Have I mentioned I hate this town?
Instead of rafting I went to check out Victoria Falls. The entrance fee for the small park is US$20. They don't take plastic or travelers checks, only cash, and paying in their currency they subject you to an extortionist exchange rate.
I'm sure I've mentioned that I hate this town?
The falls themselves are beautiful. Over 100 meters (300 feet) tall, they pour over a 1.7K (1 mile) mile wide precipice and then funnel down a narrow gorge forming near permanent rainbows and curtains of spray.
I was so irritated with the park though that I forgot to take pictures. Well, almost that irritated...
Chobe is African game viewing at it's easiest with vast amounts of wildlife concentrating near the river banks. On the morning game drive we saw a pride of lion and literally hundreds of elephant and hippo. From the security of the safari truck we were able to watch elephant mothers and calves frolic in the water and give themselves mud baths.
In the afternoon we cruised down the river in a flat-bottom boat allowing me to get within digital camera range of the elephant and hippo.
I went with a company called Raft Extreme that I would emphatically recommend. They picked us up at our hotels and took us across the river into Zambia for a full breakfast and a safety briefing. Then, we hiked into the gorge for some practice in the rafts. Each of the 6 rafters gets a paddle and the guide has a set of oars. The skills are paddling forwards, paddling backwards, counter balancing the raft when it's about to flip and holding on for dear life when something bad is about to happen.
The first rapid of the day, the grade III Boiling Pot, can be pretty exciting. The rapid goes diagonally across the river and dead-ends into a rock. The idea is to paddle like mad to get across it and into safety. A half hearted effort gets you sucked into an eddy and sent around for another try. An "almost, but not quite" effort leaves you pinned against the rocks where the raft can surf up onto the wave and flip.
We made it through first try, mostly due to the efforts of our fantastic Zambian guide, Vinny. From the Boiling Pot, we cruised under the spectacular Victoria Falls Bridge and through a series of rapids until we reached, #7, the grade V Gulliver's Travels.
Some companies don't raft #7 because if things go poorly you can get sucked into a gap too small for the raft to fit through. When this happens the raft flips and you get thrown out onto the rocks. The week before we went, an entire boatload of rafters was helicoptered out of the gorge with multiple fractures.
Vinny took a perfect line and we cruised through with no problems until Alice got popped out of the raft and became what they call, "a long swimmer." One of the safety kayakers managed to reach her and she rode the second half of the rapid holding onto the back of his kayak until we reached a lull and were able to haul her back into the raft. On Rapid #7 1/2 we lost both the English women, Alice and Rosie, and it was a mad scramble to get them back into the boat before hitting #8 The Muncher.
Our only injury of the day came on the flats when John, an overland truck driver, jumped out of the raft and separated his shoulder. Oops.
Rapid #9 is the grade VI Commercial Suicide that none of the companies take clients through. We walked around the rapid and then watched as each of our group's three guides ran it successfully. It was the first time through for one of our safety kayakers and although he came out right side up, on the way through he did fabulous impersonation of a dish towel in a washing machine.
With the big rapids of the day finished we enjoyed some lunch on the calm sections and took in the views. The Zambezi River Gorge has to be one of the most spectacularly scenic places in the world to raft. The entire time we were on the river, sheer basalt walls towered hundreds of feet above us where eagles soared in search of fish.
On the second to last rapid of the day, #17, the grade III Washing Machine, we got complacent and our Malawian woman, Donna, was bounced out to become a long swimmer. Looking at her instead of the river we got caught sideways on a wave. The raft stood up on edge and hung there for a moment as we dove frantically for the other side. Even as the wave beat on the underside of the raft we thought we might save it but finally the raft toppled over and we were all thrown out into the river.
I surfaced under the raft and had to dive down to get clear. On the surface I found myself with Josh, the other American on the boat. While Vinny pulled Josh onto the inverted raft as I swam around to find Alice and Rose on the other side. With all five of us aboard, but only two paddles between us we ran the last section of the rapid upside down.
Through the whitewater and back on the flats, we righted the raft and discovered that we'd broken an oar in the flip. Listening the growing roar of the final rapid, #18, the grade III Oblivion, we frantically tossed off the broken oar and strapped in the spare. We finished our repairs just in time to pick up Donna from a kayaker and cleanly run the last rapid.
We pulled out the rafts and hiked the 100 meter rickety staircase/trail to where the Extreme folks had soft drinks and beers waiting for us. After a rest they took us to back Livingston for a Braai (barbecue) and a chance to watch the video they'd made of our trip, and finally back to Victoria Falls.
How much fun you have rafting really depends on two things, the quality if your guides and who you have in your raft. The Raft Extreme guides were fantastic, and by the luck of the draw I ended up with great people in my raft. Josh, Rosie, Alice and I had so much fun we ended up spending the rest of our time in Vic Falls together.
I switched residences while the gang hiked.
Acting against both instructions and common sense, I look down. There, over 110 meters (360 feet) beyond the tip of my toes, runs the Zambezi River. I feel the bile rise in my throat when with a single voice the crowd begins it's count:
I've spent many weeks of my life living thousands of feet off the ground on the sheer rock faces of Yosemite and other climbing areas around the world. People often don't take me seriously when I tell them I'm afraid of heights, but it's terrifyingly true.
To this day, I have nightmares about being dragged from my bed in the middle of the night by a Gestapoesque squad of goons. They drag me down a cavelike corridor and push me through a door. On the other side I find myself teetering on a tiny ledge far above the earth. A ledge not unlike the one I am currently standing on as the crowd counts:
With so much time spent dreading precisely this sort of fall I am morbidly drawn to the jump off the Victoria Falls Bridge. I'd dwelled on my fear for days before arriving here and it has only gotten worse since. No matter what my feelings though it seems a crime to come all this way and not leap.
As the crowd chants:
I turn to my handler and let him know, "Push me."
We'd discussed this option in the briefing, and at this late moment I choose it. Hard as I try, as I stand there on the brink, I can't picture myself jumping off the bridge.
I continue to maintain my own mantra, "I am so not happy about this," as the crowd reaches:
They've wrapped some padding around my ankles and then lashed them together with webbing. This connection to the bungi cord is backed up with a sling attached to a standard (if not sub-standard) climbing harness. I'd brought along my own harness but in the tension I forgot about it.
It's a bit late to worry about that now though because the crowd has reached:
The final instructions are to look at the horizon and jump out. Even now I I'm not sure if I jumped or was pushed as the crowd finally shouted:
In retrospect, the initial fall was the best part. I plunged off the bridge with unexpected ease and was overcome by calm instead of terror. As if a bird, it seemed I could spread my arms and swoop out of this dive at any moment. Just as this was seeming prudent the bungi came taut and I decelerated to within a few meters of the river. Thus endeth the good bit.
In bungi physics, everything that goes down must shortly bounce back up, over and over again... In quick succession I found myself rightside up and upside down, bobbing about like a tassel on crazed tiger's tail. As the uncontrolled acrobatics settled into sickening lurches I dangled at the end of the cord with my eyes closed and waited for them to lower a person down to rescue me. He clipped into my harness and we were both winched back up to the bridge.
Elapsed time: six minutes.
River boarding is best summed up this way: In the rafting, worst case is that you are thrown from the raft and ride the rapids in your lifejacket being tossed willy-nilly by the river. This is equivalent to the best case of river boarding except that you get to carry along a chunk of foam for company.
They took us down to the river and gave us a few lessons in kicking and holding onto the board. Then, in the scenic highlight of the trip, we kicked our way upstream through eddies until we were right at the base of the falls. The view here is amazing as torrents of water plunge hundreds of feet down the falls throwing up huge clouds of spray. Perhaps best of all, the only way to this vantage point is by board.
For better or worse, when river boarding you control your own fate. Moving water is a complicated thing and the instructions for running many of the rapids are counterintuitive. Often we were told to kick downstream in order to go upstream, kick up and left to go down and right, etc...
Finished with spectating we formed into a line to run the grade III Boiling Pot. The instructions here were to head straight into the middle, then turn and kick 45 degrees upstream and left to avoid the wall where the rapid dead-ends. I thought I'd done this pretty well until I executed my upstream turn and saw the look of horror on one of the guides faces. Checking over my shoulder I found the rock wall and its accompanying monster wave only a few meters behind me. I just had time to return the guides horrified look before I was sucked under and Maytagged.
Tired of its new toy the river eventually spit me out and I popped up several meters downstream. The first rapid of the day run successfully-- well, sort of. Like many other things in life, success in river boarding is anything you can walk (swim) away from.
After the Boiling Pot we cruised under the scene of yesterdays terror, The Victoria Falls Bridge, and pulled out to discuss our next big trick.
Right under the bridge there is a series of standing waves. The idea is to turn feet first just before you hit the wave and then kick like mad. If you hit it just right you get stuck on the face and can surf the wave. Our guides could stay in the wave as long as they pleased, even doing tricks like 360s and standing on the boards. I couldn't quite manage it until one of the guides came down with me and gave me a big push at the crucial moment.
Being on the wave is an amazing thing. All the noise and turbulence of the river disappears, it's instantly and magically a completely different sensation. Unfortunately I was only in this dream world for a few seconds before I dipped my board, caught some water and got popped over the top of the wave. It was fabulous fun though and restored the confidence I'd lost in the first rapid.
We had a raft along to ride out some of the more technical rapids and crocodile infested sections of the river. The largest rapid we ran was #5, the grade V Catcher's Mitt. This rapid is a 7 meter (23 foot) plunge into a huge wall of whitewater. The best part is that you don't see the drop until just before you are in it, well beyond the point for having second thoughts.
Even though the boards were attached by leashes, our guides were very keen on us not letting go of them. Really though, it's only a matter of style points. I had such a grip on the board you'd not have been able to pry it from my hands with your feet on either side of my coffin, but that didn't keep me from getting tossed upside down and backwards into the heart of the wave. As usual I came sputtering to the surface well downstream of the action.
For me, the most enjoyable rapid of the day was the final one we ran, #10, the Gnashing Jaws of Death. This rapid has lots of crisp, reasonable sized waves that were perfect for doing barrel rolls off of.
Which is better, boarding or rafting? It really is apples and oranges. Rafting is more social and really, probably more fun. River boarding is scarier and much more intense. The boarding trips are more like a skills class and the raft outings are like a floating party. Both were great fun for me.
The police, when they arrived, turned out to be a contingent of railway guards. Under the (probably correct) assumption that we wouldn't last 10 minutes on our own in the train station they escorted us on our errands. All of this might have been funny if it wasn't for the looks of real fear on their faces. They took us to a bank to pick up some Zambian Kwacha and then put us in a cab to the bus station.
The bus station was a sprawling plot packed with busses. As we got out of the cab the drivers descended on us like vultures. The busses are of varying quality and don't leave until they are completely full so choosing carefully is important. The women negotiated us tickets, our baggage was ensconced on the roof and we were packed into our seats to wait the indeterminable amount of time until departure.
We killed a bit of time by stocking up on provisions as circulating through the station were vendors selling everything from bread and fruit to salad spinners and hair clippers. All transactions are done through the window as the merchants beat on the sides of the bus demanding you inspect their wares.
Two hours after we got on the bus the driver started the engine. But, we were not on our way, only off to the gas station for some fuel and a bathroom break. It was 11:30 before we finally left Lusaka.
For the first few hours the road was smooth, but instead of being a mercy this just allowed our bodies to sound our precisely where they were going to ache when the road inevitably turned into a device of torture. We were crammed into the worst seats in the bus, right at the front with nowhere to put our legs forcing all our weight onto our miserable bums. As the road became a mine field of pot holes and it became impossible to determine if our driver was steering towards or away from them we rotated through our possible seating positions in a vain attempt to distribute the misery.
For me, the highlight of this trip was when crossing an impressive Chinese made suspension bridge hours from anywhere we found it guarded by a policeman armed not only with an assault rifle, but also a bazooka. The best armed officer of the law so far in my trip!
After 12.5 hours in the bus we finally reached Chipata, Zambia only to further torture our tails with a cab ride to what Lonely Planet calls, "The Friendly Chipata Motel." We thought it a dump, but were too tired to care. We did care though that at 10 p.m. there wasn't a morsel of food to be found beyond crisps and aging corn puffs.
All afternoon we stood outside the hotel and tried to thumb a lift out the dirt track to Mfuwe. Puzzlingly a huge number of cars would come down the road and turn into the hotel. For the life of us we couldn't figure their fascination with the dump and it would be days before we would discover that we'd spent the night in a brothel.
After four hours of frustration we finally agreed to the extortionate price of US$20 each to take us out to Wildlife Camp in Mfuwe. Our newly hired drivers assured us they just had a few errands to run and would be right back to pick us up. Half an hour later they showed up with a new vehicle and a different driver. Even as they assured us this was a great truck they took it to a gas station to replace a flat tire and tighten the alternator belt.
A few hours into the drive, well after the novelty of being moving had worn off my hat flew away and we stopped to retrieve it. As we were paused, the driver noticed black smoke pouring out from under the hood. It turned out that the alternator wire had fried, probably because they fixed it last time as they did this time, by splicing in a length of household extension cord. A quick push start in light of the now dead battery and we were shortly back on our way arriving at Wildlife Camp just in time to sign up for the morning game drive and crash in our tents.
The elephant and giraffe here are not so spectacular being much smaller than those found in other parts of Africa. But as the morning progressed, we were treated to hippo, crocodile, herds of buffalo (my last of the "big five"), all sorts of antelope and, as we crashed a wash, lion. Not barely visible lion sleeping in the weeds as I'd seen in Chobe, but a whole pride of lions out and about tending to lion business.
As they ignored our truck we watched them eat, play, hunt and have sex. In the end, we even got to within range of my no-zoom digital camera:
In the evening we went for a night game drive. Despite South Luangwa having the highest leopard density in Africa all we saw was the search light passing through the trees.
Noon found us at the side of the road again, trying to hitch back to Chipata. It took us only three hours to decide we were willing to pay 45,000 kwacha (US$18) for a truck to take all three of us back to town. Unfortunately this truck turned out to be the local "chicken bus" making interminable stops for people and cargo with us being jammed into progressively less space. The truck itself was also none too healthy as they left the motor running while frequently adding fuel and water and requiring push starts each time the engine should happen to stop.
After two and half hours a tire finally blew and we played Hop Scotch to entertain the locals while someone ran back to the nearest village to get a jack and bicycle pump to attempt repairs.
As we began to contemplate a night of bush camping we caught a fabulous lift from a passing water project worker who gave us a recommendation for the very nice and non-brothel Kamocho Guest House.
We'd been assured we could buy tickets on the bus, but the driver is having none of it so we futilely queue for tickets as we watch the bus fill. The women arrange a queuing coup and tickets in hand we join the desperate surge for the few remaining seats. In the tussle that ensues as we, along with everyone else, shove our way on Alice's wallet is picked from her daypack.
We arrive Blantyre at 8 p.m. and get to Doogles pub just as the party hits it's groove. Before taking a month to do some traveling, Alice and Rosie lived in Blantyre for six months as volunteer teachers in the local schools. They are greeted as old friends and conquering heroines. A good time is had by all.
Tomorrow Rosie ends her African adventure, she flies back to England to start law school. For her, it marks a big transition and it is a parting from the people she has lived with for six months. We've been traveling together for only two weeks but it has been a roller coaster of good times and hard travel. I find myself missing her much more than two weeks of friendship would dictate, but then, that is the nature of life on the road.
After arriving two hours late the bus got us only to Zomba before something bad happened to one of the wheels and we limped back into town. We spent the night in Zomba and resolved to try again the next day.
The Cape is at the southern end of the 500k (310 mile) long Lake Malawi. The lake is famous for Cichlids, small brightly colored fish that have evolved hundreds of different sub-species found only here. I went scuba diving to check them out.
It was my first ever dive ever fresh water and I was surprised to find I didn't need any weights in the less buoyant water. The dive itself was pleasant enough, a bit murky but I did see lots of the cichlids and even a few of large African cat fish. For me it was worth the effort, if only for the novelty, but then, I've been spoiled by some very good diving lately.
From Cape Maclear to Monkey Bay we had 27 people in the back of the small pickup. Half of them were women with infants and of course there were the obligatory chickens, gas cans and huge unidentifiable bundles (my backpack among them). After a minibus ride to Mangochi, the regular bus that was supposed to take me to Blantyre lost it's clutch so I was stranded in Zomba again. Not to worry, a backup bus arrived and I was on my way. The only trick to the backup bus was that it needed push starting. In case you are curious, it takes a lot of people to push start a full size coach bus.
Back in Blantyre I walked into the dorm only to find-- Alice! We caught up stuff and then went for dinner at the best restaurant in Blantyre, an Indian place with excellent food. After one of my best meals on the road we hooked up with some Malawian friends of Alice's and did a tour of the local expat bars, all three of them.