Saving the best for last

Saturday, January 16, 2010

My last day in Africa was the best day I’ve had in a long, long time, and that includes lion walking and helicopter riding. I went on a trip to Livingstone Island – a tiny spot of land that perches right on the edge of Victoria Falls. Terrence booked too; he and I ended up doing a lot of the same activities in Livingstone. This was partly because we had similar interests and partly because most of our group decided to go to the Zimbabwe side of the falls on Tuesday, but the Zimbabwe visa cost 65 USD for Canadians, and the entrance to the Falls park cost another 20 USD. Terrence and I (the only Canadians) decided to skip that $85 hit in favour of the package-mailing, fried-worm-restaurant-finding expedition to Livingstone Town instead. That meant that we missed seeing the falls on the day everyone else did, so we were keen to go the next day.

That start point for the 9:00 am trip was the Royal Livingstone Hotel, the only five star establishment in the area and the nicest hotel in Zambia (I think I heard that anyways). Whatever its rating, it was trés posh. It has that grand British colonial atmosphere with ranks of lazy ceiling fans and acres of white draperies and the nicest bathrooms I’ve seen since… well since a very very long time. I almost wanted to skip the island and just hang out in the lobby of the hotel except that I’m pretty sure they would have ejected us (politely, of course) after our grubby clothing stained their white upholstery.

The Royal Livingstone, estimated cost for a room was around $400-500 USD per night

I turned out there would only be three of us on the trip, and the third member of the party was a guy that Terrence and I had already met on our lion walk on Monday morning and on the helicopter ride on Monday afternoon. We were practically best buddies. And our guide was David, who was the brother of Lacken, the lion walking guide. Africa is big, but I guess Livingstone is very small.

The ride out to the island was very short but the water looked tricky, with lots of strange eddies and currents. We were in a small motorboat and made the trip in just a few minutes. David Livingstone made his first trip in a dugout canoe in 1855, which seems mildly insane given that there’s a 110 metre drop if you get a bit off course and run out of arm power to paddle against the current to get back on track. Not to mention the crocodiles.

David our guide told us we’d come at a really good time – the water level was high, but not so high that the island was washed out. There are times when they have to take much smaller boats because the pathways on the island get flooded and the smaller boats are narrow enough to navigate those paths during high water. And at other times of the year big chunks of the 1.7km length of the falls dry up completely. We had a short walk across the island, past the “Loo with a View” and the area where they’d be serving us breakfast after our tour of the island.

Are you kidding me?

The views of the falls were, of course, spectacular. We saw the Zambian side on the right, and then walked a bit and had a look at the more impressive Zimbabwe side. I also had a bit of a mission on the island. The day before - January 12th - I’d woken early and spent a bit of time wandering quietly in the campground. Sometimes I like to look at my calendar and see what I was doing exactly one year ago, and that morning something made me do just that. When I saw the appointment in my calendar for January 12th, 2009, my heart just froze. All it said was “3:00pm - Henry”. It was the day I took my poor sick hound to the vet and the day he didn’t come home. It almost made me cry again remembering, and I felt awful that I would have forgotten completely if I hadn’t had the notion to look at my calendar. So as I wandered and remembered, I decided something.

When I got Henry’s ashes back from the vet I scattered some of them at the dog park at the end of the street, and some of them at the kennel where he was born. But I did keep a tiny container along with his collar and a few other Henry things, and that all went into storage in Winnipeg. And I kept an even tinier container that I brought with me on my travels, attached to the zipper pull of one of my little gadget bags. The thought was that I’d wait until I found the most beautiful spot in the world, and leave that tiny bit of Henry there. I’m not sure if Victoria Falls is the most beautiful place on earth, but the coincidence of the dates and the location and the unexpected whim to check the calendar made it seem like it was the right time and place.

So I stood on Livingstone Island and took my photos and clutched that tiny half-a-cubic centimetre of my buddy in my hand. The trouble is that Victoria Falls is a National Park, so it’s technically illegal to take anything away or leave anything behind. (Dear Falls Park Ranger Patrol: Please don’t arrest me. It really was a very very tiny container. And he really was a very very good hound.) So I sneakily waited until the guide was turned away taking a picture for Terrence and I sent Mr. Henry over the Victoria Falls container and all, with a quick left-handed underarm.

The Zimbabwe side, and the vantage point from whence Mr. Henry was launched.

With that taken care of, it was back to the fun stuff. David asked if anyone wanted to go in the water. Terrence had really been hoping for this chance, but we weren’t at all sure it would come. The most famous swimming spot on the island is called The Devil’s Pool, and is out on the Zimbabwe side. You have to follow a rope strung out in to the water to get to it, but once there you’re in a deep natural pool right on the edge of the falls, with a wall that stops you from going over. We’d been told that the Devil’s Pool was closed due to the high water, but also heard there was another spot where you could go in. This was the spot David proposed, so we decided to go for it.

Well it was simply fantastic. There was a local guy there in the water to show you how to get in, and the other guides took our cameras and shot picture after picture of the whole thing. The pool was about six or eight feet from the edge and about four to five feet deep. The water fell into it from above, filled the pool and then spilled over and went on to the edge. It was great.

Terrence was excited.

We bobbed around in that pool for a while smiling stupidly and shaking our heads in disbelief at the whole thing. And then the local guy who was in the water with us tapped me on the shoulder and crooked his finger for me to follow him, so of course I did. It turns out he was leading me to another pool that was right on the very edge. He carefully told me how to get there, “Put your foot here. Sit here. Slide in. Stand here.” And then I was on the edge of Victoria Falls with water streaming past all around me. I could look over from behind a natural wall and see the bottom, and my fingertips rested on the corner of oblivion. I was only there for a few minutes, but there were some of the most amazing minutes of my life.

David was even clever enough to take some video. It’s grainy, but it gives you the idea. There really are no words for what this felt like.

Terrence got his turn on the edge too, and then we reluctantly hoisted ourselves out of the water and dried off with the towels provided, and sat down for our “light” breakfast: fresh coffee, muffins and scones, and eggs Benedict.

Are you kidding me? Swimming on the edge of Victoria Falls, and then this?

And all this was before 10:30 in the morning and cost just 60 USD. It might have been the best money I’ve spent on the trip so far. In fact at one point during the morning I said to Terrence that it felt we’d won some kind of reward challenge on “Survivor”. I could just hear Jeff Probst saying something like, “The tribe that eats the most mopane worms in the shortest time will win a trip to Livingstone Island where you’ll swim right up to the edge of Victoria Falls and then enjoy a delicious breakfast in view of the natural wonder of the falls.”

In fact the morning just kept being sort of charmed. We went back the the Royal Livingstone and I had a second visit to the nicest bathrooms in Zambia, and then went to sit outside to wait for a taxi and reapply my sunscreen. As soon as I stepped out of the front of the hotel and sat down on the bench provided a choir of four men and four women who were waiting at the entrance broke into an a capella song and dance. It was just bizarre and charming, and if that’s what it’s like to stay in a five star hotel then that’s something I should really do more often. In fact I think I need to go stay at that very hotel some time before I die.

The choir (more video!!)

We ended up getting a free Royal Livingstone shuttle to the slightly-less-fancy hotel next door, where there was a private path to the falls. (There were also giraffes and zebras wandering on the grounds, including a knot of three zebras standing on a median in the parking lot.) We thought the jig might be up when we found out access to the path was restricted to hotel residents, but then Terrence befriended Ceasar the security guard who decided he’d personally escort us through the grounds to the correct gate. I strongly suspect that the $10 USD park entrance fee we paid to a miscellaneous uniformed guard at this gate will never make it into the coffers of the national parks system, but since we would have had to pay it if we’d gone to the proper public gate, I bear no grudge.

We had a nice wander along the paths and took many many photos of the falls, and Terrence took many many photos of the bridge that links Zambia and Zimbabwe because he’s a Bridge Geek of the highest order. And then we walked out along the bridge, all the way to the middle where you can hop back and forth across the line that separates the two countries. I suppose technically I could declare Zimbabwe country number 19, but since I didn’t actually pass through customs and was really only there for about fifteen seconds, I think I’ll let it lie.

Another money shot of the falls

The bridge is also where they do bungee jumping, and the guy who runs the bungee outfit - a British ex-pat - ended up chatting with Terrence about the bridge, and about his big plans for the business, and about how incredibly safe bungee jumping is and on and on. At least he was enthusiastic. When we walked back to the Zambia side to find a cab, Mr. Bungee was there too and offered to give us a ride back to the hotel, saving us 50,000 Kwacha. Like I said, it was a charmed morning.

In fact it was such a full morning that I think I’ll save the story of the afternoon for another post. And trust me, you won’t want to miss that one.

Note: I'm writing and posting this from Amman, Jordan, having made my escape from Africa on January 14th. The first hotel I booked in Amman turned out to be a little sad, and really not what I wanted for a couple of days of R&R. So after a few minutes of dithering in my dingy room, I repacked my bag, hopped in a cab, and upgraded to a place that's three times more expensive but makes me one thousand times happier. I've got highspeed wifi and satellite tv in the room, and there's a complimentary breakfast buffet, and a Fitness Centre with treadmills where I plan to have my first run in 27 days this afternoon. There's even a Qu'uran in the wardrobe and a sticker on the ceiling pointing the direction to pray in. Oh, and they brought me a complimentary plate of fruit and a bottle of water after I checked in. And I had a room service supper last night. I've also managed to get all my Africa photos uploaded to Flickr, and even organized into sets, which is how I'd recommend looking at them. I haven't had a chacne to label them yet, but may get to that as well.

So things are good. I'm clean and relaxed and starting to feel caught up. My "Jordan and Egypt Adventure" tour with Imaginative Traveler starts on the 17th, but until then I'm just enjoying the good life.


Natalie Duhamel, HHC said...

That video of the falls is amazing. It would have scared the CRAP out of me to sit there. You rock.

B said...

It looks like an amazing time! Thanks for sharing!

Ian Timshel said...

The sun, the water the food! What a highlight.

Unknown said...

I shed a tear with the Henry story. I believe the events did line up as his destiny to experience this place and the rainbow only adds to the poignancy of the moment.
Superb all around.
Love the videos and photos.
You are so fortunate Pam!

Rick M. said...

Very nice post Pam.
We're opening our Jan. show tonight.

Parag said...

Saving best for the last is certainly worth waiting if you have such amazing places to visit in your list.
The victoria falls

Post a Comment