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 Blister In The Sun

16 02 2009

vic-falls-3-mw

              “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





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





Jumping To a Conclusion

7 05 2008

Bungee

The Zambezi in the fall.

 

You may call me a coward if you wish, but I believe that certain death should only be flirted with, at most, once every other day.

 

It is for this reason that during a visit to Victoria Falls I decided I would either partake in the “World’s Most Dangerous One Day Commercial Rafting” or “The World’s Highest Commercial Bungee Jump”, but not both. In the end, I opted for Grade V rafting on the crocodile-infested Zambezi River (*drowning optional) and merely photographing people flinging themselves off the bridge connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia bound only by large fraying elastic bands around their ankles (*detached retinas extra).

 

Bungee jumping has become a phenomenon that seems to be offered by every exotically-located suspension bridge in the world. If there’s no bridge available, operators build platforms on the sides of cliffs, erect construction cranes in fair gounds, hire helicopters and hot air balloons, rent room from space needle observation decks…and in one hotel in Vienna, even created a platform at the apex of a glass pyramid over the shallow swimming pool.

 

Bungee jumping was invented in the 1970s by a group of English adventurers who called themselves the “Dangerous Sports Club”. They were inspired by the land divers of Vanuatu who fling themselves from bamboo towers with only vines wrapped around their ankles. The allure of dislocating both legs for fun was obviously a strong one but being sissies, they opted for something a little more forgiving and safer than vines: large elastics.

 

The first commercial operation was A J Hackett’s in Queenstown, New Zealand and it still ranks amongst the most successful, popular and “gotta-do-it” in the world. At the time of my visit to Victoria Falls, it was the highest commercial jump in the world at 111 metres. Today, it has been surpassed by taller ones in Macau (233 metres), Lucerne (220 metres) and Bloukrans, South Africa (216 metres) amongst others. But jumping within sight of one of the most magnificent natural wonders of the world, in the no-man’s-land between two countries while steam trains chug across the bridge above and fish eagles soar below still makes it arguably the most exotic bungee around.

 

Anyone with a few traveller’s cheques, properly-attached retinas and a complete lack of common sense can bungee. After handing over a wad of cash and signing a disclaimer longer than most romance novels, jumpers are weighed and the correct length of bungee is determined. Too much cord and jumpers start exploring for hidden oil reserves – head first – and too little and they’ll forever bounce like a yo-yo. Once paid, weighed and okayed they head to the launch site for a briefing and a binding and then waddle to the edge of the abyss.

 

Adrenalin is an incredibly addictive substance. It leaves you feeling 10-feet tall, invincible and damn sexy. It’s that rush that causes otherwise sensible people to do remarkably un-sensible things – and then buy the t-shirt to show the world just how silly they were. Generations ago, before the most dangerous thing we faced was a vicious paper cut, we tested our limits on a daily basis just to survive. Today, unless you count removing staples with your bare fingers, the only contact we have with seemingly-real danger is through adrenalin sports.

 

I can’t wait to bungee jump, but it must be either the highest, the most spectacular or the first….and be clear, sunny weather with a gentle breeze, and be on a day with the letter ‘c’ in it…  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008





Horse d’oeuvres, anyone?

23 03 2008

Zimbabwe horse 

A four-legged buffet cart

Everyone knows that dogs and small children can smell fear, but I believe that horses can tell when you used too many glue sticks in kindergarten. How else can you explain why every time I have ever mounted a horse, I have very nearly lost my life?

I am a gentle person. I carry spiders out of the house on pieces of paper, and I avoid stepping on lines of ants. Dogs generally like me, cats ignore me in a loving way and a penguin once fell asleep on my camera bag. But for some reason, horses are not amongst my admirers.

My first equestrian endeavour came at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. It sounded like an excellent plan at the time. After signing a very long disclaimer that I swear included the words ‘dismemberment’ and ‘decapitation’, I mounted my docile old steed and patted him affectionately on the neck. I was instructed with the basic rudiments of stop, go, left and right. What more could I possibly need?

We soon turned down a narrow track into the bush. It was not long after sunrise and the light was a golden yellow that filtered lazily through the tree tops. The air was fresh and quiet save for the morning song of birds. A small antelope darted from the tall grass, stopped to stare at us and continued on. Life was great and I loved every moment…until we spotted the lion tracks.

Our guide halted our single-file procession and looked around nervously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zim track

Photo blurred due to fear

“Lion tracks,” she stammered, pointing at an imprint in the soft sand. “Very fresh too. Stay close together in single file, and if you see a lion, wave your arms around and shout loudly.”  Lions consider horse meat to be quite the delicacy and a rare treat. As I was perched on one, I felt like a glazed cherry on a cup cake at a children’s birthday party. The guide cantered back and sternly told me to ensure that I followed her instructions properly in future. I began to object, but she was already gone. My horse turned its head and taunted me with one large, knowing eye.

As our procession moved faster, I realised I was last in line and therefore almost certainly first eaten. To make matters worse, my horse suddenly veered into the tall lion-hiding grass. I pulled on the reigns, but my efforts were ignored. I tried gentle encouragement. Forfeiting all masculine pride, I begged and pleaded, but still we went further towards being a main course. Our guide noticed and shouted angrily for me to return to the path, as if I had chosen to join the à la carte menu. Eventually, after a few mouth-fulls of grass we regained the trail and emerged into a clearing. I heaved a mammoth sigh of relief.

 

The Zambezi raced past us, a wide rolling expanse of water fringed on either side by pristine bush. In a calm pool in the centre we could see a pod of hippos, their eyes and piggy-ears poking into the air. A crocodile lazed on the far bank, barely distinguishable amongst fallen trees. The river tumbled over Victoria Falls a mile downstream and although we couldn’t see it, we could hear its thunderous roar. We sat and watched a circling African fish eagle. Not contented with its salad, my horse now decided it wanted a drink of water. 

Fresh, Zambezi water.

I tolerated its first sips from the bank, but as it waded deeper and deeper, from ankle-depth, to knee and upwards, I began to once again heave on the reigns. The river was racing faster the further we went. It was like a conveyor belt at a sushi restaurant with the crocodiles as the customers, and us as the sashimi. I tugged on the reigns with all my strength, only to have that taunting eye stare at me again…and then move deeper into the river, my toes dipped into the flow. I began to realise I was going to be the first person that day to go over Vic Falls without a barrel. Our guide galloped into midstream, angrily grabbed the reigns from my hands and swiftly led us to the shore. My horse, of course, meekly followed like an obedient lemming: a vision of innocence.

For the rest of the ride I was instructed to follow immediately behind the guide, which I did, and inevitably my horse did precisely as told. You could almost see its halo hovering above its mane.  Back at the stable, I dismounted and walked bow-legged into the shade. My horse looked at me, snorted…and winked, before gently ambling away.

Post and photos by: Simon Vaughan © 2008