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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Out of Town, Part II: Part 2 - Livingstone, Zambia which we alternately lounge like lizards and defy death.

Day 5: Friday, November 27th: on the road to Livingstone. Why did the elephant cross the road? Or rather, why didn’t he? Because we were in the way, I’m afraid, on the road to Livingstone, Zambia. He wanted to cross the road because his peeps were on the other side, which were what we were actually gawking at to our right before - Hello! he showed up bigger than life on our left.  But as we slowed down to a dead halt on the two-lane highway – along with the car coming towards us from the other direction – this behemoth seemed of two minds about whether to cross the road between us. So we waited. And waited. And he shook his ears and stomped about, and finally loped back in to the trees on his own side, perhaps to wait for a more salubrious crossing.
oh hey look, an elephant!

I mean, how cool! It's right there, like 50 feet away!

YAH! where'd you come from?

We would have done as well to heed his example, because the border crossing into Zambia was such an utter confusion of trucks and truck drivers and people with fruit baskets on their heads and others carrying long lengths of pipe and dogs and dust and fences and offices and people volunteering to be our “agent” that we were pretty sure we were missing something. Turns out, we were: see the last paragraph of this update.

cliche, granted, but still remarkable. (Mel)

But we placed our faith in the Zambian government notices posted all over that decried corruption, and the smaller notices that outlined the list of things we had to do – pay the ferry, get our passports stamped, pay for a road tax, pay for a carbon tax, buy insurance, pay a council fee – most of which, allegedly, we were supposed to be able to do without any “agents” helping us. However, all of these things had to be taken care of at different offices, by different bored officials who had little interest in making sure we got through our crossing unfleeced. And we were trying to get to Kim and Craig before it got too late. So intrepidly we sallied forth, paying a gentleman who might or might not have been an “agent” to manouver us up to the front of some lines, and to motion us away from other even less principled “agents” who were selling bogus insurance policies and the like. Eventually, we crossed with all our paperwork shuffled, stamped, stapled and in order. A small cheer went up from our party as we waved goodbye to our “agent,” who was a bit richer in US dollars, and had probably saved us a few hours.  (Seriously, there were maybe 100 semi-trucks waiting to cross at this border, which used a ferry?  No wonder supply chains in developing nations are untrustworthy.)  We arrived in good order, in time enough to enjoy some dinner with Kim and Craig, who had very thoughtfully arranged our campsite for us at this lovely little resort which was home for the next 3 days.  We'd made it to Livingstone!

Hail, Hail, the gang's got beer.

Livingstone: The Man, The Myth, The Moustache

Livingstone is something like a low-rent Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, if you’ve ever been there, which is no fault of its eponymous “discoverer.” The main attraction, is, of course, Victoria Falls, where the majestic upper Zambezi hurtles into a 100 m abyss. David Livingstone, erstwhile missionary and gutsy Scottish explorer, had been brought to see the Mosi Oa Tunya (“the smoke that thunders”) by locals over 150 years before us, in one of his numerous trips into the Dark Continent, for the benefit of the British Empire and his own incurable wanderlust.

Incidentally, we learned all about Livingstone courtesy of Sven’s iPod and a digital audiobook called “Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone” which we were serializing in parts during our drive, whenever we could no longer bear to try to agree on music. This is a fascinating account of his various explorations (including the final one, the quest to find the source of the Nile,) and the large supporting cast of explorers, native guides, n’er do wells hired guns, Arab slave traders, and gentleman scientists; and of course, how the intrepid Welshman-turned-America-turned-Brit journalist Stanley should end up finding Livingstone, eventually, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika after he’d gone missing for years. Riveting stuff, very provoking – was he or some of the other explorers of the time gay? Did he have an affair with a native woman who bore him a son? Was Stanley, charged with carrying on Livingstone’s exploration in Africa, inadvertently the promulgator of the slave trade Livingstone abhored by creating the Belgian Congo for greedy, crafty monarch Leopold II? - a great glimpse into a time in colonialist history when geo-politics had a very different meaning than it does today. But I digress.

Livingstone Was Quoted Here

The Smoke that Thunders has been, appropriately, turned into a hot tourist mecca, and has given rise to a ton of extreme touristy activities like abseiling, white water rafting, and bungee jumping off the Victoria Falls Bridge, which is 111 meters high. Uh, no thank you to that last one.

Bernardo contemplates the madness of bungee jumping off that bridge.

On Saturday, we merely hiked the path to see the falls; though the Zambia side is widely agreed to be inferior to the Zimbabwe side, for political reasons the Zimbabwe side has become something of a leper colony. So Zambia was it for us: and being as how this is the dry season, the falls were not at their full capacity, at which time, we were assured, we would be drenched just by standing opposite the rift from them, and the noise would be immense. As it was, we were treated to a lovely view of the rift rocks themselves, and given a glimpse of a kinder, gentler Victoria Falls, which was still pretty damn breathtaking.

Yes, I was hiking in flip-flops.

Also, we ran across this fella, who was minding his own business, being GIANT, FURRY, and INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS LOOKING along the path we hiked.
Mothereffing Tarantula as Big As My Hand

That evening, after rinsing away the dust and sweat of the trail in the lush pool at Maramba and gobbling cheeseburgers in the shade, we opted for the yuppified splendour of a sunset booze-cruise, where I made the further acquaintance of the delicious local brew named for the falls's local name, Mosi Oa Tunya. As we chatted with other passengers and checked out the other boats tootling around, a number of submerged hippos blew water out their noses at us, and we saw some crocs sunning themselves on the central island…in fact, apparently this guy comes up to check on all the boats, and is locally known as “Duncan.” Duncan the crocodile. Sweet.
Duncan, The Funloving Predator

And in general, it was one of those scenes of extraordinary beauty that one hopes to glimpse on vacation, if just so you remember what all the hustle and driving and border crossings are about.

The answer is: sunset.

okay, no, the answer is actually:  beer at sunset.

Sunday morning dawned a lovely day and we had booked ourselves a trip to the Devil’s Pool off a bit of rock outcropping in the middle of the falls known as Livingstone’s Island. This is a ridiculously cool thing that would never be allowed in the states for liability reasons: first, you are taken to the literal edge of the falls, where a guide gives you some background and will take your picture as you are precariously perched mere feet from instant death. I did my best to capture the very cool double rainbow that formed an almost 270 degree arc over the falls, but as usual, my picture-taking ability totally failed me.

Somewhere over the rainbow... lies certain death.  Kim braves the edge.

Then, you are directed to swim INTO THE UPPER ZAMBEZI IMMEDIATELY ABOVE THE FALLS, with a rope literally stretched about 4 feet from the edge for you to GRAB IF YOU START GOING OVER, into a relatively “safe” pool of water that is slowly carving a concavation into the rocks over which the Falls fall. From the vantage of Livingstone’s Island, a few tufts of grass on some taller rocks, you JUMP INTO THIS POOL, and then wait, overcome by hysterical nervous laughter, for your turn to be HELD BY THE FEET SO YOU CAN CRAWL FAR ENOUGH TO STICK YOUR HEAD OVER THE EDGE OF THE FALLS. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we were all that crazy. It was awesome.  I have no pictures of that, alas, but if you don't believe me, you can check out Snopes view on the subject.  Verdict: true.

The hearty explorers just before taking a dip at the end of the known universe.

After this, you are shepherded to a lovely table where your party can enjoy a seriously delicious breakfast of fresh-baked scones and Eggs Benedict. Your stomach, at this point, is so joyful to be alive that it snatches hungrily at everything brought before you, and you share some hearty guffaws with your fellow insane freaks, as those who have overcome a very dire death sentence together will do. One gentleman, from Atlanta, was so enthused by everything that he insisted on taking a picture of his eggs benedict because of its sheer perfection, much to the amusement of all. His fiancĂ©e looks on in long-suffering exasperation.
Civilisation greets the hearty explorers... the form of photo-worthy eggs benedict.

So yeah, top that, Livingstone! But oh, the best was yet to come. First, though, we bid adieu to Kim and Craig, who were back on the road to Lusaka after this death-defying adventure.
adieu, Kim and Craig!

Me, I was sated for the day: I opted out of an attempt by Mel and the boys to cross to see the Zimbabwe side in favor of lounging literally all day by the pool. They returned sometime later, unsuccessful, but having gotten their passports stamped before declining to pay the ridiculous money required for the 1-day visa. So at least their passports SAY they were in Zimbabwe. I, instead, was here, which was, in a word, GLORIOUS:

don't lie, you wouldn't have left it all day, either.

Monday, however, was what I was waiting for: white water rafting. As my illustrious brother can tell you, Pigeon Forge TN was my first white water rafting adventure and I’ve always harbored a love for it, after enjoying it also a few places out west. This was much, much crazier. The lower Zambezi, where we put in, is home to 25 rapids, 8 of them class 5. Did I say 8 class 5 rapids? Yes I did! And there was good reason for the guides to be strapping us into our life-jackets so thoroughly that none of us could breath. Early on, Mel, who was riding at the front of the boat, was bounced once, twice, THRICE and launched off the front end of the boat, this edifying spectacle caught in spectacular fashion by the safety kayakers who joined the rafts on the trip, and also wielded the trip cameras. Mel herself was caught similarly by another kayaker in front of us, and deposited safely back as our figurehead, after which adventure our guide Tomba called her “Water-Melan” for the rest of the trip.

Perhaps he should have considered "Twinkle Toes".  Yes, that's an actual photo of Mel (I'm in the back, at bottom.)

And a few rapids later, we flipped our entire boat, and I spent my time under water speculating about whether I’d be willing to come up again if I was unable to hang on to the skirt/shorts combo I was using as a swimsuit. Then a mad scramble to right ourselves, get on top of the flipped boat, capture all the lost oars and count heads before we were yanking each other back on board, hearts racing and panic slowly subsiding into peals of, once again, hysterical laughter. Holy crap, that was fun, in a terrifying, breathtaking sort of way. Highly recommended, despite the hours of arduous rowing, the nasty sunburn owing to substandard water-“resistant” SPF 45, and, of course, the whole death-defyingness of it all.

But in my opinion, the most fun of all were the rapids we shot without the boat: these were near the end, and formed by a natural confluence of two parallel streams in a narrows that caused them to tumble over one another without benefit of a rocky sub-floor. As such, they were perfectly safe as long as one was in one’s life-jacket. It’s hard to describe exactly how cool it is to be pulled along by a fast-moving tide, spinning and bobbing without any effort whatsoever, only to be thrust face-first, laughing and sputtering, through a series of standing waves that you can ride almost weightlessly, like a surfer in space. Exhilarating. If there was a trip where they just brought you back to the beginning of this rapid and let you go through it over and over again, I’d have been first in line the next morning.

As it was, however, we had other things to see – all of Namibia, for one – so in the morning we packed up our tents and said goodbye to our palatial spread, and to Livingstone, and headed out of the tourist mecca and back into the bush for our final 5 days. To do this, we left the madness of the Zambian border behind again, and passed back into Botswana….only to discover that the thing we had forgotten to do upon entering Zambia was get our exit stamps from the Botswanan border control. Oops. I think the utter horror on our faces, and our willingness to admit that we were complete morons for somehow failing to notice this, were the only things that enabled the border guards, incredulously, to let us carry on our way to Chobe, contrite, but unfined. And unjailed.

Next up: the thrilling conclusion.  Chobe, Caprivi, Etosha, and Windhoek – and home to Cape Town.  Until then: au revoir!

1 comment:

  1. Great writing! Craig and I had a fabulous time with all four of you, and that weekend is certainly a highlight of our six months here.