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Victoria Falls surpasses all expectations, writes Christine Flatley.
As the plane descends beneath the clouds, Zimbabwe looks like it’s on fire.
The sandy ochre soil spreads out beneath low scrubby bush, and on the horizon, smoke billows into the sky.
Except that this isn’t smoke, but the spray from the region’s star attraction: the mighty Victoria Falls.
At 108m tall, the falls — known by its indigenous name of Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke that Thunders” — is not the tallest in the world.
It doesn’t even make the top 100.
But at around 1700m wide, and with more than 500 million litres of water plunging into the gorge each minute during the height of the wet season, it is one of the most impressive.
So much so, that it has been named one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
I arrive in the town, also named Victoria Falls, on a dreary afternoon. It has been raining non-stop for two weeks, and the surrounding bush is verdant and lush. Cows with big clanking bells lie in the fields, donkeys trot past carrying carts of food and building materials, and school students in neat uniforms walk arm in arm down muddy roads.
Baboons scamper in front of the cars and scale leggy teak trees peppered with pink flowers.
“Don’t feed them,” my driver Colin advises. “And don’t leave the door of your room open. They will get in there, eat everything in your fridge, rearrange the room and leave.”
This does little to ease my slight phobia of anything primate-related, however I do have a grudging admiration for any animal that has such commitment to mischief. I make sure I carefully close the door when I arrive at the Victoria Falls Hotel for my first night.
Originally built by the British in 1904 for workers on the Cape-to-Cairo railway, it is now old-world luxury: expansive verandas, plush furnishings, impeccably manicured gardens, and views of the Livingstone Bridge, from which adrenaline junkies throw themselves on bungee lines.
Animal trophy heads and skins hang on the walls, fountains bubble quietly in palm-lined courtyards and a man in a white suit and bow tie plays popular tunes on a grand piano as guests finish their drinks.
I’m collected from the lobby at about 4pm for my sunset cruise on the Zambezi River. It’s still raining, and is chilly on the river.
The staff on The Victoria bustle around wiping down the couches and dropping the plastic windows as guests arrive.
The inclement weather unfortunately prevents us from taking full advantage of the boat’s capabilities of getting to within 800m of the thundering falls. We’re disappointed but are placated with gin and tonics and plates of canapes.
Instead of the falls, Captain Misheck promises hippos.
I am sceptical — isn’t the one rule of wildlife that you can’t rely on sightings? But sure enough before the boat has even gone 100m, we are all hanging over the side marvelling at these great lumbering creatures.
“They’re sinister,” one of the guests says.
“They’re lovely,” his wife retorts.
Apparently the hippos in this stretch of the river are extremely reliable, and by the time we have come across the fourth crash (other excellent collective nouns include a bloat or a pod), and a basking crocodile, some of the others on the boat are blase and too engrossed in tipsy conversation among themselves to raise their heads for more than a few seconds.
They do look up though when the clouds clear unexpectedly, leaving us with a perfect sunset, the sky daubed in crimson, apricot and rose.
The weather holds the following day for my walk along the top of the falls, which form the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.
I hear them before I see them, as the water roars over the rocks. The spray is as thick as a blanket, but periodically clears to unveil glimpses of the cascades. Rainbows dance and tiny birds flit in and out of its shower. It is gloriously wild and impossibly beautiful.
Across the chasm we can see the Devil’s Pool, an infinity rockpool where brave tourists can swim in the drier months. The only thing separating them from the drop is a little rock lip.
My guide, Victor, has bungee jumped seven times, but shakes his head at the thought of this, describing it as “crazy”.
I’m inclined to agree, but he assures me the amount of water rushing into the gorge is significantly less outside the rainy season, and the chance of being washed over is extremely slim. I opt to stay dry but agree to a helicopter ride to get a bird’s eye view.
If the close-up of the falls is a study in raw power, from the air it is pure majesty. The Zambezi River’s impetus starts way inland and pushes out to sea through deep, rugged, snaking gorges, etched into the red earth over millenia. Below us, a tiny yellow raft of tourists negotiates frothy rapids. Fish Eagles ride the thermals, as grey clouds, pregnant with rain, hug the edges of the Earth.
It is humbling and exhilarating. My heart beats like a drum.
I am less than 24 hours into my trip and Africa has already started to get under my skin — it is both completely foreign and strangely familiar.
The helicopter makes one final swoop over the falls, and the spray catches the sunlight, blazing gold, and the sky catches fire as the smoke thunders once again.