Victoria Falls: Living(stone) on the Edge

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We didn’t know it at the time, but our few days in Livingstone would be our final moments of  ‘travel’ in Africa. This small town would also serve as a hub where we would cross paths with other fellow African wanderers we had met on the road south. Looking back, these days were really an unknown celebration of our journey through Eastern Africa.

The Long Journey Southward — Kasanka to Livingstone

We said our goodbyes to Bastian and departed Kasanka National Park at a decent time that morning. Everyone had various destinations we desired to reach. We had decided along with Chris and Izzy to try to make the 996 km leap from our current location to Livingstone. (Yes — we give you permission to call us crazy).  It would be almost 24 hours of travel on three different vehicles, but we somehow were able to do it, which for African standards is pretty impressive. The journey in itself was a funny one filled with both frustration and moments that made us smile.

The one road south.
The one road south.

Our first leg of the ride was in a taxi (which again, is just someone with a car trying to make money) shared with a couple of the Peace Corps people. Not surprisingly he pulled a bait-and-switch on the price, which we discovered just before we all piled into his car. Not wanting to add to the many voices protesting, we let the Peace Corp people talk it out with him while we sat roadside waiting for the possibility of hitching a ride. James successfully managed to jump in a large truck during this time. A few minutes later things seemed to be worked out and the rest of us (being four people in our group) crammed into the car with two of the Peace Corps group. We all began laughing when we came across James on the side of the road about thirty minutes later where he had been dropped off. The driver was kind enough to slow down as we opened our door yelling for Jame to jump in while we were passing by. That now made seven of us in the car, not including the driver. We then quickly hid James below two butts and a bag as we approached a checkpoint on the road, knowing the police would try to give us a ticket for so many people the car. It worked, and we breezed through the checkpoint without having to pay the fee… except to the taxi driver who now wanted more money because of the extra person.

Our driver bought these huge mushrooms on one of the many 'unplanned' stops to Lusaka
Our driver bought these huge mushrooms on one of the many ‘unplanned’ stops to Lusaka

Part two of the journey would be via minivan. This was a mixed bag. From minute one many of the Peace Corps people were not happy with the price, the crammed van, and the number of stops we were making. For a moment you almost forgot they had been living and traveling around this country for the past two years. It was surprising traveling with the Peace Corps people to see how they interacted with the locals. In all honesty–we weren’t impressed. But we also can’t put ourselves in their shoes. We had only been in Africa for three months and we can testify that it can wear you out. We couldn’t imagine where their spirit or perspective was after two years of living in small villages. About halfway to our destination, the driver insisted we pay him as he pulled into a gas station. Not wanting to cause problems we all paid our share of the fare, leaving the Peace Corps people to do as they wish. Our wanting to do the right thing and keep things as easy for the driver as possible of course was repaid with him screwing us over in the end. He took us to the wrong bus station and sat with his arms crossed pissed off while we tried to reason with him. I guess if we had experienced two years of dealing with repeated situations as these we would be a bit jaded as well. It is hard to keep an open heart and mind sometimes when you are straight-up lied to and screwed out of money as an alternative to customer service.  This wasn’t always the case, and the warm hearted and genuine people you meet around these moments that keep you going, hopeful, and still open to those around you.

 

Another stop at the Lusaka Bus Station.  This would be the last.
Another stop at the Lusaka Bus Station. This would be the last.

 

Our final leg of the long journey would be on an actual bus. It would only be Chris, Izzy and us. We arrived in the capitol, Lusaka, just in time to grab a quick snack at the bus station and board an overnighter to Livingstone. Things seemed to be going smoothly until we tried to load our luggage and the person insisted we pay him money to do so.  After confirming with the company we bought a ticket from, we told this luggage loader that we each got one bag free of cost.  He still insisted we pay $10 each.  When we walked over to the ticket counter with the luggage loader to show him we weren’t making up what we had been told, the person selling the tickets all of a sudden didn’t know.  Amanda refused to pay $10 for a bag on a bus and told them “No thank you, I’ll return my ticket and go with another company”.  Then it turned into the game of — “what are you willing to pay me”.

 

While Ben and Chris spent about 30 minutes to get the backpacks on the bus without over paying, Amanda separated herself from the situation before she boiled over with irritation.  Once on the bus she made a quick friend. A gentleman in the front of the bus told her to sit there next to him since the seat was empty. He then told her about his life and work and wanted to hear about where she was from and what life was like in California. He then asked her if she liked bourbon and offered her a small unopened bottle for the equivalent of $2. This man must have been an angel sent from heaven because exactly thirsty minutes before, while waiting for the bus, Amanda had looked around for a place to buy a small bottle of spirit for the bus ride. She happily accepted (especially after the drawn out argument with the supposed luggage loaders) and they each took a pre-departure swig giving a cheers to life. It seems as though almost every time we have a negative experience with people it is quickly balanced with a positive one. Any time a crystal of ice starts to form in our hearts from anger it is quickly melted with a smile or kind words from another who isn’t looking for any personal gain. We are grateful for this, and it gives us hope.

Our overnight bus ride was fairly comfortable despite the loud music which played all night until we arrived. Again, requests to turn the music down after 12am were completely ignored. But we dealt with it and somehow our bodies had adapted to sleeping in these loud conditions. We felt as if by this point we could sleep like babies in a dance club if we wanted to. Our peace finally came when the bus did arrive at 3 AM. We noticed many people were staying on the bus. This was soon explained when woman told us people could stay on the bus if they wanted until the sun came up at 5:30am. What a blessing this was. All of us immediately stretched out into the now half-empty bus and dozed into dreamland for the following couple hours. We were off to a good start, welcome to Livingstone!

Livingstone: Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home - Livingstone

Backpackers Cat - Livingstone

The town of Livingstone (also known as Maramba) is best known and developed because of it’s prime location near the world famous Victoria Falls. As you can probably gather from the name, the town was named after the British explorer David Livingstone.  Mukuni Village (which still exists) was the largest village in the area prior to when the colonial town was established in the early 1900’s.  It was the capitol of Zambia until 1964 when Lusaka became the new capitol city.  Despite this the town remained somewhat charming and much smaller in comparison to the new capitol.  It remains the closest town in Zambia to the falls and because of this it is frequented by travelers, especially over-landers on their way north or south.  Unlike Victoria Falls town on the Zimbabwe side, this town was originally created as an actual town to be lived in.  Victoria Falls town was created specifically for tourism as a location near the falls, which gives it a lot less character and charm in our opinion.

We ended up staying in Livingstone for four nights and almost five full days. While you could easily fill each day with thrilling activities, ranging from canoe rides down the Zambezi River to microlights flights over the falls, we balanced our daily activities and outings with some time for relaxation. This town became once again a hub where we reconnected with many other travelers, and now friends, we had meet over the last couple months while venturing south from Tanzania. One evening there were a total of nine people (including us) that had all crossed paths at one point or another and all knew each other quite well.

Livingstone Backpacker’s Hostel was our primary place of residence during this time, with one quick nights stay at the slightly more fancy Fawlty Towers (mostly so we could use the free wifi they had). Both places were great, but ultimately the layout of the backpacker’s hostel gave us a more connected feel to those we were with. It was perfect for what we needed with an open-air library area, kitchen, and bar/lounge space. For the first two nights we camped and then we finally splurged and spent the $12 for a fancy en-suite room on our final night after a full day of non-stop lightning storms.

Again, with the added comfort of having larger chain grocery stores nearby (our good ol’ friends Shoprite and Spar), having a good kitchen and cooking space, and being a large group of multicultural cooks, there were many meals prepared and shared. Mac and cheese, pesto pastas, salads with blue cheese, fried egg sandwiches, curry dishes, and other delights that we had been missing were all part of the feasts prepared.

 

Duo Dinner and Fun - Livingstone

This especially became a favorite activity during the evenings and daytime when the rain storms would pass over. The rain by this point was almost daily. It was very obvious we had entered rainy season, which put a big damper on our preferred mode of accommodation (camping). We didn’t know it at the time but this point in our trip would be a pivotal one. It is here that we would last be with our little traveling family (including James, Gonzalo, and Tereza). It would also be the place where we would decide to change our travel direction and our computer would begin to fail us. But for the moment though, we enjoyed the company of our friends, the home cooked meals, experiencing Victoria Falls, and even the occasional rain storms.

 

The Royal Livingstone Hotel Crashers

Girls at create their own 'High Tea' (or 'High Cocktail Hour') at the Royal Livinstone
Girls at ‘High Tea’ at the Royal Livinstone

 

Our first outing to the falls was actually spent as pleasant afternoon at the Royal Livingstone Hotel. Following many suggestions from online forums and other travelers we had meet, we visited this swanky hotel for an afternoon cocktail. The hotel itself is an upscale resort located on the shores of the Zambezi just before it tumbles over the cliffs 355 feet (108 meters)  downward in what becomes the Victoria Falls.

We arrived at the hotel in the late afternoon and were able to easily walk over to the bar and deck space just on the river where we ordered celebratory drinks. Making it this far via land had been a long journey, and in a way it was a milestone for us. When we had originally started to think about our trip to Africa, we were pretty sure Victoria Falls was not going to make the itinerary. But here we were, two kilometers from the falls at the slowest season of the year. We were okay with this, since the area didn’t seem to be over bustling with tourists and it also gave us a semi-unique perspective of the falls (and cliffs being dry) that most people don’t see.

 

December happened to be at the very end of the dry season. For this reason the falls were almost non-existent compared to what they are at their peak. The largest of the falls, with the simple name of Main Falls, is the only impressive fall during this time of year and  really only viewable from Zimbabwe. We could see how low the river levels were, with many little ‘rock islands’ jetting above the shallow flow and pools of water. You could easily wade all the way across the river during this time of year. Many hippos can also be spotted (and heard) in the low levels of water. We learned later that many of these same hippos end up washed over the edge of the falls when they don’t evacuate the waters quick enough after the strong rains have begun and the floods/river rising begins. Some of the hippos even run over the cliffs edges during the dry season. After we heard this we all were guilty of frequently eyeing the cliff edges hoping to see one of these rare moments when a 7,000 lb hippo would run off the edge of a 100 meter high cliff.

Our view above the falls
Our view above the falls

After taking in the amazing views and our refreshing beverages we decided to wander the grounds of the hotel. Three well manicured resort ground stretched alongside the river toward the main Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park (which is the park name for the falls on the Zambia side of the border). On our stroll we spotted some zebras (which seemed to be very highly domesticated) being herded toward the main restaurant area of the Royal Livingstone Hotel, probably to add to the ambiance of the afternoon High Tea.

The zebras by the falls - not quite wild
The zebras by the falls – not quite wild

Supposedly other fellow travelers had sometimes found ways to wander onto the grounds of the national park which we kept our eyes open for. Unable to find a gap in the electric fences or produce a room key when we tried to pass off as guests of the Zambezi Sun (which guests were allowed free entrance to the park), we were not as successful as others in finding our natural entry into the park. So we moved onward from the fancy hotels and toward Victoria Falls Bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The Zim and Zam of Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls Map - Livingstone (feature?)

 

The actual water and cliffs creating Victoria Falls are all on the Zambia side of the border. However, since the falls stretch along a cliffside that is about 110 meters (during high season when the falls are full), you can view the falls from both countries. During high season it is probably debatable which side is better, as both offer a peek at the magnificence known as the mighty Victoria Falls. But during the dry season (when we were there) the only really fall of any significance you can see (which is the main fall of gorge one) is strictly viewable from the Zimbabwe side. Not knowing what we really wanted to do as far as park entries (they are after all quite pricy), we decided to wet our palates with a view from the Victoria Falls Bridge that crosses between Zambia and Zimbabwe. This bridge is free to cross and linger on, as it is a kind of ‘no man’s land’ between the two countries. Getting access to the bridge without having your passport was simple. With a small piece of paper in hand we were able to exit Zambia and enter this no man’s land bridge.

 

 

We were amazed at the views that you could get from this bridge alone. Honestly, the views from here were just as good as the views from the Zambia park (at least during dry season). If you are looking to save yourself $20 or maybe just visit the falls from one side, we would recommend probably visiting the Zimbabwe side and then viewing from the bridge. At this particular time of year the cliffs that are usually covered in massive water flow were dry as bone. The canyon however was still breathtaking. Below the small falls that remained you could see the river snake through the canyon onwards. In it were some kayakers pulled off to the sides, probably preparing for the next day’s tour group.

 

The view from the Victoria Falls Bridge
The view from the Victoria Falls Bridge

Besides being the connection between the two countries (and a popular route for many tourists and cargo trucks alike) this bridge hosts many of the ‘extream’ activities advertised throughout the towns on both sides of the border (Victoria Falls town on the Zimbabwe side and Livingstone on the Zambia side). If you wanted to bungee jump at Victoria Falls this is the bridge you would be brought to. Since it was low season and early in the evening at this point we didn’t get to witness anyone throwing themselves over the edge of the bridge. We did however get to see something else go over the railing. It was on this bridge that Chris tested his newly hand fabricated parachute (from duct tape, string, and a grocery bag) for his GoPro camera. We were a bit nervous when he first tossed it off the side of the bridge but happy to see him pull it back up again and again. This was all in preparation and testing for the larger production that would take place the following day.

 

Devil’s Pool

One of the advantages of being at the falls during the dry season (besides the low numbers of tourists) is the ability to sit in what is known as Devil’s Pool. This pool is only accessible during the dry season and sits literally at the edge of the largest fall (the one you can only see from the Zimbabwe side this time of year), in the main gorge. The most popular way to do this trip (and the only way most people know about) is to sign up to be transported to the nearby island via a boat from the fancy Royal Livingstone Hotel. There are three of these trips a day, each associated associated and including either breakfast, lunch or high tea service.

On the walk to the Devil's Pool - being with an Irish we found the rainbow but no gold.
On the walk to the Devil’s Pool – being with an Irish we found the rainbow but no gold.

Not wanting to fork out the large amount of money to do one of these three trips and also not wanting to be with a large group (with up to fifteen total people) we inquired about other options. Each traveler we spoke to had different answers as to how they experienced the falls and Devil’s Pool. Despite being able to walk out across the dried up riverbed to the pool during the dry season it is virtually impossible to get there without crossing the now privately owned Livingstone Island next to the pool. Even those who were able to sneak into the park could not access the pool itself without at least paying off the guard. Eventually we decided to take the advice from some Spaniards who gave us the name of a guide just outside the park who we could pay to take us to the pool.

When we showed up and spoke with the guide we became aware that he was a legitimate guide that actually worked for the man/company that owned the island. He ran the lesser known walking tours to the island and pool between the times the popular boats would arrive. These walking tours were only available for two months of the year when the water levels were at their lowest and it was safe to traverse the land to the pool. The cost was still more than we usually pay for activities ($50 apiece) but also still way lower than the boat trips which started at $120. The groups were also limited to six people maximum, which was perfect for us since we were a group of five. This gave us pretty much private access to the pool together.

 

Walking to the pool was a beautiful adventure in itself. The dry rocky land which is usually the riverbed below five or six feet of water flowing in the giant Zambezi river seemed strange to walk across. The beautiful landscape combined with the ability to walk over to the edges of the cliffs where the water usually crashes over to create the falls was something special to see. The scenario was unique and in may ways we felt seeing this wonder of the world during this time of year was somehow just as special.

Crossing Strange Land - Livingstone

After about thirty minutes of walking over the rocks and wading in shallow water streams we arrived at Livingstone Island.  We could see a fancy dining area (probably set up for the boat trippers) and there were nice changing areas set up as well, complete with wicker baskets to keep clothing and other items you didn’t want to get wet. From this point we would have to swim to the pool. We had walked for thirty minutes across land that is usually covered by deep waters and now we were just reaching the portion of the waterfall that overflowed year round. The current here was strong and our guide told us how to swim so we would ‘flow with the current’ to a particular point across the water. They also had ropes set up just in case you happened to flow too far downstream (and close to the edge) and needed to grab ahold of them before you plummet to your death.

One by one we entered the flow of the river and puppy paddled across. As instructed we swam upstream into the current then let ourselves be pushed gently downstream as we continued to paddle across. From our destination rock on the other side we slowly entered the pool which was literally on the very edge of the cliff before the falls. The roar of the water and the heavy mist that floated all around us were signs of how powerful the fall was, and this was during the dry season. Once we got comfortable sitting on the edge of the fall we got an extra treat. One by one our guide held our ankles and pushed us out over the cliff of the falls. This was enough to make you pee your pants, but fortunately we were still in the flow of water so no one could notice.

 

Living on the edge!
Living on the edge!

The entire experience was worth every dollar we spent on it. Together we got to spend almost twenty minutes in the pool and then we took our time exploring the land around the island and the cliffs. It was a full afternoon that was both beautiful and exhilarating.

 

Hanging out at Jolly Boys

jollyboys Zambia

When we weren’t living life on the edge of Victoria Falls and relaxing at our hostel we spent a good amount of time at Jolly Boys Backpackers. In a way it was like our local travel library. The hostel had a large number of travel books you could borrow and use for research and reading while you were there. The staff was friendly and also knowledgable about activities, transportation, border crossings, and more. The space here made it easy to chill out and read a book, which is exactly what we did on a couple occasions. There were huge pillows and a ‘cozy den’ with a padded floor area and futon seating all around. While we didn’t stay at this hostel it was probably the number one spot backpackers rest in the town. Here we would re-unite with others we had met on our journey southward through Malawi and Zambia. On our final night before leaving Livingstone a group of ten people (including ourselves), all of whom had stayed at Butterfly Space and crossed paths in Nhakata Bay, gathered at Jolly Boys to share one last beer together before we all began to part in different directions.

We had been on the move southward through East Africa traveling overland via buses for almost six weeks now. In many ways leaving Livingstone would mark the beginning of the end of our long East African trek.

 

For the rest of our photos in Livingstone and at the edge of Victoria Falls, click HERE.

 

And although it hurts us to watch, here is Chris launching his GoPro videocamera over the falls… RIP.

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