Sunday, July 5, 2015

Victoria Falls in Africa--Or Niagara On Viagara and Other Tourist Encounters

Friday, July 4, 2015: Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe:

The Thrills of an Elephant Back Safari:

            We could not afford the luxury of a long lie-in as we needed to set our alarms really early as Llew and I would be picked up at 6. 15 am to participate in the Elephant Back Safari for which we had signed up ($125 per head). In about half an hour, we were down in the hotel lobby joining a few other hotel guests who were already in the coach that took us on the bumpiest half hour ride through near-desert vegetation to get us to the ‘farm’ where tamed, trained elephants take visitors on a ride through the Bush to spy wildlife from the back of an elephant.

            Once we alighted from the bus, we made our way to the base camp where we were treated to hot tea or coffee and biscuits—once again, the British colonial touch was unmistakable. It felt chilly, despite the fact that we had dressed warmly in layers. So you can imagine how grateful we felt for the massive teak wood fires that were lit in pits in the ground. They threw out an abundant amount of heat that warmed us to the core and prepared us for the ride that lay in store.

            Another half hour later, we were mounting the metal staircase to get on to the elephant’s back. Llew and I were given one elephant (named Tatou) and one guide named Taurai—and for the next 45 minutes, we took a slow and leisurely stroll through the Bush in search of animals. We were warned that sightings depended entirely on our luck. Although it was still very early in the morning (about 7.00 am), there weren’t many animals to be seen—there were loads of guinea fowl in flocks running all over the place, but it didn’t seem as if we would see very much. And then about 15 minutes into our ride, during which time Taurai kept up a running commentary on the landscape, its vegetation, elephant habits, etc. we spied it—a single wild elephant in the distance feeding on a tree. Our line of tamed elephants with their trainers in charge kept a respectful distance: no one wished to antagonize the wild elephant who was liable to charge at any time—particularly while feeding. When we had feasted our eyes on the sight, we moved on—only to spy a little group of wart hogs—funny-looking animals who run with their tails pointing upright in the air! We had opportunities to take pictures sitting on our elephant’s knee, we had the experience of feeding it treats (little pellets name of molasses, maize (corn), sunflower seeds, etc.) We took a lot of pictures and when we felt as if we were ready to say goodbye to our elephant, we adjourned into the tent for a typical Bush Breakfast.

Partaking of a Bush Breakfast:

            Indeed by the time we were seated with the rest of our party at long tables, we were so ready for a big meal—why is it that staring at animals makes one so hungry? It was hard to fathom the reason—but we all did justice to the buffet offerings: eggs were freshly prepared for us, according to individual taste, on roaring wood fires that imparted an unusual smoked flavor to everything we tasted. There were sausages, minced meat stew, tomatoes and onions well sautéed, baked beans and toast. Clearly, the colonial impact is still alive and licking in Africa and we were treated to the thrills of a “Full English” in the Bush! Juice, tea and coffee were also plentifully available. We chatted with our travel companions—almost all of whom, except for two Aussie females, came from various parts of America. Almost all of them had stories to tell of the various safaris they have taken in the past couple of weeks, their close encounters with animals in the wild and their newly-gained knowledge of African wildlife. We became very excited about the safari treats that lay in store for us at Kruger.

            And then, just as we reached the very edge of the game reserve, we spied a small cluster of four zebras also feeding off the foliage. It was not a bad elephant back safari after all. Having said that, at the cost of $125 per head, it was far too steep and it is not something we would recommend if one has ridden an elephant in any part of the world—as we have done in Jaipur, Kerala and Thailand. 

 A Hike to the Victoria Falls:

            It was about hour later that we were back in our hotel, only to find that our friends had eaten a substantial buffet breakfast in the hotel and were ready to take a hike to the Victoria Falls—the very reason who had made a detour to this tiny town. By this time, we had the opportunity to marvel at the fantastic location of our hotel for it overlooks the Zambesi Gorge and the Rainbow Bridge that spans it. Although the canyon hit the actual falls from sight, we could easily discern the foamy, smoke-like mist that floats above the Falls because the volume and velocity are so great. The hotel is surrounded by manicured lawns that are well-watered to an emerald green spruceness. And best of all, it was just a short ten minute walk through the Bush, part of Zambesi National Park, to the Falls.

 Finally, Vic Falls—Like the Niagara on Viagara!

            At the entrance to Zambesi National Park, at the point where we purchased tickets to enter and see the Falls ($30 per head), those among us without adequate waterproof gear, including Llew, rented plastic ponchos for $3 each. They are distributed in lovely vivid colors and they make beautiful pictures.

            The trail leading to the Look-Out Decks on the canyon that forms the Victoria Falls is lined with well-numbered spots each of which offers a different perspective of the Falls. Cheri-Anne, who is a member of our party, suggested that we start with the furthest point (Number 16) and make our way down the River to Spot Number 1 which is considered the most impressive one—named Devil’s Throat. And so for the first fifteen minutes, as the roaring thunder of the falls drew nearer, we passed through Bush and got increasingly wetter. Although one speaks of it as spray, the Falls generate what amounts to a small downpour—I had a raincoat on but I was cold and as water trickled down my drenched baseball cap and flowed down my neck, I got colder and wetter beneath!

            Meanwhile, with every step, we inched closer to the Falls. At the summit, spectacularly breathtaking sights awaited us. There were double rainbows in the deep canyon where the water met the river bed. But the force was so strong and the spray so high that it was difficult to pull our cameras out of our pockets to take pictures. Besides, the mist flowing over the stones that skirt the canyon make the area extremely slippery and dangerous and there are no guard rails to stop a fall (shudder!). All of this makes the spot daunting but compelling. We braved the elements and took pictures, all the time thinking as Cheri-Anne put it, “This is like Niagara on Viagara!” And no truer words were ever spoken! It was incredible to behold and we simply could not drag ourselves away from the sight.

            At the Bridge Look Out point, we watched bungee jumpers catapult over the river with all the daring the human heart can muster. One can take a walk across the Bridge (A Bridge Tour) and get over on the other side—to another country, Zambia. But as we did not have visas to get there, we contented ourselves with a look over on the other side. 

            But inevitably, despite the attractions of the view and the dare-devil bungee jumpers, as we had to move on, we did. We continued down river making our way through the descending order of numbered Look Out points and taking pictures everywhere of the wall or curtain of water that is formed by the mile long length of canyon over which the river tumbles to the base. Eventually, when we got to Number One, we found a confluence of a number of natural elements: a gorge, three or four different types of waterfalls depending on height, width and volume, a very narrow natural gorge, a brilliant rainbow. And when we eventually turned away from this sight, we gazed in wonder upon the sculpture of Dr. David Livingston, the explorer who in 1855 ‘discovered’ the natural wonders of Africa, including the Victoria Falls and lived to tell the world about them. He, naturally, named them for his Queen—Victoria. The grand towering sculpture of Livingston as Explorer is by Walter Reid and it was installed in 1955 by the Lieutenant Governor of Rhodesia, Lord Llewellyn (my husband’s name sake) to mark the centenary of the ‘discovery’. It does not matter whether one starts or ends the trek through the well-marked trail at this point—the sculpture has a tremendous impact and we loved every second. I was reminded of a lesson I had in middle school (Grade VII) about the eventual meeting of another English explorer Stanley who, on encountering the ‘lost’ explorer, uttered the words, “Dr. Livingston, I presume.”

 A Close And Very Unexpected Encounter with a Pachyderm:

            It was while we were walking back to our hotel from the Falls that an elephant suddenly materialized in front of us. Having just emerged from the river, it gleamed a startling iron-grey! Llew and I stood by to take pictures with the elephant in the back of us when, coming down the path in front of us, were two gentlemen. Since the elephant was concealed behind a very large bush from which it was feeding, the men had no idea he was there. We did not know how to warn them—yelling out to them might have frightened the elephant. Hence, they were only about two feet from the elephant when they saw it—and it was at this point that the elephant got annoyed at being disturbed while he was feeding. It reared up angrily, tossed its trunk far behind and trumpeted at them in anger—a sound that so startled the men that one of them reared up in return! Had we the presence of mind to videotape it, it would have made a conversation piece for the rest of our lives! However, in a few minutes, the massive animal calmed down and the guy who turned out to be British said, “Bloody Hell! My heart is still thundering in my chest!” When I look back upon the incident now, I find myself cracking up with laughter—but indeed, had the elephant become more enraged, it could have had a very ugly or a very sad ending.   

 A Walk Through the Town of Victoria Falls:

            Back in our hotel, we decided to go out to explore the little town of Victoria Falls as we did have the rest of the afternoon free until we met again with our friends in the hotel lobby for High Tea. As in the case of many towns with one fabulous attraction (Foz de Iguazzu in Brazil, Agra in India, etc.) so too here the town of Victoria Falls is tiny, dusty and unimpressive. A short walk through it took us into many of the souvenir stores where we found trading in the parallel currency of US dollars which is as good as legal tender in Zimbabwe. But how terribly exorbitant all the prices seemed to us! A single postcard cost $1 (in the US, once can find at least 3, even 4, for the same price). A fridge magnet cost $5, a T-shirt regardless of design or size, was a flat $20. There was simply no bargaining, no room for negotiation, and we soon discovered that all the stores have the exact flat rate for every item they sell—there is no such thing as undercutting!

            But there are crafts galore for anyone who wishes to purchase them: wonderful native African woods like teak and mahogany are carved into animal figurines and polished to a high shine. There are bowls, carvings galore, brightly-painted masks, beaded jewelry. You name it, the shops sell them—the craftsmanship is fine and it is clear that these people take pride in their talents and their wares. Unfortunately, we did not wish to carry anything home, so contented ourselves with the mandatory postcard and magnet that we buy from every place we visit—and a T-shirt for my brother Russel who collects them. When we had acquired a small taste of the merchandise on offer, we strolled back to our hotel—only to be accosted by an army of baboons—large, fierce monkeys that stalk garbage bins in search of food to forage. We saw so many that our camera could not keep up with their speed and agility.  

 High Tea on the Hotel Terrace:

            A short rest (read nap for me) in the hotel saw me rise to partake of the next meal on our agenda—High Tea on the Livingston Terrace of our hotel with the mist rising from the Falls in the background. Two members of our party, Ian and Raghu, were already at the meal when we arrived there. They had foregone the pleasures of bungee jumping, zip-lining and swinging that the teenaged kids in our party—Kristen, Neil and Carl—had signed up for. While their Mums, Jenny-Lou and Cheri-Anne accompanied them, their husbands sat back to enjoy the treats of the Afternoon Tea table.

            And what a splendid repast it turned out to be! The wonderful colonial ambience is retained in these lost outposts of Empire: three tiered silver-plated cake stands, fine bone china, gleaming silverware, linen napkins—the whole nine yards. We feasted on plain and fruit scones with unlimited strawberry jam and whipped cream (no clotted cream outside Cornwall!), the most delicious cucumber sandwiches, smoked salmon rounds, curried chicken and chutney rolls, egg salad crostini—all delicious. And on to the sweets: lemon tarts, apple tarte tatin, chocolate mousse slices, tiny meringues. And unlimited pots of tea! What a lovely time we had as we recounted our respective day to each other—the wild elephant encounter was a big part of our story!

            In about an hour, we were joined by the rest of our party—the kids proudly displaying video tracks of their bungee jumps over the Zambesi Gorge! We were suitably impressed by their prowess. With bills settled, Llew and I took leave of them to return to our room for showers and to get ready for the next item on our program—yet another meal! We were off to a Boma Dinner.

 Traditional African Boma Dinner:

            At 6. 45pm, after showering and dressing semi-formally, we were picked up in a van for the short ride during which we made friends with Ian and Sylvia, two travelers from our home state of Connecticut. They were delighted to meet us as we drove to a Safari Lodge for the Boma Dinner. A Boma is a traditional cast iron pot in which Africans from the Bush cooked their food over wood-burning fires. Every country has such a cultural experience (when we were in Hawai’i, we had attended a traditional Luau Dinner). This one was held in a huge thatched roof tent. At the entrance, we were each draped in a colorful cotton sarong bearing African prints. Paint was applied to our cheeks—two dots for each lady, two stripes for each man. We were led to our table and a tiny amount of a potent local brew, a beer made of maize (corn) was poured for our tasting pleasure. It tasted distinctly like ‘toddy’, a local drink made from tapping coconut palm trees in South India. Llew did not like it at all while I found it barely palatable.    

            Appetizers followed: corn fritters, nimo beans (they tasted like boiled peanuts—very good), boiled sweet potato chunks. Our server instructed us to move to the spit where whole roasted lambs were spread-eagled on the coals—it was very tender and very delicious and served with…guess what? Mint sauce, of course! More examples of the colonial hangover. Over by the salad station, we found a variety of greens and braised and roasted veg with Smoked Crocodile Tail-End taking pride of place. I tasted some of it—and guess what it tasted of…why, chicken of course! Over at the grilling station, we were each presented with a sizzler platter and asked to choose from a wide variety of game meat: warthog steaks, Cape Buffalo steaks, regular sirloin steaks. In terms of ethnic offerings, I made sure I tasted kudu stew (a type of deer-like animal from the Bush) and guinea-fowl stew. But I have to say I had to draw the line at tasting Mopani Worms—these looked like short, fried earthworms coated in a chocolate sauce. Those brave enough to venture to put one into their mouths were awarded a Certificate: “This is to state that So and So ate his first Mopani Worm on So and So date.” I was sorely tempted to taste one just so I could go home with the certificate—but I chickened out. Get it? I chickened out!!!We also tasted Sadza, a type of polenta that is eaten with stewed meats. Everything was delicious, but we were so stuffed by the end of the meal that we had to forego the Desserts Station, much to my disappointment as sweets are my favorite part of a meal! Oh well…you know why they say, “Life’s Too Short. Have Dessert First!” For those interested, there was everything one could desire: trifle (colonial influence intervening again), white chocolate mousse, chocolate gateau, individual caramel custards, apple streudel, bread pudding. Truly, the entire meal was a feast for a king, or a queen. And for a while at least, we were made to feel like royalty.

            As in the case of all such meals, the Boma Dinner was a cultural experience and included much more than a gigantic menu. It was an introduction to the music and dance of Africa and throughout the meal we were regaled by groups of singers and dancers dressed in elaborately colorful clothing playing cymbals, drums and maracas. The show was interactive and the audience was invited to join in. The last part of the meal was a wonderful recital on the drums. Every single one of us was provided with a drum and by following the lead of the main conductor, we were instructed to join in. Finally, the entire group was encouraged to come to the dance floor and show off their moves! Needless to say, the Africans present were the best dancers, They moved with the most marvelous ease on the lightest feet with effortless rhythm. We loved it. Llew was not as shy as I am and when he was pulled on to the floor, he joined in sportingly while I was only prepared to make a fool of myself while there were lots of people on the dance floor with me.

At the end of the evening’s entertainment, we went to the entrance of the restaurant past vendors showing off their lovely carved animals and other wares for the unbelievable prices of one and two dollars for beautifully finished pieces. It was impossible to reconcile the fact that we had paid $20 for an ordinary T-shirt and yet could purchase carved wooden animals for one and two dollars. A short drive in the van that had taken us to the Lodge dropped us back to the hotel where we were extremely grateful to curl up on incredibly comfortable beds and look back on our eventful day. It is amazing how much we managed to cram into a very brief stop at the Victoria Falls and how interesting and different every single one of our activities were. Indeed, the Victoria Falls provided a very interesting introduction to the diversity of Africa and we felt grateful that we were off to such a great start.

So far away were we from the ethos of home that it was only very late in the day that we realized it was July 4 and that our fellow-Americans were celebrating America’s Birthday Back Home!

Until tomorrow, cheerio!

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