THE SMOKE THAT THUNDERS
From the mighty river Zambezi thundering down to form the famous Victoria Falls, to petting lions and helicopter rides above the falls, Zambia is a travellers’ paradise for sure
Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy
As our 30-seater twinturboprop approached at the Harry Nkambule International Airport at Livingstone, Zambia, we could see a giant mist hanging in the air over the lush green landscape. “That’s Victoria Falls,” smiled the amiable steward, quite used to seeing passengers agape. The gush of water is so much, the rising mist can be seen for miles, hence its local name ‘Mosi-oatunya’ or ‘The Smoke that Thunders’. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Vic Falls as it’s popularly known, ranks among the seven natural wonders of the world — and the only one in Africa.
The first foreigner to stumble upon the Zambezi river in January 1498 was Vasco da Gama, who disembarked at a point he named Rio dos Bons Sinais (River of Good Omens). Centuries later explorer David Livingstone became the first westerner to see the Mosi-oa-tunya. He heard of the great waterfall in 1851 and finally visited it in 1855. He came down the Zambezi in a canoe, camped on Kalai Island a few kilometres upstream and set off in a small dugout to approach the thunderous smoke. He landed on the biggest island on the lip of the waterfall (named Livingstone Island after him) from where he got the first view of the fall. He later wrote, “It was the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa. It had never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
It was a short drive from the airport to our resort, located just a five-minute walk from the cataract. The resort came within the Mosioa-tunya National Park, which ensured encounters with wildlife like giraffes, antelopes and the odd zebra crossing. One could pre-book an African open-air Boma dinner with traditional dances, though we happily devoured a mixed meat Zambezi Platter by the pool.
We had the privilege of unlimited access to the waterfall and we decided to make the most of it. Following the crashing sound of water through the dense foliage, we exited from the back gate and stopped for souvenirs at the small market right opposite the waterfall entrance. Artists carved exquisite sculptures from locally available verdite, better known as ‘mosi oa tunya’ stone. Another popular pick-me-up, the Nyami Nyami pendant, made of soapstone, wood or bone, has a fascinating legend.
The indigenous Tonga tribesmen believe that the Zambezi is home to a fierce river god called Nyami Nyami. The mythical creature is believed to live under a large rock at Kariba gorge, near the falls. Ever since the dam was built, he was separated from his wife and unleashed his fury through floods, thunder and rain. The locals tried to calm the spirit through sacrifice and continue to craft the pendant as a good luck charm for visitors. “This is the face of the creature — half snake, half fish, these notches resemble the waterfall and this hole is the eye of the fall,” explained a sculptor.
There were several trails branching out and we took the rightmost one for a walk upstream, which led to the top of the waterfall.
The river flowed gently, nonchalantly disappearing from view over the cliff offering no clue about the drama below.
We retraced our steps and paid tribute at the War Memorial in memory of Northern Rhodesians, who lost their lives during the First World War.
Nearby, stood a large statue of Dr David Livingstone, erected in 2005 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first European sighting of Victoria Falls on 16 November 1855 an to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the town of Livingstone. On his 1852-56 exploration of the African hinterland, Dr Livingstone mapped out almost the entire course of t river.
We walked down the ston path and with each step the crash grew louder. And the through a clearing, we saw for the first time — the mig Zambezi river thundering 360ft down the immense gorge. The volume of the water was so much that th famous Devil’s Pool on the edge of the waterfall was o of bounds. Yet, other trails to Boiling Pot (615m) and the scenic Photographic Trail (788m) were accessible.
As we approached the Knife Edge Bridge, the gentle spray turned into a full downpour. Our rain jackets were modest protection from the torrential splash. Built in 1968 by PWD, the 40m long 1.3m wide bridge connects the mainland to the headland. We continued to Danger Point for a view of Victoria Falls Bridge. The bridge was a crucial link in the route of the railway, as envisioned by Cecil John Rhodes. The bridge was assembled in sections at the Cleveland Bridge Company factory yard in Darlington before being shipped to Africa.
The steam engine Princess of Mulobezi originally hauled timber for Zambezi Sawmills nearly a century ago. Today, it chugged along the scenic tracks with passengers. We had a brief peek into the plush Royal Livingstone Express in town and continued to the Victoria Falls Bridge. Rhodes had wished “I should like to have the spray of the water of the Victoria Falls over the carriages,” and boy did his dream come true. We felt the spray as soon we got off the tour bus and walked towards the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The waterfalls were a shared legacy between the two countries and we watched the Zambezi river down below flow towards Zimbabwe. Bang in the middle of the bridge adventure seekers try the bungee jump over the Zambezi gorge.
Livingstone has no dearth of adventure. From helicopter and microlight rides above the falls to elephant feeding and lion petting, Livingstone has it all. At the Cultural Centre, there are vigorous Zambian dances in traditional costumes. The Livingstone Museum, the oldest and largest museum in Zambia, showcases the history of early man, the country and its traditions besides a gallery dedicated to explorer Dr David Livingstone.
In the evening we headed to another resort, which is built of stone, thatch and wood. The high-roofed foyer was decorated with granaries, drums, cane lamps and African portraits on adobe walls with luxurious spa treatments and Afro-arabian fusion cuisine at Kalai restaurant. At the pier, we boarded the Lady Livingstone for a magical two-hour sundowner cruise on the Zambezi river. A band played on the silimba (Zambian xylophone using resonating gourds) as we sipped sundowners while training our binocs to the riverbank to spot crocs, hippos and other wildlife.
The steward presented us a chilled pint of the local Mosi lager. The label called it ‘thunderous refreshment as mighty as the Mosi-oatunya’. The rising mist from Vic Falls danced like a fairy and we watched the sun slowly sink into the Zambezi as if it was swallowed whole by Nyami Nyami...
PHOTOS: ANURAG MALLICK AND PRIYA GANAPATHY A traditional welcome in Livingstone