Saturday, February 26, 2011

Africa - Zambia, Zambezi rafting and Victoria Falls


We pretty much just rolled on through Zambia in pursuit of our final destination,Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We camped for three nights in Zambia — the first, the night of January 31, at Chipata Camp just over the border from Malawi, the second at Eureka Camp just outside the capitol city of Lusaka, and the third at a place called The Waterfront, which is in Livingstone just a mile or so upstream from Victoria Falls. There's not much to say about Zambia because we drove right through it. It was sparsely populated but pretty country and it sported the best roads I'd seen in Africa. A brief stop in Lusaka was a study in contrasts, however. One minute we were driving through lightly populated rural country with huts made of mud and grass and down at the heels marketplaces, the next we found ourselves at a modern shopping mall with coffee shops, restaurants, ATMs, the works. It might have been transplanted to Lusaka from any modern suburb in the U.S.

Roadside scene - rural Zambia house
Rural marketplace - Zambia
We make a lunch stop somewhere in Zambia

Sunset Cruise - Livingstone, Zambia

I reckon the most memorable part of being in Zambia was the Sunset Cruise, aka The Booze Cruise, out of Waterfront Camp on the Zambezi River. We paid $45 USD for a cruise on the Zambezi, a cruise that included dinner and all the alcohol you could drink in two and a half hours. We didn't see much of a sunset that evening and the dinner was only okay. We were able, however, to put away a fair amount of booze — no surprise there I guess. During the cruise I did manage get a few pictures of the folks from my truck with whom I'd become friendly over the past few weeks of traveling together. 

"Little Dave", Shannon, Kathleen, Liz, Kelsey and Andrew, aka The Canadians
Me with Andrew and "Little Dave"
I should explain how the name "Little Dave" came about before going on because it's part of a pretty good story I'll relate later on. Dave is younger than me (I guess that's obvious) and smaller than me, also obviously. He's a lovely fellow who I got to know on Zanzibar when I helped him use my Skype account to phone his bank in order to unfreeze his credit card. Drinks and oaths of friendship followed our success but because I had been a pivotal player in this essential contact the rest of the Canadians thereafter dubbed me Big Dave and him, unfairly, Little Dave. I'll get to the rest of the story presently. First, some more photos of our little group:

Nick, our driver, Kelsy, Mwangi, our road boss, and Herb from Perth

Liz and Kelsy

Shannon and Kathleen

Dinner on the Booze Cruise. Lisa is on left, her partner Jamie is hidden behind her. The rest you know already.
Here too is a photo of three of the Australians. Sandra and Wayne were touring with their 18 year old son Stuart who is just about to enter college somewhere in New South Wales.

Sandra, Wayne and Stuart
Pixie from Perth, Shannon and Kathleen
The ride from The Waterfront in Zambia to Victoria Falls was a short one. We got through Zimbabwe Immigration without any problems, exchanged our Zambian quachas for American dollars and set up our tents for the last time at the Rest Camp in Victoria Falls town. We spent the next few days there doing a variety of activities available through an outfit named Wild Horizons. This is a fine tour company that offers everything from bungee jumping the Zambezi Gorge to guided walks with lions. Most of these activities were fairly expensive, around $100 USD on average, so I chose only one, the Whitewater Rafting for $105 USD. Not that I was interested all that much in the bungee jumping. As it turned out the raft trip was quite an experience in itself.

Zambezi Whitewater Raft Trip

The relaxed start of our trip above Rapid #11

We got picked up at 9 am at our campsite and got driven a few miles out of town to our put-in point above Rapid #11. Because the water level was quite high at this time of year the upper rapids, those closer to Victoria Falls, were too dangerous. Consequently, the half-day trip going from Rapid 11 to Rapid 24 was the one we did. After a short pep talk and some basic instructions we each grabbed a life jacket, helmet and paddle and set off down the steep path to the bottom of the Zambezi Gorge. There in a little bight of quiet water we climbed aboard a rubber raft and took a short course in following the instructions of Colgate (real name Creto), our boat boss (rearmost in above photo), and James (top right). Most of us chose to ride in a boat like the one shown above, nicknamed a "paddle boat". That means we chose to actively paddle our raft down the river and through the rapids. The other choice was the so called "chicken boat" in which the passengers were passive — only along for the ride so to speak. It was steered by one of Wild Horizon's expert oarsmen who would, we later learned, also avoid the worst of what was ahead.

These photos were taken by Wild Horizons people who came along in small whitewater kayaks. They would go ahead of us and set up cameras in spots that offered a good view of each rapid. I think they were hoping for some spills so they could get some exciting, and salable photos. I, along with many other participants, bought the DVD containing these photos along with a video for $45 USD. There is a more complete photo collection of the raft trip in my Facebook profile. You can see that album here.

Some of our party, "Canada Liz" and "Alaska Elizabeth", chose to ride the chicken boat
The first few rapids were thrilling. We paddled hard whenever Colgate barked out an order: paddle left!  paddle right!, back-paddle!, trying to catch each rapid just right. Sometimes the boat would almost fill with water when we caught one at a bad angle. These boats are (somehow) self-bailing so we never had to remove any water. Good goddamn thing! Some of these standing waves were huge, towering over our heads at times, and literally roaring at us — it was quite unsettling when heading straight into a particularly surly one on such a big river. They don't call it the Mighty Zambezi for no reason — no shit, it is all of that. All too quickly we saw one of our boats flip over in a big wave. Gnarly water that!

The chicken boat approaches a big wave below. The skillful steersman managed to somehow avoid taking a spill during the whole trip. But every one of the paddle boats dumped at least once. Go figure!

So far we were doing okay. Our guides had pointed out that during a spill there's really very little danger of hitting a rock as the Zambezi is something like 180 feet deep  here! These massive rapids are usually due to the fast current and shoreline obstructions, etc., not rocks as in so many other rafting situations. I had all I could do to take in the wonderful scenery as it raced by. My eyes were focused on the water and rapids ahead. And we were paddling hard all the time, racing into the rapids, having fun chasing waves and white water. In the next photo we have just made it through a big rapid. That's Little Dave pointing skyward. Next to him on the left in the photo is Shannon and directly behind me is Kathleen, all part of the Canadian contingent.

We emerge giddily victorious after a close encounter with a large rapid
We weren't so lucky on Rapid #16a, also known as "The Terminator." At some point during our meeting with this monster we knew we were going over. There wasn't much to do except hope for the best. I'll readily admit right now that once I found myself in the water struggling for breath, I got damn scared.

We're losing the battle with The Terminator

I'm looking into the jaws of The Terminator and not really liking what I see

We're going over - see the close up view above
Right about now, I'm thinking I might be drowning
So much water, everywhere I turn. I just couldn't seem to get enough air to breathe.
Little Dave offers a welcome hand to Big Dave
Okay, so I didn't drown. But when Little Dave reached out for me I was damn happy to see his extended hand, make no mistake about that. This is how we traded nicknames — because in that moment he surely became Big Dave in my eyes. For me anyway the rest of the trip wasn't quite as much fun as before we spilled. First I had yet to get my big carcass back into the slippery boat. After James and Colgate righted it that is. I desperately hoped I wouldn't have to go through anything like that again. Luckily the Terminator was the worst rapid we faced that day. Still, I was thoroughly tuckered out when we reached the take-out point just beyond Rapid #24. After a bunch of high-five-ing and back-slapping we began the 300 foot ascent to the top of the gorge for cold beers and a picnic lunch. It was an ugly climb in the heat and a wake-up call for me to try to get into better shape for tennis this summer. Four months of sitting on my ass drinking beer just isn't cutting it. When all was said and done the floating part of our raft trip had lasted about 3 hours and had covered only the few miles between Rapid #11 and Rapid #24.  They closed the river to rafting due to high water on the following day.

Victoria Falls

I hung around camp sort of biding my time for the next couple of days. People from our truck bungee jumped, took helicopter flight-seeing trips, walked with the lions, and did other fun things. Jambo and Willy took a guided canoe trip on the river above the falls. They watched elephants, hippos, and observed the exotic bird life, for example. But now that the safari was over my thoughts turned to Bangkok and Nut. I had originally planned to travel for an extra week with Jambo, Willy, and Elizabeth but by now I was tired of Africa and really missing Nut so pretty quickly I decided to try to get back to Thailand. After a bunch of hassles with telephones that refused to work in Zimbabwe I finally got on Skype and spoke to Kenya Airways in Nairobi. I manged to reschedule my return flight for the 9th rather than the 12th. That done I decided it was time to visit Victoria Falls.

The falls, the African name for them by the way is Mosi-O-Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders), are always in your consciousness when you're anywhere in the town. One need only look up to see vast clouds of mist hanging in the sky. The mist can reach over 1300 feet into the air. Their roar is also constant and can be heard everywhere in town. Elizabeth and I walked over to Victoria Falls Park paid the rip-off fee of $30 USD to enter and spent part of a morning enjoying them from up close. The funny thing about these falls is that the water drops into a narrow gorge — you cannot get a view of the falls in their entirety anywhere except from the air.

I'm very familiar with Niagara Falls as it's near my home town of Buffalo, New York. From the Canada side you can get a magnificent view of the whole deal. Not so here. Victoria Falls is high — at 360 feet (108 meters) they're more than twice as high as Niagara Falls  (360 vs 167 feet), and at 5600 feet quite a bit wider too (5600 vs 3950 feet). I was surprised to learn that the average volume of water going over them is less then that delivered by the Niagara River (38,430 vs 85,000 cu ft/sec). That average reflects both seasons, the dry and the wet. The maximum recorded flow of the Zambezi River however is an astounding 452,000 cu ft/sec while for the Niagara it is 240,000 cu ft/sec. About half of the Niagara River's huge flow of water is diverted into hydroelectric generators and never even makes it over the falls.

I had Elizabeth take this shot of me in my Alaska Boats and Permits hat. I didn't need it on this trip (too blasted hot) but took it along on this soon-to-be-wet walk along the south rim of the falls.

I include a couple of photos from Wikipedia that show the falls from above so you can get an idea of what I'm talking about. The so called "Danger Point" is the furthest point you can walk to on the Victoria Falls Park footpath that skirts the south side of the chasm.

The Falls during the dry season  — 2003
Elizabeth and I walked along the footpath taking in the view when we could and getting soaked with the constant  "mist" which felt like, and in reality was, a torrential downpour. Danger Point, clearly visible in the dry season photo above, was quite fun when we were there on our visit during the wet season. Water filled the air and we were instantly drenched again with warm Zambezi water. We were very impressed with the roar of the giant falls, so close to us there, and with the powerful winds generated by the massive amount of water falling so far through space a stone's throw away. As you can see in the top photo, Danger Point is perpetually shrouded in mist during much of the year. In the lower photo the International Bridge connecting Zambia in the north (top and right) with Zimbabwe in the south is shown. The Zambezi delineates the international boundary generally. After our soaking at Danger Point I walked the few kilometers to camp in the hot sun. By the time I got back my clothes were dry.

We spent a couple of nice evenings at our camp restaurant with the gang from the truck but by this time folks were starting to disperse and go their own way — a bittersweet time. Some of us would continue to Capetown or Botswana with a new crew on a different truck. Others would be heading home, or like me would continue traveling elsewhere. Here are a few more photos of our group at the Rest Camp Restaurant in Victoria Falls.
Me with Little Dave
Little Dave and Helen
Aimee and Katy
Pete and me
The Alaskan travelers at safari's end - Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
There are a few people that I just did not get decent pictures of. Damn it! — it's too late to get them now. I apologize to Krystal and Chris, Helmut and Monica, and Dusan, because this is their story too. It was a good time and fun getting to know you, all of you.

I'm Out of Africa

That about brings my Africa story to a close. We Alaskans had a very nice dinner at the posh Safari Club a few miles out of town on our last night together. This restaurant has a lighted water hole where a number of elephants magically appeared, almost on cue, just as we were finishing dinner. Elizabeth told us she had decided to grab a different truck and head to Botswana for her remaining time in Africa while Willy and Jambo had elected to fly to Jo'berg to see what mischief they could get into there. I caught a ride back to Lusaka and was back in Bangkok a few days later.

In all we traveled approximately 2400 miles (~3900 km) during this particular trip, the Nairobi-Victoria Falls 21-day safari with the Africa Travel Company. We traveled from about 1.5 degrees south latitude to about 18 degrees south and visited 5 countries along the way: Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. It was the first time I've ever traveled with a touring company and as I said before, it had its good points and bad. I really prefer traveling on my own, meeting people by chance, and having unplanned adventures. Yet, I met some wonderful people and found it an easy way to see a fair piece of Africa with a minimum of hassles.

On the road back - Zambian countryside
For me, having just begun a new relationship, the time away was, well, you know, difficult. I missed Nut and wanted to get back to her as soon as possible after our trip ended. I missed the easy friendliness of Thailand and its fabulous food too. Not to fault Mr. Mwoi but we were camping after all. How can one compare the fabulous tom yum, som tam or pad thai available everywhere here with quick sandwich lunches and camp food? Well, we did have that tasty roast pig in Malawi, and BBQ steaks, and those nice curries. Africa isn't nearly as friendly as Thailand either. Perhaps because it's so impoverished and its people so needy. And the constant stream of street touts and panhandlers put me off too. Much worse than Cambodia even.  I'm reminded of something my buddy Al said to me last year during our motorcycle trip. He was getting ready to tour South America a few years ago, obtaining visa information and the like. He suddenly realized that he'd rather just come back to Thailand and be done with it. It has everything he wants in a winter getaway. It's sort of that way for me too, especially now.

So I'm back in Bangkok where I'm writing the final lines of this entry, the Africa part of my blog. What's next? No big plans.  Nut and I will take a short trip to visit an ancient temple near Bangkok but the bulk of my remaining time in Thailand will likely be spent right here in our place hanging round with my honey. I'm watching for Suzuki V-Strom motorcycles on Craigslist in Oregon. I want to do some touring when I get back stateside in early April and that means I'll probably head south to desert country and warmer temperatures; Arizona, New Mexico and southern California. Maybe I'll see you down there.