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.

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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.

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