Tuesday, 1 December 2009

From rags to riches

We’d just been to the Devil’s Pool and we were dripping wet but we asked Kelvin to lead us to The Royal Livingstone – one of the most exclusive resorts on the bank of the Zambezi River.

Here, we were going to meet up with the rest of the group to enjoy sundowners and treat ourselves to a rather posh meal.

Kelvin took us out of the park and then through the security gate into the immense grounds of the resort. This was a world apart from Grubby’s Grotto: exquisite buildings, each with a giant, ornate gold framed mirror to separate the entrances to the four suites were dotted about manicured lawns adorned with Picasso-esque stautes; porters dressed in elegant, black uniforms with starched shirts drove about on 8-seater golf buggies; there was even a mini national park within the grounds where zebra and giraffe walked free.

We spent a good deal of time walking through the grounds until we reached the main building of the resort. Here we were greeted by a stunning open-air, riverside bar area with cushion-covered seats and perfect views of the mist-enveloped edge of Vic Falls.

A small lawn led up to opulent restaurant with its pristine white tablecloths and chair covers and smartly dressed waiters. Along from the restaurant was a traditional piano bar with a dark wood interior, heavy furniture and luxurious fittings.

Dan and I in our damp swimwear felt more than a little underdressed and finally found the toilets where we could quickly change into some more appropriate clothing. The toilets themselves were unlike any we’d seen in Africa: for one thing, half the insect population of Africa didn’t reside here, neither was squatting required and nor were your flipflops left sodden from traipsing through the liquid leftovers of your predecessor’s mal-judged aim.

The toilets were utterly luxurious with working flushes (not a bucket and scoop), soap at the sinks (rather than the same bucket and scoop) and think cotton hand towels (rather than a shake and a quick wipe on your jeans).

We emerged to find the rest of the group arriving and settled down to watch the sun set with a Pimms at the bar. The sun set was a magnificent array of reds and oranges made all the more spectacular by the clouds of mist rising from the falls.
After a drink we headed to the restaurant where we set about ordering from a fantastic menu of beef carpaccio and pork terraine to Zambezi bream and lamb loin. It was expensive (about 5 days’ budget for me) but it was so worth it. We had a small cup of mushroom and rosemary soup as a chef’s complement before our starters emerged and then apple sorbet between courses.

The clientele at the restaurant were mostly residents at the hotel and dressed in shirts and elegant summer dresses for dinner. Most of them were in the over-fifties bracket and it was all too obvious that this is the standard of travel they had come accustomed to.

Whilst it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, I was almost happy to get back to the simplicity of my tent. I feel privileged to be able to experience the more luxurious side of life (even if only for a meal) but the world is a far richer place than white tablecloths and crisp bed linen that you can only really get to know if you get out there in the thick of it. When you travel in luxury you are always kept at arm’s length from the darker underbelly of the world: you experience the good but are sheltered from the bad and the ugly, the poverty and the hardships, the struggles and strains – those things that give this world grit and character.

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!

Booze cruising on the Zambezi

$45 USD for all you can eat and drink in the two hours from when the boat casts off from the pontoon to when it moors once again. There really isn’t much more to be said! It was a time to let our hair down and enjoy more than a few drinks as the boat cruised by hippos and crocs.

The poor barman didn’t stop for two hours as drink after drink were ordered, then attempted to be taken off board, only to be confiscated.. Inevitably, by the time we got back in the minibus to Grubby’s we were all pretty high spirited to the point where the two German girls who’d previously said they’d join us for drinks had a sudden change of heart. I have a feeling this may have had something to do with Jolie groping both Carmela’s (fake!) and Claire’s (real) boobs whilst giving a running commentary as to the firmness of each.

Back at Gtubby’s the drinking (and drink spillages J ) continued. At one point Nat went to bed and then, quite suddenly the bar emptied. I headed down to the tent area only to be pounced on by Jolie, naked but for a her G-string. Struggling was of little use as she whipped off my dress. Someone yelled ‘skinny dipping’ and a bunch of naked bodies emerged and ran towards the pool. I ended up in there too in nothing but my pants.

At this point someone discovered that Claire and Nat were asleep in a tent together. Gaz issued the war cry of ‘Balls on Claire’ and six slimy, wet, naked bodies piled into the tent on top of Nat and Claire. Amazingly, Nat managed to sleep through having three soggy pairs of balls and boobs writhe on top of him but Claire was less lucky and was awake through the whole episode.

We emerged from the tent and then the tent was dismantled whilst Claire and Nat were still inside. They lay there motionless for ages (I guess from shock) and then Ravi and I felt guilty and put the tent up again.

Just one of the lighter moments of the trip!

Sky high over Vic Falls

At 3am I woke up with the butterfly feeling one gets the morning of an important exam. I was due to go microlighting that day and was not looking forward to it one bit. It had been Ravi’s suggestion and as everyone else was off rafting or bungy jumping, I felt I should really do something vaguely adventurous. I ticked the box and that was it…no going back.

At the aerodrome I was faced with three go-karts with wings and didn’t feel particularly reassured when I saw them buzz down the runway then take off at the angle more akin to a rollercoaster ride. When they returned they would plummet out of the sky and land suddenly. Only when a lady, aged in her late sixties, removed her helmet to reveal an explosion of white hair and grinned from ear to ear did I think that I might be ok.

My number was finally called and I made my way out to the orange go-kart. Here I met the pilot, John, an American who spends 8 months of the year in Scotland and then 4 months in Zambia flying microlights. I explained that I was nervous and he really put me at ease with his cross between friendly military (most of the pilots here have a military airforce background) and fatherly approach.

Before I knew it, I was strapped in with a helmet pulled tight over my head and had the voice of John talking to air traffic control coming through the earpiece. We taxied out to the end of the run way, revved up the engine then quickly, yet beautifully smoothly we took off.

As soon as our tyres left the ground my nerves disappeared entirely; there was something utterly serene about flying in a microlight. It was mesmerizingly calm up there bare foot in the sky being buffeted by the wind. Ahead of us was the wide plain of the Zambezi peppered with low lying islands and pools where family groups of hippos wallowed. The first of the rains had arrived and the once sandy grasses had sprung to life creating a thin carpet of green across all the islands. To one side, in the direction we were headed, a cloud of mist rose high in the sky…my first sighting of Vic Falls.

It’s the end of the dry season here so the water levels in the Zambezi are low; many of the islands will disappear beneath the river in a few months time as the water from the rains in Angola finally makes it down to Zambia. It’s actually a good time of year to visit the falls because you actually get to see them; in May when the river is at full force, the power of the waterfall forces mist to rise 2000ft in the air – far higher than the height we were at with the microlight.

As we flew closer to the falls the evidence of the Fall’s dramatic history revealed itself. Large gorges, like deep clefts, cut through the ground ahead of the falls – the scars of previous falls. As the water from the Zambezi wears away at the rock, Victoria Falls is moving slowly backwards, upriver. The Devil’s Cataract is a gorge in the making; give it 200,000 years or so and it will join up with the main body of the falls.

The falls are immense. The Zambezi suddenly plummets 180m down a sheer cliff into the gorges below, the power and sound of which have earnt it the local name ‘the Smoke that Thunders’.

John calls in to confirm access into Zimbabwean air space and he banks to the right offering me spectacular views of the Falls. He points out Livingstone island – one of the permanent islands in the Zambezi – and tiny people jumping in and swimming in the Devil’s Pool, which hangs right on the cusp of the Falls. He also points out the bridge that links Zimbabwe and Zambia and we see the small ant-like shapes of people waiting to bungy off it. Deep in one of the gorges, the rafts of the white water rafters prepare to hit the first of many rapids.

We tilt back around and take in the mighty falls from a different angle. John tells me to smile at the camera attached to the left wing so that I can have photos of me in front of the falls – evidence that I did in fact make it up there! As we travelled over the falls we cut through some of the clouds of mist and they unexpectedly warmed my bare feet.

And then, all too soon, it was time to head back to the aerodrome. We dip low over the Zambezi where John points out the distinctive shapes of crocs and hippos just below the surface. We bank again, call in to land and descend, our wheels touching the ground effortlessly. It was a truly memorable experience and one I’d fully recommend to anyone who’s ever in the area.

The legendary Grubby

We left Lusaka early the following morning to head to the infamous Grubby’s Grotto in Livingstone. Whilst Grubby is probably younger than he looks, first impressions suggest an ageing Kiwi with excessive facial hair, an overzealous appreciation of booze and a reputation of saying what he thinks with little regard for the sensitivities of his guests. Grubby’s colonial abode is also home to various other waifs and strays who come and go and keep him company at the bar.

In Livingstone you say you’re staying at Grubby’s and everyone knows who he is and where his ‘grotto’ is. We camped in the gardens and had access to hot showers and a decent sized swimming pool complete with resident water scorpions (basically, weird scorpion looking creatures that swim!). From Grubby’s it was a short walk into town and the delights of Wonderbake and half decent internet cafes.
We were here for five days so we had ample opportunity to make the most of Livingstone, nearby Victoria Falls and an entire suite of adventure activities (most of them either set up or owned by Grubby himself).

Coffee in Lusaka

We left Croc Valley and bumped back along the potholed road to the border town of Chipata. Here we stayed overnight in a non-descript camp on the edge of town. From here we had a two-day drive via Lusaka to Livingstone – the nearest town to the thunderous Vic Falls.

The drive to Lusaka was 534km along Lusaka Road, passing through colourful villages that stood against a backdrop of oddly angular rock formations that jutted out of the ground at irregular intervals. Very few people noticed the truck, let alone smiled or waved: tourism has been well established in Zambia since the Victorian era so white mzungos are no longer a novelty.

We set off at 5am and at 10 we stopped off at a small village for a mid-morning snack. Here, at one of the small stalls that lined the road a woman dunked balls of dough into sweetened, hot oil making delicious large doughnuts.

The bar next to where we stopped the truck was already full. High unemployment levels here mean that many people have nothing much to do other than drink or chew on the narcotic known as chat. Often in villages you’ll find the male workforce in the pub and dazed women staring at nothing in particular and baring the characteristic yellow teeth associated with chewing chat.

By 2pm we’d reached the Greater City of Lusaka. Large mansions with manicured lawns surrounded by walls topped with razor wire started to make an appearance. So too did gated housing developments and billboards advertising mobile phones, supplements for children and loans for business start ups. But even as we got closer to town, there were still areas where people worked the land.

As we entered town, modern American style malls sprung up. The one we stopped off at was an L-shaped block complete with cafes, book shops, computer stores and a large Super Spar supermarket. Leading the way in were newly paved paths, with elegant street lamps for after dark; the carpark was home to large 4x4s, some baring the logos of charitable missions.

And yet, after I’d enjoyed a few luxuries such as a cappuccino and speedy Internet access and the truck turned left out of the complex, I was struck immediately by the juxtaposition of rich and poor in a single town. Just a few metres from the shopping mall there was a patch of almost baren land, fringed with the detritus thrown from car windows where women were almost bent double, with hoes in hand and babies strapped to their backs as they tried to grow food for their families.

Such a vivid juxtaposition is not something we see often in the west. Our towns and cities are paved over and those who are poor are usually placed in tower block estates in residential areas out of view of the city centre…this is certainly true of London. A Chelsea-ite could spend their entire lives in London without ever needing to frequent the likes of Brixton, Stockwell, or Hackney (among many others!). Their entire view of life in London could be perfectly rose-tinted through no real fault of their own.

In Africa, on the other hand, you may be rich but every day on your way to your plush office block you must drive past those trying to eek a living on the small patches of land squeezed between shopping malls and luxury hotels. Here, the rich are far less sheltered from the reality of poverty and yet my guess would be that they are equally inclined to do very little. Given the amount of corruption on the continent and the instability of many countries, you get a deep sense that it’s each man for himself over here.

An issue over food

A major concern when I came on this trip was that there would be fussy eaters on the truck, vegetarians aside. As someone who eats pretty much everything, I struggle to understand how people can turn their noses up at food…especially in Africa where we stare poverty in the face every single day.

We’ve been very lucky in that most of us on the truck eat everything so we’ve had very few incidences where the choice of food for an evening was an issue. However, there have been a couple of occasions when leftovers weren’t eaten the day after they were cooked. Whilst we don’t have refrigeration on the truck, what people don’t seem to grasp is that refrigeration is an invention of only the last 60 years or so. In Africa, it’s virtually none existent so, even today, food is just kept in the wooden hut where three generations of a family eats, sleeps, survives. On this continent just attaining enough food to survive another day is a struggle for many people; if on the rare occasion a family has a piece of meat to share between them, they certainly wouldn’t throw out leftovers on the basis that there is no refrigeration.

On the truck when beef stew leftovers are deemed not suitable to eat less than 12 hours after it was cooked and people decide they’d rather throw it away that heat it up and eat it…nothing upsets me more. And this only a couple of days after we played with kids whose bellies protruded due to lack of protein.

It’s almost as if some people can separate themselves mentally from the poverty they see every day… to the extent that they’re immune to guilt. It’s something I absolutely can’t do: throwing meat away on a continent where people die of starvation each year makes me feel sick to my stomach. Whilst I would argue that burdening oneself with guilt is of no use to anyone, I do believe that we should show a healthy respect to the needs of others with whom we share this planet. If the leftovers aren’t going to be eaten the following day, at least arrange to give them to someone who will appreciate them, rather than throw them away!

Two nights in Croc Valley

Croc Valley camp is called Croc Valley for good reason: located on the banks of the Luangwa River you can literally sit in a hammock, look out over the river and watch as the water spontaneously erupts into a thrashing of tails and teeth.

We were the only people staying at this luxurious camp (you can always tell a luxurious camp because the prices on the menu are quoted in USDs) so it was a fantastic opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of the national park that surrounded it. We were here for two nights so we had a whole day to wallow in the pool (deliberately shallow in case animals ever fall in), relax in hammocks and just sit and listen to the sounds of nature.

Every now and then the trumpeting of elephants nearby would drown out conversation; at night hippos brushed by our tents and hyenas cackled in the distance.

Sun rise here was spectacular. I woke up at 4.30am as the sun began to rise and watched as the sky became awash with rich oranges and reds. Captured on camera, the reflection of the sunrise in the river suggested the presence of two red suns.

As the sun rose, the national park came to life: vervet monkeys and olive baboons that frequented the camp awoke from slumber and began to clamber around the trees (or in the camp kitchen!) in search for food chattering as they went; birds burst into song, hippos grunted and guffawed and thirsty antelope came down to the river’s edge to drink.

Sitting there on a wooden bench overlooking the river contemplating U.L.E (universe, life, everything) I realized that I felt utterly stress free. Despite being homeless, jobless and pretty much penniless, I’m probably the happiest I’ve been in five years (Mike being the only missing element at the moment). London has its benefits but only when you give up everything and escape the rat race do you realize that it takes far more away from you than it gives. You can have everything and yet, at the same time, nothing at all: you just get stuck in a perpetual circle of making money, spending money, working late and stress with little perspective of what life really ought to be about