Zambia: Livingstone & Victoria Falls

5th April - 24th April 2002


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After failing on my mission to leave Lusaka last night because of a train derailment, I resorted to taking a bus. I asked at the Chachacha Backpackers if they could recommend a good express bus company for the 400km trip down to Livingstone. I didn't want to end up on another chicken bus breaking down by the side of the road. They recommended the C R bus company that had its depot behind the Shoprite store on Cairo Road. The first bus was due to leave at 06.00 so I took a taxi at about 05.15; there were a couple of taxis parked up outside the backpacker's gates waiting patiently for the early morning departures. The bus was in good condition and I also managed to get a seat; the ticket cost ZK45,000.

The view from the bus was monotonous as most of Zambia is a flat plateau, the exceptions being the Copper belt Highlands and the Nyika Plateau on the border with Malawi. The main vegetation covering almost 60% of the country are the various types of moist miombo woodland, where the main trees are species of Brachystegia. Mopane woodland is found in the hotter southern areas of the country, along the Zambezi and Luangwa valleys, a dry woodland where the dominant species is Colophospermum mopane, with small patches of acacia. At about midday I arrived in Livingstone and walked the short distance to the Jolly Boys Backpackers on Mokambo Road that had been recommended to me by a few other travellers.

The town of Livingstone was established in 1905 on a site that had been previously known as Constitution Hill. It replaced the first settlement of Old Drift that grew up around the first ferry crossing point on the Zambezi River, 9km upstream from the Falls and about 10km from present day Livingstone. Old Drift was a badly sited settlement, lying in low, marshy land where malaria took a heavy toll on the inhabitants. With the construction of the railway and the Victoria Falls Bridge in 1905 a new administrative centre was created away from the mosquito-infested marshes of Old Drift. In 1907 Livingstone became the capital of North Western Rhodesia by which time the town had grown to include two hotels, a restaurant, two mineral water factories, eight general stores, two butchers, a barber, a chemist and four building contractors. In 1911 Livingstone became the capital of Northern Rhodesia and remained so until 1935 when the capital was moved to Lusaka due to it's more central position. Livingstone remained the tourist capital of the country until the 1970's when the country slid into economic and political chaos and the tourists disappeared to Zimbabwe. Victoria Falls, across the border, soon replaced Livingstone as the place to go to see the falls; the pendulum is now swinging the other way as today Zimbabwe slips into economic turmoil. Today Livingstone is the adventure activity centre of Southern Africa where you can go abseiling, bungee jumping, canoeing, flying (fixed wing, helicopter, microlight or balloon), gorge swinging, hiking, river-boarding or white-water rafting.

Many original buildings survive today in Livingstone, giving the place the air of an old colonial town. The North-western Hotel was one of the original two hotels built in 1907 and extended in 1909. Today though the hotel is shut and the building is falling into disrepair. It is supposed to be renovated soon, but this rumour has been going around since 1995. Nanoo's, a supermarket on the main street, Mosi-O-Tunya Road, was built by one of the first settlers at Old Drift. Originally the building was both a bar and a store; about the only thing that has changed is that the bar has closed and now there is a large Coca-Cola sign on the roof. The St Andrews Anglican Church on Akapelwa Street was one of the first churches built in 1910 and is still in use today. The Livingstone Museum is the biggest and oldest museum in the country dating back to the 1930's. The main interests to me on my visit were the documents and personal artefacts of Dr Livingstone; there are also substantial displays of Zambia's ethnological and ethnographic heritage.

I hired a bicycle for a day for US$10 from outside Jolly Boys Backpackers and set off to Victoria Falls, 10km down the road. The weather was pleasant, there was some cloud about and it would probably rain later in the afternoon. It was the end of what had been a strange rainy season. The rains started as normal towards the end of November and should have lasted into April, which is why I planned my trip south through Africa at this time of year. On Christmas Eve the rains stopped, almost two and a half months early. It was just my luck that the rains seemed to start again the moment I arrived in Livingstone. The day I arrived there was a torrential downpour in the middle of the afternoon and it looked like the same would happen again today.

I cycled down the road and soon came to the Zambezi River. In the distance I could see the huge cloud of spray thrown up by this enormous waterfall and the constant drone of helicopters as they flew tourists over the river and falls. The Zambezi is Africa's fourth longest river, stretching for 2,700km to the Indian Ocean. The Kolobos, a South African tribal group that colonised the area during the 1830's named the falls Mosi-O-Tunya, which translated means, the smoke that thunders. Dr David Livingstone was the first white man to see these falls on 16th November 1855 and he named them Victoria Falls. The falls are 1.7km wide, 100m high and 874m above sea level. During the height of the rainy season approximately nine million litres cascade down into the gorge. Livingstone on his first visit to the falls wrote, 'Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight'. In 1876 E Mohr wrote, 'No human being can describe the infinite and what I saw was part of infinity made visible and framed by beauty'. The gorge downstream from the falls carves a tortuous route through the soft basalt rock for 8km in a tight zigzag course. This incredible gorge has been formed by the successive formation and abandonment of seven previous broad waterfalls that have formed along fault lines that cut across the riverbed. This process is estimated to have taken 100,000 years.

There is an entrance fee of US$10 to walk out to Knife Edge Point. I paid and followed the paved path through the forest along the edge of the gorge. There was a shack where you could hire waterproofs, but I didn't bother as it was now a hot, sunny day and I was wearing light, quick drying clothing. As it was the end of the rainy season there was a tremendous amount of water cascading over the falls, the spray obscured the view and at times it was hard to just see the falls on the other side of the gorge. I reached Knife Edge Bridge where I got completely drenched; it felt like someone was throwing buckets of water over me. The whole of Knife Edge Point was being deluged by the falls. It was impossible to take any photos unless I had a waterproof, underwater camera. I rushed around, although there really was no point, I was already soaked to the skin and any more water wouldn't make much difference. I eventually reappeared back at the ticket office-dripping wet. I stopped to wring out my T-shirt and tried to dry myself off as best I could.

After walking upstream I jumped on my bike to go to Victoria Falls Bridge. The bridge is in no-mans land between Zambia and Zimbabwe so I had to leave my passport at the Zambian immigration office in order to get through the gate. The bridge was an idea of Cecil John Rhodes as part of his plan to build a railway line from the Cape to Cairo. It took nine months to build and was completed in April 1905 and officially opened in September of that year. It was later widened in 1930 when the road was built. I cycled over into Zimbabwe and got as far as the sign saying, 'Welcome to Zimbabwe', where a Zimbabwean kindly offered to take a photo of me before I returned to the bridge. By now I was almost dry from my close encounter with the waterfall. I picked up my passport at the immigration office and was back in Zambia. I cycled along a dirt road that lead down the gorge. I found myself alone, away from the crowds of tourists, sitting on top of the gorge watching the turbulent waters flow past, far below me trying to work out how a river can condense it's width from 1,700m to a mere 50m; surely there must be a law of physics being broken here. The impending rain forced me to return to the visitors centre, but the heavens opened before I could make it and I got soaked for the second time that day. When there was a break in the weather I returned to Livingstone and managed to reach Jolly Boys Backpackers just before sunset without getting soaked again.

Jolly Boys was a nice place to stay, it was very friendly and relaxed. There was a small swimming pool in the garden next to the bar and a kitchen where you could order breakfast or an evening meal. The place wasn't too big and still had a homely feel about it. There were dormitory rooms, double rooms and space to camp in the garden next to the bar and pool. There was no television but Sue and Kim went off and borrowed a television and video for a couple of nights and brought us films to watch.

Other guests recommended the walking safaris in the nearby Mosi-O-Tunya National park where you could see the only five white rhinos in Zambia. Back in the 1960's there were about 6,000 white rhino in Zambia but these were all poached, an alarming statistic if there ever was one. These rhino were a gift from South Africa and arrived in this small park back in 1994. There were two male and two female, one of the females was already pregnant and gave birth in the park increasing Zambia's white rhino population by 20%. Unfortunately in the eight years the rhino have been in the park they haven't mated. It is thought that the park is too small and that the rhinos see too much of each other and their relationship is only platonic. In addition, the dominant male has marked the whole park as his territory leaving the other male submissive to him. The park is due to be extended in June 2002 on to land that was gazetted back in 1988 but due to a lack of government funds since then has meant that it could not be properly fenced. Wildlife experts are expecting that the submissive male will set up this new section of park as his territory and will see less of the females. It is hoped that when the males do stumble across a female that they will be a lot more excited than they are today when they graze together almost every day as a small herd.

I booked my walking safari with Dave from Livingstone Safaris for US$40. I found him one evening at the Fawlty Towers Backpackers having a beer; he also runs the Geckos Backpackers in Livingstone. He told me to be ready at 06.15 to be picked up from Jolly Boys in his Landrover. The following morning Dave arrived as planned and we drove down to the Waterfront, an up market lodge that is also cashing in on the overland truck business, and picked up another three Dutch tourists. The park gate is almost next door to the Waterfront and we drove through to the staff village where we picked up an armed ranger. We parked the Landrover near to where the rhinos had last been seen and began tracking footprints in the mud. We walked off into the bush in single file, so as not to alarm any animals we might stumble upon. The rain the previous afternoon made it easier to track the footprints; we could easily tell if the prints were made before or after the rain had stopped. Along the way we saw a lot of giraffes and other herbivores such as zebra, antelopes and buffalo. With the reputation buffalo have for being mean and dangerous animals, it was certainly a different experience seeing them while walking through the bush rather than from the safety of a vehicle.

After an hour or so walking the footprints were looking very fresh; Dave estimated they were made late yesterday evening. Soon we caught a glimpse of a single rhino asleep under a tree. We carefully and quietly walked around this giant, snoozing animal to get down wind of it. Rhinos have very poor eyesight and rely mostly on smell to find out what is happening in their environment. The rhino caught sense of our smell and began to stir, but by the time she was on her feet we were safely down wind and hiding amongst some small trees and bushes about 8m metres from her. It was an amazing sight to see this animal at such close range in the wild as she woke up and began her day grazing on grass and scratching herself against a tree. She slowly grazed her way into the distance and soon disappeared into the bush. We continued on our search for the other four rhino. It wasn't long until we picked up another trail of footprints in the soft, damp sandy soil; Dave estimated three individuals had made them. We tracked the prints for about another hour until we found three rhino grazing in a marsh. We eventually had to back away into the bush as the rhinos grazed towards us. In all we saw four out of the five rhino in the park, not bad for a three-hour morning's walk.

After spending four relaxing nights in Livingstone I returned to the capital, Lusaka. The train was running again but one traveller who had just arrived told me of the ordeal of his journey overnight from Lusaka; the engine broke down on route in the middle of nowhere and it took five hours to fix it. I decided that it was not worth the risk travelling along the Zambian Railway and took the C R bus again instead. By the middle of the afternoon I was back in the rather dull city of Lusaka and walked from Cairo Road to the Chachacha Backpackers. I spent a couple of days in the city waiting for Graeme, a New Zealander I had met the previous week at the hostel, who had offered me a ride to Malawi. I passed the days at the three cinemas in the city, all of them along Chachacha Street, a block to the west of Cairo Road. The best film I saw was the remake of Planet of the Apes, I huge groan of disapproval went up at the end of the film when she kissed the ape. The worst film was Scary Movie 2, why did they bother? The funniest, The One, just for the reactions of the audience during the fight scenes. Late on Thursday evening Graeme arrived after going on a tour of the west of the country. We sat down with a beer and planned our journey to Malawi along the Great East Road.

Continue reading this journey: South Luangwa National Park