/ 7 April 2006

Crossing over

As I fumbled about trying to cram a tube of sunscreen into a shorts pocket, our shaggy Nordic-looking guide snapped: “Come on, princess, paddle!” We had left the shore a mere five seconds ago and already the bubbling Zambezi was threatening to devour our bit of yellow plastic.

In an insane series of manoeuvres, packaged under the guise of white-water adventure, we had already been made to scramble down a harrowing gorge and engage in some militaristic-type training reminiscent of veld school. For the likes of me, who considers myself a fitness freak if I make it to the gym for a 15-minute stroll on the treadmill, the most extreme part of the adventure was the exercise.

But paddle I did, and paddle and paddle, even at times when the boat lurched skywards and the only contact my skimpy little oar could make was with thin air. It was all quite nerve-racking until the “worst” happened and the boat flipped, sending its six passengers spilling over the edge, grasping for eternity and spitting out litres of brackish water.

The instruction had been to hang on to your paddle and the rope running around the rim of the boat though it seemed rather redundant when the flip happened. I can tell you now that there is nothing on this God-given Earth that would have allowed my fists to unclench themselves from that piece of plaited thread. We did, admittedly, lose one paddler and an oar — but not for long: they both came bobbing back to us once we had floated clear of the rapid.

After that, everything was breezy and Sven, our guide, even mustered a half compliment: “You’re not such bad paddlers, better than most of the muppets we get from the hotels.”

This was my second visit to the Victoria Falls, but the first time I was seeing it from the Zambian side. The story goes that tourism in the little town of Livingstone has benefited from the politics of its cantankerous neighbour. The situation, it is said, has sent tourists, who would previously have preferred to take their African adventure (safari, bungee jump, helicopter flip, and so on) from the more developed Zimbabwe across the stream, to enjoy the impressive views of the Mosi-oa-Tunya (smoke that thunders) from seemingly safer shores.

In my inquiries, however, I found it difficult to get anyone to concede the point absolutely. Opinions about why Livingstone is humming with the ka-ching of the tourist dollar range from the construction of the Royal Livingstone and Zambezi Sun hotels to increased direct flights and a general improvement in the Zambian economy.

According to Sven, who has spent the past seven years on both sides of the Zambezi’s geographical line, there has actually been a drop in tourism, particularly in the adventure market. Overseas tourists, he reckons, don’t really see the political situation in Zimbabwe as being separate from Zambia and even crime stories from somewhere as far afield as South Africa appear to confirm the notion of “darkest Africa” in the minds of the more skittish of foreigners.

If there is truth in this, it really is a great pity. Aside from the truly awesome views from either side of the falls, the area has plenty on offer for thrill seekers as well as folk with a healthier sense of self-preservation. There are also excellent airfares and package deals available, for South Africans in any event.

What is immediately, and unsurprisingly, obvious when you cross through passport control to the Zimbabwean side (as I did for a quick visit) is the extreme lack of tourism. Bored vendors hang around in clumps and large signs warn of fines for anyone caught harassing tourists, not that there are many to hassle.

I had visited the area 10 years previously when the little town of Victoria Falls was buzzing, hawkers were particularly aggressive and the air was thick with British and American accents. We (myself and two friends) were travelling on a budget that was closer to a tatty bit of twine than the term “shoestring” could allow for and would gladly have traded our old T-shirts for curios or even a bottle of beer if anyone would have had them.

As it was, at that time I doubt any traders would have settled for garb short of Armani, so it came as something of a shock on this visit when crafters practically begged to trade items right down to our socks. In one instance, a crafter asked me to trade my cheap plastic pen, but looking around his stall of immaculately carved stoneware I was unable to see anything small enough to be worthy of the swap. “We must trade, we must trade,” he said, but I handed over the pen in any event and left his stall horribly aware that I had trampled on his dignity.

I suppose you could argue that there is real potential for cheap top-notch travel in Zimbabwe, but I was personally quite relieved that my opportunity for five-star treatment had come from the Zambian side of the falls. That way I could enjoy the sight of fat zebra grazing on the lawns in front of my hotel room, kick back on the sundeck with a drink in hand and not have to let my thoughts drift to how Victoria Falls, a once thriving town, at the edge of one of the natural wonders of the world, is crumbling into obscurity.

Getting there

South Africa Airways flies between Johannesburg and Livingstone on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays. The flight leaves from Johannesburg at 1.55pm and arrives in Livingstone at 3.40pm. The return flight leaves Livingstone at 5pm and arrives in Johannesburg at 6.50pm. Economy class prices range between R1 910 and R5 020 (return) and business class prices range between R4 210 and R5 840 (return). For more information visit www.flysaa.com

Lisa Johnston visited Zambia courtesy of South African Airways and Sun International