While Zambia’s side of Victoria Falls is sedate, a little backward, but calming, the Zimbabwe banks of the Zambezi River draw adrenaline addicts from across the world.
People here do the stupidest things. People here pay to do the stupidest things.
Before we get into the Japan Times Guide to Killing Yourself at Victoria Falls, however, a few facts.
First, only rank amateurs call it Victoria Falls. It’s Vic Falls (the town) and the Falls (the falls).
Second, when tourist brochures brag that this is “the largest curtain of falling water in the world,” it’s a lie.
The Falls are big, no question. Width: 1,708 meters. Volume of water passing over each minute while the Zambezi River is in spate: 500 million liters. Depth at highest point: 103 meters. Big.
|A Zambezi crocodile hoping for a bite of tasty tourist.|
But the world’s widest waterfall is in Laos, where the Khone Falls on the Mekong are variously estimated to be between 10 and 14 km across. Angel Falls in Venezuela takes the cup for height at 979 meters. Brazil and Paraguay used to share a waterfall with the greatest volume of falling water, but then they caught the dam-building bug and wasted billions of taxpayer dollars destroying a priceless ecosystem and a premier ecotourism destination. Nice work, guys.
Congo’s Buyoma Falls now have the honor when it comes to largest volume of flow. Can’t say this column would recommend a visit though. Not at the moment.
Nonetheless, Victoria Falls are probably the world’s most impressive. Explorer Frederick Selous, not normally known for his flowery rhetoric, pronounced them “One of, if not the, most transcendentally beautiful natural phenomena on this side of Paradise.”
Selous had a point. The spray floats skyward like smoke. From 30 kms away the spectacle resembles a volcanic eruption or a bush fire. From close up, the Falls themselves are sometimes barely visible due to the density of the spray.
A 1930s guide to the Falls suggested renting an umbrella in the dry season and a mackintosh in the wet. “When spray is heavy, visitors will find it an advantage to wear a bathing costume only underneath the mackintosh.” The advice is still good. One all but drowns in the mist of droplets bouncing up from the gorge below.
Above the Falls, the Zambezi River is wide, slow, smooth and lined with reeds and bulge-trunked baobabs; in short, a charming place for a canoe ride.
Below the falls the Zambezi is a boiling caldron, roaring off in the direction of Mozambique and the Indian Ocean as if overdue for a crucial and seriously argumentative appointment. Cliffs rise high on either side. The rapids are very rapid indeed.
|They may not be the widest or the highest, but Victoria Falls are perhaps the most inspiring.|
Which leads us into how to kill yourself at Vic Falls.
“Vic Falls today is an adventure center,” says Mike Davis of Shearwater, an adventure company. “It’s the river, the rapids and the dive from the bridge that bring the bulk of visitors today, not the Falls. They are secondary.”
Maybe. True adrenaline junkies should probably start their visit in the nation’s capital city of Harare by operating a newspaper that doesn’t toe the ruling party line or by simply wandering down any street wearing a prodemocracy T-shirt.
Wimps who want a thrill, but don’t want street battles with President Robert Mugabe’s thuggish secret police can bypass the Harare action and fly in direct to Vic Falls international airport. Vic Falls is politically very quiet. You’d not know the country was on the verge of anarchy, race war and economic collapse.
A gentlemanly potentially life-threatening option is golf. The course here is kept clipped and green by grazing warthogs. Miss a putt? No problem. Hit a warthog? Problem.
Don’t grouse, incidentally, if your ineptly hit ball is further sabotaged by warthog holes. “Through the green, warthog damage may be treated as Ground Under Repair, with relief obtained under Rule 25-2 (b).”
Getting massively drunk and floating merrily over the Falls in a small boat can be done if you really want to. A life-preserving alternative is to join a “Booze Cruise.” This gives you a sober guide/boatman, as much as you can drink and a couple of hours in the placid upstream waters getting, hopefully, mellower and mellower (rather than Captain Haddock-style fighting drunk and disaster-prone belligerent: “Let me have a go with those oars!”)
Sky diving is a rush. You can train, then leap out of a light aircraft at 1,000 meters, all in the same day.
Bungee jumping off the Victorian Bridge is popular. It is 100 meters down by rubber band into the river gorge. It has been done by a nun to raise funds for a hospital and a tribal chief in full regalia. Promotional literature says that “unless you’re sane there’s nothing to it.” It also states that “it’s safer than a walk in the park.”
The park they mean is probably the Zambezi National Park, which is just upstream of the Falls. This area is almost totally ignored by most visitors and is home to elephant, hippo, lion, buffalo and a number of other animals that might take exception to ill-mannered pedestrians. Walkers must be accompanied by armed guides. Weapons are only discharged in extreme circumstances.
A bungee jump plus a white-water raft descent of the Zambezi is called the Gruesome Twosome. It’s particularly gruesome if you join a paddleboat, in which you are one of the paddlers. If you add to this sky diving and microlighting you’ve got the Awesome Foursome.
You can also, I kid you not, surf the Zambezi rapids below the Falls. “The surfer gets the impression of incredible speed,” explains the brochure.
“Too bloody true!” confirmed an Australian who’d just done it.
Then they’ve just rigged up this extraordinary Tarzan-style swing-across-the-gorge-on-a-rope activity. It’s still in its teething phase.
Of course the simplest and cheapest way to kill yourself at Vic Falls is to just jump off the bridge without a rubber bungee cord. Some people fly long distances, in one case all the way from the United States, to do just that.
Guess it goes to show that some tourists will pay to do anything.