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March 21st, 2004 -> everything falls in Livingstone, zambia

Africans knew of Victoria Falls long before David Livingstone "discovered" and named them in 1855. The local Kololo tribe called the falls 'Mosi-Oa-Tunya' (The Smoke that Thunders.) The falls are still as spectacular as they were 150 years ago, when Livingstone's euphoric prose captivated the western world. Today, the Falls are often just a pretty backdrop for 'extreme' adventures - rafting, bungee-jumping, skydiving etc. The tawdriness and commercialism has not yet reached the Niagara stage of 'pose in the barrel about to go over the falls,' but will probably get there with time.

Victoria Falls is shared by Zambia and Zimbabwe. The city of Victoria Falls, on the Zimbabwe side, is much grander than the fairly seedy town of Livingstone on the Zambian side. However, the current instability in Zimbabwe - courtesy of President Robert Mugabe - has diverted most of the tourist traffic to Livingstone. Livingstone boasts several large backpacker hostels, and hotels that range from the barely habitable to the incredibly luxurious Royal Livingstone (we had a drink at the RL's amazing bar). Independent travelers can spend weeks here. The parks of northern Botswana and Zimbabwe are within easy reach. There are chilled-out lodges on islands in the Zambezi river. Some of the world's wildest rafting trips start just downstream of the falls. Many overland adventures start or finish their journeys here.

It had taken some effort to reach Victoria Falls. Heavy rains had washed out a major bridge linking Malawi and Zambia; a bus had plunged into the river shortly after the collapse. We therefore decided to fly from Malawi's capital, Lilongwe, to Zambia's capital, Lusaka. Even that wouldn't have happened without Marc (the Frenchman we met in Nkhata Bay) and the help of his friend, Peter, who worked at the US Embassy in Lilongwe.

Our first attempt at leaving Lusaka was foiled. We had bought seats on the luxury double-decker bus to Livingstone. But the bus never arrived at the station. When the station manager admitted - many hours later - that the bus needed repairs and wasn't coming, he promised to find a replacement. The bus that arrived - many hours later - was run-down, but we forced our way on anyway. As soon as we left the station I could tell that the transmission was screwed up. The highest gear the driver could find was third. The engine was screaming; the driver kept grinding the gear box to try to find fourth. About fifty kilometers out of Lusaka the transmission gave out completely. Nori and I weren't going to wait around while it got dark. We hailed down a minibus and returned to Lusaka.

When we woke the next morning, our luck had changed for the better. The bus was waiting for us when we arrived at the station. Our seats were large and comfortable - similar to airplane business class seats. Five and a half hours later we arrived in Livingstone.

We saw Victoria Falls from three angles. The first, upstream of the falls, on a sunset 'booze cruise' that took us around an island in the middle of the Zambezi. The placid, slow-moving river gave no indication of the thundering cataract just a few kilometers downstream. Only the wispy clouds that rose hundreds of feet above the falls told us of the tumult to come.  

The second view was at the falls themselves. Clad in rented, mildewed ponchos, we followed a moss-covered path that skirted the opposite edge of the canyon into which the Zambezi poured. The river was high; a thick curtain of mist was drawn across the cliff face. Every minute, up to 500,000 cubic meters of water smashed onto the rocks below and atomized into a mist that coalesced into rain drops borne aloft by violent winds. It actually rained up. When the winds dropped, the rain would fall in great slaps that utterly defeated our ponchos.

The third view was from the air, on a 15-minute microlight flight above the falls. When the river is high, this is the only way to appreciate the falls' 1.7 km breadth. Beneath the falls, the infuriated Zambezi flows into deep concertinaed canyons cut through black basalt. Over millions of years, the falls have moved inexorably upstream. In time, the gorge into which the Zambezi now drops will be merely another bend in the rivers tortured path.

We didn't bungee jump, and the river was too high to do the highly-recommended rafting trips. But we couldn't resist the Gorge Swing. Marc had told us it was "much scarier than bungee jumping." We stood with our backs to a 53-meter gorge; only our toes remained on the concrete platform. The instructor kept yelling at me to lean back further, but the basic instinct of self-preservation overrode any conflicting instructions from my brain.

Nori and I were strapped together, our harnesses triple-secured to a thick climbing rope that extended from our waists to the midpoint of a steel cable spanning the gorge. They called it the Tandem Death Drop. Reluctantly, I let my center of gravity move out over the abyss. A moment later the instructor released us. The free-fall lasted only 3.5 seconds, but we had gone from zero to screaming terror in less than two. Just when we were sure we were finished, the rope went taut and we went from a vertical drop to a horizontal rush across the gorge in a split-second.