Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Face to face with the Smoke That Thunders

At this time of year when the water in the Zambezi is low, you can walk out to Livingstone Island. What’s more, you can head to the Devil’s Pool – a pool that sits just on the cliff edge of the falls. Imagine, the powerful Zambezi a metre to your left just as it drops down the cliff face in a cloud of mist and you yourself sat in a pool with a mere sliver of rock about 30cm wide separating you from the very same drop.

Dan and I set off, paid our park entrance fees and met Kelvin, our guide. We headed out to a viewing platform that overlooks the falls where we took photos. The water levels on the Zambian side were much higher than they had been two days before when we went microlighting and Kelvin explained that a power station up river adapts the flow of this part of the river according to its needs.

From the viewing platform we made our way to the water’s edge. Here we had to remove our shoes, line up three abreast, then side-step our way along a small wall just beneath the surface of the water. Even though the river was low on this side, it was still powerful so we had to make our way slowly and ever-so-slightly gingerly (Whilst I wasn’t overly concerned about falling in, I was worried about getting my camera wet!). The wall was a good 200m long and only a few centimeters wide so it took us a while to get across. After this we had another 20-minute scramble crossing from stone to stone both above and below water. Kelvin was excellent and knew exactly how to navigate the river and we finally made it to the cliff edge, literally 30cm from the edge of the falls. We stood on a dry section of the falls with fantastic views both of the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides of the falls. The sound of the Falls was indeed thunderous and a blanket of mist swirled around us...how much more dramatic must it be at full flow?

From here we followed the edge of the falls up to Livingstone Island, stopping for photos along the way. Livingstone Island is about half way along the Falls. We’d basically picked our way across the slower running, Zambian side of the Zambezi and now we were about to tackle the volatile Zimbabwean side.

At Livingstone Island Kelvin told us to prepare to swim whilst he went to find towels. He returned with towels and a guy who’d join us to take photos in the Devil’s Pool

To get to the Devil’s Pool we had to swim in a V shape type formation towards a cluster of rocks jutting out on the waterfall’s edge. We set off swimming diagonally against the current for about 20-30m then swam diagonally with the current in the opposite direction for another 30m or so.

If you bear in mind that we were swimming across the Zambezi and all that separated us from the edge of the Falls were a few rocks interspersed within the river and a rope that had been placed along the surface of the water so that there was something to try and grab on to if we got swept away by the current towards the edge of the falls, then you’ll realize what a crazy swim this actually is. And, as you’d expect in Africa, there are no life jackets, no health and safety assessments, no helmets, no security ropes, not even an enquiry as to whether you are able to swim 60m. You basically jump in and put your life in the hands of your guide.

Fortunately, Kelvin does this every day and reads the river as one would a book. He knows exactly where and how to swim.across to the pool. When we reached the cluster of rocks we clambered across them then Kelvin told us to sit and take a breather.

Meanwhile, the guy who had our cameras had walked along the very edge of the falls hopping from stone to stone as the water rushed past his feet and over the edge. Saying that he was perilously close to the edge is an understatement; he was stood on the very edge of the waterfalls, if his foot slipped or there was a sudden surge of water, he would have been over the edge.

We, on the other hand, slipped down a rock then swam into a patch of slightly calmer water in the river known as the Devil’s Pool. Kelvin swam across and stood at the edge of the poo: if you swam to the right of him, you’d be dragged by the river over the Falls; to his left, you’d be protected from going over by a small lip of rock just below the water surface. Devil’s Pool is about 8m deep so whilst the water flows through the pool and over the edge of the falls, the rocky edge to the pool allows you to sit on top of the Falls with water gushing all around you, without going over.

Our photographer, however, took little notice of heights or the risk of death and wandered about carefree along the very edge of the Falls taking photos of us. The whole experience was utterly exhilarating, as well as a touch foolhardy. Kelvin explained that they would only be allowing people to come to the pool for another few weeks as the water levels had begun to rise and it would be too dangerous with the coming wet season. In the wet season, the water rises and the Devil’s Pool and the surrounding rocks and islands cease to exist.

To get out of the pool, Kelvin clambered up on the rocks we’d slithered down and threw us a rope so that he could help us clamber out without us getting caught by the current. After our swim back to Livingstone Island, we sat down and enjoyed a much-needed beer!

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