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Victoria Falls : THE SMOKE THAT THUNDERS

<i> Jones is a free-lance writer living in Norco, Calif</i> .

Shortly after 2:30 one sunny December afternoon I met the button man.

He stepped forward to take my luggage as I climbed from the bus that brought me from the airport, a half-hour ride away through the cracklingly dry bush country of northern Matabeleland.

I forget his name, perhaps because I was so intrigued by his coat and hat, which were covered in buttons and badges of every sort and color. He was the doorman at the Victoria Falls Hotel, and his grin of welcome was warm and friendly.

The hotel itself is a splendid structure, worthy of its long-held reputation as one of Africa’s finest.

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Built in 1904 when the projected Cape-to-Cairo railway line finally reached the Zambesi River, it started life as little more than a wood and corrugated-iron building.

Less than half a century later it was playing host to England’s Royal Family when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret stayed there. Today, it and the equally famed Meikles Hotel in Harare are known worldwide.

But the Victoria Falls Hotel has the edge in location, sited a few hundred yards from one of the world’s great natural wonders.

Visitors have been coming to Victoria Falls ever since Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone came across them on Nov. 16, 1855, and named them in honor of his queen. Before that the natives knew them by a more colorful name, Mosi-oa-Tunya , the Smoke That Thunders.

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I quickly unpacked and intended to walk immediately down to the falls, but three things delayed me.

First were the mango trees that surround the hotel. Their branches seemed alive and, on closer inspection, I found a colony of vervet monkeys, some clutching young to their breasts, gathering mangoes. Apparently they were regular visitors at this time of year when the fruit begins to ripen.

Next it was the swimming pool that stopped me or, more specifically, the sight of a pool attendant furiously chasing a troop of baboons off the surrounding lawn and back into the nearby bush. This, they said later, happens almost every day.

Lastly, stepping out onto the hotel’s broad terrace, where an African marimba band entertains beneath 200-year-old mahogany trees, I was brought to a standstill by the view.

The sight, in the afternoon light, with clouds gathering on the horizon and the sun at just the right angle, was spectacular. In the foreground, shaded lawns and flawless gardens gave way to unspoiled bush in hues of green and yellow. In its midst stood the iron railway bridge, completed a year after the hotel and spanning the river-carved chasm of red-brown rock that separates Zimbabwe from Zambia.

One 1952 handbook mentions a story, apparently well authenticated, that when the bridge was officially opened in 1905, one party member tried to determine the depth of the gorge below.

“For this purpose,” said the handbook, “he picked up a stone and took out his watch to note the time taken by the stone to reach the water. Absent-mindedly, he dropped his watch into the gorge and found himself timing its descent by the stone in his hand.”

I didn’t want to lose any time, either, and set out to walk to the curtain of rising mist and the distant roar that signaled the waterfall, the Smoke That Thunders.

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A winding path of sand zigzags down to the river, and along this path curio sellers had set up shop on the ground every 50 feet or so, displaying carved wooden animals, tribal masks of every size and native jewelry in assorted styles and colors.

Getting past them without succumbing to their pleas--"Buy a happy hippo, sir. Very cheap."--was an art itself. Finally I reached the entrance to Victoria Falls National Park, its area fenced to protect it from both human and animal deprivation.

Which way to go? Left or right? By then the clouds had built up overhead and rain seemed a distinct possibility. I chose to head left, toward what my map said was a statue honoring Livingstone.

I didn’t make it. Having climbed down the 73 forest-canopied steps leading to a view of the Western or Devil’s Cataract, I was taking photographs when I felt the first drop of rain on my arm.

In Africa, storms arrive with a startling suddenness. At first I hoped the trees would keep me dry. They didn’t. I hurried back up the steps that were already becoming slippery, retraced my way and sought shelter with some equally soaked but broadly smiling Africans beneath a sort of thatched roof structure of unknown purpose.

We waited. The rain, like the air, was warm, and I was not cold. The downpour increased, the thatch leaked, the floor of the shelter flooded and what had been a path a few moments before was a swiftly moving stream.

Standing there, drenched to the skin, I thought back to the news story I read in the Bulletin just a few hours earlier during the drive from the airport.

“The continuing drought throughout Matabeleland has reached crisis proportions, according to highly placed officials who view with alarm the worsening conditions among the human and animal populations,” the story said.

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“Thousands of head of cattle have already died in the rural areas, and even if rain falls this month, thousands more will perish from starvation and lack of water during the coming weeks.

“Weak, emaciated and starving cattle are now a common sight, trying desperately to find nourishment on road verges throughout the two provinces.

Hazard to Motorists

“These are posing a hazard to passing motorists, some of whom have been unfortunate enough to hit beasts lying in the road after dark.”

Clearly, the drought was at an end and the long-awaited summer rains had arrived. That was why the Africans were smiling.

After waiting for an hour or so and seeing the downpour intensify rather than slacken, I left the shelter and, in a stooping half-walk, half-run, trying all the while to protect my camera, stumbled back up the path to the hotel.

The curio sellers, too, had abandoned their posts and the return trip was uneventful, although not without some loss of face at its conclusion. Guests and staff alike stared and smiled as I left a trail of sodden footprints across the hotel’s plush carpets en route to my room.

A shower, a change of clothes and a whiskey or two at the I Presume bar were enough to dispel any negative thoughts, however, and the storm became enjoyable as evening turned to night.

There was, for instance, the dramatic sight of the lightning over the darkened bush, each jagged spear accompanied by thunder of such ferocity that the walls seemed to tremble. And there was the ludicrous moment when the power failed, the hotel was plunged into inky darkness and a frantic search ensued behind the bar for candles.

The Skies Cleared

One candle-lit dinner later, I went to bed. The first day had been a memorable one, but I had yet to see the full grandeur of the falls and I had only two days left.

By the next morning the skies had cleared. I learned later that 4 1/2 inches of rain had fallen in four hours the night before. After grabbing a quick breakfast of paw-paw (a larger version of papaya), sliced cheese and orange juice on the terrace, I set off through the bush, bypassing the tourist-trappers already setting out their wares along the pathway.

Choosing to cut through the bush was perhaps not the wisest decision. One of my guidebooks had warned: " . . . keep to clearly marked footpaths when walking in the bush, or, if this is not possible, wear protective socks and boots.”

I was wearing thongs and a pair of shorts, and hoped that the guidebook’s author was correct when she said: “Bites from animals other than insects are so rare as to be hardly worthy of mention.”

I took my time, stayed silent and kept my eyes open. My reward was the close-up sight of a large bushbuck doe that I startled when rounding an outcrop of rock; the view of a bristly group of wart hogs rooting in a mudhole, and, in a moment of near panic, something tawny that I fervently hoped was not a lion, hyena or any other kind of cat, breaking through the brush 100 feet to my right.

The guidebook was not encouraging.

“Occasionally, leopard and even lion have been seen, and elephant and buffalo often wander into the outskirts of the town during the dry season,” it said.

Wonderful. I hadn’t seen another soul in almost an hour, was God-knows-where in the middle of the bush, and something was out there. Perhaps the rain the day before meant that this was now the wet season and the lions would be elsewhere. Anywhere elsewhere.

I quickened my pace, saw a wooden building that turned out to be a Zimbabwe border post, then crossed the railway line that leads from Victoria Falls to the town of Livingstone on the Zambian side of the border. Within minutes I was back at the falls.

Writers, artists and photographers have tried for more than a century to do the waterfall justice. A few, like English artist Thomas Baines, have succeeded. Reproductions of Baines’ superb oil paintings (the originals are in the South African Library in Cape Town) line the hotel walls, but the real thing is even more eye-opening.

“On sights as beautiful as this, angels in their flight must have gazed,” was the rather soppy phrase Livingstone used. Well, he was a missionary, not a writer, and he did do slightly better later:

‘Sheet of Driven Snow’

“Into this chasm, of twice the depth of Niagara Falls, the river, a full mile wide, rolls with a deafening roar. . . . The whole body of water rolls clear over, quite unbroken. But after a descent of 10 or more feet, the entire mass suddenly becomes like a huge sheet of driven snow. Pieces of water leap off it in the form of comets with tails streaming behind, till the whole snowy sheet becomes myriads of rushing, leaping, aqueous comets.”

Perhaps the best aspect of Victoria Falls today is that more than 133 years after Livingstone’s visit the area remains virtually unspoiled. Bush, river and waterfall are much as they have always been. Certainly, the animals are fewer and farther between, but no hideous commercialism has encroached. There are not even any guardrails to protect the unwary from a 400-foot plunge to the rocks below.

Sadly, however, the superstitions that once surrounded Mosi-oa-Tunya seem to have disappeared.

French missionary Francois Coillard, who visited the falls 20 years after Livingstone, said that the natives “believe it is haunted by a malevolent and cruel divinity and they make offerings to conciliate its favor--bead necklaces, a bracelet or some other object which they fling into the abyss, bursting into lugubrious incantations, quite in harmony with their dread and horror.”

No malevolent spirit was hanging about this morning. The sky was a deep blue, the sun hot on my back as I walked the length of the falls and back again. Each bend in the path offered something new:

--The Livingstone Memorial with its inscription that history has since made obsolete: “On the occasion of the centenary of David Livingstone’s discovery of the Victoria Falls, men and women of all races in and from all parts of the federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland assembled solemnly to dedicate themselves and their country to carry on the high Christian aims and ideals which inspired David Livingstone in his mission here.”

150 Million Years

Rhodesia and Nyasaland are long gone, but as the Zimbabwe Tourist Board advertisement so effectively states, Victoria Falls remains, “Now in Its 150 Millionth Fantastic Year. . . .”

--The Rain Forest, where an umbrella is the best defense, no matter how cloudless the sky, against the unending showers of spray that rise and then rain down from the adjacent falls.

“The morning sun gilds these columns of watery smoke with all the glowing colors of double or treble rainbows,” Livingstone wrote. “The evening sun, from a hot yellow sky, imparts a sulfurous hue and gives one the impression that the yawning gulf might resemble the mouth of the bottomless pit. No bird sits and sings on the branches of the grove of perpetual showers, or ever builds its nest there.”

--The succession of views that defy description: the Devil’s Cataract, the Main Falls, Horseshoe Falls, Rainbow Falls, Livingstone Island, Danger Point, the Knife Edge, Boiling Pot Gorge, the Whirlpool. Each name carries with it a lasting image.

The drought, which had lasted eight months, had left the Zambesi low. Rock showed everywhere along the fall line, and I even noticed some youngsters, carrying what looked like handmade fishing poles, wading from island to island on what seemed the very lip of the falls.

It still flowed with an impressive volume of water, though, enough for several teams of white-water fans to be launching their rafts near the Boiling Pot after scrambling down a cliff face on the Zambian side. From 400 feet above, they looked like toy figures as they went through their preparations before being swept out of view through the gorges.

The Zambesi flows for 800 miles before reaching the falls, then has another 900 miles to go before emptying into the Indian Ocean. In a few months the river would be at flood stage, with an unimaginable average of 120 million gallons of water pouring over the falls each minute. Then the spray reaches 1,200 feet high and one can hear the crash and roar of the plunging water 20 miles away.

Like other visitors before and since, I stood entranced, caught in the grip of the river’s spell. Before I knew it, the day had gone.

Back at the hotel, I celebrated with dinner in the Livingstone Room. Even then, the river would not let go. I ordered crocodile.

“From the Zambesi?” I asked.

“From the Zambesi,” the waiter replied.

Like Victoria Falls, it was indescribable.


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