Victoria Falls is on a lot of lists, starting with its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It’s also National Geographic’s #1 Watery Wonder, #11 of 27 Surreal Places to Visit Before You Die, and Devil’s Pool, at the edge of the falls, is #3 on Oprah’s list of Places You Need to Visit. So check, check, and check.
We went to the falls on our last day at Royal Chundu in Zambia. After spending the previous three days living on an island upstream, alternately riding with or going against the current as we traveled and recreated on an approximately 6km stretch of the Zambezi river, the pull of the falls was a combination of physical draw and curiosity. I could literally feel that it was there, and was ready to see it.
In a way, my expectations were low because we were there during the November dry season, when only a small portion of the falls contains water. What was a waterfall, without water? But during the high water season, you can’t even see the falls because there is so much spray. So, you go there just to get wet from the spray? I’d read descriptions of Victoria Falls on the Internet, looked at maps, but still couldn’t quite comprehend. What, exactly, were we going to see?
There are several names for Victoria Falls in native African languages, and they all mean essentially the same thing: “The Smoke that Thunders.” During the height of the wet season, the mist from the falls can be seen as far as 30 km away, and the noise it makes sounds like thunder. On the airplane coming into Livingstone, I caught a glimpse of the river out the window and noticed two things. One, the river was wide and braided, filled with islands and channels. Two, there was what appeared to be smoke rising from one particular spot. The Smoke that Thunders.
There were essentially two ways to see the falls, as we had single-entry visas. Going over to the Zimbabwe side and then re-entering Zambia wasn’t an option. We could go up in a helicopter, or we could do the Livingstone Island Tour. We could have done both, but the helicopter ride was pretty expensive, and I was happy to stay on the ground. So we chose the lunch on Livingstone Island option, which included a boat ride to the island near the edge of the falls, lunch, and the opportunity to swim in Devil’s Pool.
The day before our trip Cindy and Phil, the Florida couple who were also guests at Royal Chundu, did the breakfast at Livingstone Island option. They came back bright-eyed with exhilaration, showing us photos of the falls, rainbows, and themselves sprawling on the edge of the waterfall in Devil’s Pool. Mark was appalled, and didn’t waste any time declaring, “I’m not doing that!” He repeated some version of this over and over for the rest of the day, all evening, and during the night in his sleep. And at breakfast.
We were picked up at Royal Chundu by a tour guide named Mambo who was very educated and knew a lot about natural resource management and conservation. As we drove to Livingstone, he told me about the different hardwood and softwood trees and their uses, and we discussed deforestation and the use of fire as a management tool. I was so impressed with Mambo that I asked Aggie about him the next day. “Oh,” she said, “he’s the best. Everyone asks for Mambo. When Bill Clinton and George Bush came to Victoria Falls, they got Mambo.”
The Livingstone Island tours depart from and return to the elegant Victoria Falls Hotel, where Mambo ushered us to a deck near the boat launch and we could see the misty “smoke” rising and hear the falls thundering.
A speedboat picked us up, and we wound our way through the churning, boiling water, closer and closer to the falls. We landed on Livingstone Island, where Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone was the first European to see the falls 158 years and three days before, on November 16th, 1855.
We were offered a welcome drink, and our hosts explained that we would view the falls, then we could swim in Devil’s Pool, and afterward we would be served a three-course lunch in the outdoor pavilion.
We followed the guide out onto the rocky basalt plateau which, during high water season, is submerged, part of the falls. To our left, the falls still thundered, while on our right a few streams were making the 300 foot drop.
Within a few weeks, the place where we were standing will no longer be accessible, and the mighty Zambezi will continue its its work, cutting back toward the next gorge upstream. Being a sometime-geology and geomorphology student, I was glad we had come during the dry season, so that we could see the landscape that creates the falls.
Mark and I have both found that we are becoming more and more sensitive to heights. Maybe it has something to do with our sense of balance, which gets worse with age. I have never been comfortable with heights, and I am motion-sensitive and become dizzy and nauseous quickly. But lately, Mark seems to be even worse than I am when it comes to vertigo.
Maybe he doesn’t have the years of experience with it that I have, but he was muttering and hanging back from the edge. He preferred to take photos of me, while I ventured closer to the edge. (Insert corny get-rid-of-wife joke here.)
We could see people looking at the falls through the mist across from us, on the Zimbabwe side, which is more developed and usually draws more tourists. There is a unique rainforest ecosystem on that side, created by the mist. But because of political tensions in that country, the number of tourists has, if you can forgive the expression, dropped off.
This was as close as Mark wanted to get, but I took a closer look.
It was time to see who was brave enough to swim Devil’s Pool. It turned out that everyone in our group was willing to enter the water. There was a first pool, with two safety ropes stretched across a few feet apart in front of another pool at the edge of the waterfall. This pool had some, but not much, current, and the water was pleasantly warm. The there was a short scramble over some rocks, and … behold, the Devil’s Pool.
I was not the first to go in. There were two women from the Netherlands, and they went in first. I went next, although I will admit I needed some verbal encouragement from them. I could feel little fish, like the ones that do the fish pedicures, nibbling at and tickling my feet, which I really wanted to keep on the rocks below me but of course I kept moving them because of the fish. Our Royal Chundu neighbors from Johannesburg were there, and they entered next. Mark kept his word: “No way!”
The talented team of tour guides had collected everyone’s cameras and brought them through the water to the pool. They were snapping pictures, encouraging us to sit up on the ledge, and pose for the cameras. I have to admit that this was one of the scariest things I have ever willingly, deliberately done.
Mark and I have gotten ourselves into some hairball situations sailing, but that’s different. Those things start to happen, build, and you can’t get out of them; you just have to deal with it. But, sit on the edge of the world’s greatest waterfall? That’s a personal choice.
After the Devil’s Pool swim, I went to take one more look, and a few photos, of the waterfall that I had just sat on the edge of.
Then, I noticed someone standing on a rock in the small, fast moving pool beyond the safety ropes. As I watched, he did a backflip into the water, came up and started swimming. Nobody but me seemed to notice him. He kept going long enough for me to take a video, and even popped out of the water and jumped in again, backwards. But I swear, the first time he did a real back flip. I can only guess that he’s a local, probably a guide, and grew up doing this daredevil trick. No wonder they call it Devil’s Pool!
Lunch included wine, beer, or even a mixed drink. The young female chef introduced herself and explained that we would start with gazpacho soup, and then be served grilled meats, salad, vegetables and couscous, and dessert. We were out on an island in the middle of a raging river, under a canopy, in our bathing suits, but the food and service were excellent. And the conversation around the table was lively, probably due to the exhilaration of just having gone to the edge!
Thanks for reading.