LETTER FROM VicFalls
A visit to Victoria Falls is an invigorating, life-affirming experience says Toast Coetzer, no matter how many times you’ve seen the spectacle before.
Put your camera in the pocket of your raincoat and it will fog up instantly, making your next shot look like something that happened on matric holiday in J-Bay in the summer of 1995.
Sherry-infused rack of ribs. That’s what my waitress recommends I order at the Lookout Café, which looks out – while acting casual – over Batoka Gorge, just downstream from Victoria Falls. I order the ribs and sit back, thinking about what I’ve just seen. At the moment, the Zambezi River is in flood and it’s delivering an almighty show. The waterfall is thundering and smoking in the manner of its other name, Mosi oa Tunya. Standing in front of that wall of water is an immersive experience in a way that the makers of 3D-goggle games wish they could emulate. But imagine for a moment that you could digitally drop in to where I was standing a little while ago. You’d be with me at a viewpoint, wearing a plastic poncho, clutching a cellphone, or maybe a GoPro mounted on a selfie stick. You’d want a photo, lots of photos, but you’d also realise later when you review your images that it’s impossible to capture the scene. Ask your companions to pose with their backs to the waterfall and they’ll turn into silhouettes – the water a furious, bubbling whiteout in the background like a giant washing machine spinning at full speed. Put your camera in the pocket of your raincoat and it will fog up instantly, making your next shot look like something that happened on matric holiday in J-Bay in the summer of 1995. Standing at that viewpoint, you’ll be confronted by a mass of water sheeting down, as thick as several buses in places, falling into an unfathomable gorge. Spray rises up from there on fast winds, causing a mist-out, as if you’re suddenly in a shower the size of a rugby stadium. Behind you is a rainforest – a whole other world to explore. Some trees are giants, straining upwards, others twist and wrap their roots intimately around other trunks, like rhythmic gymnastics in slo-mo. A delicate bushbuck steps slowly through the dappled light and cheeky vervet monkeys watch your every move. There are birds, like the flashy Livingstone’s turaco or, if you bend down to investigate a shimmering patch of leaf litter only to find a bird there, the minutely engineered Jameson’s firefinch. Talking about Livingstone, there’s a statue of him here. You’re not allowed to climb it, as two signs warn. Triple life-size, cast in bronze, the missionary explorer who named this waterfall (in English) stands sternly, one foot slightly ahead of the other. Tourists pose with him, some mimicking his pose, others standing formally, unsmiling, or fooling around pulling faces. When Livingstone came here in November 1855, the precombustion-engine world was a different place. Getting here from South Africa would have taken months; sending news of his “discovery” back to Britain would have taken even longer. He might have seen into the future and imagined a big town here; he might even have imagined tourists flocking to see the waterfall. Sending a postcard home would have been a possibility, but I’m pretty sure that even Livingstone couldn’t have imagined the arrival of Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is like water to an international tourist. I’m using it right now. Also happening right now: My rack of ribs has arrived and I interrupt my writing for a mini feast. Mid-way through the ribs, another interruption: The clouds above the gorge darken, gather, and scrum down. A rumble, a flash of lighting, CRACK! The outside diners scatter and I hurry through my meal and seek shelter under an awning – the restaurant is packed inside. With me are two waiters, trainee Darlington Tshabalala and Khanyi Ndlovu. “Would you like anything else?” Khanyi asks, maybe out of reflex. And I say yes, why not, a black coffee please. She dashes off to the kitchen as big drops dampen her uniform, and returns dripping with a piping hot cup of coffee. I didn’t mean she should risk life and limb for a cup of coffee, and I thank her profusely. The rain pelts straight through stray paper serviettes now scattered on the lawn. Darlington fetches an umbrella to rush out to the deserted tables to rescue the salt and pepper shakers before their contents turn to mush. Soon the sun will shine again and I will walk away from here to meet the rest of my tour group, carrying the smiles and sincerity of Darlington and Khanyi, and the rumbling, churning, magnificent memories of the waterfall. Thank you, Vic Falls.