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November 30, 1999

Victoria Falls is Zimbabwe’s tourist town – full of backpackers and sightseers.  This is the off-season so it isn’t too congested, and in fact, all the backpackers in the bars and the campsites kind of set me off on a nostalgia trip.  (The backpackers seem awfully young these days, though…)  Vic Falls is lower in altitude than most of the rest of the country (about 800 meters, 2900 feet).  It seem like the rainy season hasn’t really started yet  here.  At any rate, it is righteous hot in the sun!  I acquire quite a burn on my right arm while driving, since that arm isn’t accustomed to hanging out the window and isn’t nearly as accustomed to sun as my left one.

 The Falls, itself, is an awesome sight!  Not as massive as Niagara, with nowhere near the amount of water, especially now at the end of the dry season, but it is very pretty and the gorge is spectacular.   The water plunges over the edge into a long, but very narrow gorge, which lies perpendicular to the river, so the falls are more than a kilometre wide.   You can walk along the opposite side and look at the falling water across the gorge, which is only a 100 or so meters wide (and also 100 meters deep).  Very spectacular!


   It would be more impressive at the end of the rainy season because there would be much more water falling, but people tell us that then there is so much spray and mist that you have to wear raincoats and you can’t see nearly as well.  The walkway winds alongside the falls and through a rainforest with frequent viewpoints so that one can see the falls from many angles.  Little rainbows arch into the mist and the pathway is often dotted by small, three inch, fiery red balls of flowers about ten inches high which look ever so much like nature’s version of the patio lanterns we decorate our yards with at home.  The small rainforest is draped with vines and I would not be surprised if Tarzan materialized in front of my eyes. 

During the dry season, most of the water is
pouring over at the far left end of the gorge
The Devil's Cataract, near the left
end of the gorge
During the rainy season, the water would be pouring over the entire length
of the gorge.  It would be spectacular!
The river runs out at the far right end of the gorge.

Just below the falls we see people starting out on white-water rafting trips down the gorge and tiny figures can be seen in kayaks and on boogie boards in the water.  We watch several people bungee-jumping off the bridge that crosses over to Zambia!  Just watching sets your pulse to pounding – god knows what it would be like to do it.  Apparently, the guy who pushes you off the edge says:  “If the bungee breaks, don’t worry.  You will fall into the river and you just swim to shore.  But remember to swim to the right bank.  If you swim to the left bank, you will need a visa!”  There are apparently very few “rules” on the Zambian side of the river.  People are swimming in a pool right at the edge of the falls. 

Victoria Falls bridge over the Zambezi Gorge The iconic Victoria Falls station

Because of serious inflation in the Zimbabwean economy, the exchange rate for us is excellent as far as currency goes and the holiday is really cheap in terms of food and accommodation!  We brought US$ Travelers Cheques and have averaged between 36 and 39 Zim dollars for each US dollar.  Unfortunately, the highest denomination is a Z$100 bill so every time we cash a cheque we need a wheelbarrow to carry the bills! 

They paperclip them together in bundles of ten, which we refer to as ‘wads’, as in:  “The hotel room cost two wads!” Our cousins think we are being unnecessarily irreverent by referring to their currency this way.  They are being good sports about it, though. 

 Although there isn’t too much to do in Victoria Falls, except to look at the falls, we spend a very pleasant day and a half.  We walk over to the famous old Victoria Falls Hotel, built in 1904, and VERY elegant!   

We also walk through the craft village, but there is so much stuff you can’t take it all in, nor can you begin to choose.  Various people approach us on the street, wanting to exchange our money, as foreign currency is very scarce.  The general consensus is that the Zim dollar will be devalued again in the near future.    

In the evening we enjoy a very popular Zimbabwean tradition: a sundowner cruise on the Zambezi River, above the falls.  Free drinks and snacks, hippos, free drinks, crocodiles, more free drinks and more hippos.  We meet some people visiting from Botswana and England who really are rich; not just pretending, like us.   We get back just as the sun is setting.   “Another boring day in Africa!!!”

 We leave Vic Falls at 6:00 am because we intend to drive back to Harare in one day, a distance of 850 km.  We stock up on biltong, bottled water and snacks and do the trip in 10 hours.  A few kilometres outside of town, just as the sun is rising, we see a “Buffalo Crossing Area” sign.  A few minutes later, three Cape Buffalo (that we didn’t see in Hwange) crossed the road in front of us.  Boy, are they big!  

When we get ‘home’ to Harare, everyone wants to hear about our adventures and to ask which part of the country we liked the best.  Now there is a challenging question to answer!

DECEMBER 4, 1999

December?  It can’t be December!  The windows are all open, the sun is shining and it is 32C outside.

 After a day or two ‘at home’ to recover, we set out on the last phase of our Grand Tour of Zimbabwe.  Di’s 12 year old daughter, Leanne, is just starting her summer holidays so they come with us and we go to Kariba. 

On the way, we see more of the amazing countryside:  lots of tobacco and maize crops, all intensively irrigated, can be found in this area. 

Roadside vendors are selling the usual stone and wood carvings and lots of watermelon and mealies. Many are offering bait for fishing because Lake Kariba is a popular sport fishing spot.  A roadside sign reads:  “WEMS FO SEL” .  We stop for lunch near Chinhoyi and tour the limestone caves.  The roof of one of the caves has fallen in creating a huge opening at the top. 

The water in the cave is the most incredible sapphire blue! 

Once we are beyond the farm country, we see people gathering thatch for roofs.  It is stacked in big neat piles for sale along the roadside.   It must be brutal work.

 In the 1950’s a huge dam was built where the Zambezi River flows through a deep, narrow gorge, near the tiny settlement of Kariba.  The dam created Lake Kariba, which is 250 km long and up to 40 km wide.   It generates hydro for both Zimbabwe and Zambia and the area has developed into a holiday resort with a thriving tourist industry.   There are many hotels and resorts and it is a popular spot for fishing, houseboating and holidaying and has the hottest weather in the country.  The town of Kariba, itself, sits on a very high hill and every restaurant has a patio with a fabulous view for miles out over the lake.  There are many islands, which were hilltops before the valley was flooded and in the distance is the high escarpment, which forms the side of the Zambezi valley.  Fishermen come from all over the world to catch the Tigerfish, which has huge teeth and beautiful coloured stripes, and is related to the Piranha.

Beautiful Lake Kariba Kariba Dam
Sunset cruise boat Tamarind Lodge

 We stay at Tamarind Lodges, in a low-budget cottage that is very quaint.  It is quite comfortable, if a bit rustic.  The front of the cottage is open and a wire grill denies access to larger livestock.  Bamboo curtains roll down for privacy.  A variety of insect life shares our quarters, but we have mosquito netting, so that isn’t a problem.  Leanne, however, being a typical 12-year-old girl, is less than amused to find three toads in her bathroom and a Chongololo worm in the sink.  Susan is a little surprised to be  awakened in the middle of the night by a rustling noise and sees a monkey making off with some of our groceries.  Hot water is heated by a solar panel on the roof and in the bathroom there is a shower—no shower enclosure or cubicle, just a showerhead in the middle of the room—and a drain in the floor. 

 We dine on the patio of the Cutty Sark Hotel, looking out over the lake shining in the moonlight.  Di tells us that it isn’t uncommon to see elephants sauntering through the hotel grounds and in dry years, they often stop and drink out of the swimming pool.  No elephants join us at the dinner table this night, but we do see some the next day swimming at the edge of the lake. 

 At night, you can see the lights of the kapenta boats all over the lake.  Kapenta is a small fish, like a minnow, which flourishes in huge populations.  The boats go out at night using bright lights to attract the fish, which they scoop up with big dipnets.  Kapenta are an important protein source in the diet of the African people.  White people feed them to their cats. 

Kapenta fishing boat Sundowner Cruise boat
Hippo on shore in the evening Dead trees

 In the evening we enjoy another sundowner cruise (more free drinks).   It is just beautiful out on the lake, with a cool, evening breeze.  We don’t see much wildlife on this cruise, but we see some hippos up on shore.  As the lake is man-made, when the water level is low, the trees that once covered the valley can be seen poking their petrified branches out of the water. 

There are some rather odd sights, like the tops of old hydro poles, far out in the lake with the lines still hanging from them!

If one were willing to brave the crocodiles, tigerfish and hippos, one would find the remnants of abandoned villages and homes beneath the waters of Kariba.   

While the creation of the dam has been enormously beneficial to both Zimbabwe and Zambia economically, we cannot help but wonder about the fate of the wildlife.  The numbers listed as being rescued by “Operation Noah” seem to be pathetically small.  The original Valley Batonka tribe didn’t fare so well either.  They were forcibly resettled from their fertile lands along both sides of the river, to dry sandy areas above the escarpment.  Still, the dam and the lake are an amazing accomplishment and certainly, it is one of the beautiful places on earth. We watch the African sun drop into the water just as our cruise ends.  We think our sailboat might like it here. 

On the other hand, sailing in the same waters as hippos and crocodiles has a somewhat limited appeal.

The Kariba Dam Operation Noah

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