21 Oct 2013

River Activities & Shenanigans

Zambia: Livingstone

The drive northeast from the border to Livingstone is uneventful.  In the last 5 years smooth tarmac has replaced what was by all accounts a terribly potholed road.  But this development only partially conceals the underlying poverty that still marks out Zambia from its more wealthy southern neighbours.  It is a sobering reality that 64% of the population live on $1 per day. 

Leaving the vast wildernesses of Namibia and Botswana behind us, it is as though a population explosion has occurred overnight.  Sprawling towns are connected almost seamlessly by threads of villages and round huts which stretch monotonously along the roadside.  More than its southern neighbours, Zambia is blighted by HIV and its working age population is hit hardest.  14% of the adult population are HIV positive and average life expectancy is 52 years.  But there is some room for optimism – life expectancy is up from 42 just 10 years ago.  HIV awareness posters are everywhere, including ones urging parents to get their children tested from as early as 6 weeks old.  It’s a stark reminder of something that no longer grabs the headlines at home.

Life is unapologetically laid back here.  The main roads mill with people and animals, none of whom seem in a particular hurry to be anywhere.  Injecting some animation into this scene are the numerous roadside traders who jump to attention at the sight of a foreign vehicle.  They hold out a random assortment of wares, from baskets of charcoal and bowls of fruit to live chickens and even a young goat.  These traders and passers-by merge into one seamless mass as we enter the suburbs of Livingstone.

As well as being one of Zambia’s largest cities Livingstone is also the home of Victoria Falls – the “seventh natural wonder of the world” and also a world heritage site.  Being the adventure sport capital of the country, the menu of activities on offer is almost overwhelming.  These range from white water rafting to swimming in the Devils pool at the top of Victoria Falls.  And of course there are all manner of ways to throw yourself off the bridge – the 111m bungee jump being just one of them.

After checking into the *Jollyboys Camp* we set about arranging our activities for the next few days.  While John procrastinated about whether to do the bungee or not, he had no hesitations about signing up to a half day of rafting.  Feeling suitably qualified having rafted once before “I think” he said “about 10 years ago,” such bravado quickly evaporated during the pre-rafting brief.  There are 25 rapids along this stretch of the Zambezi, which together constitute the most extreme rafting found anywhere in Africa outside Uganda.  Names such as “Oblivion”, “Stairway to heaven” or “Highway to hell” did nothing to inspire confidence, nor did tips such as “If you get thrown overboard, make sure you get back to the raft.”  Apart from being home to giant crocodiles the Zambezi is also known for its strong whirlpools, which have even been known to suck unfortunate castaways from their life vests.  So, clamped bone crushingly tight into his life vest and holding onto his paddle with grim determination, John and his 5 fellow rafters pushed out into the “Devils boiling pot.”  Having been lead to expect at least one capsize, it was an unexpected relief to complete the entire route the right way up.  Back in the bar the video footage was played and revealed John in an unflattering array of increasingly panic-stricken poses.  The only instruction he performed flawlessly each time was “get down!”

Next on the agenda was Josi’s choice of swimming in the famous “Devil’s Pool” at the top of Victoria Falls.  This pool is only accessible late in the dry season when the waters recede and the falls are reduced to a mere trickle of their full flow – a staggering 1,500,000 litres a second!  So the consolation for missing the falls at their most impressive is the opportunity to experience what must be one of the most spectacular views anywhere on the planet.  Hiking across the dried out ridge of the falls (passing a plaque commemorating David Livingstone’s achievement of being the irst white man to set foot here), you eventually arrive at a bottleneck in the river through which passes a steady flow of water year-round, some 50 metres across before tumbling vertically into the Zambezi over 100 metres below.  This is the extent of the dry season falls in Zambia – the majority of the water forks east and cascades down into Zimbabwe, just a few metres beyond.  The Devils Pool is located at the end of this bottleneck, right at the edge of the precipitous drop.  It is the result of a natural barrier which runs for just a few metres, parallel to the edge of the falls, just below the surface of the water.  This results in a pool about 5 metres deep in which the waters gently eddy before sliding over the edge.  This is the ultimate infinity pool.  As well as water, this barrier also holds back a steady stream of tourists, us among them, who swim out into the current and drift inexorably to this spot.  Here they peer out over the edge into oblivion.  Watching the water plummet into the misty depths below, under a constant halo of a rainbow, is a truly amazing experience.  Just don’t tell your mother!

That evening, after a very relaxing sunset cruise on the Zambezi, we persuaded our chatty young taxi driver (Chares), who we had used a few times over the past few days, to show us his favourite night spot.  He was happy to oblige, and we soon found ourselves away from the tourist scene in a very local nightclub.  We were something of a novelty here and we got the feeling that our taxi driver was enjoying “showing us off.”  As everywhere else we had been we were made to feel very welcome, and John was soon being taught the typical African handshake, a “normal” handshake followed by an interlocking of the thumbs and palms and finally a second handshake.  Unlike the equivalent western hangout, this seemed not so much a place for getting drunk as for socialising, dancing and eating – people sat around the dance floor with plates on their laps and chatted animatedly on the balcony.  So we drank cokes with our driver and watched how 21st Century Livingstonians let their hair down.

Our final stop in Livingstone was the City Museum.  Not surprisingly, a sizable section of this is given over to the life and times of David Livingstone.  It was, after-all, in what is present day Zambia, that Livingstone, quite literally, left his heart.  Less prominent, but perhaps of more current interest, are the displays about witchcraft and superstition.  It is a sad fact that in many rural areas these beliefs are still widespread and it is not unusual for someone with unusual physical or mental characteristics to be branded a witch.  One faded newspaper clipping from 2007 described how an eighty year old woman who had been found lying naked by a roadside was beaten nearly to death by villagers who accused her of being a witch who had crash-landed there.  This is a subject close to our hearts, as it is just such stigmatisation that the charity we are supporting (Bethany Children’s Trust) is trying to combat.

The museum also housed a temporary art exhibition, where we found an abstract ink print of a baobab tree for sale.  As these trees have been such a defining part of our travels so far, and we had the opportunity to meet the artist, we bought it.

And on that note, we left town.

Days in Africa: 41
Km driven: 210km

Km total:  5,532km

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