The day I finally saw myself standing before the enormous, thundering Victoria Falls, something prompted me to recall a certain childhood memory as I tried to ignore the suffocating humidity enveloping every inch of my skin.
While my mom was working abroad in America for several years when I was a lot younger, I always found myself going through some of her belongings – her clothes, jewelry, and other miscellaneous things. One of my favorites was her small collection of souvenir silver spoons carefully placed in a navy blue velvet case. While some of the spoons were already tarnished, there were a few which haven’t quite lost their luster.
One spoon in particular stood out as it was the only copper one in her collection. It had a simple design at the end with a tiny, faded picture of a waterfall in a glossy enamel. Victoria Falls Rhodesia was written against a cyan blue background just below the picture.
I didn’t know at that young age where the Victoria Falls was located, nor ever imagine that I would actually visit the famous natural wonder as an adult. Yet there I was, fully surrounded by the waterfall mist with a few vervet monkeys creeping nearby, awe-struck at such a sight.
After our road trip in South Africa, Beth and I went our separate ways – she headed off to Australia and I flew from Durban to Johannesburg to join an 11-day Safari tour in the famous Kruger Park northeast of South Africa, Chobe National Park & Elephant Sands in Botswana and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
Next to the safari adventure, we were extremely excited about going to Zimbabwe. We had been on the move from one place to another, pitching and taking down tents that the thought of staying put in one camp site for three nights sounded like heaven.
What took us by surprise as a group was how expensive Victoria Falls was. Should we have been surprised? Possibly not being it’s a major tourist site, but we easily spent roughly $300 – $400 within four days. Entry visas and extra adrenaline-adventure activities were not included in the tour price so it all quickly added up. Not to mention Zimbabwe officially uses the US Dollar currency since 2009.
The country had suffered from an alarming, rising hyperinflation and an economic meltdown rendering the Zimbabwean dollar useless by the end of the previous decade. One of the guides from my Lion Walk adventure joked about how useless their own money became when it was cheaper to use them to wipe their behinds than buy actual toilet paper. Remnants of Zimbabwe’s old billion & trillion dollar currencies are sold as souvenirs by many street vendors in Victoria Falls.
When Zimbabwe was still known as southern Rhodesia under British colonial rule, it was noted to be one of the most prosperous places in southern Africa rich in natural resources and a thriving agriculture. Since its independence more than 30 years ago and the rise of its ruthless president, Robert Mugabe, the country has experienced one of the worst downward spiral economically and politically.
At almost 90 years old, Mugabe is possibly the oldest president in Africa serving his seventh term. Possibly his last one, might I add.
Under his rule, inflation rate reached up to an absurd 230,000,000% [monthly], the only country so far in the 21st-century to have reached skyrocket-high inflation percentage. Unemployment rate was up to 80%, many children were orphaned and people with the HIV disease were devastatingly dying in large numbers weekly.
Every white-owned farm was illegally seized by the government, severely depleting agriculture resources. (Many people will also argue that the whites stole their land first during colonial rule, imposing discriminatory laws against blacks owning any land.) Most, if not all, white Zimbabweans fled further south to Botswana and South Africa. A large percentage of the population who didn’t support Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party were displaced, suffered famine and severe poverty. Some were even murdered. By the 21st century Zimbabwe was highly scrutinized for having one of the largest human rights problems, and international sanctions were soon imposed by the United States and EU.
We completely understood when our guide Lloyd told us it was best not to mention the president’s name out loud or discuss anything related to his preposterous behavior or political party.
A Major Fix for the Adrenaline Junkie
Victoria Falls and its surrounding area is known as the “adventure capital” of southern Africa. It’s an ideal destination for an adrenaline rush or two, along with taking in the stunning scene of the waterfalls itself.
Many adventure tour companies are lined up on its main street offering all sorts of activities – bungy jumping, bridge swing, whitewater rafting, walking with the lions, helicopter rides over the waterfalls, cultural shows, booze cruise and dinners.
Whitewater Rafting on the Zambezi River
“If you only have time or money to do one thing, and one thing only, I highly recommend whitewater rafting,” Lloyd told us one day as we were heading up north to Zimbabwe. He has gone several times since he has been a guide for this specific tour and told us how it never gets old. Every single time still feels like the first time for him.
He couldn’t have been further from the truth. More than three hours of Class 4-5 whitewater rafting starting just a few meters from the base of Victoria Falls on the Zambia side down the Zambezi river for over 27 miles is immensely pure adrenaline rush. In the beginning I was nervous because of all the stories we heard of people who fell off and broke a bone or two, which they say is very common.
Our group of 7 people, including our captain/guide was doing great, even at a 6-foot drop halfway down the river, but we eventually capsized somewhere along the way. I cannot begin to tell you how intense those few seconds were underwater, pulled by the strong current in all directions. Just when I broke the water surface for a big gasp of air, the strong current pulled me right back underwater for another few seconds.
As someone who prides herself on being a strong swimmer, for once in my life, I felt very scared, even for just a few seconds. In no time, I drifted to much calmer water and swam out to the other group’s raft while we waited out for the rest of the group.
I’ve gone whitewater rafting twice on the Delaware river before and that was nothing compared to what I experienced on the Zambezi. Now that’s what I call a rafting challenge – wwooooooo!
Walking with the Lions
As some of you may already know from my Instagram photo which garnered very many “likes”, I hung out with lions for about an hour or two, petting them while they were taking catnaps and walking with them back to their giant cage at the end of the day – no leashes, no barriers, nada! The Lion Encounter was an activity geared towards awareness of the rapidly decreasing number of lions in Africa and the preservation of their natural habitats.
Each person was given a thick walking stick which we needed to use at all times while we were petting and walking with the lions. The sticks are a huge part of the their training, from when they are still cubs, symbolizing who’s dominant and in control. It saddened me, at one point, seeing a lion cowering in fear, when one of the guides raised his stick up in the air. He didn’t do anything, but I didn’t like the feeling of seeing such fear in the lion’s eyes, a creature naturally deemed so strong and courageous, heck the king of the jungle!
Quite honestly, I didn’t have the greatest feeling being there. It wasn’t so much about the money I spent, but for $140 I started to question what was I really supporting, and where does all that money really go. Like they say, it’s for “preservation and awareness“, but they might as well have said for pure entertainment purposes. It’s still unclear where I stand when it comes to lion tourism.
The Devil’s Pool
Since Victoria Falls cascades down from the Zambia side, one can easily walk across the bridge to get to the border and see a different view. Although the view is just as phenomenal on the Zimbabwe side, we only crossed the border for one reason: the Devil’s Pool.
It was highly recommended by these two ladies I met in Johannesburg who couldn’t stop raving about it. Basically, it’s a small natural pool right at the edge of the waterfalls where you can hang out and literally lean over the edge. They only open this section for tourists from September to January; other times of the year there’s too much water flowing.
We ventured out early one morning as a group walking over the bridge towards the Zambia border. We didn’t know we were supposed to book this ahead of time, but since we were a large group of nine, they unofficially took us in right away. The guides for the Devil’s Pool cost us a hefty $40 per person. We couldn’t fathom such an expensive cost for “hanging out in a small pool”, but once we got there, we understood why.
Hanging out at the Devil’s Pool is not for the faint of heart. One mistake and the current can take any person out and plunge into their death 100meters down the falls. The guides knew exactly where we needed to go, where we needed to sit, and held us tightly as they took amazing photos of every one of us leaning over the edge.
They truly took utmost care of our safety. As scary as that may sound, we all felt very safe with their careful guidance and instructions. That was possibly one of the most exhilarating things I did in Africa, along with the whitewater rafting and road-tripping in South Africa.
Bartering Is a Big Deal in Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls has one large open-air market selling some of Africa’s best wood and stoneworks. Those African home decors you see on sale here in New York for hundreds and thousands of dollars, you can get them way cheaper over there, and believe me, it’s the same quality. This was the ideal market for some amazing souvenir shopping. The wonderful thing about it is that not only can you pay with cash, you can also barter with your own belongings.
They were more than willing to take anything – shoes (even the ones currently on our feet), shirts, bags, watches, bracelets, sunglasses, boots, etc. In Zimbabwe, anything imported usually costs an arm and a leg for the average citizen who makes very little salary per year, so they’ve figured out another way to obtain these little luxuries. Some of us in the group gathered some belongings we no longer wanted and went straight to the market. We walked away with some very well-crafted and beautiful wooden bowls, trays, salad tossers, scarves, and other little trinkets.
Vic Falls, overall, was truly an astounding experience. The views both in Zimbabwe and Zambia were absolutely breathtaking, not to mention the abundance of wildlife animals roaming around freely. Despite the expensive tag price that came along in such a short a time, we all thought it was definitely worth it!
Now that I think about it, I’m actually wondering if my mom still has her souvenir silver spoon collection. It’d be nice to take the Victoria Falls copper one and keep it for my own personal memento.