Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Postings from Pretoria #23

18 November 2009

Hello there... Rodger French here.

Photo Update Alert:

"Victoria Falls" - “Botswana” - “Chobe Elephants”

Well, we’re back safe and/or sound from a major African excursion. And that whole “once in a lifetime” cliché? Couldn’t be more true.

Day 1 – A.J. and I, along with our guests T & P, boarded a small jet headed to Victoria Falls. Routine flight, although I did engage in conversation with one Kjeld Krüger, a ninth generation Afrikaner who leads big game hunting expeditions in Zimbabwe. Nice Fellow. We had a pleasant chat and he gave me the email address of his brother Jehan, who leads eco-safaris. I hope to follow up on that contact.

The local airport is easily navigated, so we were soon on our way to the Victoria Falls Hotel. Built in 1904, this is a classic late colonial-era hotel with a grand view of the Victoria Falls Bridge (connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia), historical artwork in the corridors, and high tea. This is one of those swank establishments that hosts monarchs, presidents, and Hollywood stars. It is also a ten-minute walk from the Falls.

Day 2 – Victoria Falls was “discovered” in 1855 by David Livingstone, the Scottish explorer, missionary, and physician. Known as “Mosi-O-Tunya” (“the smoke that thunders”), it is widely recognized as one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of the World.” Victoria Falls is also the economic engine for thousands of people trying to make a living in Zimbabwe, so it was not unexpected that our ten-minute walk was fraught with young men relentlessly hawking trinkets and souvenir Zimbabwean currency, especially the coveted One Hundred Trillion Dollar note.

[Sidebar: Zimbabwe has moved to a monetary system based largely on the U.S. greenback. Being the only guy in our group, I was put in charge of gratuities, so I kept a pocketful of $1.00 bills and tipped pretty much everyone in sight.]

Early November marks the transition from dry season to wet, so the Falls were not at their most spectacular; but, on the upside, you can actually take photoz. At the height of the rainy season, one must get airborne via helicopters (noisy pests) or ultralights (way cool) to get out of the mist. But even at diminished flow, the sight of so much falling water was awesome and well worth the journey.

We had arranged a sunset cruise on the upper Zambezi through one of the small tour operators at the hotel. Consequently, we spent the evening on a thoroughly funky boat navigating the river and small channels above Victoria Falls, keeping a lookout for birds and crocodiles, and giving the hippos a wide berth. We enjoyed beer, snacks, and a glorious African sunset. It was a very good day.

Day 3 – No way I would go to Victoria Falls without rafting down the mighty Zambezi River, an adventure rated as one of the planet’s “Top Ten Whitewater Rafting Trips.” A.J., to her everlasting credit, decided to accompany me. (T & P had their own agendas.) Neither of us was really prepared for what followed.

The trip encompassed 23 km and 21 named rapids, mostly Class 4 and 5. This was the easy part. Two less reckless tourists had cancelled that morning, so our raft consisted of us, our guide Wilson, and three young African guides-in-training. Piece of cake. The river was perfect for some primo paddling and it was an unmitigated thrill to be on the water. And we did not flip the raft.

There were, however, two small problems: (1) climbing down the gorge (app. 92 m straight down) to the put-in and (2) climbing out of the gorge (app. 108 m straight up) at the take-out. The descent was most perilous, as we had to navigate wet, nearly vertical metal stairs - some of which were missing treads and handrails - as well as large boulders.

The ascent was not as dangerous, but it was all up and, I can state unequivocally, the hardest work I’ve ever done in the pursuit of recreation. (Incidentally, Anne decided to take her leave during the lunch stop and head out with the land crew. Ever the sport, she returned with them later to meet me at the top of the gorge.)

It was a hell of a day, but we all returned safely to the hotel where we ate, drank, and made ready for the next morning’s drive to Botswana.



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