In The Saddle Again…Part I

6 01 2009

 

 

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“Taxi!”                                            (near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)

 

My success with riding horses in far-flung corners of the world is negligible at best. At Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, my steed was torn between feeding me to the crocodiles that lurked in the Zambezi, feeding me to the lions that lurked behind every bush…and playing the role of a barrel and simply taking me right over the Falls itself. In Iceland, my delicate little 5-gait Icelandic horse with the enormous eyes, sweeping eyelashes and affectionate demeanour decided that it would do me good to be thrown onto my head as he belted down the black sand beach. While in the bear-infested wilds of Northern Ontario, my hardy mount was quite happy to lead me into the bush…but reared-up the moment we left the corral and let it be clearly known that if the battle of wits that followed was to continue, he could do a lot more damage to me than I could to him…and so we headed back to the stable.

 

Given that prestigious equine record, why did I volunteer to ride an elephant in Zimbabwe?  African elephants are considerably larger than horses, considerably more obstreperous than horses, considerably more dangerous than horses, have much larger tusks than horses…and according to one book I had read, were impossible to tame. Then again, when did commonsense ever interfere with the Adventure Blogger’s thirst for fun?

 

After several minutes drive down dusty tracks away from the main road, we arrived at a small ranch just after dawn. The elephants were brought out from their accommodation and put through their paces in the central corral. All of the elephants had been orphaned either through natural causes or poaching and adopted by the ranch. There they had been hand-reared and, where suitable, domesticated for riding with a view to eventually returning them to the wild. Unlike in India or Thailand where elephant rides were quite common, this was one of only a handful of such operations in all of Africa. For hundreds of years people had attempted to domesticate African elephants in the same way they had in Asia including Hannibal and Belgium’s King Leopold, but few met with success. In most cases, the efforts resulted in human death or maiming and the project abandoned. Attempting to tame an animal that weighs more than most cars and kills more people each year than lions and leopards combined is not an easy prospect.zim-elephant-5-mw

 

One elephant was clearly not in the mood for cooperation this morning despite the efforts of the mahout – or elephant handler. Even once he had settled down sufficiently to allow a loose saddle to be placed on his back, he still wasn’t especially amiable as he trumpeted, stomped and swung his head wildly. As he was led away, I assumed his tantrum had earned him a morning of leisure…until I was beckoned towards him, that is.

 

“This one is yours” the mahout said. “He’s a bit naughty today so I give him to you, not to the ladies.” With that, he gave me a leg-up and over the mighty beast, and then clambered up after me, taking the ‘driver’s seat’ just behind the mammoth ears.

 

The saddle was little more than a padded blanket and although the elephant was quite young in elephant years, he already had a not inconsiderable girth. As I struggled to get comfortable, I knew I was fighting a losing battle. In fact, this was clearly the pachyderm equivalent of the medieval rack and my legs felt as though they were being popped from their sockets. As we waited for the others to mount-up however, I had to admit that there was simply no disputing the view and there was something so ‘right’ about exploring the African wilderness from an elephant’s perspective. It was only as we started to slowly and elegantly sway from side to side and head into the bush that I made another discovery: never wear shorts when riding an elephant….unless you want a free inner-thigh exfoliation from its sandpaper-like hide on each and every step.

 

At least this time however, I wasn’t steering!

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





White Water, Black Heart – Part II

13 08 2008

The Adventure Blogger: ‘Can I go home now?’           (Photo by Shearwater)

There are many times in life when you know you’ve made a mistake but it’s too late to rectify. Boarding a near-empty subway train late at night instead of taking a taxi and finding yourself surrounded by the poster boys for the Drunken Skinhead of the Year competition; choosing the all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant for your annual review with the company president on Liver Tuesday; and giving your next door neighbour your old mega-watt powerful stereo system when you knew that their CD collection included the complete works of Kenny G and Michael Bolton, spring to mind.

 

When I completed the treacherous slippery trek down into the Zambezi gorge and found myself in a dead-end surrounded by an unconquerable climb back up and 18 brutal rapids ahead, I remembered why I had never been interested in whitewater rafting: a completely rational fear of drowning.

 

I was at least eight before I had my first shower. Prior to that it was always a bath in which I would sit bolt upright and rinse my hair from a plastic cup. Showers were too much like being underwater. The fear lessened over time, but being trapped in a whirlpool at the bottom of a rapid was still something that didn’t exactly thrill me.

 

After clambering into our raft, our river-guide insisted on us jumping overboard. In theory this was to prove how buoyant our lifejackets were and to practice pulling each other back into the raft before the crocodiles visited the buffet table. However, I suspected the river-guide was a sadist who drew perverse pleasure from seeing his wide-eyed clients shake their heads like hyper-active metronomes before being pushed overboard.

 

The initiation complete, we began our voyage down the switchback river and within seconds were upon our first test. Squatting at the front of the raft, I held on with a vice-like death grip, sucked in a lung-exploding gulp of air and banged into the rapid. The bow plunged into the boiling trough and charged forward into thin air. We slapped back down onto the horizontal and I was completely exhilarated, even if utterly soaked. I’d beaten my first rapid and it had been awesome. I punched my fist in the air.

 

“Right”, the river-guide shouted, looking at me with bewilderment. “That was a grade 3. The easiest rapid you’ll see today”. My stomach sank. “The rest are much bigger and far more difficult”.

 

Within minutes we were plowing through grade 4s and 5s with colourful nicknames like “The Devil’s Toilet Bowl” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Our raft would disappear beneath the surging water before shooting out in a near-vertical climb. Each rapid was no less terrifying than the last as we approached, but with each victory, my confidence grew.

 

Until “Commercial Suicide”.

 

It was a river-wide conflagration of mist and water, waves smashing into each other with violent hatred. My life flashed before my eyes.

 

“We walk around this one.” The river-guide announced, to a massive sigh of relief.

 

We hoisted the raft ashore, dragged it around the heaving mass of water and launched it back in on the far side. The calm stretches of water were idyllically blissful. The steep sides of the gorge soared up in their sun-bleached yellows and ochres. Grass fires crackled across the scrub singeing our exposed arms and legs with their intense heat. The unrelenting sun burned from above and bounced off the water and the cliffs. We saw crocodiles lounging on the rocks and birds of prey circling overhead. All too soon our pleasure cruise was over and we faced “The Gnashing Jaws of Death”, “The Overland Truck Eater” and “The Mother”.

 

It was in “The Washing Machine” that I became a solo yachtsman. We charged forward then arced down 45 degrees against a sheer wall of green water which soon exploded over our heads. The raft shot through and was propelled skyward like a rocket, perfectly vertical. Hanging on for dear life, I glanced over my shoulder to discover that I was…alone. Everyone else was gone. It was the Marie Celeste of rafts. We swayed like a telegraph pole in the breeze for what seemed like hours. The raft seemed undecided as to whether to fall forward, or to topple backwards and cast me into the mix. With all my strength I slammed my weight forward and we slid over the hump and crashed down onto the river again. My colleagues quickly scrambled aboard and we continued down towards the final rapid, the legendary “Oblivion”.

 

Drifting quietly, we watched the other rafts venture into number 18 and almost all were chewed-up like a feather-pillow in the jaws of a boisterous pit bull. The kayakers ripped into the surf to pull person after person to safety. There was no turning back. We were sucked forward, the raft tipping violently to the left, then the right, plunging forward and then shooting out like a champagne cork. We high-fived each other, our sun-burned faces glowing with adrenaline and headed for the bank and the 300-foot climb out.

 

That evening we gathered to watch the video highlights of the day’s rafting. It was better than the one I’d seen the day before. Silently sitting beside me at the bar were a couple of people booked for the next day. Their faces were pale.

 

“I’m not a very strong swimmer.” one of them stammered at me, their eyes glued at the giant screen.

 

“Swimming isn’t going to help you in that.” I replied knowingly, and patted him on the back.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





White Water, Black Heart – Part I

11 08 2008

The Adventure Blogger: ‘Are we there yet?’               (Photo by Shearwater)

I have never found whitewater rafting particularly enticing. I had always wanted to skydive (The Adventure Zone – May 20, 2008) and was coerced into rap-jumping entirely against my will (The Adventure Zone – June 16, 2008), but whitewater rafting held no allure whatsoever. Which is why I was so confused when I found myself voluntarily electing to do something that had all the appeal of root canal performed by an intoxicated demolition worker.

 

I have long believed that any extreme sport worth doing should be the biggest, best or most dangerous. The Zambezi offers the greatest one-day commercial whitewater rafting in the world so my participation was a no-brainer even if I really didn’t want to do it! Not only was the river a boiling maelstrom of grade 5 rapids, but they threw in a few crocodiles free of charge as a bonus.

 

With more than a little trepidation I walked into the booking office in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. I sat down and watched footage of rafts entering murderously large rapids and the little yellow-helmeted rafters being flung through the air like kernels of corn in a campfire.

 

“Is that a ‘Best of…’ video?” I asked, as a massive raft was flung skyward like a tiddly-wink, tiny star-shaped rafters twirling spectacularly into the foaming water.

 

“No, that was yesterday.” The agent replied disinterestedly as she filled in my paperwork.

 

I swallowed hard.

 

“I, err, I can’t swim.” I decided to inform her as she processed my credit card. “Is that a problem?”

 

She stopped writing, raised her head and looked me in the eye disappointedly while motioning at the television screen with her pen.

 

“Swimming isn’t going to help you in that.” she replied, gesturing at the aquatic carnage before me.

 

I didn’t sleep particularly well that night. I contemplated feigning malaria to avoid the torture to come, but as I’d bought new Velcro-fastened sandals before leaving home solely with the intent of such self-torment, I decided to go through with it any way. At the first glimmer of dawn I was up and striding somewhat reluctantly to the launching point on the edge of the Zambezi gorge. Perhaps I’d be lucky and an elephant would charge from the bush and trample me before I got there.

 

Unfortunately, I arrived unscathed and was outfitted with a life jacket and helmet and then subjected to the most terrifying safety briefing of my life.

 

“Good morning everyone” the nauseatingly buff, tanned, fit and confident river-guide greeted us. “Welcome to the Zambezi. It is very important that you pay absolute attention to everything I say and remember it. Nyaminyami, the God of the Zambezi, is unforgiving and likes nothing better than to punish those who trespass without proper respect.”

 

“We’ll raft 18 rapids today.” he continued, while my sense of foreboding grew. “There are a few Grade 3s and 4s, but most are Grade 5. That’s the highest navigable rapid in commercial rafting. There is also one Grade 6, but we carry the raft around that one. If we tried to go through it and failed, it would suck the raft and all its occupants down and hold them deep below the surface…forever. So we’ll give that one a miss.”

 

He smiled.

 

“When you end up in the river” the taunting continued, “you’ll either be a long-swimmer or a short-swimmer. Short-swimmers make their own way back. Long-swimmers pop-up further away and require help. If you get sucked under just remain calm: you’ll only be held for five minutes at most. If you fall in just before the rapids, tuck yourself into a ball with your knees to your chest and your feet extended forward. These will help you to survive the rocks. If you fall in after the rapids or in calm water, get back to the raft as quickly as possible: that’s where the crocodiles live.”

 

The group of rafters silently hung on his every word. Some seemed to relish the warnings while others seemed to share my intense hatred of him and his obscene enthusiasm.

 

“Right then,” he finished, “let’s head down to the river.”

 

But for the scarlet letter of my yellow helmet and life-jacket, I would have run away but knew the pressgang would have quickly caught up and dragged me back to the gorge. Instead, I tried to summon some saliva to my parched throat and followed everyone down the rock equivalent of walking the plank.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan