Saturday, September 10, 2011

African Trip Review -- Victoria Falls

 Victoria Falls was one of the reasons we chose to visit Zimbabwe -- that and the instability and unrest interested me too.  Going to places where the State Department says we shouldn't really appeals to me.  Matetsi Water Lodge (I should mention it is under control of a new management company now, so I can't speak to how Rhino Africa is handling things, I only know &Beyond did a great job) offered a free daily shuttle from the Lodge to the town of Victoria Falls.  The ride was about 45 minutes each way, so after our game drive and our breakfast of bacon was completed we hopped in the van and headed off.

Our plans for the day were simple: Hike around Vic Falls in Zimbabwe, if time permitted, cross the boarder to Zambia to see the other side of the falls and return unharmed to the lodge.  I had read there were some adventure activities near the falls as well.  I would not consider myself an adventure vacationer -- I'd prefer the pool, a cocktail, some good friends and perhaps an afternoon at the spa vs. running through the jungle or wrestling a crocodile.  I did read that there was an option to Zip Line over the Zambezi River.  Let me remind you all that I hate heights.  Planes and tall buildings are fine by me, but even the slightest possibility of falling to my death (if I'm lucky, or worse falling to a crippled state) makes me cringe.  I tried Zip Lining in Mexico on a cruise with my mother a year prior and really enjoyed it.  This was going to be a whole new experience though.

MS doesn't like heights much either -- but he's much better with them than I.  We decided to do it, so our driver dropped us off at the Zip Line/Adventure Office in the town of Vic Falls -- we negotiated the price and an alternate drop off point from the Adventure Company. I believe we paid about $40USD/person.
There was another couple on the Zip Line Adventure with us -- a 50+ year old mother, who opted not to Zip and her ~18 year old daughter. She had never done this before, but was less nervous that either of us.  We get harnessed in and walked up to the jump off point.  Being a Risk Management guy, I'm always watching the safety practices, no matter what I'm doing -- even more so if I am soon to be jumping off of a perfectly stable ledge being held from death by a simple 3/4" steel cable.  Like in Mexico, the Zims were very safety conscious.  They checked and rechecked the equipment - reminded us several times of the safety practices (because MS had a look of terror on his face, I believe).  The young girl wanted to go first -- so we let her.  
The interesting thing about this Zip Line is that you don't do a circuit (Point A to B to C to D back to A then all over again, like in Mexico). Point A is about in the pictures and Point B is in Zambia -- it's pretty hard to check passports and fill out customs forms while zip lining across the Zambezi....so instead of ending up on solid land, you just swing as far physics will take you then go backwards -- this repeats until you come to a stop hanging over the middle of the bend in the Zambezi.  You then wait for one of your hosts to zip down to you, attached a hook (which is attached to a winch) and pull you back up.  Until I wrote this, I never thought about what would happen if the winch didn't work -- I guess that's why they had about 5 guys watching us -- they could just pull us back.


I really enjoyed this.  MS, enjoyed it, but said he wouldn't do it again -- I would do it in a heartbeat.  I thought it was great -- and I'm confident I can encourage him to do it someplace else. Once we finished up we were dropped off at the entrance to the Vic Falls National Park, still in Zimbabwe.  We paid the entrance fee and began walking.  I was surprised at how few people were out and about at the park.  We saw maybe two dozen people maximum.  The other surprising -- yet refreshing -- thing was the lack of hand rails and guard rails.  I often think America has gone overboard with warning signs and hand rails.  Being in my line of work, I totally see why this is needed -- the legal system. Someone in America is running up stairs they trip and break their face, they file suit against the building owner (and everyone else) thinking they'll make a million dollars -- "I didn't know I shouldn't run up stairs, there was no sign warning me no to" they would argue.  People need to take some personal responsibility.


Our guides at the Lodge gave us rain ponchos because they said we would get drenched -- it was 35C outside and since I sweat enough for 5 guys, the idea of wearing a 5 pound rain poncho to stay "dry" didn't seem to make much sense to me -- either get wet from the mist, or sweat like a beast -- I opted for the former.  At some points the sound of the falls was so loud we couldn't hear each other talk.  The mist blowing back up the falls really drenched us -- and restricted us from taking some picture -- didn't want the camera to get ruined.

We walked all over the Zimbabwe side of the falls and checked our watch -- if we hadn't decided to pay for a later shuttle back to the Lodge, we would have already missed our return ride.  You must do the separate later ride or your are going to miss out on so much.

Considering we had a couple more hours, we decided to hoof it over to Zambia to see their side of the falls.  We both had heard that their side was much prettier -- less mist issues and even fewer people.  The photo with the rainbow (and the one below it) is from Zambia.  The walk to the border was about 15 minutes -- we were drenched at this point and wearing flip flops.  As we approach the border crossing we see dozens of heavy semi trucks waiting to cross a one lane bridge.  We also noticed a lot of people just loitering between the two border crossings -- it is important to note that the road/bridge between these two countries jogs a bit, so officials on one side cannot see you as you cross, and vice versa.  It's like a no-mans-land out there --we could have easily been robbed and thrown over the bridge, if they so chose.  At seeing this we decided to put on our real shoes again, just in case we needed to make a quick escape.  Slosh, Slosh Slosh went our water logged shoes as we entered the Zim passport control.  Leaving the country was easy, we paid a fee and walked on over.

Zambia's passport control looked a little nicer than Zim's, but still pretty rough. People kept trying to sell us the standard African wooden sculptures as we crossed the boarder (c'mon, I'm not carrying that 7' giraffe statue now or ever).

 We reached the Zambian Falls Park entrance, paid another entry fee -- not 100% sure we needed to, but I'd rather over pay then get caught sneaking into protected land in Zambia.  The area around the Zambian falls weren't as well maintained as Zim, but the views were so much better.  While the trails were less maintained they led us to some amazing views.  We hiked down to river level (I can't remember what that place was called -- something like Devil's Bowl, but I can't find anything else about it).  It's a pretty steep decline and there is NO one down there.  We thought the decent was rough, the ascent is even more difficult (obviously).  We had spent all day hiking and were really huffing and puffing on the way up.

We had about 45 minutes from the time we left the Zambian side of the falls to make it back to Zim, find the Vic Falls hotel and meet our return ride to the lodge.  We thought we would be cutting it short.  We walked towards the border, waited in the exit line with a bunch of truckers trying to get across the boarder for about 5-10 minutes then were on our marry way.  I've attached a picture of the "no-mans-land" above -- see the dirt road and the sign that references the "robot" -- that means the stop light and the gate arm, unfortunately no Jetson's style robots in Zamba/Zimbabwe.  As we enter into the danger zone (anyone else thinking of Top Gun right now) we were approached by 3 guys asking us to buy their trinkets. We politely declined...then we see them signal to two guys behind us.  Now there were five guys within 25 feet of and we were approaching the choke point on the bridge.  About 50 feet in front of us there was another guy -- he stopped and made a B-Line for us.  I knew this was bad -- we were going to get jumped.  I was forming the words "RUN" in my mouth when the guy in front of us just stopped, and turned around, walking in our direction.  The other four guys turned and backed off.  Was this some sort of signal -- they are with me?  Was this just a delayed jumping until we got really trapped on the bridge?  The guy in front of us didn't say a word until we JUST got onto the bridge. He asked if we were Americans...we confirmed (begrudgingly).  His next words: "OBAMA! He's great OBAMA OBAMA!".  basically this guys just wanted to practice his English and talk about America.  We were still very gun shy - didn't want to talk politics, although he really did (It's illegal to talk bad about Mugabe in Zim, btw).  He talked about mining and sending out resources to be refined by other countries then buying back the finished products and how it was crippling not only Zim/Zam but every African country (I do agree).  Once we go to the Zim side, he broke off from us and hopped in a waiting Semi Truck (was he a male prostitute??).  

Passport control in Zim was easy, and the walk to the Vic Falls hotel was relatively painless.  A gentlemen stopped me on another bridge telling me he REALLY LIKE my shoes -- yeah, let's keep moving, shall we??  The Victoria Falls hotel was quite a beautiful monument to Victorian Imperialism. I'm not sad we didn't stay there, but if you have to stay in town, this is probably the best place to stay -- book your room early though, there aren't many to go around.

As you can see, by the time we made it back to the Vic Falls hotel, we were still extremely drenched from the mist on the falls.

This was such a great day -- a once in a lifetime opportunity.  I've now added another thing to my list of travel ideas -- I want to see the 3 (maybe 5) largest water falls in the world.  Vic Falls done.  Next up: Niagara Falls (easy) then Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brazil).  I cannot wait.!
 




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