Thursday, 16 February 2012

Victoria Falls

Thursday, 16th February 2012

View of part of the Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwean side.

I slept well again and took breakfast on the terrace overlooking the River Zambesi shortly after they opened at 7 o'clock. Returning to my room, I made a small bag ready for this morning's tour. I was to be picked up at 08:30 for a tour of the Victoria Falls from both the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides arranged by Wilderness Tours. The International Border between Zambia and Zimbabwe (Northern and Southern Rhodesia when I was young) runs down the middle of the Zambesi at this point so to see all of the viewpoints, it's necessary to visit both countries.

With three other people for the tour already picked up elsewhere, it took only a few minutes to reach the Zambian border post. We all had to go to Immigration before our guide and driver drove over the Victoria Falls Bridge with the single line railway crossing the bridge to our left. Approaching the Zimbabwe Customs Post, our guide parked and escorted us on foot to a pedestrian gate. Here, we were handed over to another Wilderness Safaris guide for the Zimbabwe part of our Falls tour. After we'd passed through Zimbabwe Immigration, we boarded a similar bus to the one we had left on the Zambian side and drove a short distance before parking near the entrance to the Victoria Falls Rainforest Reserve. We entered the Reserve for a tour of about 4 kilometres on a series of concrete paths.

Before this trip, I'm afraid I'd only the haziest knowledge of the geography of this part of Africa. I've commented before that I never cease to be amazed by my almost total ignorance of the world around me. The Zambezi River with a length of 2693 kilometres is the fourth longest in Africa. Immediately upstream from the Victoria Falls it's wide and reasonably fast flowing, as I could see from my room at the Royal Livingstone situated on the east bank as the river flowed south.

South of my hotel, this river broadens to about 1.7 kilometres wide and literally "falls off a cliff" as a chasm running east-west opens up in the river's path. The drop varies from about 70 metres on the west up to 107 metres in the Main Falls. At the bottom of the drop, the water is confined to a narrow channel in the basalt rocks where the only exit is through a narrow channel near the eastern end of the falls. Whereas the broad river upstream is typically 3 to 5 metres deep, in the narrow channel leading away from the falls it can be ten times as deep as the water seeks an exit through a roughly round chamber called the 'Boiling Pot'. The turbulence in the 'Boiling Pot' is quite spectacular. The 'Boiling Pot' discharges into the Second Gorge with a heading roughly to the south-west and it is this gorge that's spanned by the Victoria Falls Bridge. If you look north-easterly from the bridge, you can see the eastern part of the falls. But, after the bridge, the unyielding basalt rock forces another sharp deviation on the escaping water, turning the flow into the Third Gorge which flows more-or-less west-east. Still in a deep gorge, the water enters the 'Silent Pool' where the flow is turned to a south-westerly direction again, in the Fourth Gorge. Equally improbably, on a rocky shelf above the Silent Pool, there is a hydro-electric generating station which discharges into the Pool. I didn't find out where the water intakes are.

In February, the volume of water coming over the Falls is increasing, but not yet at its peak. I still found the spectacle very impressive. Of course, I was also interested in the Victoria Falls Bridge, opened in 1905. Originally, it was built as a double-track railway bridge but has now been reconstructed with a single track railway and roadway controlled by traffic lights ('robots', as they call them in Africa). The achievement, not just in the scale of the bridge but in the hostile, remote environment in which it is situated is amazing. There's an excellent website about the bridge here. Peter Roberts contributed to this site and he also wrote a history book 'Sun, Steel and Spray' (ISBN:978-0-620-50399-0) which is an essential reference.

The Victoria Falls Bridge.

'Rainforest' is the right term for the area, because in the vicinity of the falls the spray, having risen like smoke, turns into a rainstorm with amazing power which takes your breath away in places. We spent a couple of hours moving from viewpoint to viewpoint and, even wearing the poncho loaned by our guide, we all became completely saturated. After a walk round the Visitor Centre for some orientation (and the opportunity to buy souvenirs) we returned to our bus and reversed the earlier process of entering Zimbabwe to return to Zambia. Our first guide then took us around the viewpoints on the Zambian side where we suffered the same dousing, emerging like drowned rats. After more purchasing opportunities, we headed back towards Livingstone.

View of part of the Victoria Falls from the Zambian side.

I said goodbye to my new friends as I was the first drop-off at the Royal Livingstone Hotel. It was almost half past two and I was totally shattered. A shower, a change of clothes and I returned to the main part of the hotel to take Afternoon High Tea.

Tomorrow, I leave the Royal Livingstone Hotel. I should be picked up at ten o'clock to move on to the next part of my adventure.

My photographs of the Victoria Falls and the Bridge are here.