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water, water everywhere

Posted Aug 15 2010 9:51am
We arrived at Victoria Falls Airport yesterday morning and stepped off the plane into perfect weather. I forgot what the air feels like when it's not saturated with exhaust-laden humidity. Our driver was named Lucky, and Julle tried to get into his seat, forgetting, as we all did, that Zimbabwe drives on the left.

My first impression of Lorrie's B&B wasn't a great one. Tucked away from the worn on a secluded back road, it seemed like a rundown, ramshackle mess. The lounge area smelled of smoke and dust and dog, and the paint was peeling off the ceiling above our bed.

The caretaker, George, called us a taxi and we got dropped off in town, making our way down Livingstone Drive towards the falls. Along the road we bought some defunct Zimbabwean currency off a street hawker, something like a hundred billion for two US dollars. A little further along, another seller, probably hoping to sweeten me up for a sale, handed me a ten-million note. It's for free. Really?!

We hesitated for a moment at the entrance to the falls. The admission price was thirty US dollars per person, and, trying to be wise with out money, we questioned whether it was worth such a steep fee.

The first view alone made us turn to each other, laughing at our foolishness.

How can I use words to tell you about Victoria Falls? How can anything I say come close to capturing it?

They are massive, carving a wide swath between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The water thunders and churns in a way I've never seen. Rainbows are everywhere, the children of the cool, ever-present mist and the perfectly blue sky of dry season. Ever corner we turned took our breath away again. More rainbows, more beauty, the most falling over us like rain, drenching us to the ski as we stood, mouths open, marveling.

I'm sitting here, absolutely lost for words as I try to write about this. I get the feeling this will not be the last time this happens over the course of the next four months.

As we walked back towards the entrance, the sun was lower, casting that late-afternoon glow over everything. The pray stood out like gold and the mist floated down between the trees, highlighted in wide bands of light.

We ate dinner at Mama Africa's Eating House in town. Little cast iron pots filled with beef soup, peanut chicken and antelope stew. Rice and sadza, the closest thing to nshima I've eaten since Zambia. Washing my right hand and rolling the sticky maize-meal paste between my fingers before dipping it into the soup felt more right than anything has in a while.

The sun set and we headed back to Lorrie's where I killed a scorpion in the shower and headed to bed under a pile of blankets because it actually gets cold here at night. The silence is deafening without the constant hum of the generators.


Today started early. Breakfast, I think, is what started to change my mind about Lorrie's. It honestly felt like we were staying at a friend's house, sitting down in the kitchen for some food.

We were picked up at 7:30 and the adventure began: whitewater rafting on the Zambezi. Simon, our guide, introduced himself and had us sign waiver forms stating that if we died, it wasn't his fault. He explained what we should do when (he did not say if) we flipped the raft, and introduced us to Kosta, our safety kayaker. I have never taken part in an activity that requires a safety kayaker, and began to feel slightly nervous.

The hike down the gorge to the drop-in was breathtaking. We kept catching glimpses of the river through the trees as we scrambled down through the green of the jungle. I had forgotten how fine the river sand is, how it squeaks under your feet as you walk over it.

Our porters inflated the raft while we dipped our feet into the water and after a quick lesson on how to paddle (which included the instructions paddle or die), we were off. Zambia on our left, Zimbabwe to the right.

The river carves through cliffs that stand straight up on either side, a row of trees like sentries along the top. The water was cool and green under another cloudless blue sky, and a crescent moon, barely visible in the sunlight, hung suspended in a break in the rocks.

We took the first rapids in good form, paddling hard with my heart in my throat. It wasn't until the next set, called the Three Ugly Sisters, that things got really interesting. Simon promised to take us over the toughest part, a Class IV rapid, warning us that the command to 'get down' would be inevitable.

We hit the white water and the raft rushed up a wave like a wall, then down into the valley while Simon shouted at us to get down. What happened next probably took less than two minutes, although it felt like forever.

As I crouched, hanging onto the rope and my paddle, the raft flipped hard, throwing me out. I clawed at the side but a swirl of water wrenched the line from my fingers and I had no time to breathe before I was spinning through the churning waves, no way of knowing which way to swim to get air.

I barely had enough time to be scared before my lifejacket proved its worth and I popped to the surface where I was promptly buffeted by more waves. The raft was close, so I hung on for dear life as roared through another two rapids.

There was no time to right the raft, so we clambered on top and Simon, a note of urgency in his voice, told us to hold on and balance ourselves. Julle's voice came small above the roar of the water. How, and then we were spinning and whirling and hanging on for dear life.

Folks, I survived a Class V rapid on an overturned raft. Not something I thought I would be doing when I woke up this morning.

Once we'd righted our vessel and gotten repositioned, the newly christened Zambezi Swim Team set off again down river. Twice we jumped out of the raft into the cool, clear water and floated through smaller rapids. It was incredible, all of it.

And now I'm sitting on my porch at Lorrie's, a bottle of the most delicious tap water I've ever tasted on the table next to me. The garden is all tangled branches and green grass and the birds are chirping and a ray of sunshine is slanting through the rustling leaves to illuminate my page as I write.

I kind of love this place.

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