Friday, October 30, 2015

Mosi-oa-Tunya...The Smoke That Thunders

As my birthday strikes again, I look to my bucket list and find the most amazing of all items for me, personally to place on it.  Mosi-oa-Tunya, The Smoke That Thunders.  Victoria Falls.  This giant waterfalls spans a mile along the Zambezi Gorge and is 360 feet high.  There are higher waterfalls in the world, but this baby is the biggest all around monster of them all with spray that you can see up to 50 kilometers away; hence the name "The Smoke That Thunders."  It sits on the borders of Zimbabwe and Zambia on the Zambezi River which is one of the longest and mightiest rivers in all of Africa.

There are many things that make me think of this spot this time of year.  It is heading into the rainy season in that area, but there's still time to go before the spray gets so bad you can't see as much as you would like.  One of the reasons is the timing.  In the year I was born, 1964, Zambia became an independent nation.  When they gained their independence from Britain, the first thing that they did was change the names of everything from British names to African names.  Everything except Livingstone and Victoria Falls.  The falls, for the rest of us, were discovered by Scottish Explorer, Dr. David Livingstone during the reign of Queen Victoria.  It was already named by the people who lived there, but the name stuck both for the falls and the border town.  Today, the area is one of Africa's largest tourist destinations.

I love waterfalls, and one of these days, I fully intend to take Charley Boorman's motorcycle ride across southern Africa which goes from Capetown to Victoria Falls or Victoria Falls to Capetown, depending on which way you take the trip.  But, no matter how you get there, these are probably the most impressive waterfalls in the world, and anyone who loves waterfalls should make this your pilgrimage at some point in life.  Over the years I have become a noted expert in waterfalls of the Northeast; giving advice to hikers and photographers everywhere on which ones to see, where they are and how to shoot them.  I've been to several notable waterfalls around the world, but this one I've missed.  At the point that I'm heading down that slope of old age, I hope that I can find a way to go soon.

What can I say about visiting Victoria Falls?  You would be amazed.  I know I was.  This is the premiere destination in Africa.  It's shared by two countries.  It's on over 100 different tours.  There are nearly 100 activities around the falls.  I can't count how many hotels there are.  You can do just about anything on the border around the falls.  You can go as primitive as a walk and as fancy as a casino.  Whatever you wish to do seems to be available there.  It's like Fantasy Island in the heart of Africa.

I'll hit the high points, starting with flying over the falls.  That's a must do for any great waterfall.  Some of them, like Angel Falls in Venezuela you have to fly by in order to see the whole thing.  Gullfoss in Iceland you can only rely on seeing from the edge, because of the weather.  Deitfoss is the same way.  Niagara has flyovers, but it also has the Skylon Tower and the SkyWheel.  Iquazu has flyovers which are pretty necessary.  But, Victoria Falls has something else.  Microlight Flights over the falls.  These things are barely airplanes and in the United States you can build one in your backyard and fly it without a license.  This is the exciting way to fly over the falls with nothing getting in the way of your view of the falls.  It's also the inexpensive way to do it at almost half the price of the helicopter.  Should you be afraid?  No.  These guys are experts and do this all the time, even if you only do it once in a lifetime.

Necessity says that there will be bridges.  This is a border crossing and people have to be able to make their way from one land to another.  There are two bridges accessible to everyone; Knife Edge Bridge which is open to pedestrians gives a great view of the gorge and the falls.  The other is Victoria Falls Bridge which is the official border between the two countries and home of one of the craziest activities anywhere; the Bungee Jump.  That's right, you can jump right off the bridge.  They charge you for the trip.  The amazing thing is that it's not the only place you can go jumping off of things in the gorge. There is also the giant swing, and the abseil place.  If you are looking for a thrill, one of these should take care of that.

There are also many ways to enjoy the river.  You can canoe and kayak along the tame parts.  You can take a river cruise, including dinner cruises with spectacular sunsets.  There are thousands of hiking trails.  There are even places where you can walk right out onto the top of the falls and swim in the water there.  Just remember, this place is two national parks, Victoria Falls Park on the Zimbabwe side and Mosi-oa-Tunya Park on the Zambia side.  This means that the area is full of wildlife, and it's all that wildlife that you long to see if you go to Africa.  Boats and kayaks are a great way to get a look at the amazing creatures that live there.

If you aren't all about the outdoors, but want to see this fabulous place, remember that Livingstone is close by in Zambia and has all the creature comforts that you might like.  There are shopping spots, tons of hotels and resorts, casinos, restaurants and more.  So, if you are traveling with the family and not everyone shares your enthusiasm for amazing waterfalls and gorges, there should be something for everyone in town.

There are many different kinds of hotels around the falls.  There are modern hotels, rustic lodges, riverside wonders and more.  Here's the thing.  This is not your garden variety family trip unless maybe you're a Trump.  This is a bucket list wonder of the world trip and it won't be cheap.  That being said, I can safely say that if I ever get to take this amazing trip, I'm going to stay at the original.  The Victoria Falls Hotel on the Zimbabwe side.  This place was built in 1904 and was the preferred lodging for the colonial British who visited.  It just sounds like an old world place that would just add to the adventure of visiting the area.  Just a thought for anyone thinking about this amazing trip.

Now, we've mentioned any number of adventures for this area, so what am I calling the Adventure for Anyone?  Well, there are two.  The first one is the only one of it's kind that I've ever heard of.  Lion Encounters is an organization that raises lion cubs in captivity but conditions them and eventually releases them into the wild.  They have places on both sides of the river and here's what they do with tourists.  You get to take a walk with lions.  I'm not kidding, just go strolling along with no confinements on either yours or the lions part.  You will walk with guides just in case there is a problem, but this is your one chance to get up close and personal with lions and get a sense of their personality and really get a look at them.  You are not allowed to touch them, but you get to take a walk with a totally wild animal in the wild.  It's a rare opportunity and should not be missed.

But, that's not all.  There's another activity that I've never heard of anywhere else.  You can cage dive with crocodiles.  They take you down in what's become known as a shark cage.  They give you long poles that you put meat on and you can feed the crocodiles through the cage.  It's a one of a kind experience, and I hope I get to do it someday.

So, for me, it's a bucket list like no other.  It's the biggest waterfalls in the world, and to me that's a pilgrimage site.  You can hike it, kayak it, cruise it, fly over it, and swim in it.  You can take a trip in a microlight, walk with lions, swim with crocodiles, bungee jump, swing on a giant swing and so much more.  I don't care for touristy places much, but this is one of those  magical places that needs to be visited.  This is the big one.  This is the Disney of waterfalls.  This is the Fantasy Island for waterfall hunters.  This is the one thing that you'll never ever forget and it's all just waiting in Africa.  Victoria Falls was "discovered" over 100 years ago and is the crown jewel of a continent.  Mosi-oa-Tunya is the most powerful of them all.  That's worth a visit.

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