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The Smoke that Thunders

One of the perks of living in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia, is that you are just a few hours’ drive to one of the world's greatest natural wonders - the Victoria falls. As it is known to the world. But I prefer to call it by its other name - a name coined by the Lozi folk of the region long before Scottish explorer David Livingstone first visited in 1855, and named the falls after Queen Victoria - Mosi-oa-tunya, a phrase which translates to "the smoke that thunders".

I've experienced the Mosi-oa-tunya three times in my life. The first was when I was just five, and was hardly aware of what I was witnessing. The second was when I was 18, excited to visit after so many years. The third, when I was 25 years old, and completely in love with it all over again. After all these years the rush is the same – the bubbling excitement when I spot the tell-tale mist rising from the falls, far in the horizon, as we drive along the Zambezi river toward it.

As we drive through the gates, my ears pick up a faint thundering. We pay our entry tickets (USD 20 per person for foreigners) and step into the national park. The thundering intensifies with every foot forward. The rough stone path darkening with wetness, becoming slipperier with every step. One second I’m dry, the next, drenched; the mist falls softly at first, and then all at once. Slowly, the light seeping in through the foliage brightens, the thunder loudens; the mist is now a persistent rain. And, suddenly, the foliage above disappears. I find myself standing, mesmerised, staring at a spectacle of water, rock and a magical ever present mist. A smoke that thunders, indeed. Nature is always dramatic, but here, she's outdone herself.

By foot, air or water

The Victoria falls can be experienced in many ways, each as adventurous as the other. By foot, you can walk all across the lip of the opposing cliff on a fenced stone walkway, take photographs, or simply enjoy the pleasant sensation of a soft shower. Be warned, carry a raincoat or umbrella, or both. If you didn’t bring one, you can rent one at the entrance. It’s also advisable to wear shoes with good grip, because the path is slipperier than it looks!

Perhaps the most daring experience on foot, would be crossing the Knife edge bridge. Slick wet steel and treacherous green moss along the edges is adventurous to traverse, especially with fierce winds blowing water upwards, like inverted rain, threatening to push you over the edge to a 100 metre drop into gushing Zambezi waters.

Since entry tickets are one-time only (meaning if you exit, and re-enter on the same day, you have to pay the fee again), I suggest you spend the whole day inside if you want to experience the falls in all its hues. I arrived just before sunrise (6.30 am in August) and was lucky to have the falls to myself for a few minutes. Just me, the falls, a few birds and a blushing sky. As the sun rose in the east, I positioned my camera in anticipation, watching the waters change from a dreamy blue to a warm golden tinge.

As the crowds started arriving around 9, I took a hike across the pathways leading away from the lip of the falls, into dense jungle. I headed towards what’s called the Boiling Pot trail, which leads down the mountain all the way to the river flowing through the first gorge which is known for its whirlpools caused by rocks and water pressure. Occasionally you come across wonderful vistas of the bridge that connects Zambia and Zimbabwe, the site of bungee jumping.

A little before and after noon, the conditions are ideal for chasing rainbows near the falls. Standing on the pathway, camera poised and ready, I witnessed a total of 6 rainbows, as one appears, another disappears. Sometimes I caught two at the same time!

Rainbows form dunring noon time at the Victoria falls

As the sun gradually set, golden hues return to the Mosi oa tunya. I headed towards the last point in the trail, to peek at the Zimbabwean side where I heard it is a more raw experience. If you look closely, you can spot people standing at what's called Danger point, braving the strong gushes of rising mist at the edge of an unfenced cliff.

Walking back towards the main entrance, another pathway led to the upper side of the falls, from where you get this gorgeous view of the sun setting in the far west, throwing a pink glow across the entire gorge of the Victoria falls. A little further along, you can watch the might Zambezi River make its way towards the falls.

The next day, you can choose to experience the falls by air. There are many adventure companies in Livingstone that offer various helicopter and microlite rides. I chose the helicopter as I wanted to take photographs. It is a little heavy on the pocket, but really worth it for the amazing aerial views. Our lodge helped us book with Batoka Sky Adventures – a fifteen minute helicopter ride is $100. As we take off from the grounds, the pilot gives us basic information about the falls, and heads towards the falls. He banks on all sides so everyone gets a good view of this gorgeous natural formation. “You see the crack in the western end, that’s a new crack line forming. Over the next 100 years, that will develop into the new line of the fall,” he explains. He then takes us over the river, towards the national park abutting the falls. We spot a herd of buffaloes, and elephants grazing in the swamps. And before you know it, you’re back on solid ground.

To wind down from all the adventure, we signed up for a sunset cruise with Livingstone Adventures. Promptly at 3.30pm, we were picked up by the shuttle (inclusive in the cost of the cruise) and taken to the African Queen, awaiting us. If you ever visit Livingstone, a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River is highly recommended. Wine, cocktails and food aboard a luxurious pontoon with warm wooden interiors and hilarious signs from the captain. We spotted hippos, giraffes, several endemic birds and a spectacular sunset, all while sipping on sundowners. Talk about luxury with a palpable wild vibe.

Other activities to do:

Livingstone is an adventure destination with different activities available all year round, based on the season and water level in the falls.

December to mid March – Summer time means very less water, where the rocks are exposed. This is prime water rafting season – you can go on day-long rafting tours, or half-day. I hear the scenery from the gorge looking up to 100 m cliffs on either side is stunning. Rains begin slowly around January and the river swells.

April to June – This is when the water is at its highest, so rafting activities are stopped. This is the best time to experience the thunderous falls in all its glory.

July and August – This is the best time to see the entire falls without too much mist blocking the way. Obviously, this is the best season for photography. Also, the adjacent national park is teeming with wildlife, ready to be discovered.

September to December - The water levels start receding, so rafting is possible again. This also throws open the famous Devil’s pool, the natural infinity pool at the edge of the falls. Accessed by a guided hike in waist-deep waters from Livingstone Island, this is one for the thrill seekers. But do follow your guide’s instructions well, to avoid mishaps that may lead to injury or death.

Certain activities are available all year round – like helicopter and microlite rides, bungee jumping, and visits to the national park. There are also cheetah and lion walks, where you can walk alongside these supposedly tamed wild animals, but I’m not sure about the ethical matters behind this activity. So proceed after research.

Other tips:

- Save on accommodation and use that money on activities instead. Nothing is cheap in Livingstone, so if you want to experience the cruise, bungee, and helicopter rides, do not splurge on luxurious accommodation. You won’t spend much time in it anyway. We stayed at Olga’s Italian corner, run by an NGO, at one-fourth the rate of the resorts situated in the banks of the river.

- Always carry your passport and visa with you. There are many road blocks on the way from Lusaka to Livingstone, and you will need it to enter the falls gates.

- If you plan to do what I did, and stay inside the falls premises all day to avoid paying one more entry ticket, carry a backpack with food. There is only a small restaurant inside that serves sodas and lacklustre sandwiches.

- Cameras can get really wet in the mist near the falls. Invest in a waterproof cover designed for your camera model, or do what I did and wrap it up in cling film. Restricted zooming capabilities, but safer camera lenses. A friend with an umbrella is an added advantage.

- If you have more days, and cash, you can also cross the border to view the Zimbabwean side of the falls. Visas cost extra, but since 2/3rd of the falls is on this side, it is worth the visit.

- There are three restaurants that serve Indian cuisine in Livingstone. From biriyani to paneer tikka, it is all cooked by Zambian chefs who know what they’re doing. Ask for extra spicy food, as that is our normal.

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