The wonder of water
Craig Platt visits "the most wonderful sight in Africa", Victoria Falls. The reporter travelled as a guest of South African Airways and Sun International.
Craig Platt takes a leap of faith to experience life on the edge.
I am one metre away from certain death. Water gushes through my legs, pouring over a 110-metre drop into the canyon below. It's both exhilarating and terrifying at once.
I'm sitting with my legs in “the Devil's Pool”, a swimming hole literally on top of the world's largest waterfall – Africa's Victoria Falls. The mighty Zambezi River pours over the falls at a rate of 546 million cubic metres of water per minute in wet season.
Lucky for us, it's dry season now and the flow is not as strong – it's the only time when the Devil's Pool is accessible.
Victoria Falls sits on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, a spectacular sight as it drops off from the Zambezi, the falls stretching across 1.7 kilometres with an average height of 92 metres.
We're on the Zambian side of the falls, but looking across from the pool we can see tourists in Zimbabwe, who wave at us from across the canyon.
Our small group reached the pool via a boat across the river to Livingstone Island, a tiny patch of dry land that also sits on the edge of the falls. It too is inaccessible during wet season, as the gushing water makes it too dangerous to approach.
Once on the island, it's a short walk to the side that leads to the Devil's Pool. This is where we start getting nervous. In order to access the pool, we must swim across the fast-flowing Zambezi to reach a small group of rocks about 50 metres away. For safety, there is a single rope strung across this part of the river, to give us something to grab in case we're swept away by the current. I find myself trying to remember exactly what I signed earlier when a waiver form was put in front of me.
Fortunately, it's not as bad as it sounds. The current here is not as strong as it looks from the shore and even an average swimmer like myself has no trouble making it across.
We scramble back on to the rocks before our guide points out the pool. To the untrained eye, it's almost impossible to spot – just a marginally calmer patch in the flowing river. With out further ado, our guide jumps in. He swims across to the edge of the falls and sits on an underwater ledge, facing us and inviting us to jump.
While the other members of our party are too nervous to take such a leap of faith and scoot into the water on their rears, I decide to jump. Our guide points to where I should aim and I go for it. After hitting the water I immediately sink to the bottom, which is far deeper than I expected and I'm in way over my head before I touch the riverbed.
Upon surfacing, I join the others on the ledge on the far side and pose for a few souvenir snaps. The ledge has created a natural barrier against being thrown over the edge of the falls, though I shudder to think exactly how someone initially made this discovery.
It's a much a closer view of the falls than I ever expected to get. (And, in retrospect, I'm glad I chose this particular extreme activity at the falls, rather than bungy jumping.)
We arrived in Livingstone (the town named after the famous British explorer, Dr David Livingstone, the first European to arrive here and who named the falls after the then Queen), in Zambia the previous day, landing mid-morning after a flight up from Johannesburg. It was my first time in Africa and I was astonished to find that within 20 minutes of leaving the airport we were on the Zambezi, passing a family of hippos.
Our accommodation, the luxurious Royal Livingstone, sits above the falls on the banks of the river, the spray visible from the hotel's pool, outdoor deck and even the dining area. From here, the rising spray looks like smoke, and indeed this is the locals' name for the falls – Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke That Thunders).
The hotel's seclusion and tranquil setting has made it a favourite for celebrity guests, among them Matt Damon, Rafael Nadal and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Located in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, the grounds are home to giraffes, zebras and numerous vervet monkeys. Wild elephants roam the area too, as we discover on our second night driving back to the hotel from town – our bus is forced to stop for several minutes as we wait for a couple of them to cross the highway.
Our first view of the Victoria Falls came from the air, flying over the area in a helicopter flight. From up there, the falls look decidedly different, but no less spectacular, as the narrowness of the canyon carved by the water comes into stark relief.
The next day, before our dip in the Devil's Pool, we took the tourist walk along the track on the far side of the canyon, offering spectacular vistas. As the sun shone, rainbows appeared below. It created a perfect backdrop for the bikini-clad model who was also down at the falls that morning, doing a photo shoot for Sports Illustrated. The half-naked model had almost as many admirers as the falls themselves.
Zambia has been a beneficiary (probably the only beneficiary) of the problems in neighbouring Zimbabwe. Though Zambia already laid claim to the lion's share of the falls, the division of tourists is now even more strongly in favour of the Zambian side. Since violence erupted under Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe's regime, the vast majority of tourists wishing to visit Victoria Falls are avoiding Zambia's problem-plagued neighbour.
As one local tells me, “Mugabe has helped put Zambia on the map”.
Of course the other man to put Zambia on the map was the aforementioned Dr Livingstone, who first saw the falls from the island that now bears his name, in 1855. He was clearly bowled over by the sight. Despite his wide travels in the continent, he declared the falls “the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa".
“No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England,” he wrote. “It had never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” High praise indeed.
But as intrepid as Livingstone was, he never took a dip in the Devil's Pool while he was here - I presume. Which leaves me feeling rather intrepid myself.
The writer travelled as a guest of South African Airways and Sun International.
South African Airways flies daily from Sydney to Livingstone, Zambia (via Johannesburg) and six times a week from Perth. Economy return fares from the east coast start at $3121 including taxes and from Perth at $2927. See www.flysaa.com
The Royal Livingstone Hotel offers king rooms twin share including breakfast and taxes for about $A810 per night. The hotel is a short walk from the falls and can arrange a wide range of activities at Victoria Falls and in the surrounding area. See the hotel website for details.
At the falls
There is a wide range of activities available at the falls, from guided walks to more extreme adventures like bungy jumping and whitewater rafting.
Tongabezi offers guided tours of the island including – if you're game – a trip out to the Devil's Pool from $US65 per person. See www.tongabezi.com
United Air Charter offers a range of flights above the falls for a spectacular birds-eye view. See www.uaczam.com
Royal Livingstone Express
One for train fans, the beautifully restored steam train takes a short 20km journey along the historic Mulobezi Railway with an excellent dinner on board. It's also a chance to get a look at the township of Livingstone and say hello to some of locals – hundreds of kids run out to the train in the evening to wave to the passengers. www.royal-livingstone-express.com
Follow online travel editor Craig Platt on Twitter @FairfaxTravel