Food for Thought
Discovering Mosi Oa Tunya
Victoria falls in the low season.
You hear it well before it comes into view… Like the rumble of distant thunderclouds, drawing ever closer. The African name for Victoria Falls is “Mosi Oa Tunya”, a melodic-sounding phrase that means “the Smoke that Thunders”. And it's easy to see why.
When the waterfall is viewed upstream, it takes the form of a wide and fast-flowing river that looks deceptively serene. As it reaches the point from which it plunges downward, viewed from the horizon it seems as though clouds of smoke are billowing upwards. The tremendous force with which thousands of tonnes of water crash down upon the rocks waiting below creates a spectacular upward spray of mist that seems to rise up to touch the sky.
The first time I went to the Falls I thought it a quite spectacular sight. Although the water levels were not at full force (the strength of the flow varies on a seasonal basis), it meant that you could see it as a series of five or six waterfalls. These came crashing down against a dark background of rock, whereas at the height of the season, they transform into a single large waterfall, covering the rocks entirely.
While the latter is undoubtedly spectacular, I quite liked being able to see the rock face and get a clearer view of the actual waterfalls. When the river is in full flow it is ironically harder to see the falls clearly, because of the enormous levels of spray generated. Interestingly enough, the volume of spray means that visitors are often drenched, and many come with their own rainwear. Others, who are less well-prepared, can hire raincoats at the kiosk near the falls!
Victoria falls in the high season.
I was there from late afternoon to evening, and watched the sunset across the falls. It is the kind of sight that sends you into a meditative state - pondering on the enormity of what nature can create. Apparently, these waterfalls resulted from a tectonic shift which created a natural rift in the rock. This can be seen from the shape of the rock face from which the waters come crashing down, and the matching rock face a few hundred yards across on the other side. The grooves and ridges being created by the continuous movement of the water are only evident during the low season, and it gives a sense of the ongoing evolution of this miracle of nature.
In the distance, the largest single waterfall, the Devil's Fall (on the Zimbabwe side) can be seen only as an enormous cloud of spray that rises up like smoke from a boiling cauldron, the rock faces on either side of the fall framing that view. If you gaze at the surging torrents long enough, it creates an optical illusion, where the ridges of rock on each side seem to undulate and shimmer, almost as if they are squeezing the clouds of mist out of the waterfall.
I suspect I am not alone in preferring the original name of the waterfall to its colonial re-naming as “Victoria Falls”. After all, David Livingstone who gave it that name was just another British explorer who felt that he had “discovered” something that the local population had known about forever (though of course they didn't count, since they were black…!). It's a bit like the British Museum really, the contents of which are anything but British, having been looted from (or been “discovered” in) countries ranging from Greece (the so-called “Elgin Marbles”) to Egypt (which no longer has any real obelisks left in the country, thanks to the “discoveries” of various “explorers”)! Fortunately, the Zambian government uses the more lyrical African name to refer to this natural wonder.
There were other small entertainments on that first trip, as with all holidays of this kind. I was amused to see in Livingstone town, that one trading company had advertised - alongside options of watching the crocodiles feed, helicopter rides over the falls and bush safaris - also the rather tamer option of a “booze cruise” (yes, let's call a spade a spade!). It's hard to believe that people go that far for an option they can have on the Thames--what a waste!
We stopped briefly by the river on the ride from the airport, and I was just about to get out of the car to take a picture of the beautiful riverside scenery, when I spotted a small sign nailed onto one of the trees reading "Beware of the Crocodiles”! Strangely enough, I decided against the photo session...
At the hotel, other simple pleasures awaited. In my opinion, African Christian names can sometimes be interesting. One that I was particularly amused by was “Jesus Christ Mercedes Benz”. Upon questioning, it was revealed that this was a man whose parents had wanted him “to have the best of both worlds”, spiritual and material! Other favourites have included “Loveness” and “Given”. This time, I was also amused (though charmed) to see that the receptionist at the hotel was called “Precious”.
The Sun Livingstone is a comfortable hotel, situated within the grounds of a national park, where you can see zebra and impala (though not any carnivores), and on occasion, you can catch a glimpse of giraffes along the main highway! On this trip, what we mainly saw within the grounds were monkeys, but these were not uninteresting. While I don't like getting too close to baboons (and I have to say, I saw the biggest baboon I have ever seen in my life here - it was the size of a well built 12-year-old. Yes, yes, all right, it WAS almost my height!), I thought that the black-faced vervet monkeys were adorable, especially from a safe distance.
One of the waiters at the outdoor cafe clearly found them less cute, particularly when a monkey jumped onto a table top and grabbed a number of the sugar sachets before bounding off, with the waiter in hot pursuit! It was actually quite hilarious, because he chased the monkey across the lawn back and forth quite a few times before it climbed a tree and calmly started tearing open the sachets and eating the sugar, while he swore and shook his fist at it impotently from far below... It was after that that I understood why room service in the hotel was delivered so strangely - a Styrofoam box containing food, wrapped in cling film, carried in an insulated picnic bag so that the monkeys would not smell or see any food!!
On my second trip to Mosi Oa Tunya, we stayed at the more luxurious Royal Livingstone Hotel, which is the rich sister to the Sun Livingstone. The somewhat hedonistic approach of this hotel is evidenced from the small, embossed card that awaits guests in each room informing them that their personal Butler can be summoned at any time by calling Housekeeping. Ours was called Henry!
Another nice touch was the small, golf-cart like vehicles that are used to chauffer guests between the main hotel and the smaller, separate buildings that are each constituted of four guestrooms. The rooms come with individual verandahs (ground floor) or balconies (first floor) that look out onto a wide expanse of green lawn, shaded by leafy trees that create a canopy of green foliage. The lawns lead down to the Zambesi river, where a fence prevents stray crocodiles from coming ashore! Also situated in the national park, the Royal Livingstone is a short walk from the falls, and (like its sister hotel) is frequented by the same mischievous vervet monkeys.
I was prepared for the monkeys, or so I thought. The introduction letter warns guests to keep the sliding doors to the verandahs firmly closed, but I had left a few inches of space unprotected when I stepped out to enjoy the view of the river. After I re-entered the room, I noticed this omission and moved towards the doors with the aim of closing them. To my amazement, I realised that I had interrupted a mother and baby monkey on their way in to explore my room (for the first time, I thought).They were clearly somewhat puzzled by my hostility in closing the door in their face, and remained waiting outside for a couple of minutes, perhaps hoping that I would see the error of my ways. It was only after I had finished unpacking that I realized this must have been a return trip by the monkeys, because the packet of chips carefully packed into my hand luggage was gone, and their earlier presence was evidenced by my (rejected) apple which had a bite taken out of it…
But if I had considered the monkeys to be the wildlife highlight of the trip, I had a surprise coming. On one occasion, I stepped out of the room to see two zebras standing between our building and the neighbouring one. The wildlife quotient was further enhanced on another occasion, driving out of the hotel, when we spotted four giraffes and two separate groups of zebras including a baby. Unlike these creatures however, I was quite happy not to have sighted yet another, less attractive denizen of the hotel grounds. Our welcome letter warned that we should “please be advised that a python has been seen on the property, which the hotel authorities are making every effort to locate and remove”. We were also requested to “kindly refrain from approaching it” (what kind of lunatic would even consider doing such a thing…?)!
One of the biggest attractions of the hotel is the huge, wooden viewing platform that has been built further upstream on the Zambesi river. This is just a short distance away from the point where the river transforms into the falls, suddenly disappearing from the horizon, to be replaced by the famous plumes of spray that create the illusion of “the Smoke that Thunders”.
The view from the deck is deceptive, only the ripples and eddies in the water indicating how the speed of the current increases as it approaches the falls. I couldn't help marvelling at the tenacity of the partially-submerged trees that clung to the soil, despite being only a few hundred yards from the edge of the falls; somehow they survived, bowing to the current but miraculously, not breaking.
This serene illusion of calm is totally belied by how it looks from the other side i.e. the front view of the falls. Here, when the water is in full flow, cascading torrents of foaming water plunge down onto the black rocks at the base of the waterfall. Most of the water is a pristine white, but some flashes of eroded soil transform the occasional surge into a flash of butterscotch in the midst of the creamy white foam surrounding it.
As the waterfall crashes down upon the rocks, the continuous sprays of mist released into the air created by the descent result in a cool, clear haze through which one views this mesmerising natural wonder. A friend once said to me that Mosi Oa Tunya provides proof if anyone needs it, of the existence of God. After having been privileged to witness the falls, I can only agree.
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