Soon after I arrived in Cape Town, my mother announced that she had been remiss. I’d arrived on a short visit home, before the extended travels that will take me to Shanghai, and she had never taken me to Victoria Falls. She grew up in Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia. Her brother, my Uncle, fought and died in the country’s Bush War. His widow is still there. He was named Iain. I was named Iain in his memory.
So I found myself gazing out of an aeroplane window, overlooking the African bush, smoke rising off stunted trees in the distance. The Victoria Falls is called Mosi oa Tunya by locals, meaning “the smoke that thunders”. The crash of Zambezi water dropping from a wide meander, sprawled across the landscape, into a narrow gorge, bubbling and frantic, can be heard on the far side of town, a few kilometres away. The spray, shot up off basalt more than 30 stories below, appears on the horizon, like pale, portentous smoke.
Not wanting to squander my mothers money before blowing so much of my own, I’d insisted we stay at a backpackers. Our hostel was in the tourist town’s downtrodden suburbs. The gardens are all dust and washing lines, only sporadically interrupted by well watered lawns. Chickens and the occasional warthog sift through the dry, red sand.
The hostel offers a complimentary airport transfer and we were collected by a slightly battered minibus. Zimbabwe boasts smooth tarmac because of the more or less constant fuel crisis, according to our driver, who grinned to acknowledge the irony. There is very little pressure on the roads, and so they last much longer than roads elsewhere. I had expected roads comparable to Kenya’s, proud home of the world’s largest pothole.
Also on his way to the hostel was Chris, the London born son of Shona expatriates. He spoke well enunciated words with only a slight cockney lilt. The Shona, one of Zimbabwe’s two major tribes, are, at 80% of the population, the country’s ethnic majority. The Ndebele, descendants of the Zulus further south, are at most 15% of the population.
The distinction is important as the languages are different and the political consequences far reaching. Mugabe is Shona and uses tribal loyalties to maintain his corrupt state, consequently oppressing the Ndebele.
Chris resembled many of the locals, his clothes fashionable but travel beaten. He’d started a trip in January, on a round the world ticket, enjoying the obligatory British gap year. By September he’ll be studying physics in Edinburgh.
After dropping off our bags and quickly settling in, Chris joined us on a walk through the town. We rambled round, happy not to have encountered desperate touts, and stopped for a thoroughly colonial afternoon Pimms at the old, opulent Victoria Falls Hotel. The service was attentive, to the point of handing out fly swatters to fend off a throng of apparently harmless bees, and the view is the best in town, looking past a bridge onto the falls.
Strolling back through an overgrown field, we were approached by an almost apologetic policeman, handcuffs ready. He targeted Chris, saying “just you, just you.” Chris, jetlagged (he had been in Singapore the day before), and now a little panicked, meekly proffered his wrists, not bothering to establish exactly why he was being arrested.
The policeman did somehow discover that Chris was a tourist, probably after the eventual offer of some kind of foreign accented protestation, and backed off, a little embarrassed. He started chanting “tourist, tourist,” gesturing to another policemen, looming in the distance, and explained that it was illegal for local touts to hassle the wealthy foreign visitors overmuch.
We met the same policeman the following day, while stuck at a railway crossing, on our way to the Falls. His name, he told us, was Bhoko, meaning something like cement, or iron bar. Bhoko, dark skin stretched tightly over his reedy frame, insisted we guess his age. A number in the late forties seemed appropriate, but Bhoko, preening, said 59. In a country with an average male life expectancy of 37, the lowest in the world, 59 is ripe and old. Bhoko attributed his longevity to the The Fall’s spray, already felt here, a few hundred metres away. He promised that it gave him luck and would do the same for us, but only if we returned every year.
The train hooted and kicked back into life, moving past us along narrow, old fashioned rails. We moved along and, after paying according to nationality (Brits pay the most), entered the viewing enclosure. The Falls are a marvel. They were heavy from a wet summer, and the we were soaked while walking through the small rainforest it maintains.
The next day, our second last there, we walked over a bridge, built under Rhodes’ instruction, into Zambia. Rhodes dreamt of a line from the Cape to Cairo and wanted the bridge close to the Victoria Falls, so rail passengers could glimpse and hear them, while watching spray splash up against the window. Immediately over the border touts accosted us, revealing desperately polished copper bangles and the wood and stone carvings ubiquitous in Africa.
The Zambian side of the Falls can’t be viewed from Zimbabwe, when the river is high. Spray obscures everything more than few score metres away. Although not as awing, the Zambian side allows access to the river. You can stand at the precipice, enjoying a wet vertigo.
My mother remembered Livingstone, the city just over the border, as a quaint place of whitewashed trees and tin roofed Victorian homes. It was now neglected, cracks appearing in the cement paving stones. We wandered through its streets, ate an excellent curry at The Fairmont, a hotel our taxi driver ominously referred to as Indian, and watched smiling children play in the streets.
The budget stretched thin by meals paid for at the ridiculous government exchange rate, we decided on the Shoestring Backpackers for a simple dinner and a few drinks that night. It bustled. The large hotels were empty, moneyed tourists obviously scared off by the country’s politics. I met South Africans there to buy helicopters, to compete in the competitive business of chartered flights over The Falls, using money earned in London.
Due for a horseback safari early the next day, we retired at a moderately respectable hour, getting only a little lost on our way home. The ride was mesmerising. The sun slowly rose above the wilderness and the animals we encountered were only a little cautious, unable to distinguish us from the horses we rode.
On our way back to the airport our driver discussed some of Zimbabwe’s harsh facts. The shambles Mugabe has orchestrated is well documented, so I’ll not dwell on it here. His words only confirmed media reports. But this intelligent man, with a strong grasp of economics, could not afford bread for his family. The price fluctuates by the hour. Even the staple food, maize, is in short supply. And the little that the country does produce is often exported, illegally. His children did not have pens for school, because they are not being produced locally and cannot be bought because Zimbabwe lacks the currency. A Ndebele, oppressed by two successive regimes, he sadly told us that, but for the borders, “we would all leave.”
If you enjoyed Victoria Falls: Smoke and Thunder, subscribe to email updates or our RSS Feed. You'll be notified when we next publish a story about the Old World.