The Smoke that Thunders

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

The most recent leg of our odyssey has taken us from the Okavango Delta on a flight to Kasane, on the border b/w Botswana and Zimbabwe, where we crossed the border, and took a mini-bus to Victoria Falls. Along our route we followed the mighty Zambezi River, whichs marks the border b/w Zambia & Zimbabwe.

We’re not sure why Robert Mugabe has it in for Canadian tourists, but most other nationalities pay $30 to $60 for a visa, while ours was $75. Guess he needs the money more than we do, although we wish it was to feed his many millions of starving people rather than for another expensive bottle of champagne for himself!

In both Namibia & Botswana we heard nothing but good things about the government, but a mere half hour in Zimbabwe and we had an earful from our driver about “uncle Bob”, as he is not so endearingly referred to by locals and others in the region.

We’ve just finished reading “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun” by Peter Godwin, a memoir of growing up in Zimbabwe. Written by an award winning journalist, it is a scathing expose of life and politics after Mugabe is elected and begins to seize land from white farmers to redistribute to black Africans who have mostly never farmed before.

Tragically Zimbabwe has gone from being the bread basket of Africa to a nation of inefficient farms run by inept farmers; food production has fallen to levels never seen before. Inflation was so out of control that hawkers sell $50 million Zimbabwean notes as souvenirs as they are worthless. The financial crisis has led to the U.S. dollar being adopted as the official currency. Weird to go to a bank machine and get US$ out.

Nevertheless, the falls are spectacular, the countryside green and teeming with wildlife, the shops full of colorful crafts and the people poor but friendly.

Victoria Falls is considered the largest in the world in terms of volume of water. They are not the highest nor the widest, but the Zambezi River spills more water into the gorge per minute than any other on the planet. David Livingstone, who explored this part of Africa in the 19th century, referred to them as the “smoke that thunders”. We can see the smoke and hear the thunder from our hotel and it is a short walk to the see the falls.

A helicopter trip over the falls was really the only way to capture its grandeur. Even then, the photos do not really do it justice. In particular, the spray and rain caused by the falls are missing. Not having been warned, the day we walked along the gorge we joked about the vendors selling ponchos on such a clear-sky day, only to feel very foolish when, soaking wet, we passed those smart enough to shell out a few bucks for rain protection.

The Victoria Falls Hotel, where we are staying, is 110 yrs old and looks every bit the grand dame of colonial Africa. The hallways, lounges and terraces echo of ghosts of a bygone era. It was originally built as a stop-over for the train from Cairo to Cape Town and we find ourselves imagining being a traveler in those days. So exotic!

Sadly, just outside the gates hawkers and beggars dog us with their pleas for help. A shtick we have not heard before goes something like this: can I have your shirt/shoes for my mother who is very poor and cannot afford to buy clothing? This is the first place in a month of travel that we have encountered this kind of desperation and it is a good example of bad government destroying people’s lives.

We have on a few occasions succumbed to their sales pitches and are now in possession of some wooden carvings we really don’t want or need, although thankfully we still have our shirts and shoes. The funniest purchase is a 3 ft long carved stick that is neither a walking stick nor a cane, but seems to be some kind of sceptre. As it does not fit into our back packs it will have to go carry-on. It has a rather pointy end that might be viewed by airline security as a weapon, so I can see that being a problem. Craig was moved by the fellow’s story and could not pass up the $10 price he was asking and we were just plain worn out by the dozens of similar encounters. I have a large and somewhat unattractive wooden bowl that cost $5. It will at least fit into my bag. As will the wooden rhinoceros that Craig thinks he may use as a paper weight. Don’t be surprised if some of these items show up gift-wrapped under the christmas tree with your name on the tag.

Our final evening was spent on a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River. What should have been a peaceful way to end our few days here turned into a mad dash for the dock. We barely got off the boat when the wind became fierce, the rain torrential and the thunder and lightening unremitting. Trees were down all over the roads, including a large one completely blocking the entrance to our hotel. In no time the grounds staff were hacking away at the branches and hotel staff had rushed out with umbrellas to escort us the block or so from the van to the hotel entrance. Although it is the rainy season, this was the first rain we’d seen in a month, so it was much needed, but our van driver referred to it as the storm of the century, above and beyond what is normal, even during the rainy season!

Tomorrow we head to a game reserve called Hwange, known for its elephant herds. We are marking the half-way point of the trip, amazed by what we have seen and done and experienced, grateful to be carrying on and not heading home, as is so often the case after a month.

Stay tuned and stay in touch! And let me know if you want any carved wooden souvenirs.

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