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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A Walk On The Wild Side in Zimbabwe

3 11 2008

“You lookin’ at me?!”                                                 (Cape Buffalo)

It was mid-afternoon and the Zimbabwean heat was already easing as the sun softened to warm orange. I was on a 3-day walking safari through the remote Gwayi Valley near Hwange National Park and had been trekking since just after dawn. My guide and I were well off the beaten path, miles from telephones, roads and civilisation. We ate and slept deep in the bush and I was completely dependent on Mark’s experience and bushcraft for survival.

 

Following a narrow trail, Mark stopped and pointed at the ground. I came up alongside him and followed his finger to a patch of softer sand and an enormous track.

 

“That’s the freshest buffalo print you’ll ever see.” he said. “Come on, let’s find him.”

 

Although no expert on the Cape buffalo, I did know that it was amongst the single most dangerous creatures in all of Africa – especially lone buffalo and especially when followed. They were renowned for massive strength, considerable weight, surprising speed and a rather nasty temperament. They were also wily creatures known to circle back and leave their pursuers on the horns of a dilemma.

 

Before I could object, Mark set off with silent purpose while I scurried behind trying to keep up, remain quiet, not panic…and create enough saliva to dampen my suddenly parched mouth. Because of the dense bush, our vision was limited to a narrow corridor created by the rough trail we were following. Mark moved effortlessly along the path while my legs were sliced and diced by every thorn along the way.

 

Suddenly, there was movement ahead and a massive grey-black rump thundered across the path. Mark raised a hand for me to stop. With his eyes fixed on the bush ahead he gestured at the spot where our friend had been.

 

“Was it a rhino?” I breathlessly whispered, unable to believe that something that massive could be a buffalo.

 

“No,” he quietly replied. “It’s the buffalo. A Dagga Boy: a young male. He’s nearby. Follow me and do exactly as I say.”

 

With that, he placed his finger on the trigger-guard of the rifle, raised it across his chest and continued forward very slowly and quietly, his eyes scanning the bush and the trail.

 

I followed his every step, desperately wanting to tap him on the shoulder and suggest that perhaps I wasn’t really that interested in wildlife after all and that a spot of needlework in the nearest retirement home sounded better. But before I had a chance, Mark had stopped dead in his tracks and hissed for me to do likewise.

 

With my body struck with premature rigor mortis and my mouth slightly ajar, I stared ahead, beyond the barrel of Mark’s gun and straight into the malevolent eyes of the biggest Cape buffalo I had ever seen.

 

From barely a few dozen metres distance, he glared at us menacingly. I could see his nostrils opening and closing with each breath and the sun glinting on the moisture. A great boss of horns curled to sharp points either side of his huge head. He stamped heavily on the ground and edged forward shaking his head angrily. Mark hissed for me to remain still.

 

The buffalo shook his head again and snorted loudly. I remained rooted to the ground, frozen partly in obedience and partly fear. Mark was a statue before me. The buffalo stamped and shuffled forward again, staring at us and shaking his head in irritation. I swivelled my eyes to the extent of their sockets straining for a tree to climb. There was nothing other than thorn bush.

 

Again he stamped his heavy hooves and edged towards us. Sweat trickled from my hairline, stinging at my eyes, while flies taunted my inability to swat at them by gravitating to my open mouth. The stand-off continued for what seemed a lifetime but in reality was likely little more than minutes. It was broken only by Mark tapping on the stock of the rifle. The buffalo’s large ears twitched at the sound but his eyes remained fixed. Mark tapped again.

 

I had no idea what he was doing but was just glad that he was doing something! My appetite for the status quo had long expired and I wanted it to end…one way or the other. The buffalo edged forward again. Mark tapped. Finally, with one last shake of his massive head, the buffalo stamped forward and then swung around powerfully and charged away into the bush and out of sight.

 

I breathed again.

 

“Cheeky bugger!” Mark turned to me with an enormous adrenalin-fuelled smile. “He wasn’t scared at all.”

 

I confessed that I certainly had been, and mentioned my efforts to find a tree to climb.

 

“Wouldn’t have done you any good if there’d been one right beside us.” he explained. “He would have been on us before I could have raised my rifle and before you could have lifted your foot.”

 

I nodded sagely, glad that I hadn’t been aware of that little pearl a few moments earlier.

 

“But you know what did worry me?” he asked, obviously about to tell me whether I wanted to know or not. “There were two of them…and I didn’t know where the second one was!”

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





The Thin White Line

3 06 2008

Rhino 1

I’m ready for my close-up, Mr De Mille.   (Matopos, Zimbabwe)

Scars are sexy.

 

They are virile emblems of athleticism or a testament to a life of death-defying derring-do….provided that they are accompanied by a suitably impressive explanation, of course. The key to a good scar is to breathlessly exclaim that the chunk missing from your eyebrow was caused by the butt of a revolver when you foiled a bank robbery…and not when you slipped on the wet bathroom floor and knocked yourself unconscious with your electric toothbrush.

 

Sometimes a complete lie is necessary to turn a scar into a badge of honour. Other times you need only stretch the truth or leave out a pertinent detail. And on some rare occasions, surprisingly enough, the truth itself is sufficient. Like the scar on my left kneecap that was obtained while stalking white rhinos in Zimbabwe.

 

The two rhino were grazing several hundred metres from the dirt track in Matopos National Park. They were close, but somewhat obscured by acacia bushes and long grass.

 

“Do you want to get a bit closer?” our guide asked from the driver’s seat of the open-backed 4WD.

 

We all said we did and were somewhat surprised when, instead of finding another track closer to the pair, he turned off the engine and opened the door. We looked at each other curiously.

 

“Well, come on.” he added, gesturing for us to climb down and join him.

 

We jumped out and the guide instructed us to gather round.

 

“Right,” he said. “These are white rhino, not as aggressive as black but they are still quite dangerous. Fortunately, their eyesight is very poor but they do have an excellent sense of smell. We’ll walk towards them in a wide arc to stay downwind. Watch me very closely and do exactly as I say.”

 

We stared with a mixture of incredulity and excitement as he set off into the bush. We looped away from the rhinos before curving back around. As we began to draw closer, the guide again called us towards him.

 

“You must do exactly what I say,” he reiterated in hushed tones. “Stay behind me at all times. If I crouch, you crouch. If I stop, you stop. If I crawl, you crawl. When we leave, move away from them backwards…and don’t make any noise.”

 

Despite the intense sun, some of our small group looked distinctly pale. A few chose to go no further and headed back to the vehicle. The rest of us continued forward. We followed the guide’s example and walked more slowly, then crouched. Finally, with the rhinos just metres away, we dropped to all-fours and started crawling towards them.

 

Rhinos are big. Everyone knows that, but until you are on your hands and knees, just a few metres away and viewing them at an upwards angle, you don’t realise just how big they really are. We’re talking compact car size. We stopped behind a scraggy acacia bush to provide a modicum of camouflage and watched, listened and smelled as the pair chomped on the vegetation.

Rhino 2

 

At one point the female’s ears pricked up and she stared in our direction. The guide hissed for us to freeze. The female snorted and shook her mighty head and took a step forward, before resuming her meal. The guide whispered that it was time to leave, and we began to crawl away backwards, all the while keeping a very close eye on the rhinos and preparing to run if they began to charge. At a safe distance, we stood and continued backwards before eventually standing upright and walking properly to the 4WD.

 

Our eyes were ablaze with excitement and smiles shone from ear to ear. None of us had expected an encounter like that, and apart from the occasional dose of terror, we’d loved every moment.

 

“What’s that on your leg?” someone asked me.

 

I glanced down and there, sticking out of my kneecap, was a long, razor sharp acacia thorn. I grabbed it and pulled, a trickle of blood eased down my shin and the thorn eventually came free. I had evidently knelt on it at some point during my crawl, but the adrenalin from the fear of being trampled by several tons of rhino had obviously masked the pain.

 

“That will leave a scar.” My companion added with a grave face and a shake of the head.

 

“Yes, I know.” I replied with a big smile.

 

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008