The sun was a sliver melting across a distant sandstone bluff and I was being rudely, cheerfully woken by the noise of a woodpecker hammering Morse code on a branch somewhere beyond the canvas and thatch above my head. All through the night, my sleep between soft linens had been broken by grunting lions, honking hippos, and hyenas chortling maniacally into the darkness. For long stretches of time, I had simply lain awake listening to the soundtrack of the bush, absorbing its primordial wonder. Now, as I stepped out on to my patio, the woodpecker’s rut-tut-tut-tut-tut faded behind a chorus of chattering birds backed by a symphony of clicking, whirring insects. This was Africa; deep, wild and mesmeric. Around me, the sun threw pools of liquid gold across the rolling grassland, landing on thorn trees and scrub as it lit a path for cautious antelope, warthogs and elephant families, all padding their way toward the watering hole. I felt a million light years from civilisation and could imagine no finer way to start the day – woken not by alarm clocks or traffic noise, but by the natural rhythms of the Earth, my lungs steeped in unpolluted air and my heart touched by the vast, unspoilt wilderness that surrounded me. Except, this was barely a wilderness. Not only was I cloistered in safari-lodge luxury, but down the road were the curio shops that smelled of polished wood and animal hides. Displays of jewellery made from trade beads and naive paintings of wildlife competed for attention with the troupes of locals performing traditional Ndebele dances for carloads of tourists.
I had only one thing on my mind though. Within walking distance of the curios and cultural acts is one of the planet’s great natural wonders. As with most things in nature, it began with a sound. Cacophonous rumbling that seemed to grow ever louder as I paid for my ticket, haggled for a raincoat and then felt myself pulled towards it as if it were some kind of noisy magnet. To reach it, there’s a walk through thick vegetation – a narrow 2 340 ha strip of protected rainforest along the Zambezi’s southern bank. It exists as evidence of the microclimate formed by the ceaseless mist and spray. Here, within the Victoria Falls National Park there are African ebony, African olive, African-star chestnut, red milkwood, corkwood, mopane, baobab, Zambezi teak and sausage trees. Plus a tangle of fig trees, and date palms, aloes and hibiscuses, reeds and papyruses, and patches of velvety moss covering the wet, shadowy areas the sun will never reach. As I followed the path, brightly coloured flame lilies seemed to lead the way towards the source of the rumbling…And then, finally, I was staring directly at it.
There’s fair reason that this great natural wonder is known locally as Mosi oa Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders). It really does. How else to describe the deep-bellied roar as millions upon million of litres of water plummet 108m into the depths of Batoka Gorge kicking up tremendous plumes of mist and spray? When water levels are at their peak, the resulting white cloud is visible from up to 50 km away. Facing it up close, its energy pulsed like electricity through my body. Transfixed, I let it wash over me, soak me, consume me. As I stood at each of the viewpoints, staring at the Falls from different angles, time seemed to fold in on itself, coming to a standstill as this spectacle occupied my entire universe. I tried to imagine how, back in 1855, David Livingstone might have felt when he came upon the scene of the fury in a little rowing boat. With no Attenborough-narrated documentaries or even photos to forewarn him of the overwhelming sight, the thrill he felt must have been quite incredible. Then again, no film or photograph can prepare you for its full-force power. I just kind of slumped down on to my haunches and became a shadow of myself, a ghost in the presence of a miracle. Sure, there’s the science and geology, but if this is not some kind of proof of nature’s greatness, then what is? Once I’d torn myself away, everything else plunged into stillness in comparison with the Falls. It is like having all of one’s senses suddenly stripped away. Yet, that thundering power stays with you, deep in your core, almost as though the particles of energy continue coursing through your veins. Adrenalin junkies and thrill-seekers use that energy as fuel for the adventures that are facilitated nearby – many of them on or near the bridge linking Zimbabwe and Zambia. In the centre of the railway bridge, the bungee-jump crew had their radio blasting, drowning out the screams of brave-hearts who leapt off, only to stop, dangling, 10m above the gurgling waters (and crocodiles) below. For a similar heart-pounding jolt, the gorge-swingers were tethered to a cliff before stepping into the abyss – their goal to savour the sensation that comes with free-falling 70m before slowing to swing peacefully above the river.
There are also all sorts of other ways to get much closer to the water. Some of the world’s most challenging commercial white-water rafting happens here on the thrashing rapids – or there’s more gentle-going canoeing. For the bone idle, there are mellow sunset cruises on the Zambezi, where the hardest work involves lifting a drink to your lips while keeping an eye on the waters reflecting golden-red as the sun sets on paradise. But I wanted more of the actual Falls, so I opted for a spin in a zippy two-person microlight. It took off from Livingstone on the Zambian side of the border and, after cruising along above the river for a bit, it buzzed into position above Batoka Gorge so that I could take in the immense scene from an incredible angle that made me feel like I was riding on the back of a gigantic dragonfly. By the time that I’d had my passport stamped for the fourth time that day and traipsed back across the busy border bridge, high tea was being served on the veranda of the Victoria Falls Hotel – a vestige of colonial times, built in 1904 to provide lodging for workers on the Cape-to-Cairo railway line. It seemed a fitting spot for reflection and contemplation. The old Edwardian hotel was obscenely quiet. I sat outside and drank cups of sweet tea dispensed by liveried waiters in white gloves and starched trousers. In front of me, the garden was exquisitely manicured, grass an enchanted shade of green, palm trees standing tall and proud. I watched a family of warthogs with their cute warthog babies frolicking and snuffling across the perfectly mown lawn. Impala tiptoed quietly between the flower beds while I chomped sandwiches with their crusts cut off. Straining to hear above the thump of my still-quick-beating heart, I tuned in to the polite, whispered conversations of the other guests. Everybody was speaking about it. There was nothing else to discuss. Only a constant series of affirmations, reiterations of startled awe. Over the tops of teacups, I could see in their eyes how being close to that gushing water had touched their souls. We were people possessed. Not one of us was left untouched. I allowed my attention to wonder away from the veranda and back to the garden, towards the trees at the edge of the lawn. And there, beyond where I could see, I tuned into another familiar sound – the insistent tapping of a lone woodpecker going about its business.
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Text: Keith Bain; Photography: alamy, gallo/gettyimages