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Victoria Falls – Smoke that Thunders

This you must know about the Victoria Falls:  A million litres of Zambezi river water per second pours over a geological fissure into a deep gorge in the African earth.  It was made known to the world by Scottish explorer David Livingstone in 1855 who was told that the constant “smoke” he saw on the horizon was not caused by fire but by water.  The falls are known by locals as Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders.  There is a high water season when the river flows strongly, a ferocious gush over the African terrain that washes crocodiles, elephants, hippopotami and undoubtedly the odd careless human over the 108m high edge, and a low water season, irenic and conciliatory, when there is less spray and the falls are more visible.  The awesome sprays diffract double rainbows all around the falls and a spectacular lunar rainbow at full moon.  The falls constitute the largest falling sheet of water in the world (1708m * 108m), they are the seventh natural wonder of the world and are a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Their power stirs the serene and awes the blasé.  They are magnificent; one simply has to go there.

Face of Vic Falls from Zimbabwe

Face of Vic Falls from Zimbabwe

On my way to the falls I buy a few cigars at a duty free shop at Johannesburg International in anticipation of the pleasures awaiting me.  Unlike perfumes, wines or liquors, cigars are significantly cheaper at duty-free shops than on the high street given the exorbitant taxes on them.  Duty-free shops are practically the only places I can afford this occasional pleasure I so enjoy.1  I land at the airport at Livingstone, check into my hotel within roaring distance of the falls, unpack, take a seat outside, relax in the sun and light up my first cigar, a Saint Luis Rey corona, Habana of course.  What a let-down.  It burns unevenly up the one flank, it is brittle and needs humidifying.  The cigar finds use as a missile when I throw it at a pestering monkey raiding my room for sugar sachets.  Got him, cheers me up no-end.

Solar Rainbow over Vic Falls

Solar Rainbow over Vic Falls

I take a sunset river cruise in a low boat in the late afternoon.  Only four passengers and crew.  A British couple sit on a bench ahead of me drinking beers.  The more you drink the more you see, says the guide.  We cruise upriver and come across a huge crocodile on the river bank, motionless, mouth agape.  “It doesn’t look real”, says the Brit.  “It looks like a wood carving”.  The crocodile remains dead still, Hollywood-in-the-bush, clearly put there by the tourism board.  We move closer.  The croc suddenly rears its legs, turns its head, closes its mouth and menaces into the water towards us.  It’s alive, actually!  Fancy that.  The nervous boat driver speeds us off.  We see trees, yawning hippos, the most dangerous animals in Africa we’re told, and birds, lots of birds and then it’s time for sunset snacks on a river island.  We hone in on a bank and spot huge elephant droppings on the shore.  “They look fresh”, said the Brit.  Two crew members alight.  They look for elephants in the bush but see none so they set out a collapsible table on the shore for sunset snacks.  I grab a pee behind a bush, and hardly begin when shouts of “Elephant!  Elephant coming!” chill my waters.  I pinch off my pee and go flying into the boat behind flying chairs and flying Brits wishing they were in Bristol.  Imbalanced and fear struck, I dare a glance backwards and see a bull elephant stomping on my interrupted pee.  Can you imagine being tossed by an elephant tusk up your rear while peeing?  High up?  Can you?2

Smoke that Thunders

Smoke that Thunders

Back downriver towards the falls.  Time for a becalming cigar.  A mille fleur Romeo y Julieta, Habana of course, desde 1875.  It smokes evenly with a good draw and its mid palate flavours are rich and soothing.  I gaze at the billowing smoke of the falls down the river.  How good it looks through the diaphonous puffs from my Cuban…

The next morning I take a game drive through the neighbouring Mosi-oa-Tunya game park, the smallest in Zambia.  Purity is our charming guide.  Purity asks what we would like to concentrate on – animals, trees or birds.  Not wanting more elephants we say trees and birds so Purity focuses on birds but especially trees.  Two things remain with me:  The first was the bush toilet paper tree, the soft compound leaves of which are used as such.  The other is the pods of the sausage tree, the consumption of which make men virile, said Purity.  The bush provides for man’s direst functions, it seems.

Zambezi Gorge (1)

In the afternoon I cross the border to the Zimbabwean side to get a view of the front of the falls.  What power, what thunder, what rain, what colour, double-rainbows, mist, spray, noise, awe.  Then in a moment I think nah, it’s nothing a talented surfer couldn’t take on after some good weed.  Bloody hell no.  Then the sprays rain down and I’m in the wet and want to take photographs but must wait for the sprays to clear for they come and go erratically, think chaos theory.  I snap the action, then it’s time for a celebratory cigar.  De rigeur.  Montecristo Regatta, hecho en Cuba, of course.  Splendid.  A thundering smoke before the Smoke that Thunders.  Dark, fulsome, flavoursome.  My idea of heaven before the horseshoe falls of Victoria.  I imagine holding a regatta in the gorge right beneath the falls. Wouldn’t that be fun?  Bloody hell no.

Vic Falls Brige

Back to the Royal Livingstone for dinner to baroque music and then back to the park with another tourist for a postprandial viewing of the lunar rainbow.  It’s luckily full moon and the camp remains open till 9PM.  We’re just too late and the park has closed, but the guards are still around so we speak to them.  The guards say well it costs 25 USD per person to get in and the park is closed but they can let us in briefly for 10USD per person if, let’s understand each other, we err hush.  One isn’t at Victoria Falls on every full moon night so we pay-up and hush.  They pocket the bribe and lead us by torchlight to the vantage point from whence one sees the lunar rainbow.  We peer downwards and see nothing, only white roaring spray.  Oh, there’s no lunar rainbow any longer, they say, it had been up earlier but it had since set.  Sorry.  It’s too late and the moon is now too high, they say.  We should come back the next night but earlier if we want to see it, they say.  The next day I’ll be gone, I say.  I inspect the cascades from all angles but there’s nothing but whiteness, flipping drat, so we walk towards the exit miffed and straight into a re-bargaining process with the guards.  Now, they say, they were just thinking, it normally costs 25USD per person to get in, but we got in for 10USD which is too cheap they think.  20USD per person is actually a fairer price, they think.  We stare at them standing erect under the shadows of the moonlight.  They stare steadily back.  They have batons and presumably guns in the gloom.  It’s crushingly easy to dispose of a body over the falls in the dark, I surmise, especially one not officially registered as having entered the park.

I toughen up and tell them to get lost.  I’ve missed the lunar rainbow and now need those famous cigars one smokes when you’ve resigned yourself to loss and they’re all you have left.  Hamlet cigars, I think they’re called.

The next morning I take the boat out to Livingstone Island which had just opened for the season that day.  The currents are still powerful.  Livingstone Island is right on the upper brim of the falls and is the place from whence Dr. Livingstone first saw them.  It has been used as a sacrificial place by local people for centuries and is being slowly eroded by the strong currents of the Zambezi over time.  You can get to within one metre of the edge and stare over the abyss.  It’s scary.  I want and don’t want to go there at the same time.  Our guide is Alpha Omega.  Alpha Omega has a Rastafarian hairstyle and cautiously guides me by the hand to a rock on the brink which could be sweet oblivion if you slip.  What a name for a guide, Alpha Omega.  It reminds me of prayer.  I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.3

Alpha Omega Vic Falls Guide

Alpha Omega Vic Falls Guide

Hardly breathing, I low-crawl towards the brink and peer over the edge at a raw sweep of African nature.  It’s insane and grandly large.  I feel the water, I hear its roaring, I feel the power, I smell the earth, I see the flow, I see it dropping away like the tails of giant white horses in the wind.  I lift my head and see rainbows in the mist.  Not even the gods can derogate this.  My soaring soul!

Peering over the Vic Falls  Edge

Peering over the Vic Falls Edge

Nothing less than a Cohiba double corona right now, thank you.


Notes: (To Smoke that Thunders)

1.  My birthday is on the 7th August.  Every year.

2.  Elephants remain dangerous animals.  Just before I arrived at Victoria Falls a bull elephant trampled a guide to death, and in another incident an elephant trampled a praying apostolic sect member to death at Victoria Falls.  See The Mail, Zimbabwe, Friday 10 June 2011, http://www.mailonline.co.zw/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=738:bull-elephant-kills-guide&catid=1:latest-news&Itemid=1041

3.  The Bible, King James’ Version, Revelation 1:8.