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xEurasia Odyssey

Victoria Falls Region: Land of Dancing Rainbows & Wildlife

ZIMBABWE | Sunday, 21 May 2017 | Views [606]

I have always dreamt of going to Victoria Falls to see what so captivated David Livingstone.  The lure of the vastness of the Zambezi, the broad tall cliff gorges that separate the Upper and Middle sections of the river, and the surrounding landscape filled with wildlife finally won out over personal and professional responsibilities and I treated myself to six days in the Southern African countryside. Through Travelocity I was able to get a room for an almost reasonable amount at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, and was very happy with this choice.  The Lodge is inside Zambezi National Park and has a watering hole directly in front of the restaurant and visible from most of the balconies in the rooms.  A multitude of animal species stop by to drink throughout the day, and there is an avian symphonic orchestra that sometimes plays together and often, such as when the vultures are fed, in an atonal cacophony. There is a steady and constantly changing interplay of large and small creature movement that provides unending entertainment. The sunsets from the deck are simply spectacular.  The big orange African ball drops down below the horizon shortly before 6pm lighting up the sky with vibrant pinks and yellows that highlight the greens and browns of the trees and shrubs. The night sky is filled with thousands of blinking stars that form blankets within the Milky Way. The sun rises behind the lodge and the light comes in strips over the savannah as it catches on the thatched roof of the lodge and accompanying suites.

 As my time in this corner of the world was for play, I took advantage of many of the activities this main hub of tourism in Zimbabwe offers. The river provides the lifeblood of the region, and that was my first stop, with a sunset cruise from Bushmasters.  They have a pontoon jet boat that allows them to get closer to the actual Falls than the other companies in bigger boats, though still at safe distance from the edge. The river is not made for swimming, or even for kayaking, as it is filled with crocodiles and hippos.  The crocs solitarily lounge on the side and glide stealthily though the waters, while the hippos congregate in family pods in the shallow waters. Their huge heads bounce up and down breaking the waterline with starring eyes and twitching ears appearing first, so that initially they can be mistaken for general grass and or twig debris until the rest of their huge faces and humungous bodies rise into view. Towards the Falls, the mist rises like the ‘thundering smoke’ they are named after.  The clouds of moisture that form over the cliffs can be seen for miles and miles around over the canopy. The jetboat floats gently down the river and the guides do an admirable job pointing out the wildlife on the sides. They also serve wine and beer, which makes the peaceful journey even more enjoyable. The Zambezi is the fourth largest African river after the Nile, Congo, and Niger. It crosses six countries (Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique) on its 2700 mile journey from its source in NW Zambia near the border where Zambia, Angola and the Congo meet to the Mozambique delta where it flows into the Indian Ocean, interrupted by two and possibly soon three dams.

 There is only so far one can safely go in the boat, however, so the next day was spent getting thoroughly soaked in the mist on the trails overlooking Victoria Falls. Livingstone is reputed to have said: "… scenes so wonderful must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight" and the rainbows that play games of hide and seek keep both humans and angels amused.  The bands of multi-hued light are filled with moisture, which, according to legend, blesses those who are bathed by them. Given the pure joy of dancing through them, there is truth to the saying. A long-standing puzzle was also finally solved; the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow is the fertile green vegetation and blossoming flowers that provide nutrition for body and spirit.

 As with most traditions, the original inhabitants of the region, the Tonga/Lozi peoples (I was told the Lozi, but the books say Tonga…) have stories about the river. The Nyami Nyami is the Zambezi river god and he lived on a small jut of shallow waters near Kariba.   The Nyami Nyami sometimes has the head of a fish and sometimes that of a man, but always the body of a snake, which is similar to how the river winds through the landscape. The Nyami Nyami protected the people and gave them fish and good harvests when they treated him right.  He demanded a semi-annual sacrifice of a young virgin girl to be kept happy.  One year, however, the people mistakenly sacrificed a false virgin and the river god became very angry. Up until this time, the people had lived and fished harmoniously with the crocodiles, but now, every month someone was eaten by one of the big reptiles.  The tribe had to perform a series of rituals to appease the Nyami Nyami, but he let his wrath go for a full year, before the deaths stopped.  Sometime later, the white man arrived and the Nyami Nyami wasn’t happy with the construction that was started on his banks.  The white man wanted to build a dam and the wall that he built separated the Nyami Nyami from his wife, so he broke the wall down. The building continued again, and the Nyami Nyami sent floods at a time when no floods normally occur.  The villagers lost many of their family members and again, performed extra sacrifices to the river god so that he would return the bodies of the drowned to them for proper burial. This time the offering involved a black bull and black goat, which the Nyami Nyami quickly ate.  Amazingly the bodies, that would normally have been devoured by the crocs, floated back up to the surface. The Nyami Nyami is still not happy, however, and has moved down to the bottom of the river.  His people have suffered his wrath as the tribe was dispersed after the dam was built and basically no longer exists. A video explaining the story and the events surrounding the building of the Kariba Dam can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_onQXUoqJqs.

 This is a place of stories; the legendary land of Ophir from which Solomon and Sheba obtained their gold and gemstones. The river, trees and animals all have their own tales.  One that I heard about the Baobab tree, which is the only tree under which rituals can be performed is that when the Great God, Mwari, created the world and its inhabitants, the Baobab tree got greedy.  In order to keep the tree in check God turned him upside down so that the trunk became like the roots and the roots its branches. It is a sacred tree and in times of drought the people could take a small slice from the trunk and get water. When its leaves are fresh they can be cooked for a vegetable like spinach, and they say that by taking a small cut from the root and boiling it malaria can be cured. The Big Baobab Tree near the Victoria Falls National Park is said to be 1,000 to 1,500 years old, has a circumference of 18m and is 23m tall. Its branches shot out in tangles that look like individual spirits trying to express themselves

 The animals also give signs that the people can use. There is a particularwhite sparrow that builds its nests just on the east side of a tree, which provides an excellent directional tool, much like the moss on the north side of trees does with those of use who live in northern forest regions.

 The abundance of wildlife in the area is not restricted to the watering hole at the Lodge, but can be found throughout the Zambezi National Park, Chobe National Park in neighboring Botswana, and in private game reserves in the four-country - Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe - region where the Chobe River flows into the Zambezi.  Over the few days I was there, I spotted numerous herds of elephants, kudus, bukus, impalas and buffalo; families of zebra, giraffe, warthogs, striped mongoose, vervet monkeys, and baboons; pods of hippos; solitary bushbucks, jackal, crocodiles and water monitors, as well as more types of vultures, storks and other water and land fowl than I could possibly name. The black rhino are no longer in the National Parks, but are on private reserves as that way these highly endangered animals can be protected from poachers.  Poaching is still a real problem, but there is a five-country (the previous four plus Angola) agreement to keep the wildlife corridors open and to protect them from the killers. Every time I was in the savannah, whether on foot, horseback or in a jeep, I came across the anti-poaching rangers. The Stanley Livingstone Reserve which opened in 2002, now has a population of 11 rhinos including the babies that were born this year, one of which I was quite lucky to see. 

 I didn’t come across a lion in the forest, but did do a “Lion Encounter”.  This is a non-profit group that seeks to release lions back into the wild.  There are three phases to their program. The first is when young cubs are brought into Antelope Park, which is in another part of Zimbabwe, where they are around humans. Their handlers try to get them to learn how to hunt on their own.  A few of the lions are then sent to Victoria Falls for the “Encounter” program, where tourists can walk with the lions and pet them on their hindquarters.  We were told not to look the lion directly in the eye, nor to pet them on their heads, but only on their backsides and to walk beside, not in front of, them. When they are between 18-22 months old, they are released into a semi-wild environment, meaning that they are entirely on their own, but the area is fenced like in the private reserves, so that the animals who have had contact with humans don’t become overly engaged in human communities once they are released. The cubs from those who have been in the semi-wild area are released, after they are ready to be on their own, into the purely wild setting.  The ‘Lion Encounter’, like the ‘Elephant Encounter,’ has an educational mission as well.  The population of African lions has been depleted by 80-90% over the past 2 to 3 decades and this program seeks to at least stabilize what is left. The lion I made friends with, Lekker, was 22 months and soon to be relocated along with his sister, Lila, who was also with us, to the non-human semi-wild environment.

 Flying over the National Parks and the Zambezi in a helicopter provides a very different perspective from that on the ground; the copter flies low enough to spot wildlife, yet high enough to get a good view of the pounding water cascading over the wide cliff face.  Depending on how one calculates the dimensions Victoria Falls is the largest of the world’s waterfalls. It is ca. 1700 meters wide and varies in height from 80-108m. It is 1 ½ times wider than Niagara Falls in the wet season and twice the height.  In the dry season the Falls are considerably smaller and most of the cliff face is visible from the other side, not like in the wet season when one gets a drenching shower trying to make out the contours of the opposite side of the gorge. A better view of the gorges can be found from the bridge that connects Zambia and Zimbabwe from which people bungee jump. There is also a canopy tour of seven zip lines through a gorge that connects the two countries, but while zipping I was more worried about braking properly on the other side and not crashing into the rockface than looking at the scenery to the right and left.  That was better done in a stationary or ambulatory manner.

 My time in Victoria Falls and Zimbabwe came to an end far too soon.  There wasn’t enough opportunity to scratch the surface of the economic and political issues the people are facing, nor was there sufficient opportunity to meet the right people to help me understand local spiritual traditions. There is so much to learn from the people, animals, and landscape of this region that I hope I can return. Livingstone was right, it is a place where angels can play. For now though, research calls, and it’s on to Ethiopia and ancient churches.

Tags: safari, waterfalls


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